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Reflections on a Cross-Border Collaborative Research Effort During COVID-19

Authors:

Molly F. Todd ,

Virginia Tech, US
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Cathy Grimes,

Virginia Tech, US
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Neda Moayerian,

University of Tehran, IR
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Desirée Poets,

Virginia Tech, US
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Max Stephenson

Virginia Tech, US
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Abstract

This article shares the reflections of members of a Virginia Tech-based collaborative research group and their experiences sharing information across borders during the COVID-19 pandemic. We focus here on the methodology of our team-based or collaborative work, which has examined the roles of community-led newspapers and the arts in encouraging individual and collective agency in two of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, Maré and Rocinha. By collectively reflecting on seven prompts, our research team members discuss how our collaboration has involved working together to produce knowledge toward shared goals, with shared labor, while remaining attuned to questions of voice and power.

How to Cite: Todd, M.F., Grimes, C., Moayerian, N., Poets, D. and Stephenson, M., 2022. Reflections on a Cross-Border Collaborative Research Effort During COVID-19. Community Change, 4(1), p.3. DOI: http://doi.org/10.21061/cc.v4i1.a.37
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  Published on 23 Dec 2022
 Accepted on 04 Aug 2022            Submitted on 12 May 2022

Introduction

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented challenges, big and small, for communities around the world. For many individuals, these challenges have included the need to adapt to new protocols of social distancing and isolation, which has made meaningful and close connection through physical presence and embodied experience more difficult. For other communities and their residents, the seemingly opposite may have been true—the demand and need to continue working and living in close quarters was non-negotiable and thus the need to imagine and enact alternative methods of surviving COVID-19 became paramount. Underlying these challenges has been the need to create and share accurate information about the pandemic, which has raised larger questions concerning how knowledge is produced, for whom and by whom, as well as on the state’s role in facilitating (or not facilitating) the circulation of needed information.

This article shares the reflections of members of a collaborative research group concerning their work on community-led communication and information-sharing across borders during the COVID-19 pandemic. We conceive of collaboration as working together to produce knowledge toward shared goals, with shared labor, while remaining attuned to questions of voice and power. The qualifier “cross-border” indicates that we are doing this work across boundaries of many kinds. This definition builds upon the literature on collaborative methodologies, which we briefly discuss below in the second section of this article. The inquiry described here occurred through cooperation, including among researchers across multiple institutions and geographic locations and with community journalists. To be clear, the collaborators whose conversations are reported here have mainly interacted in an academic space, especially for the non-Portuguese speaking members of our group. While acknowledging the limits of our association, we also have nonetheless sought intentionally to expand those limits among ourselves and build meaningful connections and applied projects beyond the confines of the academy.

One of our current projects, which the group persistently refashioned as the pandemic progressed, focuses on two community newspapers originating from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas: Fala Roça from Rocinha and Maré Online from the Maré Favela Complex. Other analyses consider NGO and arts-based work in Maré. The broader arc of our interest and research explores how these community-based outlets have framed and addressed the pandemic and the implications of those choices for democratic voice and possibility. We have employed thematic analyses of the two newspapers’ coverage of the crisis, as well as semi-structured individual interviews with a sample of their writers. Throughout, we have been interested in exploring whether and how these newspapers have served as sites of individual and collective agency during the public health emergency. We focus here particularly on the methodology of our team-based or collaborative research, by collectively reflecting on seven questions or prompts, each discussed in turn by our members. Beyond this analysis, we have several additional articles in progress that will delimit our substantive findings.

Our team formed from the interactions of a group of students and faculty at Virginia Tech (VT) interested in different community-based social change efforts occurring throughout the world. These individuals found a scholarly home in, and were nurtured by, their participation in the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance’s Community Change Collaborative (CCC). In the first portion of our discussion, we reflect on how we came to our involvement with the CCC, with this research team, and to collaborative methodologies. CCC was conceived as an organization rooted in an interdisciplinary praxis that aims systematically to build meaningful connections between grassroots initiatives and academic scholarship (Stephenson, Jr. 2021). As this project has grown, it has stretched beyond CCC and VT with researchers joining from, and moving to, other institutions.1 Each member has contributed intellectually to our group effort based on their varying interests, scholarly backgrounds, and life experiences. In the second question addressed in this article, team members consider our varied roles and contributions in connection with those trajectories.

Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, our group met weekly or bi-weekly via Zoom to discuss our evolving theorization, methods, and findings. We here reflect on how our collaboration, including the meetings in which we have commonly participated, have constituted a vital form of information-sharing during a difficult period. In the third and fourth prompts addressed by our team, members offer their insights into our research process, including its guiding principles and the ways that our collaboration has affected how we conceive of academic work. Central to our process is the work of translation and working across borders—each of which is also central to the partnering methodologies reviewed below. Together, the dialogue reflecting on these concerns raises broader questions concerning how personal and intellectual ties across state borders, nationalities, languages, disciplines, fields, and research served as a mode of developing and transmitting knowledge across uneven terrains of ways of knowing during the pandemic. The last three questions addressed by group members below afforded each space to reflect on what those borders can teach us, including concerns linked to the limitations of our methodology. We conclude our analysis with some final reflections on our cooperative effort and the lessons we have gleaned from it.

Collaborative Research Methodologies (and Crossing Borders)

Several disciplines, including Anthropology, Art History, Development Studies, International Relations, and Sociology, have adopted and developed collaboration as a research method. These approaches are sometimes also described as oriented toward communities (Kemmis and McTaggart, 568), ‘collectivity,’ ‘solidarity’ (Mohanty 2004; Nagar 2013, 2019) ‘coalition building’ (Desai 2010), or as ‘dialogic’ (Kester 2011), ‘participatory,’ and ‘collective.’ Collaboration can take place across academic and professional fields, geographic positions, identities, and languages. It can involve working with communities to design research projects that serve their needs, participatory data collection, curation and analysis, as well as co-authorship with members of researched communities. Our group has been particularly informed by feminist (McHugh 2020; Mohanty 2004; Taylor 2020), community development (Adams and Goldbard 2001; Boyd 2020; Nagar 2019), and decolonial perspectives (Mngxitama 2018; Smith 2021). Together these literatures have raised salient issues concerning authorship, the power relations between researcher and researched, the relationship between individuals and collectives, and more broadly around what counts as “knowledge.” These texts invite us to consider: toward what ends does our research aim? With whom do we build knowledge, and for whom? These questions matter because collaboration in and of itself is not emancipatory. Collaboration has also been enacted in the service of oppressive projects, and even towards genocide (Melamed 2007).

Nevertheless, many collaborative approaches interrogate the epistemological standpoints through which research is framed and conducted, and how those relate to who or what is accorded standing as agential. Colonial—and more recently neoliberal—logics represent pervasive and therefore dominant ways of knowing that emphasize singular authorship, individual imagination and agency, and a circumscribed view of who can know and what can be known (Brown 2015; Hanna et al. 2016; Taylor 2003). These ways of knowing have characterized positivist and post-positivist paradigms of thought alike (Spencer et al. 2014). These constructs, in turn, have greatly influenced the development of the social sciences and humanities and have continued to structure academic institutions and processes. What this has meant for research is that such efforts continue overwhelmingly to frame the researcher as an objective knower who is assumed to exist at least to some extent apart from their environment. That is, this epistemic orientation views scholars as autonomous actors investigating and ‘discovering’ objects in the world. These assumptions have pervaded studies of the Global South by individuals from the Global North, and scholarship more generally.

Collaboration can be a means of critiquing positivist and post-positivist paradigms’ emphasis on single authorship, or on aesthetic autonomy (Kester 2011, 7–8). Even though such research continues to prevail in many disciplines and fields of inquiry, some researchers have simultaneously employed interdisciplinary methodologies rooted explicitly in efforts to practice ethical ways of knowing, conducting research, and writing. For example, “feminist research has emphasized the need for a collaborative (rather than objectifying) focus… seek[ing] to establish nonhierarchical relations between researcher and respondent” (McHugh 2020, 214). Similarly, community-based research seeks to break down barriers between academic researchers and the individuals with whom scholars work. Traversing these boundaries requires collaboration with community members—listening to their needs and viewpoints, while also paying attention to any potential for exploitation in scholar-resident relationships (Boyd 2020, 763). Such a dialogic approach builds from the view that knowledges are partial (Mohanty 2004) and that the researcher cannot come to the full, complete Truth, especially through an individually-driven process. Instead, the process of knowledge-making is innately collective.

