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The joys of collaboration

Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern | 7 April 2021

As the Feminist Theory and Gender Studies (FTGS) section of ISA prepares to honour collaborative feminist work of Maria Eriksson Baaz and Maria Stern, the Blogal Studies team is pleased to bring to you this interview with the two FTGS eminent scholars for 2021. Here, they unpack their collaborative mantra and strategies and provide us a glimpse into the workings of their feminist minds and hearts. There is a lot of good advice for early career researchers.

What does the recognition mean to you at this point of time?

Besides feeling a bit old, tired and imposter-y, which may be in part also a function of the past year’s anxieties and limitations, we feel terrifically honored that people have found our work meaningful and that this recognition is for the collaborative work that we have done. Research can surely feel lonely and insular. And far too often, research efforts are spotlighted as individual accomplishments. A standard for treating intellectual curiosity, chains of thoughts, research processes, written words as emerging from one single person’s brain persists; scholars are cast as lone figures, and lauded for their unique contributions.

While we don’t want to throw shade on any one person’s achievements—for surely there are many brilliant scholars who battle their academic demons and power their scholarly feats on their own—we do believe that that research is usually a collaborative effort. And it should be. Think of the joy/anxiety/anticipation attached to the writing and reading of the acknowledgement and dedication sections of PhD thesis, and academic books! These are the spaces where we can peek beyond the well formulated and well-footnoted text and glimpse the love, friendship, conversations, emotional support, varied forms of labor, and academic inspiration from which academic insights spring.

What is collaboration for you? How did you come to collaborate together?

First, we would like to underscore that while ours is the more comprehensive and long standing, we have both been engaged in many enriching collaborative projects with other people, both together and separately. Learning to work with someone means learning from their unique mindset, turns of phrase, perspectives, knowledge and expertise, and modes of working. It also means learning who we are and who we become through these relations. So, a collaborative journey is not only a shared project in learning and knowledge production of a particular research topic, it is also a journey in self production—however corny that might sound. And while the focus of this particular prize is our specific collaboration, we think that it reflects a much welcome more recognition of collaboration more generally.

On the question of how we came to collaborate: we had been PhD students at the same time (Maria S was a couple of years into her dissertation writing when Maria EB began). This was around 1996. We were friendly, but not yet close friends. Actually, we first found each other slightly intimidating and even maybe a little annoying. Our friendship then grew in the midst of and partially out of tumultuous times in both of our lives, and in 2003, we decided to put our heads together and apply for research money for a project on gender and the military.

We began then our collaborative work. We found that our brains worked well and quickly together, and that we complemented each other. Maria S thinks and writes in a spiral; Maria EB has an eye for finding clearer linear structures. Maria S belabors word choice and analytical links; Maria EB can swiftly capture the main ideas of an argument on paper. Maria S can get hopelessly mired in the intricacies of an argument and always writes double as much text as needed and then must rely on Maria EB to employ her magic cutting skills. Maria EB can speed along, jabbing the keyboard, trusting that MS will fill in the gaps (and blow up the allotted word count in doing so). But sometimes the roles can be reversed.

Our friendship has been key to our long-standing collaboration. We both are quick to laugh, be distracted; switch our attention from the complex entanglements of the moves we want to make in a particular line of thought, to gallows humor, and back again; we both thrive in the midst of a bit of chaos, and can leave a trail of disorder in our wake. We know each other extremely well, which also means that we know what is going on in each other’s lives besides, outside of, in spite of, and often as a hindrance to our work together and, with this knowledge, it is easier to be generous with each other. When one of us cannot present our work at a conference, or teach for one family-related reason or another, the other Maria steps in. Although we are hardly interchangeable, one might think so from comparing conference presentation listing with who actually presented the work.

In our thinking and writing together, we have developed a way to do just that: thinking and writing together that relies on a finely tuned intersubjectivity: we can rely on the sense that she knows that I know that she knows what we are basically trying to get at, while at the same time leaving room for listening to, learning from, and being surprised by the others’ line of thinking or insight. We can also rely on each other to tell the other when we are out of line, that it is ok to argue and to get mad and hurt, to let the other know, and that doing so will endanger neither the friendship nor our collaboration. This trust—built over many years of shared projects and preparation of publications—is crucial. We also trust that the other’s insights and ‘turn’ with the writing will make whatever we are working on stronger; that the resulting piece will be something that emerged through working together that could never be reduced to the sum of our unique contributions.

We also hold each other’s hand as we tune our voice and confront both real and imagined critique and adverse reactions to our work. This has been crucial in our joint academic journey. And, we would guess that we are not the only academics who must face the fears of critique, of getting it terribly wrong in all sorts of ways– and perhaps this is the scariest one—of causing some kind of harm. Being able to rely on the comfort that we are two, that we are therefore not alone, has helped us to at least feel at least a bit braver than we are individually. Without that we would not have dared to make some of the arguments about conflict related sexual violence that we have.

