The Human Work Of Collaboration: Towards An Understanding Of Informal Unstructured Collaborative Projects

Puranik, Akash (2021). The Human Work Of Collaboration: Towards An Understanding Of Informal Unstructured Collaborative Projects. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis aims to explore how collaborative work is performed on a day-to-day basis by investigating informal, unstructured, collaborative work. For that purpose, I employ ethnography as a methodological perspective, and structuration theory as an analytical tool. As a result, I create multiple, plausible, and evidence-supported explanations of the above ‘how?’ at various levels of abstraction. These explanations contribute towards thick descriptions of a distinctive phenomenon, offer a sociological account of the enacted contradictions, and are useful for advancing the current theorisation surrounding collaboration.

Exploring informal collaborative work offers a useful insight into the process of collaborative organising. In this thesis, these types of collaborations are identified as instances where individuals work together without any formal, structured contracts or agreed frameworks. Both the review of theoretical approaches to understanding collaboration and the discussion of contradictions as a conceptual tool are used to suggest that we need more research that looks at situation-specific, time-specific, and person-specific aspects of collaborations. Moreover, I evince that, while varied, useful, and nuanced theorising surrounding collaborations exists, evermore attention is needed to situate human agency and the day-to-day work performed in collaborative projects. I also highlight the potential to connect multiple theoretical lenses harmoniously through a pluralist orientation.

In order for this research to address the aforementioned needs, I employed ethnography as my methodology. This allowed me to craft a close and personal account of informal collaborations, which was accomplished by immersing myself as an insider in multiple collaborative projects for over 21 months of extensive fieldwork. Qualitative data was collected through reflections, semi-structured interviews, photos, videos, and a systematic record of social media posts and emails. Two projects are analysed in-depth: 1) Share Fair: a project by Eden Project Communities, where the participating organisations and individuals set up moneyless day-market events encouraging people to share skills, stories, things and community spirit, and 2) Rock4Refugees: a project organised by Guildford People to People (GP2P) through annual music events, fundraising and collections to supply humanitarian aid to refugees across Europe and to support other informal non-registered networks combating refugee crisis.

Consequently, my findings show that collaborative work in an informal, unstructured setting is very human, i.e., such work is messy, full of contradictions, always incomplete, flawed, deeply contextual, and immensely personal. People performing this work draw on their personalities, past experiences, social self, and emotions as much as they do on any abstract organising principles. They bring, inter alia, their dreams, hopes, moods, ambitions, grudges, and shortcomings with them, shaping the work through it. By doing so, they enact contradictions within the doing of collaborative work. For instance, when discussing ethicality, consensus building or meaning of things, collaborators perform actions that are starkly opposite and yet, they rationalise and comprehend them as consistent behaviours. In this thesis, I propose seeing such contradictions as relational in order to understand the process of how they are structured.

Finally, the original contribution to knowledge that I make accomplishes: 1) a situated descriptive account of day-to-day collaborative work within the two projects explored, 2) a conceptual unpacking of inherent contradictions at the contextual level, but, more specifically, at the personal/human one, and 3) a sociological explanation of these inherent contradictions by applying Giddens’ structuration theory. Moreover, through this contribution I also problematise certain aspects of the current theorisation surrounding collaborations and identify possibilities for further conceptual advancements through a structurationist perspective.

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