Transformative Methodologies | On ‘being with’ and ‘holding space’ as transformative research tools in anthropology

Despite advances made in the field of anthropology to address some of its problematic practices, anthropologists still conduct research in the same ways as they always have, their comings and goings based on the amount of data they have acquired. The decolonisation of anthropological studies may benefit from a different approach in which researchers spend time ‘being with’ studied groups, hold space for their stories, and are responsible for the stories they as researchers then put forth, writes Aminata Cairo.

Helicopter anthropologists

“For every Indian, there was an anthropologist.” So joked the Native population with me as I was visiting the Navajo reservation to conduct research. There were plenty more jokes about the scientists who, in the name of science, came and went and excavated their stories, only to misrepresent them and never be heard from again. Similarly, when I went to my first national anthropological conference in the US as a graduate student, I attended a session with the Native American cohort where I learned about the concept of ‘helicopter anthropologist’ – those who come and ‘hover’ to extract what they need and then leave without a trace.

Those jokes and lessons have stayed with me. As an anthropologist, I have always felt strongly that in order to do right, we should heed the guidance of those that have been affected the most by these practices. In American anthropology, that would be the Native American population.

I have been trained as an American anthropologist, and as much as I love the discipline, something never felt right. I switched from clinical psychology to anthropology because it was a different way of dealing with people’s stories. Anthropology allowed me to help people give voice to their own stories.  And yet there was something about it…

Anthropology was born out of a very specific colonial history,[1] after all. Yes, it was about people’s stories, but those stories were studied so people could be dominated, exploited, or classified as ‘less than’ in support of white supremacy. I am well aware of its past. The approach has changed since its early beginnings, but the means to extract the stories have basically remained the same. We are still helicopter anthropologists.

Yet things could be different. At that same anthropology conference, I met a Native American elder who told me that “the community should be better off for the anthropologists having been there.” It is the teaching that has stayed with me and set me on my path to study indigenous approaches to knowledge.

Researchers as stewards of knowledge

After reading the work of Linda Tuhiwai Smith[2] and Shawn Wilson,[3] my approach to knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge changed forever. According to Wilson, we can never be owners of knowledge. Knowledge is all around us, and we stand in relationship to it. Ultimately, we can only be stewards of knowledge. This approach brings with it a certain humility, an understanding that engagement with indigenous peoples and the gaining of insights is a privilege, not an entitlement.  Tuhiwai Smith acknowledges the colonial foundation of research practices and advocates for an approach to research that is decolonising and treats research populations with respect.

Reliable accountability and holding space

My approach to research now is totally different from how I was initially trained. Now, I start with the premise that we are all connected and that for a short period of time, I would ‘be with’ and join a community in order to unearth a story or stories that can be a benefit for all of us. I follow Wilson’s mandate of ‘relational accountability’ represented in the three ‘R’s’: respect, responsibility, and reciprocity. In addition, I use my own concept of ‘holding space’ in which I am not entitled to the story or stories, but must earn the right to experience those stories through being with, displaying care, and building trust. Through joining and collectively being touched and transformed by the story or stories, they will come to light.

The key is that this journey is a respectful collaboration, rather than the standard data extraction pursuit of traditional research. Even in anthropology’s method of participant observation, the ultimate goal is for the researcher to walk away informed and enriched. In this endeavour, the goal is for the researcher and the (research) community to have learned something that will be of benefit to both and potentially useful to transform the space.

In our most recent research project, where we joined a marginalised community within The Hague to explore solidarity in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic, we engaged in a journey with the community. What started as a pursuit for counternarratives to the existing negative public stories shifted and became an exercise in holding space for all the stories that existed in this community, whether positive or negative. It was the community members, after all, that reminded us that they didn’t have anything to prove, and that in fact they had earned the right to just be. Through joining and ‘being with’, we then shifted course and learned about how people hold space for each other – a far more valuable lesson.

I understand that some of my colleagues might frown upon my approach to research. However, in my world of inclusion, there are many different approaches to knowledge and the pursuit of knowledge. My way of doing knowledge is just fine. What matters is that I can contribute to knowledge and communities and feel good about what I do. All of it. That is the best reward and my incentive to keep going.


[1] Lews, D. (1973) ‘Anthropology and Colonialism’, Current Anthropology 14(5): 581-602.

[2] Tuhiwai Smith, L. (1999). Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London and New York: Zed Books Ltd.

[3] Wilson, S. (2008). Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods. Winnipeg: Fernwood.

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About the author:

Aminata Cairo is the chair of the Diversity and Inclusion Team at the International Institute of Social Studies.

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