Collaborating across borders—of researcher/respondent, academia/community, Portuguese/English, or Global North/South—is neither smooth nor straightforward. Rather, it is laden with power differences, lessons, and failures. In her work on border crossing methodologies, Richa Nagar reminds researchers not to romanticize such efforts, and argues that instead, we should pay close attention to how crossings happen (Nagar 2003, 358). What are the politics involved? Instead of invisibilizing border crossings that occur in research, collaboration should make the power dynamics implicit in them more legible: “our presence and interactions might allow us to sense at least our role in the colonialist scenarios” (Taylor 2020, 80). For example, as we highlight here, our collaboration with partners in Maré and Rocinha has been relatively limited. As researchers working and writing from the Global North in English, we must deeply question the limits of how and whether our work “foregrounds communities of people who have chosen to work and fight together” (Mohanty 2004, 7). For Chandra Talpade Mohanty, doing so is a practice of solidarity that can also be a mode of crossing borders, but not uncritically: “Diversity and difference are central values here—to be acknowledged and respected, not erased in the building of alliances” (Mohanty 2004, 7). Therefore, rather than assimilating across borders, we approach boundaries through a process of translation, acknowledging that the knowledges created will always be partial, and never capture the full story (Nagar 2019).

The favela communities in which we are working in Brazil also have their own histories of collectivity and collaboration, including experiences with many well-meaning, but failed, attempts by researchers from the Global North to guide or participate in collective projects. For example, during the 1964 coup d’état, U.S. Peace Corps volunteers tried to conduct community work in favelas. They ultimately missed the mark due to their unfamiliarity with Brazilian bureaucracy, land ownership laws, community desires, and histories of popular mobilization (do Prado Valladares 2019, 100–101). Indeed, collective work is engrained into the development of many favelas, including their physical, social, and community infrastructures. In Maré, for example, labor has often been undertaken collectively, especially in the absence of formalized or governmental support. When one resident needed something to be done, such as building a rooftop patio or laje, they would often mobilize their neighbors or other members of their community associations to help complete the task. As Licia do Prado Valladares has observed, “the history of favelas showed that the little infrastructure present was always the result of a combination of public investments from official organizations and the collective mobilization of the inhabitants in the form of a voluntary community work crew or mutinão” (do Prado Valladares 2019, 100).

As researchers working remotely on these projects, we acknowledge the limitations of joining our academic collaboration to the specific histories of collaboration in Maré and Rocinha. Shifting from a researcher/researched binary may occur in the dialogic production of meaning, but such outcomes are likely to emerge only slowly. We have sought to produce shared meanings in our group, while acknowledging that we inevitably each still retain a significant authorial position. Collaboration and working together, if undertaken alongside acknowledging one’s positionality as a researcher, has the potential to resist some share of otherwise overweening neocolonial and neoliberal ways of knowing (Mohanty 2004, 233). It does not, however, alone overcome them. At the same time, reflexive practice allows researchers to dwell in the space between the asymmetrical power relationships in which they are conducting inquiry and the globally just futures that they may imagine. Nagar has aptly dubbed this asymmetrical landscape of power, ‘uneven terrain’ (Nagar 2019). We aim here to reflect collectively on that territory.

What brought us to this research group and the Community Change Collaborative, more broadly?

We all came to CCC with distinctive histories and academic backgrounds, but with a shared interest in questions related to social change, community development, and collaborative work. The Collaborative’s current focus is a sustained effort to understand the dynamics of social change and democratic agency and efficacy at all scales of analysis, including contestations of the dominant political economic frame of neoliberalism. Members are involved in applied projects in Appalachia and beyond. CCC projects are driven by an ethic of community cultural development, which emphasizes working with people on the ground to ascertain local meaning-making frameworks and needs. Our Maré research group grew out of the Community Change Collaborative as well as through the network that Dr. Desirée Poets has established and nurtured in Brazil.

