If migration researchers feel unsafe participating in the public debate, what are the consequences for debate – and research?
I was just out of the TV studio after having finished an interview about a new book about social cohesion and migration that I had edited together with two colleagues. The interview went well, I was tired, it was late and I wanted to get home to sleep. Standing in the lobby of the Danish National Broadcasting Company I checked my email on my smartphone. I could see the headings of all new incoming emails, and the first of these included just one word: 'Liar'.
The email related to the interview that I had just carried out. At least this person had signed his email with a name that seemed to exist. Someone whom, when I looked him up, participated in discussions on the website of one of Scandinavia’s most radical right-wing organisations. In other instances, where someone – who disagreed beyond strongly with my research results - has sent me an email or even paper letters, there has not been any signature. Just a strong message of ‘you are wrong’.
I am not alone in having these kinds of experiences. In the spring of 2018 I carried out a survey among migration researchers in four Danish universities. The results of the survey are discussed in my Identities article, 'Boundary work: investigating the expert role of Danish migration researchers'. The survey focused on the researchers’ experience with participating in the public debate and experiences in that regard. The survey showed that Danish migration researchers were active participants in the public debate, for example by answering questions from news reporters, communicating research via TV and radio programmes, and writing articles for newspapers. Many researchers saw these activities as their duty; it was a way of contributing to a society that paid for their salary and which they wanted to keep informed and knowledgeable.
Participating in the debate, however, was far from easy. One researcher, to give one example, noted that: 'I have only rarely participated in the debate, and I feel that reporters very often have a story they want confirmed. If you do not confirm this story, I have on several occasions found that [the reporters] twist the story, which has unpleasant consequences for the people that I work with'. Another researcher noted that he/she felt 'burdened' by the public debate, and would rather spend his/her time writing academic articles where he/she could make a difference. And a third researcher noted that he/she was constantly afraid of having his/her research results misused and misinterpreted by journalists and politicians.
One may ask: but is this simply not the name of the game? If you as a researcher choose to work in a highly politicised research field, is someone calling you an idiot or a reporter misrepresenting something you said on a telephone not just something that you must live with – and eventually be thankful for? Is it not actually something that pulls research out of the ivory tower? And is a harsh tone not simply the tone of public debates in our times?
No respondents in the survey of Danish migration researchers had experienced being attacked physically in relation to their work. But a number had experienced threats and verbal abuse. More than half of the respondents felt unsafe participating in the public debate. The pertinent question here is: What are the results of feeling unsafe for researchers’ willingness to participate in public debates? Do researchers hold back certain aspects of their research or do they refrain from participating in the public debate, even when they have research results that are highly relevant? What is the effect on the debate? And what is the effect on research?
As a researcher, I will argue that we need to focus seriously on this problematic issue. And we need to gear our research institutions to handle and help their employees in this situation. As one respondent noted: 'Universities’ HR [human resources] workers are not aware of the problem, and they are not trained to handle it'.
Blog post by Garbi Schmidt, Roskilde University, Denmark
Read the full article: Schmidt, Garbi. Boundary work: investigating the expert role of Danish migration researchers. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1748347
‘I hear people compare the immigration debate with the climate debate, and it does not fit quite well, because climate researchers are not faced with the same threats and the same hate as migration researchers, where the hate is very existential and often very personal’. This experienced migration researcher compares what researchers may experience in two fields of polarised social debate.
Climate change and migration are among the most polarised fields of public opinion and political mobilising; however, both fields depend on scientific knowledge for argument. Political adversaries refer to opposite research results as the 'truth' of the matter, and describe the same research results as either politically skewed or totally objective.
Interviews with different generations of migration researchers in Norway about their research communication show that they often are interpreted as 'being political' when disseminating their results to the media or taking part in public debates:
Motivations for research
Researchers engaged in migration and diversity research choose this field for many different reasons. For some, the lead motive is to provide solid ‘objective’ knowledge to help produce good policies in a field of vital importance to the future of Norway. Others list personal reasons, such as earlier work in asylum camps or having close friends of migrant background. Many note that this field exposes researchers to tough ethical dilemmas, and some state that emotions like anger and compassion were important to their initial interest in this research field. All find the mix of normative and descriptive arguments in the field challenging, but they have different solutions to solve this dilemma.
Credibility contests among researchers
The formative years of Norwegian migration research, the 1990s, were characterised by tough debates among researchers about the relative importance of specific research themes (e.g. racism or gender oppression) and the best theoretical perspectives for analysing them. Young researchers entering the field around the Millennium described such debates over the ‘implicit normativity’ of the research field as hard to navigate. When established researchers were marked as either ‘naïve and politically correct’, or as ‘daring and doing important research’, depending on the point of view, it was difficult not to take sides. Such debates could diffuse to the general public debate about migration, where major newspapers could develop stories about how some researchers were ‘politicised’ and untrustworthy knowledge bearers.
