The beauty of collaborative research is that it provides adequate space for each participating actor to engage in a collective reflection on their part in the coproduction of knowledge. This essay is an outcome of such a collective engagement, where shared conversations enabled the project team to co-design a research framework to explore the nature of transformative social innovation initiatives and the nature of the governance that small-scale fishing communities envisioned. Here, we aim to demonstrate the relevance of shared conversations as a collaborative research method. Shared reflective conversations enabled even a diverse and distant group of researchers to stay connected in reimaging their collective engagement and carrying forward the tasks of knowledge co-construction.
Getting ready to sail in an unknown seascape…“All of us are curious to know what is happening in African small-scale fisheries, how the African context differs from the Asian context, and vice versa.”
We were navigating across a vast seascape, each of us contributing from our own worldviews, situations, subject fields, and experiences to a kaleidoscope of interacting perspectives. Yet, all of us are curious to know what is happening in African small-scale fisheries, how the African context differs from the Asian context, and vice versa. We are a multidisciplinary research team comprising of eight researchers from Bangladesh, India, Madagascar, South Africa, Tanzania, and Thailand. We were awarded a 2020 Transregional Planning Grant to conduct preliminary work to prepare and plan a collaborative research project on the community-led social innovation initiatives for transforming the governance of small-scale fisheries in the Indian Ocean region. The team had a good balance of age, gender, seniority, and field research experience—including two established women professors and three established male professors, one emerging woman researcher, and two emerging male researchers with PhDs. Subject fields of team members included philosophy, applied ethics, social sciences, development studies, gender studies, geography and environmental management, policy studies, natural resource governance, and sustainable livelihoods. Between August 2020 and August 2021, we worked together in preparing the research agenda for this transregional collaborative research project.
Regardless of background, we all wanted to engage with theoretical discourses such as governance and governmentality, gender relations, transformative social innovation, and so on, in the context of blue growth-based development processes happening in the Indian Ocean region as well as exploring the nature of these discourses embedded in the everyday livelihood practices and struggles of small-scale fishers.
After several project meetings, gradually, we began to realize that the Indian Ocean region as a research site, though extremely complex, could also enable us to weave our perspectives together, focusing on distinct subregions. Some of the lines of inquiry that guided our journey, in the beginning, were:
- How can we deepen our understanding of the everyday lives of small-scale fishers?
- How are macro-level political ecological contexts, such as government policies and commercialization of fisheries, impacting the lives and livelihoods of small-scale fishers in the Indian Ocean region?
- How can we deepen our theoretical knowledge and ethical beliefs on ocean and coastal governance based on this understanding?
- How can coproduction of knowledge contribute to the strengthening of contemporary social innovations, including fishers’ movements and solidarity networks across various parts of the globe?
During our initial dialogue sessions, it was evident that all of us believed in pursuing ethical collaboration. We had to unpack our own understanding of ethical collaboration, the contradictions and dilemmas that could emerge therein. We engaged in an open and honest dialogue about these potential ethical risks, and developed robust mechanisms to deal with (1) insensitive communications and misunderstanding, (2) domination and unfair suppression of voices of team members, (3) unfair distribution of research roles and duties, (4) unfair distribution of research funds and publication opportunities, (5) laziness and irresponsible research behaviors, and (6) non-observance of Covid-19 rules and regulations in the context of interacting with our research participants.
We knew that it was not going to be smooth sailing. Just like a storm brewing on the horizon, the Covid-19 pandemic had already cast its dark clouds over the team. Some of us were infected at the beginning of the journey, while others or their loved ones were affected later. There were other concerns as well. We knew that it would be challenging to coordinate the whole project across different time zones without much face-to-face interaction. The feeling of “strangers in a lifeboat” lingered for some time.
In addition, there were our everyday family and work commitments, which had become even more complex with the Covid-19 pandemic, lockdowns, and work-from-home circumstances. The 12-month research planning time was noticeably short and the resources that we could make use of amidst such chaos were also limited. All of us were uncertain about how our fields and fieldwork were going to evolve. However, as the days progressed, each one of us began to gradually set into the whole dialogic and designing process of the project.