Each member reflected on how they came to associate with the research group in individual responses, which we report below. Some participants described the developmental trajectory of CCC and how their academic paths intersected with certain members that they met in that forum who encouraged them to join or with whom the Collaborative was built. Those individuals described how meaningful those encounters were. Others recounted resonating with CCC’s work, for their personal research projects concerning art, agency, democracy, and praxis. Several participants recalled conversations concerning a project the group was developing before the pandemic related to community-led museums in the Complexo da Maré redundant of Rio de Janeiro. Those individuals were broadly interested in how those spaces constituted sites of communal knowledge and memory-building, and possibly a mode of resistance to otherwise discriminatory Brazilian State narratives and governmental structures; Poets has written previously on that topic (Poets 2020). Another member, Cathy Grimes, observed that in our Maré research team we have had “the opportunity to explore individual and community agency in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas via those communities’ museums and other modes of communication and participation, particularly the mobilization of such entities to provide information and support to favela residents during COVID-19, when government efforts largely ignored them.”

Some members shared how CCC community-based research projects had informed their doctoral dissertations and professional practice. Members Molly Todd and Dr. Neda Moayerian suggested that interdisciplinary collaboration holds potential for learning in new ways and as having deeply shaped their graduate study experiences. In 2021, under the guidance of Dr. Max Stephenson and Dr. Poets, the pair participated in organizing a collaborative project that the CCC hosted, Rio de Janeiro and Appalachia in Dialogue: Arts, Public Health, and Community Organizing.2 That event helped develop some of the bonds that CCC and Virginia Tech now have with Maré and its residents. It was the first time that many of our group members, most of whom are not from Brazil and have never been to Brazil or Maré, had the opportunity to meet and hear from that community’s residents. Those relationships have continued to grow. Indeed, after that event, Poets and Stephenson worked with those visiting scholars/artists (Henrique Gomes and Andreza Jorge) from Maré, along with Dr. Nicholas Barnes, assistant professor at the University of St. Andrews, and a talented group of postdoctoral scholars and doctoral students to exhibit Maré from The Inside at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia. Further, they developed and published a book addressing the exhibition’s themes and portent (Barnes et al. 2021).

As an interdisciplinary, multi-national, multi-institutional, and multi-organizational research group, we are constantly working across those diversities. Collaborating across such borders requires working across differences, without claiming that such differences do not exist or manifest asymmetrical relations of power. This includes between the general position of our research group and ‘informants’/collaborators from Maré and Rocinha, as well as among participants in our research group. In her comments concerning this prompt, Poets reminded us that,

Each of us has worked to varying degrees with collaborative methods and are at different stages of our careers. In our group, graduate students, junior, mid-career, and senior colleagues are collaborating, for example. To pretend that these do not constitute hierarchies would be disingenuous. But how can we put these hierarchies at the service of a collective project? Meaning, how can we make the most of what (e.g., the resources) each of our past experiences, expertise, and institutional positions can offer to the group?

Responding to Poets’ query has provided space for group members to reflect on what it means to work across such differences ethically and in ways that do not perpetuate the epistemic violences so long perpetrated by universities. Our participants should continually reflect on the power dynamics involved in political and social change, and in inquiries into such phenomena, as we undertake our collaborative, community-based work. Our approach has been to try to understand the viewpoints of our members, as well as the individuals and communities with whom we are working and from whom we are learning, while acknowledging the hierarchical differences in power in both contexts that we daily navigate.

Such uneven terrain is sustained through neoliberal and colonial imaginaries, frames that our group is interested in critiquing. Stephenson, for example, observed,

We have not shied away from exploring amongst ourselves and with our guests, whether scholars or professionals, what could/must be undertaken to change the imaginary, which is not only now rapidly devastating the world’s ecology, but also creating increasing social and economic inequality across the globe.

Our current project considers the community-led journalism of Maré Online and Fala Roça as potentially contesting or offering alternatives to those imaginaries.

