In this essay, the authors reflect on their experiences researching the impacts of port expansion in the Indian Ocean on mangroves and the communities surrounding them with the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.
How might researchers effectively collaborate across regions, disciplines, and languages? What does transregional collaboration look like in the midst of crisis? This essay series highlights the work of the SSRC’s 2020 Indian Ocean Transregional Planning Grant recipients, who reflect on what Anna Tsing has described as the “necessary messes” of scholarly collaborations unfolding during intersecting disasters. The groups draw on their experiences planning collaborative research in order to provide a snapshot of what research has looked like on the ground, and to explore what methods and strategies have worked well—or not so well—during the pandemic.
Located in countries across the Indian Ocean region—from Tanzania to Thailand—as well as North America and Europe, the grantees were selected to plan research projects that addressed two major, long term catastrophes: the profound sociocultural, political, and economic repercussions of environmental change in the region, and ongoing inequalities in the access to and production of knowledge between social researchers in both North-South and South-South partnerships. The sudden onset and immediate impact of the Covid-19 pandemic added another layer to these imbricated crises. In light of these developments, they explore the questions: What does equitable transregional research look like when different regions are affected by and responding to a disaster in distinct ways? And what new possibilities, strategies, and insights might have emerged during this time of crisis?
In answering these questions, many of the authors focus on process. Through their essays, we learn about the how’s of building networks of researchers focused on and based in specific subregions like the Red Sea and the Northern Indian Ocean, and of strategies to maintain these connections without the possibility of gathering in person. We also navigate, through the authors’ reflections, the contingency plans and modifications to research activities necessitated by shifting public health mandates and political situations. In this regard, these essays provide grounded case studies that address questions posed and suggestions offered in an earlier Items series exploring changing social science research practices in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. They demonstrate the kinds of reconsiderations required when working with vulnerable populations in this time of increased uncertainty, and showcase opportunities to experiment with new methodologies in the online world, for instance.
Overall, the series is a testament to what the grantees were able to achieve during their planning year in the face of cumulative challenges, from piloting participant-driven research methods in the Sundarbans to creating oceanic lexicons online. They also alert us to principles that underscore equitable, sustainable research practices and partnerships, among these being mutual support, the importance of time, and the necessity of rest.
This series has been curated by Saarah Jappie, program officer for the Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean and the Arts Research with Communities of Color program; Alexa Dietrich, program director of Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean, the Religion and Public Sphere program, and the Arts Research with Communities of Color program; and Sidney Lok, program assistant of Transregional Collaboratory on the Indian Ocean, the Arts Research with Communities of Color program, and the Religion and Public Sphere program.
The authors reflect on how research on an environment already experiencing significant social and physical change was further impacted by the Covid 19 pandemic. In considering the potential impact of a "Blue Economy" policy scheme, the research team confronted the need to examine the power dynamics inherent in the research process, as well as those inherent to their analysis.
As academic collaborations become increasingly virtual and geographically widespread, researchers are faced with novel challenges, as well as opportunities, as they attempt to create equitable, effective research partnerships. In this essay, the authors highlight the importance of shared reflexive conversations in building a strong foundation for collaboration and the coproduction of knowledge, particularly in the midst of ongoing crises. In so doing, they reflect on their experience of planning research on social innovation in small-scale fishing communities in Africa and Asia, as a team spread across six countries.
Shibaji Bose, Upasona Ghosh, Debojyoti Das describe the impact of the dual crises of Covid-19 and accelerating climatic change for Sundarbans residents, as well as their experience in shifting to participatory visual research methods to document the crises and residents’ responses, while respecting travel restrictions. The results put documentation in the hands of the affected community and offered a chance to tell their stories from a firsthand perspective. The researchers also reflect on how to make this type of work rigorous, while centering the questions and perspectives of the focus community.
Tuko Pamoja: Collaborative North-South Research, Temporality, and Togetherness in Zanzibar, Tanzaniaby Caitlyn Bolton, Mary Khatib and Issa Ziddy
Research collaborations bring together scholars with distinct positionalities, which at once enriches the research process and presents an array of power and social dynamics for team members to navigate. In this essay, Caitlyn Bolton, Mary Khatib, and Issa Ziddy provide an autoethnographic account of their joint field research in Zanzibar, reflecting on the idea of the “we” in knowledge production. The essay draws attention to previous challenges faced by team members in the Global South, the importance of time to developing solid connections between researchers, and the value of friendship as a methodology.
Invoking the concept of the "postnormal," Aarthi Sridhar, Annu Jalais, Rapti Siriwardane-de Zoysa, and Sridhar Anantha reflect on how collaborative research can help overcome the pandemic’s limitations. Centering democracy and equity, their Southern Collective developed a range of research projects to collect emerging cultural information about life in the Indian Ocean littoral. As they demonstrate, the building of “networks of solidarity” was central to accomplishing this work and may prove critical to successful research in a postnormal world.
Environmental disasters in recent decades have drawn scholarly attention to the need to move beyond traditional area studies boundaries in order to understand the wide-reaching impacts of events like tsunamis, cyclones, and, more broadly, climate change. This essay reflects on the efforts of one research team, led by Nathalie Peutz and Alden Young, to disrupt regional divides between East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, and to study climate change across the littoral states of the Red Sea arena. As the authors highlight, successful collaboration across regions and in this time of multiple crises entails the constant negotiation of constraints and disruptions.