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Addressing the politics of knowledge production

Power and knowledge in research partnerships with Southeast Asia

The politics of knowledge production is central to the way academics at Australian universities who work in Southeast Asia manage their relationships in the region. How can we address power imbalances between the Global North and the Global South?

Over the last five weeks on SSEAC Stories, we have heard academics from a range of disciplines share their experiences of working collaboratively with their partners in Southeast Asia. This Research Partnerships in Southeast Asia mini-series was designed to shed light on one aspect of the ‘backend’ of the research process. In each episode, we heard details of the academics’ projects as well as how they established their relationships, maintained them and negotiated challenges that emerged.

One issue that we did not directly address in these conversations, but that each person talked about in one way or another, was the politics of knowledge production. It is well known that there are deep disparities in how work is divided between collaborators from the Global North and Global South.

Academics from the Global North tend to have oversight over high-level strategic thinking and planning of projects, while collaborators from the Global South are often delegated the more routine hands-on tasks. Funding structures and institutional incentives contribute significantly to this pattern, but as our mini-series demonstrates, individual academics do find ways of challenging these pressures.

Our podcast interviewees explained how institutional expectations about partnerships, limited timeframes for developing projects, as well as pre-existing institutional relationships, shaped how they formed relationships and designed their projects.

Navigating competing priorities

Associate Professor Jenny-Ann Toribio outlined how her Timor-Leste project’s primary donor, the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), played a very influential role in shaping both the project and the relationships within it. ACIAR was both beholden to the priorities of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in terms of what it could fund, but also was guided by the priorities and interests of the countries receiving funding.

Similarly, Associate Professor Jeff Neilson explained how he had little choice about his partners in Vietnam, as they were part of a pre-existing network that the other lead organisation belonged to. For Professor Michael Dibley, constraints of time and resources meant that the local partner organisations he worked with in Myanmar were unable to contribute to the initial design of the project, which was not his preferred approach for collaboration, but that they were able to make adjustments to the project to ensure his local collaborators were able to benefit from being part of the research.

Collaborating across the globe

Another major structural issue that all the academics interviewed came back to during these discussions was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their relationships. Notably, many of them commented on how it enabled them to let go and allow their counterparts to take more control. Professor Michael Dibley was surprised about how much he could achieve within an existing relationship without having to travel.

Associate Professor Jenny-Ann Toribio praised her Timorese collaborators for sourcing a local academic to do qualitative work that was originally going to be conducted by a University of Sydney academic. And Associate Professor Jeff Neilson observed that the pivot to online communication meant that despite only having physically travelled to Vietnam for his project twice, he has a much greater frequency of communication with his partners than he would otherwise.

Applying big picture thinking

What the interviews also highlighted was that individual academics often make active values-based choices about how they engaged with their collaborators. Professor Michael Dibley, for example, explained how his experience early in his career supporting the formation of research partnerships as a project officer for the Ford Foundation taught him the importance of thinking about how partnerships can be a means for local partners to develop new skills and to achieve their overarching goals (as opposed to the goals of the project only).

This focus on how to use partnerships to ensure local partners can develop the skills, networks and exposure they need, as well as ensuring that local researchers have ownership over the research, were integral to the way he approached building relationships in Myanmar.

Similarly, Dr Elisabeth Kramer talked about how her personal connection to Indonesia meant that she had a vested interest in ensuring that whatever research she did was going to make sense in the Indonesian context, and in the long run, contribute to a better outcome for Indonesia.

In addition, she specifically designed her academic collaboration in such a way that she and her partner were not tied together through shared access to funding. Both she and her collaborator took responsibility for securing funding of their own, so their interactions were focused primarily on aspects of their projects where they could draw on each other’s skills, knowledge and networks.

Challenging conventional wisdom

In other cases, like for Dr Fiona Lee, challenging conventional methods of producing knowledge was central, not just to her mode of collaboration, but to the actual research topic itself. The collaborative project she and her University of Sydney partner Dr Beth Yahp pursued with Malaysia Design Archive (MDA) specifically aimed to shed light on the politics of knowledge production in Malaysia as it relates to the practice of archiving. In their collaboration with MDA, Lee and Yahp built on a process already established by MDA of democratising knowledge production.

By inviting the general public to directly contribute items of personal value to their archive, MDA was able to directly challenge official narratives about Malay-ness by preserving stories about the past that would not otherwise have been recorded. Lee and Yahp expanded on this by creating opportunities for individuals to more deeply explore the value of the objects they brought to the archive and to reflect on ways they could share their own stories about being Malaysian.

The politics of knowledge production is central to the way academics at Australian universities who work in Southeast Asia manage their relationships in the region. It is impossible to ignore the structural, institutional and contextual factors that influence the way these relationships play out.

As this podcast mini-series has shown, there is diversity in how academics choose to navigate the power dynamics that are inherent in these relationships. By being conscious of the values underpinning partnership and having a long-term commitment to the relationships and the region, academics have an opportunity to empower their partners and thereby redress unequal relationships.

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About the author

SSEAC Deputy Director Thushara Dibley head shot
Dr Thushara Dibley, The University of Sydney
Deputy Director of the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.
View academic profile