How have we been working with the group in this research, and how would we describe our role(s) in it and our contributions?

We did not enter this project with predefined roles and have all contributed to it in unique ways. Much of the character of that involvement relates to how and what each of us could provide and the different positions we embody. One division of labor resulted particularly out of our language differences. Poets and Vasconcellos are/were our only Portuguese-speaking members. Since our project involved the analysis of publications only available in Portuguese, only Poets and Vasconcellos could take part in that portion of our work. Furthermore, as the principal Brazilian and Portuguese-speaking team member, Poets has been responsible for developing our group’s relationship with communities in Brazil. She conducted the empirical research analysis of the newspaper’s stories and interviewed several journalists from each, some with the assistance of Vasconcellos. As the interviews were all conducted in Portuguese, Poets also later translated those exchanges into English.

Poets reported preliminary findings from the thematic analysis and/or interviews during many of our meetings, and the non-Portuguese speaking members of our group listened and offered feedback. Many of us participated in conducting literature reviews related to pertinent themes to undergird the project and inform our conversations. For example, Grimes, a long-time professional journalist, led us through the literature that examines how favelas’ local news media provide information, support, and resources to residents who have been otherwise ignored by larger media organizations and government entities (Holmes 2016; Lacerda 2015; Rosas-Moreno and Straubhaar 2015). Moayerian and Stephenson shared a rich literature on political agency (Benhabib 2006, 2011, 2013; Chaskin 2001; Sen 1985), Poets brought insights from the decolonization literature (Mngxitama 2018; Smith 2021), Dr. Vanessa Guerra provided literature on urban informality (Alsayyad 2004; Marx 2009), and Todd reviewed literature on favelas and borders of various sorts (Jovchelovitch et al. 2020; Wyllys 2020).

Indeed, all of us have participated in what might be labeled a community of dialogue, characterized by joint discussion of the means, methods, and meanings of our inquiry. Each of us has brought our research interests, distinct skills, and experiences to bear on our conversations and to the development of the group’s theoretical and analytical findings. We are developing co-authored publications at the various intersections of those attributes. Substantively, those convergences have included explorations of agency and democratization in “communicative freedom,” or people’s ability to frame a challenge such as the COVID-19 pandemic in ways that express and strengthen their democratic agency in otherwise socially oppressive contexts (Bavel et al. 2020). They have also included discussions of social resilience as expressed through collective agency and response to militarization. Moayerian noted that, “as most of us are from different academic backgrounds, our various perspectives and knowledges enrich the discussion of frameworks we can consider (and possibly adopt) for the articles.”

How would we describe the group’s research process, including its guiding principles and key take-aways?

Our research process has been one of dialogue, translation, and shared learning. Our consistent conversations have facilitated thinking collectively about the meanings implicit in conducting socially engaged research and, more importantly, about the boundaries of what counts as data and to whom or where we turn for information to obtain or generate knowledge. These borders are foundationally related to the fact that all our conversations are mediated through multiple layers of translation. Poets, for example, commented,

We are constantly imperfectly translating across disciplines, historical national contexts, personal experiences and preferences, and political commitments. We are of course also translating across English and Portuguese. And we are translating the complex work of community organizers and journalists in Brazil to an academic audience, and vice-versa. This multifaceted translation process is marked by equivocations and limitations at every stage, with the creation of partial truths rather than statistically generalizable knowledge.

Translation is indeed just that, a process, and an ever incomplete one. The Latin root of translation is translatus, meaning ‘carried across’ or ‘carried over’ and that definition raises some of the ethical questions we are considering in our collaborative work (Chesterman 2006). We have pondered, for example, what meanings are carried and how they are transmitted not only across the borders between community journalists active in two favelas in the Global South, but also to the context of the academy in the Global North. The group has also discussed what meaning is or can be shared across distinct languages. We have also reflected on how meanings are conveyed across social differences and geographic distance, as well as across space and time.

