Collaboration is inherent to all fieldwork practice. Collaborative ethnography both highlights and focuses this collaboration -- specifically that between ethnographers and research participants/consultants -- and moves it to center stage. It seeks to make collaboration an explicit and deliberate part of not only fieldwork but also part of the writing process itself. Community collaborators thus become a central part of the construction of ethnographic texts, which shifts their role from "informants" (who merely inform the knowledge on which ethnographies are based) to "consultants" (who co-interpret knowledge and its representation along with the ethnographer).
Collaborative ethnography is not always germane to every ethnographic project, but it is especially appropriate when individuals and communities wish to use ethnography to address community-centered questions and issues. Such an approach shifts the role of ethnographers: they often work as facilitators, collaboratively addressing community-centered questions and issues through more equitable research partnerships.
Collaborative ethnography is similar to participatory action research; but what makes collaborative ethnography particularly unique is that it involves consultants in the construction of final ethnographic forms (whatever they may be), and in so doing has the potential to extend field conversations about difference into the co-production of ethnographic knowledge and beyond.
In The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography, I argue that such practice can increase ethnography's potential to matter to those beyond the academy. It is, in many ways, an applied practice with its own politicized histories, limitations, agendas, and consequences. In the end, though, I believe it is among the most powerful ways to advance a more relevant and public scholarship.
In 2007, I founded the journal Collaborative Anthropologies, an annual meant to engage an ever-widening discussion of this kind of collaborative research in anthropology and closely related fields. My Introduction to the inaugural issue is posted here. I edited or co-edited the journal until 2013 (vols. 1-6), when a new team accepted the editorship (see here). The journal has consistently explored issues critical to establishing theoretical and methodological foundations for thinking about and doing collaborative anthropology.
For some of my most recent reflections on collaborative ethnography / anthropology, see:
“’To Fill in the Missing Piece of the Middletown Puzzle’: Lessons from Re-studying Middletown.” Invited article for “Community Re-Studies and Social Change,” Special Issue edited by Nickie Charles and Graham Crow, Sociological Review 60:421-37 (2012).
“What Will We Have Ethnography Do?” Co-authored with Elizabeth Campbell. Qualitative Inquiry 16(9):757-67 (2010).
“From Collaborative Ethnography to Collaborative Pedagogy: Reflections on the Other Side of Middletown Project and Community-University Research Partnerships.” Co-authored with Elizabeth Campbell. Anthropology & Education Quarterly 41(4):370-85 (2010).
"When We Disagree: On Engaging the Force of Difference in Collaborative, Reciprocal, and Participatory Researches." Paper presented at the 107th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association, San Francisco, California (2008).
"Moving Past Public Anthropology and Doing Collaborative Research," NAPA Bulletin 29:70-86 (2008).
"Collaborative Ethnography Matters," Dialogue with Anthropology News 47 (5):20-21 (2006).
Chapter 2, "Defining a Collaborative Ethnography" in The Chicago Guide to Collaborative Ethnography (2005).
"Collaborative Ethnography and Public Anthropology," Current Anthropology 46 (1):83-106 (2005).
Introduction, "The Story of a Collaborative Project," in The Other Side of Middletown (2004).