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Willard | Collaborative Research in the Social Sciences

February 27, 2018

Emily Willard giving a QUAL talk

Emily Willard, Ph.D. candidate in the Jackson School and research fellow at the UW Center for Human Rights, conducted dissertation research fieldwork on the women’s experience of conflict in Guatemala. For this talk, “Collaborative Research in the Social Sciences: Lessons learned from Field Work in Guatemala,” she discussed a research principle in which the researcher works with and in a community to align goals and efforts. This ‘bottom-up’ approach re-conceptualizes social science as an endeavor to which both the researcher and the community contribute and construct. Willard especially highlighted how her research question evolved through the collaborative research process.

Emily Willard presenting

Willard’s talk featured tips for collaborative researchers before entering, while in, and after leaving the field.

Why collaborative research?

Willard became aware of the unique positionality as an American researcher during her career as a human rights worker and researcher in South America. The works of postcolonial, critical race, and indigenous scholars, impressed upon her the importance of avoiding intellectual violence through collaborative research. Collaborative research seeks to deconstruct the model of the independent, objective researcher studying individuals and communities from whom they are separated. Rather, Williard explained how collaborative research challenges the social scientist to consider how their work aligns with the goals and needs expressed by the community they study.

A changing research question

“Why did women decided to join/not join armed groups in Guatamala?” While Willard’s original research question articulated a clear relationship between variables, in a pilot study she soon found that women in Guatemala had more nuanced or complicated understandings and conceptions about what it meant to join or not join an armed group. Furthermore, potential respondents were relying on and constructing memories of the period of conflict in the context of their past and present experiences. After a few revisions, Willard eventually re-articulated her question to center the construction of women’s experiences: “How and why do communities construct their own transitional justice projects?”

Tips for collaborative researchers

Tip: Be open to change your question and approach while learning from the community in the field.

  • Pilot studies and living and participating in the community can help narrow the distances between subjects and the researcher. Willard’s revising of her research question shows how a project can evolve upon collaborative engagement with a community.

Tip: Listen and think about how your ideas could support the current goals and efforts of the community you are studying.

  • Willard was asked to teach English to school children when she first arrived in the field. Through these efforts, she worked towards a community goal and gained locals’ trust. Her interest in transitional justice aligned with the community projects that her subjects were already executing.

Tip: Continually reflect on your motivations (separate or collaborative) during the research process.

  • Throughout the research process, Willard explained how the principles of collaborative research help center the effects of the research on the community and its individuals.

The desired outcomes of collaborative research are knowledge constructed with and from the studied communities. While social scientists cannot undo past injustices of colonialism, Williard discussed how they may avoid further symbolic and intellectual violence through collaborative research.

To see Emily Willard’s presentation from this QUAL Speaker Series talk, including more about her tips and suggested sources for collaborative researchers, click here.