Sailing a turbulent ocean…
In our meetings, there was a mutual appreciation for each other’s competence, knowledge, and wisdom. In that sense, we were able to carve out an inclusive space for all members to explore, articulate, and integrate our respective research ideas and contexts into practice. While in-person meetings would have been better, they never were a viable option in a pandemic-ridden world. Online meetings were held in such a way that they did not become a burden for any of us in terms of time and other everyday commitments. We also discussed holding online meetings and reached an understanding to be flexible, where each one of us was ready to give and adjust. For instance, a team member based in Halifax, Canada, had to wake up very early in the mornings whereas members from India, Bangladesh, and Thailand had to stay up very late evenings to participate in scheduled Zoom meetings. Throughout these interactive sessions, we believed that a culture of respect, recognition, fairness, and transparency adds strength and meaning to the entire process of co-constructing knowledge. Strategies such as one-to-one conversations, brainstorming group sessions, shared visioning exercises, careful listening, and reflective dialogue all facilitated shared conversations. There was a fair distribution of responsibilities, resources, and equitable delegation of tasks, which also motivated all of us to contribute passionately to the knowledge production process.“We are aware that the richness and satisfaction that usual qualitative interviews provide were missing due to the limited interactions and the lack of physical opportunities for building rapports with other members in the fishing communities.”
Whenever possible, we were able to extend the space for responsive and respectful engagement with other stakeholders too. These actors include representatives from the fishing communities, government officials, NGO staff, trade union leaders, other academics who displayed keen interest in the project, research associates, students, and the funders. The pandemic complicated outreach to the communities physically, especially in Bangladesh, India, Madagascar, South Africa, and Thailand where lockdown measures were strictly implemented. When governments allowed limited movement and we determined it was safe to do fieldwork, we visited communities with appropriate health precautions. Nevertheless, we are aware that the richness and satisfaction that usual qualitative interviews provide were missing due to the limited interactions and the lack of physical opportunities for building rapport with other members of the fishing communities. Often, it seems that “we are still standing on the beach…the boat has not yet sailed on!” We also recognize the need to have a long-standing relationship with the communities and key informants, and it would help to stay connected and get their inputs via phone and via local actors.
Wind, waves, and adjusting the sail…
We wanted to get a grasp of the Indian Ocean region and the enigma surrounding the exploitation and use of its rich resources to promote societal and human-centered development. This was at least partially possible through critical dialogue and meticulous engagement with the literature on oceanic resources and livelihood practices of small-scale fishers, fisheries governance frameworks and instruments, and the blue growth or blue economy strategies designed and implemented in countries of the region. What facilitated the development of a shared understanding was the willingness of each one of us to distribute relevant literature and documents to others, irrespective of the fact that finding them, sourcing them, and sending them was time-consuming and challenging work. Each one of us shared insights from the vantage point of our respective countries and research expertise, and that was communicated to everyone in writing and via Zoom meetings. We made short presentations; we provided input based on our experiences and built on the theoretical framings that emerged during discussions. However, the need for further research and critical reflections to capture the complexities of the Indian Ocean and the social transformations happening in these spaces continue to trigger our aspiration to bond together in order to reimagine and co-construct the idea of the Indian Ocean and its fisher people.
We held several discussions to unpack and deconstruct what we mean by transformative social innovation, governance, and governmentality and arrived together at the criteria for selecting suitable case studies for future research. We also critically engaged with the criteria presented in social innovation literature and then improved them to guide our selection of diverse cases of transformative social innovations. In the literature, initiatives that qualify as transformative social innovations must have (1) acted toward the satisfaction of the unfulfilled needs, (2) provoked changes in governance, and (3) fostered empowerment of the people involved.1→Frank Moulaert, Diana MacCallum, and Jean Hillier, “Social Innovation: Intuition, Precept, Concept, Theory and Concept” in International Handbook on Social Innovation: Collective Action, Social Learning and Transdisciplinary Research, eds. Frank Moulaert et al. (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2013), 13.