Our collaboration has involved working across borders, including but not limited to those related to geography, language, nationality, academic disciplines, and among artist/activist/academic orientations. We have sought to avoid idealizing those crossings, and instead pause and reflect on what each may teach us. For example, we are writing our articles for academic publication and in English. We recognize, however, that our efforts describe the work of predominantly Portuguese-speaking individuals in Brazil who likely do not have access to the journals in which we will present our research. As we engage in this work of ongoing translation, we do so with sincerity and seeking to act justly in relation to each of the communities involved. We hope to produce horizontal and pluralistic knowledges via our collaboration, while not pretending that we can or should erase difference or that our efforts can themselves overcome the violences daily confronted by many of those with whom we interact.

Working across and at different borders as part of multiple ongoing processes of translation and active dialogue has often been generative for us. It has opened space for different modes of thinking and hybrid perspectives to develop. We have brought the literature on urban informality and borders, agency and framing, and rural and community development into conversation with one another and with postcolonial perspectives. We have drawn on an eclectic body of theory that has also included international development, social theory, and international politics. Stephenson observed how, together, those “have helped us to clarify our central interest in human agency and democratic possibility in contexts in which the affected populations have long been oppressed.” Similarly, Moayerian commented,

We address community agential power in a number of favelas in Rio de Janeiro from various perspectives. For example, in one article we are interested to understand whether and how community-based art classes may be related to individual and community agency. We draw upon the literature on community cultural development to understand the role that the arts may play in creating space for change at the epistemic level within these communities.

How has regularly exchanging information and interacting with one another affected the way we conceive of academic work?

Each of us has found that our conversations and group work allow us to experience the process of knowledge-making collaboratively. Collaborative work does not come without roadblocks or frustrations, but we have all enjoyed our interactions and the way that we build on each other’s ideas while also building trust. Our ongoing conversations have encouraged each of us to develop knowledge of theories and analytical frames with which we were previously unfamiliar. Our interactions have pushed us to open ourselves to ideas and ways of working and thinking with which we personally may initially have had varying levels of comfort and experience.

Traditional academic norms have emphasized individual authorship and defining one’s own contribution to a field. Despite this widely accepted convention, Poets noted,

Academic work is always a collective process of knowledge cultivation with different knowledge communities and individual people; that is, it is marked by relations of power and often plural ways of knowing that, if navigated well, can productively push the work forward; it also always comes with great responsibility to acknowledge past epistemic violence and the commitment to not repeat such violence. Together, these attributes suggest that we must make an active effort to displace the ego and center our work in the different communities with which we are thinking and working.

Our work together has asked us not only to look outward during our studies, but also actively to reflect on our assumptions, our positions in relation to others, and our personal aspirations. It has challenged each of us to let go, as much as we can, of a rigid ownership of ideas by acknowledging the recursivity and fertility of exchange, while seeking also to center the voices of those too long silenced in academic conversations. This work is unfinished for us. However, our ongoing dialogue has called us to remember something that scholars often downplay; that our ideas are nearly always translations, reworkings, re-imaginings, or re-assemblages of concepts, constructs, and insights to which we have previously been exposed.

We rarely create knowledge alone. Engaging in a dialogic process demands that one grapple with the idea of co-authorship and co-creation of knowledge and opens possibilities both for grasping the significance of humility and individually deepening its practice. Persistent interaction may not erase power dynamics from the authorial process, but it can both prompt individuals to behave differently when those occur and trust one another to address them constructively. We have collectively come to cherish this dimension of our collaboration.

How has this collaboration worked as a point of connection and community-building during the COVID-19 pandemic?

As noted, we have met via Zoom throughout the pandemic. For some of us, this point of connection was one of very few during a time when many social encounters were blocked or disrupted, and it helped to reduce feelings of isolation. As a Virginia Tech Ph.D. graduate now working as an Assistant Professor at the University of Tehran, Moayerian has also highlighted the fact that her personal sense of isolation has been amplified by the global economic sanctions on Iran, reminding us once more of the uneven terrain of our research network. The pandemic has been a period of great uncertainty and precarity across the world, but that existential reality has nonetheless been experienced unevenly by different populations.