What is the future of collaboration in knowledge production and scholarly debates?

It seems quite clear that we are seeing and will see more collaboration in the future, not just in feminist work. This is due to a lot of factors, such as funding structures and calls for more interdisciplinary research.

Yet, academia still promotes and celebrates the image of the lone and brave ranger, at the expense of all the people who make research possible, especially when the research involves some kind of “field research”. We have even noted that it is difficult for some to accept even feminist collaborations as truly joint efforts. Regarding our own collaboration, we have been met more often than one might think with speculations about our individual contributions to our joint research that miss the point—we believe—of such collaborative work. Furthermore, the unwritten rules of research still systematically devalue data collection and the many stages, and often silenced collaborators, involved in different aspects of the research process. We are certainly guilty of buying in to these rules, and contributing to propagating them. We hope, however, that this is changing. That is why we are so pleased about what is being celebrated in this prize: research collaboration.

We don’t believe that our collaboration is unique or that all collaborations require the intimacy and friendship that we have come to share over the years. But learning from ours as well as those we have enjoyed with others, three aspects stand out. Good collaboration requires communication, a willingness to compromise and a willingness to seek to fairly acknowledge the contributors to the knowledge we produce.

What have been the most rewarding and challenging aspects of your collaborative research and writing?

The most rewarding aspects of our collaborative research has been—without doubt—how much fun we have had and how much we have laughed. But also, as mentioned earlier, being able to rely on the other and not standing alone made us less anxious to present research findings that made us slightly uncomfortable and, which, in some circles (mainly policy) were considered highly controversial and retrograde. It also made us less anxious about the mysterious and clearly problematic ways in which our results were being interpreted and employed in some circles, including being celebrated in some anti-feminist blogs as well as used in the United States African Command.

The most challenging aspects have been learning to manage our chaotic selves and lives enough to carve out the time—and time the time we do carve out—to actually conduct research and to write about it in ways that we desire. But our common inclination for maintaining messy schedules and –unfortunately—delaying deadlines has also made our collaboration possible over so many years. Yet, we have also learned that this inclination towards chaos is also something we clearly should communicate to others with whom we collaborate together or individually. Trying to manage potential expectations by engaging in explicit critical self-reflection about ones (imagined of course) strengths and weaknesses with the people with whom you collaborate is, we believe, crucial to any collaboration.

So, our collaboration rests on a foundation of trust, friendship as well as communication. That said, and like in all relationships, our collaboration and friendship have not been without frictions and heated interchanges and disagreements over the years. There have been moments of yelling and crying, although these have been far and few between. Luckily, we have been able to laugh at ourselves and each other shortly after such blow-ups. Indeed, it would be fair to say that laughter has been the strongest glue of our collaboration.

What would be your advice to early career scholars?

Since we have talked a lot about generosity in our particular research collaboration, we would like to recognize that the challenges of collaboration undoubtedly depend on where you are in your career. Given the fierce competition in academia these days, and how the processes in place to judge the merits required for permanent positions and promotions still tend to value single-authored work and require detailed accounts on specific contributions, the incentives for generosity and acknowledging the contribution of colleagues clearly varies. Being generous and acknowledging each other is certainly much easier if you are old professors with permanent positions working together, as we are.

Given prevailing unequal power-relations, incentives, and systematic unfair un-recognition in academia, our advice to early career scholars would be to be adamant about the value of your unique contribution, and to ask for clarity from the onset of a collaborative project about divisions of labor and acknowledgment, and if things are not feeling fair, ask for assistance from other senior scholars you may know. This advice does not stem from our own experiences or from a belief that we have been exceptionally good at recognizing the work of others besides each other, but from having listened, in our current positions of privilege, to the challenges that early career scholars and those working in precarious positions have voiced.

A more systemic change in the ways in which academic structures (at all levels and in all aspects) need to not only value cooperation more, but pose more difficult questions that urge us to give credit to those who deserve it. This is also a goal that we are trying to set for ourselves, not only in our collaboration, but in relation to all the people who collaborate in and made our research possible. While we are sure that we have already/are already failing at this, we hope nonetheless to do better.

Finally, our advice would be to try to see collaboration not only as a way to produce knowledge but a potential way to gain new friendships and to learn more about yourself, including how life is so much more than work/academia. And—vitally—to have fun while doing it!


Maria Eriksson Baaz is Professor at the Department of Government, Uppsala University Sweden. Maria Stern is Professor at School of Global Studies, Gothenburg University in Sweden.


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