Later on, when the research field matured and migration and diversity became more established, research and teaching themes in the university sector and internal debates among researchers over normativity became less tense. In this period of the 2000s, researchers increasingly became aware of the many debates involving research evidence taking place on blogs and different social media platforms outside of the Academy.
The growth of external critique
Concerns about the explicit normativity or political interpretation of migration research grew with the spread of blogs, web-newspapers and social media platforms. On these platforms, specifically those representing anti-immigration or anti-Islam viewpoints, researchers were regularly ridiculed and accused of being apologists for the ‘naïve’ left-wing. Whereas many had previously joked about being listed in so-called ‘traitor lists’ on the Internet, the terrorist acts in Oslo and Utøya in July 2011 made researchers more wary.
My Identities article, 'Boundary work and normativity in research communication across time', analyses how debates over implicit and explicit normativity develop as a new and politically contested research field evolves, in a period when the Internet becomes more important for societal debate.
Blog post by Mette Andersson, University of Oslo, Norway
Read the full article: Andersson, Mette. Boundary work and normativity in research communication across time. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1688953
'First, I'll need tenure. And a big research grant. Also access to a lab and five graduate students — at least three of them Chinese.'
- Professor Ogden Wernstrom, Physicist
Those are Professor Ogden Wernstrom’s demands when asked to save the Earth from a giant garbage ball approaching through space in the Futurama episode, A Big Piece of Garbage. Portrayed as an obvious antagonist, Wernstrom seems greedy and exclusively concerned with his own career advancement. He also seemingly regards grad students as just another commodity to further his own goals, with Chinese students as particularly valuable or useful assets.
This specific view on Chinese researchers as not much more than pricey pieces of high-tech equipment was provided by a cartoon villain 20 years ago, but it arguably still falls into the questionable category of 'it’s funny because it’s true': it indeed resonates with prejudices that extend beyond the Futurama universe and into real-world academic discourse.
One place where similar views on 'non-western' researchers can be found is the discourse on scientific misconduct. High-profile scandals of scientific fraud and plagiarism regularly make the news headlines, and the frequency, causes and consequences of scientific misconduct are at the centre of much academic and public speculation. Whenever we talk about the presumed causes of deviance, we make deeply normative claims about the allocation of responsibility and blame. Much more than just the goal and result of neutral scientific inquiry, these causal explanations are a powerful mechanism of social exclusion, constructing a fault line between an ‘us’, who value and live by the rules of the community, and a somehow inferior ‘them’, who break the rules.
In the Identities article, 'Science and its Others: examining the discourse about scientific misconduct through a postcolonial lens', I analyse 31 expert interviews with people responsible for handling scientific misconduct cases at universities, journals and other academic organisations and show that violations of research integrity are frequently blamed on so-called foreign scientific cultures that allegedly are more prone to misconduct. Researchers from those 'foreign' cultures are characterised in two different ways in those causal stories: at times they are depicted as backwards, uncivilised and uneducated; and their knowledge production is seen as generally inferior to western science. Such a depiction draws heavily on well-established themes of Eurocentric knowledge.
However, at other times, especially with regard to Chinese researchers, they are characterised as advanced, highly intelligent and productive, yet lacking a moral consciousness. In comparison to the idealised 'western' researcher, they appear almost cyborg-like: highly efficient, technologically advanced and rational, but also immoral, emotionally cold and ultimately interchangeable with one another. Such views are also consistent with established stereotypes of Asians as a hypersuccessful 'model minority' that pose 'implicit threats to the upward mobility of others' (Cardozo & Subramaniam 2013).
Of course, a factor like 'academic culture' will probably have an influence on researchers’ (deviant) behaviour. This example, however, shows that the way this 'culture' is currently constructed and discussed leans heavily on stereotypes and reproduces exclusions already present in the scientific community. As such, it doesn’t speak much about the actual working conditions of Chinese (or Mexican, or Egyptian, or Russian) researchers, but says a lot about the collective imaginary of 'western' academia. Apparently, it still looks a lot like Wernstrom’s ideal scientific life, where the advancement of white (male) researchers counts more than the fate of the rest of the world.
Cardozo, K. & B. Subramaniam. 2013. Assembling Asian/American naturecultures: Orientalism and invited invasions. Journal of Asian American Studies 16: 1–23.
Blog post by Felicitas Hesselmann, German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies, and Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany
Read the full article: Hesselmann, Felicitas. Science and its Others: examining the discourse about scientific misconduct through a postcolonial lens. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1538065