Adversarial Collaboration  (AC) was coined by behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman. It was originally a “protocol developed for two researchers advocating competing hypotheses to collaborate on a research project with the goal of resolving their differences, designed on the assumption that this will be more effective than each researcher conducting their own experiments individually and publishing replies to each others’ papers.”

How is my definition of Adversarial Collaboration different?

I focus on the use of Adversarial Collaboration in fields where the research produced can be charged or contested (e.g. behavioral genetics, neuroscience, sociogenomics). I consider Adversarial Collaboration to be a mechanism for communicating research in contested fields to the public in a responsible way. It brings together individuals from different, and at times opposing, disciplines and viewpoints to form a partnership dedicated to joint research. The focus is on encouraging richer collaborations between researchers that will result in better communication with the public about study findings and their implications.

How does it work?

Think of Adversarial Collaboration as if it were a chess game. Adversaries in this kind of environment are not ‘enemies,’ they are individuals working with a set of ground rules that guide the activity. Adversarial Collaboration in the field of research is similar. There are a set of ground rules to help make the research effort as fruitful as possible. Here are some key foundations to a successful AC:

  1. Begin the project/partnership/activity by each sharing your vision. If you were to go about this solo, what would your process be? Create an outline for the activity, keeping in mind you areas of strength and those of your colleague(s).
  2. Be clear about each others’ areas of expertise. What are the unique frames of reference, disciplines, arguments you each have and frame that as an asset to the creation of a richer final product.
  3. Know who your audiences are. The point of an AC is that you create something accessible to multiple audiences/publics. Be clear from the start who your multiple audiences is and keep them in mind as you engage in your AC. Remind yourself of whether what you’re producing remains relevant/digestible to those audiences. You may find yourselves ‘translating’ for each other given the different areas of expertise that are brought to the table.
  4. Respect the opinions of others even if you don’t agree with them. It would be naive to think that everything in an AC will go smoothly. Inevitably there will be a disagreement or points of contention that you can’t seem to get past. Remember to stay respectful and remind yourselves of the end objective.
  5. Know when to take a step back. Should you run into a point of contention you can do several things. One is to run a ‘translation’ exercise where you try and frame the point in question in a way that speaks to your intended audiences. The other is to just given it some time and come back to the issue when things have cooled down. Can’t resolve it? That’s ok, make sure it’s clear to your audiences that this is an area that you are debating and where each person(s) stands.

What kinds of deliverables might an Adversarial Collaboration produce?

Adversarial Collaborations can take many different forms. Perhaps you’re producing an academic journal article or maybe you want to develop an FAQ that accompanies your paper and makes it very clear what the study does and does not and can and cannot say. Maybe your Adversarial Collaborative effort is more community-oriented and works to break down the divide between researcher and participant. Think of Adversarial Collaboration as a framework for working on the difficult questions that have uncertain answers and in the challenging areas that are rife with debate. Let me know what you’ve found that works! If you want to learn more:

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