→Mark Andrachuk et al., “Building Blocks for Social-Ecological Transformations: Identifying and Building on Governance Successes for Small-Scale Fisheries,” Ecology and Society 23, no. 2 (2018): 26. We were guided by these criteria in searching for and selecting cases of community-led transformative social innovation initiatives in our respective countries.
The shared conversations about the criteria and the selected cases that followed helped us to align our framing of issues of small-scale fishers toward the broader conceptual framework of the research project. Further, when writing the proposal, we started imagining and documenting potential contributions that we could make and via that process we started to envision and design appropriate next steps to making such contributions. We believe that this whole phase was a process of collaborative learning and de-learning and co-imagination.“The overall strategy was to conduct a systematic review of literature…followed by key informant interviews suiting specific thematic foci.”
The strategy to delegate and facilitate the designing processes also helped in this regard. The overall strategy was to conduct a systematic review of literature (which report the everyday livelihood struggles of small-scale fishers and the intersectionalities of power structures shaping fisheries-based livelihoods, resource use, and governance) followed by key informant interviews suiting specific thematic foci. The steps involved in understanding a particular concept, its variations, its operationalization in our context, key debates surrounding these concepts, and designing specific lines of inquiry—all helped in developing a shared vision for our transregional collaborative research by the end of our planning phase.
A crucial phase was to agree upon a suitable methodology for our collaborative research. Though deeper discussions have yet to take place, a prospective methodology that emerged was the application of Bent Flyvbjerg’s phronesis approach. At the center of the phronesis approach are four value-rational questions to facilitate inquiries, analyses, and interpretations of values, power, and interests underlying specific instances of human actions.2Bent Flyvbjerg, Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again, trans. Steven Sampson (Cambridge University Press, 2001). The questions are: (1) Where are we going with this action? (2) Who gains and who loses, and by which mechanisms of power? (3) Is this development desirable? (4) What, if anything, should we do about it? We determined to innovatively integrate these value-rational questions in our research instruments (i.e., interviews, surveys, discussions, and documentary review guides) to effectively gauge the basis for the perceived inadequacy or adequacy of current and envisioned fisheries governance regimes in unlocking the social and economic potentials of the small-scale fisheries under investigation.
Gazing back at the shore…
During this short planning stage, we have benefitted immensely from collaborating with different partners, be it other researchers, community members, or funders. We now believe that through ethical collaboration, irrespective of the underlying power structures in all partnerships, we can develop meaningful collaborative research projects. Knowingly or unknowingly, our way of work also shared certain characteristics with a strengths-based approach. As described earlier, each one of us was able to freely participate based on our respective strengths and this helped in both knowing ourselves and blending with the team. Through adaptive innovation, we were able to sail through turbulences and uncertainties, and consistently innovate as new contexts emerge. However, we need to remain prepared and continue to be caring, compassionate, and empathetic to pursue meaningful collaborative research in such emergent situations.“There are also some among us who are enjoying this journey of locating our philosophies and worldviews in comparison with other cultural contexts and knowledge domains.”
The whole journey was also an engagement with our own positionalities, and quickly realizing that we were able to navigate across the barriers of insiders and outsiders in this co-creative space. Over time we started to talk about more than just “work,” for example, experiences around Covid-19, and this helped us get to know one another better and become a more cohesive research team. On a personal front, each one of us has benefitted in diverse ways. For some of us, it was sharpening and believing in our leadership skills, while for others, it was strengthening effective communication skills in a virtual environment. There are also some among us who are enjoying this journey of locating our philosophies and worldviews in comparison with other cultural contexts and knowledge domains.
This journey of togetherness continues. We are getting ready for our next voyage. We are curious to understand the potential of community-led social innovation initiatives to transform people’s lives and bring about changes in existing power structures in society, and how these instances of hope and learning vary from one culture to another across the Indian Ocean region. We also hope that our partnership and collaboration with those in the field could strengthen the voices of small-scale fishers and their collectives in their efforts to retain ownership and control of their coastal and marine resources.
→Mark Andrachuk et al., “Building Blocks for Social-Ecological Transformations: Identifying and Building on Governance Successes for Small-Scale Fisheries,” Ecology and Society 23, no. 2 (2018): 26.