Zoom made it possible for us to interact wherever we were located. We took what was at first a fieldwork-based project, prior to the pandemic, related to community-museums in Maré and surrounding favelas and turned it into a remote research activity. As Stephenson shared, “while the health emergency has sometimes slowed our ability to reach individuals with whom we need/wish to interact, it has not dimmed the group’s enthusiasm to explore its shared interests in a multi-faceted and multi-dimensional way.” We have created a sense of community and developed our work despite the pandemic. We have fostered a sense of belonging and fealty to one another and have found this group and CCC to be precious intellectual homes that continue to nurture our shared interests and inquiry. Engaging in this labor during the pandemic has been no small feat, but it also speaks to the privilege with which we have been able to navigate the world. It was a point of connection for us, but not equally so for the journalists we worked with in Maré and Rocinha. Our bi-weekly meetings, for example, were based in our academic space and conducted in English, making them less accessible (and perhaps relevant) to our partners in Rio.

What methodological considerations for studying favelas, cultural production, and social change have arisen through this collaboration?

We have often discussed the history of how favelas have previously been studied, including what has been problematic about those analyses in our team meetings. Licia do Prado Valladares has explored that history of flawed inquiry in-depth in her book, The Invention of the Favela (2019). Some past injustices have included framing favelas as a problem and research “parachuting,” which occurs when analysts frame favela residents and spaces as objects to be studied briefly and a-contextually, to produce “knowledge” about them. This orientation contrasts sharply with acknowledging favela residents as active knowledge producers themselves. Scholarship that does not dignify residents in this way draws on their emotional, creative, and intellectual labor without giving back, and without giving due credit.

We view this project and group as a means to explore how members of Northern academic institutions can work more effectively with partners in the Global South, by building more horizontal relationships with members of those communities. We have surely not accomplished all we might wish in this regard, but our project constitutes a self-conscious start. Such relationships view favela residents as active knowledge-producers that can and should be involved in the shaping of research projects about/with their communities. Together, we have sought to imagine how we can work to avoid reifying existing colonialist assumptions and hierarchies and instead center different forms of knowledge. Favela residents are intellectually, socially, and politically responding to the challenges confronting their communities. Our role has primarily been to find ways to strengthen and help expand their labor and impact. In this regard, Moayerian pointed out,

Since most of us are not from the region (none of us is from a favela), we keep reminding ourselves and one another constantly to check our assumptions and avoid replicating existing stereotypes about the people in the communities with whom we work. Relatedly, we have our findings checked by the interviewees.

As Moayerian also noted, member-checking has subjected our thinking and emerging findings to review by those whose experiences and lived conditions we are nominally describing. We have found ourselves confronting the epistemological assumptions of not one reality, but many realities via this process. Meanwhile, our collaborative ethic has demanded that we work to produce knowledge that has meaning for the residents of the communities with whom we are working. We thus find ourselves persistently engaged in what might be labeled processes of epistemic translation. We have found that space to be deeply enriching.

What do you perceive as this methodology’s limits?

As Mngxitama (2018) has reminded us, there can be no decolonized university in otherwise colonial societies. In keeping with this insight, Poets commented,

If we want to see a more democratic society, we must also democratize our universities, including our research processes. But if we remain within the silos of academia, our impact will always be limited. Our work, I believe, unfolds within this contradiction. A truly horizontal relation with favela communities in the Global South is not possible in the present context.

Put differently, although we have all come to this research group with an interest in building connections across borders of difference that have historically reified and produced asymmetrical power relations, we are limited in how far our efforts alone can attain our aims since we work within an international system and institutions that continue to extract resources, including knowledge, from the Global South.

Within this circumscribing reality, Stephenson observed that we are also limited by “our individual and collective capacities for reflexivity and self-conscious action.” This insight acknowledges that our collective endeavor has both been made possible and constrained by the various processes of translation we have described at different moments throughout this article, as well as by the physical and geographic constraints created by the pandemic. Similarly, Grimes commented, “with travel limited due to the pandemic, we have relied on written materials and Zoom interviews, visual images, and the knowledge and first-hand experience some members of the team possess related to the favelas.” We have sought to employ digital technologies and the materials Grimes referenced to inform our work, but we acknowledge that all such efforts may fall short of the insights we otherwise may have obtained through field work in Rio de Janeiro.

