Cross-Cultural Research Collaboration: Negotiating Codes and Dissonant Expectations

One of the main goals of the On Whose Terms? conference was to provide a stage for discussions of challenges and solutions researchers are facing when attempting to create an effective collaborative research atmosphere with colleagues from different social and cultural backgrounds. One of the sessions was the keynote plenary about cross-cultural research collaboration, which specifically promised to discuss Negotiating Codes and Dissonant Expectations. During the first part of this session, several researches presented their experiences of collaboration with people with different cultural backgrounds.

Coping with difference

The first presentation was introduced by Anne Britt Flemmen, professor of the University of Tromsø, and Dr. Mulumebet Zenebe from Addis Ababa University, Etiopia. During this presentation Flemmen and Zenebe shared their experience of working together on two gender projects and challenges of the North-South (meaning African-European cross-continental) collaborative research. Zenebe pointed out that the main challenge was that people from North and South were used to completely different traditions, approaches to research, choice of methods theories and research areas. In North-South collaborative research projects, there is – according to Zenebe – a huge power imbalance, as the authority of decision-making concerning the research teams and research topics belongs to the side of North. Researchers from the South believe this is counter-productive, because during collaborative research projects, scientists from the South are often native to the research territories and their position should be considered during the decision-making process.

During her speech, Anne Britt Flemmen showed several striking examples of cross-cultural collaboration challenges.  One of these examples was about using of English language as a second language, which imposes limits in vocabulary and expressions used for explanations and conversations.

Based on personal experience Flemmen gave several advises. One of them is that the regular meetings of the research team should be organized in an appropriate way. During these meetings the progress of the project, challenges, plans for doing fieldwork and participation in conferences should be discussed. The second advice is that a researcher should be realistic about planned results of his or her work.

The second presentation was held by Natalie Kukarenko, Pomor State University (now part of the Northen Arctic Federal University, Russia), and Anne Britt Flemmen. The project, in which the researchers were enrolled in, is a project concerning gender equality of the Norwegian and Russian Sami which took place from 2006 to 2009. During their presentation Natalie and Anne shared their experience of working on such project and gave some advises for successful collaborative research. One of them is the establishment of open and goal-oriented communication structures to increase awareness of cultural differences as well as to reinforce team spirit on the way to reaching a common goal. Furthermore, it was important to create an atmosphere of mutual trust among the members of the research team.

Indigenous peoples

The last speakers of the first part of the session were associate professor Torjer Olsen and assistant fellow Rachel Issa Djesa, both from the University of Tromsø. They shared their experience of working with the Indigenous Studies master program at the University of Tromsø. The speakers stated that even though they have different approaches to problems, they are usually finding a common solution. However, cultural difference has an influence.

During the second part of the session, professor Jens Dahl from IWGIA (International Work group for Indigenous Affairs) and the University of Copenhagen held a speech. The main topic of the presentation was the issue of cultural differences between all indigenous people, which they managed to overcome when creating the platform in the United Nations for adopting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, which is now one of the main legal instruments concerning indigenous people’s rights.

As Jens Dahl pointed out, indigenous peoples created a movement, which led to the recognition of their collective rights. He believes that cross-cultural communication of indigenous peoples led to cross-cultural understanding.

To conclude, I would like to say that during Cross-Cultural Research Collaboration: Negotiating Codes and Dissonant section, it was very impressive to hear so many different stories about how people managed to overcome problems, which they are facing during cross-cultural research. The experience they presented will certainly be useful for future research projects, in which people with different cultural background are enrolled.

By Ekaterina Zmyvalova, student at the Master’s degree program in  indigenous studies, UiT The Arctic University of Norway.