The historian working alone in the public archives has a strong hold on the disciplinary imagination. But there is growing interest in collaborative approaches to research amongst historians, between historians and researchers in other disciplines, and across the university-community divide : allowing historians to work in partnership with the communities we study. The Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council has encouraged this shift through its partnership funding programs. This workshop will provide guidance for historians thinking about developing a partnership project.
Steven High has extensive experience leading SSHRC-funded partnership projects. He led the award-winning Montreal Life Stories project (2006-2012), funded by SSHRC’s Community-Research Alliance program, which worked with Montrealers displaced by mass violence in other parts of the world, and is currently heading the transnational « Deindustrialization and the Politics of Our Time » Partnership Project (deindustrialization.org).
The recording of the workshop is available on the CHA YouTube channel.
For the final event in its 2022-2023 series of virtual workshops and roundtables, the CHA had the great pleasure of hosting CHA President Steven High, to discuss the design of large-scale partnered research projects in history. Built to engage participants in dialogue, the workshop demonstrated the benefits, challenges, and considerations that every researcher should remember when building partnerships.
Steven High began by asking, “Why hold such a workshop?” He argued it is because there is a growing shift towards collaborative, community-based research projects – particularly from granting agencies such as SSHRC – that take a variety of forms. There is no single model for large-scale partnerships; their diversity requires the researcher to be careful in designing the project. Moreover, historians are often under-represented in these projects, as the discipline often favours smaller projects with less central community ties. Graduate students are rarely trained in collaborative research, which contributes to the marginalization of this kind of work.
Many positives accompany partnership research. In SSHRC grant applications, these projects may directly include a community organization as a co-researcher or as a participant. This broadens the expertise attached to the project and includes a diversity of voices, both within and outside the academic community. In addition, SSHRC’s various grants are available for short- to long-term research projects, which allows for alignment with the objectives of the researchers and partners. Collaborative research is also a unique opportunity to engage with the public – not only through publications, but also by directly involving them in the development of results. In this sense, they generate research questions and findings that would otherwise be inaccessible. Their budget envelopes are excellent ways to fund students, either as research assistants or through a master’s, doctoral or post-doctoral project. They can then popularize such forms of research and contribute to an exciting network.
The design of large-scale partnership research projects is not without its dangers, however. Because of their size, they are likely to lead to several teams working in parallel, but never crossing paths. These projects therefore require structures and mechanisms that ensure that the collaboration is not just bureaucratic, but also leads to the production of common knowledge. Exposing one’s results at several stages of the research, through publications or conferences, makes it possible to bind all the members of a team together and to circumvent this and other problems. Another challenge is the hierarchy within research teams. Students contributing to the project need to be able to be involved in important roles and have a voice in its evolution beyond their fieldwork and analysis. It is also important to ensure that it is not solely driven by one person, which often happens if a researcher’s initial project is not sufficiently scalable; while some rigidity is needed to reach final conclusions, flexibility must also be preserved to allow for many spontaneous reflections. Finally, the administrative burden of collaborative research can be extremely heavy. It is important to ensure that the research team has the resources and staff to complete it.
Steven High finally offered some considerations when designing a large-scale partnership research project. The project must be able to grow organically and evolve with its members; the end results are rarely what a researcher had envisioned before approaching partners. All collaborators, however, should be chosen when their preferred topics are directly related to the subject of the collaborative research; otherwise, they may not be fully engaged. In this sense, the partnership is the backbone of the project, which can then expand in several directions. It is essential to assess the scope of the work and its purpose when applying for a grant: research that is too large for the resources required will not convince SSHRC that the project is feasible. In addition, its governance structure and ethics must be carefully considered: Who will make the decisions? In what form? Over what period of time? A well-constructed project allows for work with a diversity of languages, conclusions, and knowledge production.
This event was a fitting way to conclude the CHA’s 2022-2023 series of virtual workshops and roundtables. An earlier roundtable brought together various Canadian historical societies to share their experiences and work; at a time when the CHA is seeking to expand and diversify its partnerships, Steven High’s presentation is an excellent opening to connect researchers and organizations in Canada and internationally.