Conclusion

Questions related to ‘being there’ or being ‘in’ the field—especially as addressed in cultural anthropology and sociology—have continually reminded us that reading and interpreting the meaning(s) of a landscape always involve acts of power (Rogers and Swadener 1999). Although our group has worked together through conversations and collective writing, the boundaries of our academic collaboration and our empathetic imaginations have largely determined the constraints of our ‘field’ of observation. We have thus been limited not only by our personal awareness and professional foci, but also by the character of our interactions and possibilities we have been able to conceptualize and consider while not able to visit our study sites. That fact, we have argued, has been rendered even more complex by the language and cultural boundaries we have sought to navigate and power imbalances we have confronted at multiple analytical scales.

Nevertheless, we have sought consciously here to reflect on at least a share of the ethical considerations arising from these complexities and the factors that both prompted and resulted in our continuing ties and intellectual journey together. We have, for example, considered our affiliations with the CCC, as well as other shared academic and personal interests and sketched how those have shaped our group foci and collective research process. We have also reflected on the importance of the seemingly simple act of regularly exchanging information, noting that those routine interactions both created opportunities to share ideas and knowledge and afforded space for members to experience knowledge-making as a collective process. While our work has thus generated intellectual and personal possibilities, it has also been characterized by several shaping conditions. Those have included the mobility constraints imposed by the pandemic as well as the production and presentation of our work in English in academic spaces and largely for scholarly audiences. Those factors have created boundaries and borders of various types that we have had to acknowledge and have sought consciously to address. We have argued that those constraints, while real and often difficult, need not prevent shared efforts to address compelling concerns linked to deepening our understanding of social change, and individual and collective agency.

Likewise, while coming together for regular meetings has created a sense of belonging and comity among the members of our team, we do not claim that we have been able to generate a like space for our research partners. We have sought actively to dignify the experience and perspectives of our interviewees, but we did not approach this work imagining we could provide a space of shared purpose for them or their communities. Instead, rather than assume we could create something for favela residents, we have sought to understand better what they were creating for themselves and how and why they were doing so. Our fond hope is that the efforts we have chronicled here may provide insight to other interdisciplinary researchers on how to conduct team-based research that seeks to navigate language-based, theoretical, and cultural differences in an intentional way. This work is only a step along a path that may yield knowledge translations that allow those with whom we are working to realize their most desired aims. We know we have grown in that exchange.

Notes

1A list of the partners involved in our research group appears in the Appendix of this article. 

2We wish to acknowledge the work of Master of Fine Arts (Theater) and Master of Urban and Regional Planning candidate and CCC member, C. Meranda Flachs-Surmanek, in helping to organize this event. 

Appendix: List of Research Partners

Nada Berrada, Ph.D., formerly of the Alliance for Social, Political Ethical and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) doctoral program at Virginia Tech and now International Project Coordinator, International Education Center, Washington, D.C.

Cathy Grimes, Director of Communications, Virginia Tech Graduate School.

Vanessa Guerra, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Architecture and Urban and Environmental Planning, the University of Virginia, and graduate of the Environmental Design and Planning doctoral program at Virginia Tech.

Neda Moayerian, Ph.D., Non-Resident Research Associate, VTIPG and Assistant Professor, University of Tehran, Tehran, Iran, and graduate of the Planning, Governance, and Globalization Ph.D. program at Virginia Tech.

Desirée Poets, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Postcolonial Theory in the Department of Political Science and a core faculty member of the ASPECT Ph.D. Program.

Francine Rossone de Paula, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of International Politics, Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland and graduate of the Virginia Tech ASPECT Ph.D. program.

Max Stephenson Jr., Ph.D., Professor of Public and International Affairs and Director, Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance.

Molly Todd, Ph.D. Candidate in the ASPECT program at Virginia Tech and Instructor in the Department of Political Science.

Helena Vasconcellos, Undergraduate Business (Management) student from São Paulo, Brazil attending Virginia Tech.

Competing Interests

The authors have no competing interests to declare.

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