Finding a common voice: Writing with a research participant
When I was in the early stages of my PhD, I arranged to write a joint article with Egyptian activist, Sherief Gaber. Sherief is part of the Mosireen collective, which was a focal point of my research. I had been intrigued about writing with a research participant for a long time and had gotten the particular idea for co-writing this article after having several interesting conversations with Sherief about the street screening campaigns, Tahrir Cinema and Kazeboon, which he was a part of. Our discussions felt like mutual analysis more than anything and my main purpose for writing with Sherief was that I wanted to honour this sense and move past old, rigid notions of the relationship between anthropologist and ‘native’.
Luckily Sherief agreed. And I can say without hesitation that not only was our mutual article, Making media public: On revolutionary street screenings in Egypt (Mollerup and Gaber 2015), better than I could possibly have written it myself, but also that my entire dissertation and understanding of the Egyptian revolution owe greatly to the discussions I have had with Sherief and to our process of writing an article together.
While the process of writing together proved extremely fruitful, it was also challenging at times. One of the most fundamental challenges was finding a common voice. While we were very much in sync in terms of our position and analysis of the topic, our writing seemed to be made difficult by Sherief having a voice as both a participant and as an analyst. But as an anthropologist, I consider myself doing participant observation (or participant perception to follow Mark Harris (2007:2) and honour the multisensoriality of our field experiences). So what made Sherief’s position as participant fundamentally different and why did it make it difficult for us to find a common voice?
Let me briefly mention another significant challenge we faced, because this influenced our writing process and ability to find a common voice: While writing academic articles was a paid job for me, Sherief was working full time and doing activism while we were writing. Therefore, I had more time to put into the endeavour, which often led to me having more authority over our process and writing without necessarily earning it. This also speaks to more fundamental issues with structures of inequality that the Egyptian uprising brought to light. Many Egyptians saw their livelihoods dwindle in the wake of the uprising, while at times profitable careers were made possible in other ends of the world by the uprising. See Mona Abaza’s (2011) take on this issue specifically in regards to academia here.
Early in the process, Sherief and I shared different bits of texts and thoughts through a shared dropbox. I shared a short paper I had written on a related topic as well as excerpts of interviews and field notes. Sherief wrote a couple of pages with thoughts and also shared two popular articles he had written. We also had a number of Skype meetings and a stream of email exchanges. From there, I did an act of assemblage, trying to make a structure of our still very rogue thoughts, continuously getting feedback from Sherief. But very quickly I became confused about how to fit Sherief’s writing in.
I had several quotes from my interview with him that we agreed were relevant through our Skype conversations. These initially had a position as quotes in the text, which was somewhat odd, since he was a co-author. However, we felt it was necessary, because they were in a voice that I could not be part of as I was not an organiser of the street screenings we were writing about.
I had inserted a quote in the text from my memory and attributed it to one of Sherief’s colleagues, Lobna: ‘It’s almost as if there is a peer pressure to react’. The quote spoke of how watching videos in the streets with neighbours and others influenced the experience of watching. It fitted neatly as a quote. When I double checked with my notes, I discovered that contrary to my memory, it was not Lobna, but Sherief who had said it. The neat quote suddenly completely changed position. It could have easily worked in the text as Lobna’s analysis. But when the statement came from Sherief the issue was less straightforward. Suddenly it became an unfounded claim. And if it was written in our common voice, was it our mutual analysis? And if so, then what would my claim to saying this be?
The first draft we sent off to reviewers did not work. It had a mesh of different voices in it, which were difficult to comprehend, but the fundamental problem with it was that Sherief’s voice and mine were not equal. He had a dual position in the text as both research participant and author in a way that I didn’t and it was confusing and defeating the purpose of breaking down rigid distinctions between anthropologist and native. The original text rather seemed to reinforce them.
The way we solved the problem of voices was not to erase Sherief’s dual position, but rather to reinforce my dual position. If we were to take the idea of participant perception seriously, my voice also needed to be one of both research participant and author. In the final version of the text our voices were equal. We enabled separate voices in the text by writing short vignettes, which were based partially on our individual experiences. Both Sherief and I had a distinct voice in this way, but equally so and in a way that recognised Sherief’s deeper immersion in the street screening campaigns.
But there is still something about the dual position of Sherief, which sits uneasy with me. Why was it so difficult for me to recognise the duality in my own voice? What if Sherief had interviewed me about street screenings as part of our preparations for writing the article, would I have recognised it then? And did I really have a dual position or is this rather a way of reconciling the problematics of assigning a dual position to Sherief? If Sherief had a position as both participant and analyst and my claim to knowledge was participant perception, then why did his position initially have a conflicting duality while I could easily reconcile my own (multiple?) position(s)?
Abaza, Mona. 2011. Academic tourists sight-seeing the Arab Spring. Ahram Online. September 26. http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/22373.aspx
Harris, Mark. 2007. “Introduction: ‘Ways of Knowing.’” In Ways of Knowing: New Approaches in the Anthropology of Knowledge and Learning, edited by Mark Harris, 1–24. New York: Berghahn Books.
Mollerup, Nina Grønlykke & Sherief Gaber. 2015. Making media public: On revolutionary street screenings in Egypt. International Journal of Communication, 9, 2903–2921. http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/3655