Who gains the authorship in ethnography?

In 2017, as part of preparing for a reflective ”can there be postcolonial ethnography?” – a film screening & dialogue with film maker Carmen Baltzar at Utopias of Peace event, Carmen pointed to a recent ethnographic book, in which a white female, the researcher and the book’s sole author, was describing her attempts to challenge the colonial legacies, and continuities of ethnographic research tradition, yet naming herself as the single author in the book. I remember thinking how important this critique was and decided to reflect upon my own research praxis, and ways of authoring my research.

Four years later, in 2021, few months after my research monograph Scraps of Hope in Banda Aceh was published , I am asked the same question: How come you are the sole author of this book? What about those who participated in the research team, especially since 2015, when the audio-visual elements were added into the research process, with major contributions by a team consisting of several film makers, activist/poet/researcher, assistant camera persons, several translators, and of course, people whose life stories are elaborated through short documentary videos, but also ethnographic chapters?

This question and the scholarly choices point to a number of crucial questions about authorship, recognition, and scholarly rewards. In the case of post-disaster and post-conflict scholarship on Aceh, the invisibility of local emerging scholars, and a growth of a new generation of predominantly Western scholarship on Aceh has been also academically criticised, towards which I also point out in the book – in particular, how a locally conducted and published research on multitudes of masculinities, never gains references, rather it is the synthesis article in English, written by outsiders, that gains the points, and visibility, in citation indexes.

In the book, I describe the research journey between 2012-2020 as stumbling scholarship, pointing towards incompleteness, attempts to ”do better” that are entangled with whiteness and lures of saviourism, or simply realisations of the impossibility of overcoming structures through individual choices that a researcher, with research funding based in the Global North, has at their hand.

During the research process, attempting to pay attention to structures of coloniality, neoliberal university and its demands, and simultaneously competing in academic job markets, I had chosen non-textual forms of expression (over 100 minutes of documentary videos), poetry recital and video screening events, collaborative side projects that allowed emergence of multiple authors and analysts, and walk-in screenings and lectures where the scholar gets to interact with participants  – but which does not translate into competitive citation-indexes.

Different parts of the book describe these multiple authors and analysts that have created the experience of having produced, and researched Scraps of Hope in Banda Aceh – as something more than a straightforward one-researcher endeavor, which after all, the Academy of Finland Fellowship is all about. It is a fellowship that Academy of Finland defines  as follows:

When you apply for funding for a research post as Academy Research Fellow, you apply for funding for your own salary for five years. Academy Research Fellows work on research plans that have been rated to be of a high scientific quality. They have built extensive research networks, and the funding allows them to develop their academic leadership skills and establish themselves as independent researchers in the international scientific community.

Having applied successfully for the fellowship in 2014, I made the promise of a monograph -so as to fulfill the measurement of having reached successfully the status of independent researcher of high scientific quality. The value of single authored monograph in the Finnish academic and higher education political economy equals roughly 4-5 single authored articles –  all such publications by university affiliated researchers are registered and reported annually to the Ministry of Education, and they consists of 14% of the overall university budgets. In this system, over 100 minutes, or support given to edited books supported through the research project’s non-salaried research costs, contribute 0 – this I was reminded of when attempting to register the project’s outputs into the publication database of my university. They also do not count when my credentials are reviewed next time – be it an attempt to apply for a salary rise, any openings for professorships, or even senior lectureship title, a path opened this spring for us university lecturers.

So yes, my response to those who question the single authorship in ethnography: we stumble, and we fail, until we are successful in dismantling the master’s house.


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