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
On 25 February 2020, the Danish newspaper Berlingske had a main story showing how leading party members of the Social Democrats have put pressure on experts critical of the Party’s politics. Both while being in opposition and now forming the minority government, leading politicians have contacted organisations and independent experts (Holst 2020). The newspaper reports how experts and researchers have been contacted by people working for the Social Democrats or from people within the ministries and given warnings. The issues at stake do not all relate to migration research, but some do.
The story therefore connects well to my analysis presented in my Identities article, 'What makes an expert? Doing migration research in Denmark'. In the article, I outline four different types of migration experts who in different ways and with different weight have to navigate within a nexus of academia, the policy arena and the broader public. The first of these types is a positioning of the migration expert as one not offering any real solutions. This discussion stems from an internal debate within academia where a well-esteemed professor argued that a large part of research is becoming decoupled from ‘real politics’ and ‘reality’. The implication for him is a situation where the research community has created a ‘vacuum’, and in the absence of asylum and refugee researchers who can assist the decision-makers the politicians have begun to look for advice elsewhere.
The second positioning of experts has to do with the inclusion of experts outside academia. This tendency perhaps can be related to the first type of expert role, but also has to do with politicians seeking to legitimise policy plans beforehand by drawing on their own understanding of experts. In Denmark we see how the Social Democrats’ immigration plan was developed by a private consultancy firm hired by the Social Democrats and later praised in the media for offering easy understandable and realistic solutions. The consultants have all been working on policy-making in immigration but are not academic experts in a traditional sense. Their recommendations were disputed by experts within academia. Nevertheless, the report serves as a knowledge base for the Party now forming the government and thus in control of developing future migration policies.
Thirdly, I identify a position claiming that we are all experts. This position indicates that some decisions are better taken on gut feelings rather than being based on scientific evidence. This has been a trend in Danish policy-making for at least two decades. It makes it possible to ignore other research out there that might or might not speak against political ambitions and motivations and implement more ideologically-driven policies. The much debated ‘ghetto’ policy in Denmark is a good example of this tendency. Although we have strong research indicating what works and what does not, politicians have mainly ignored this research and argued that we sometimes just need to do what feels right.
Lastly, I describe a fourth type of positioning, referring to the non-recognition of experts, especially academics. It is an anti-elitist position, which claims that academics have no idea what reality looks like or what the ‘real’ problems are. Many of those of us working on immigration policy and politics have met this accusation. One journalist who criticised Danish migration research, for instance, wrote a piece arguing that ‘the analysis of the refugee crisis is more true at the sausage vendor than at the university’ (Jespersen 2017).
The article in Berlingske can be seen continuing these forms of questioning what makes an expert. It is a potential problem, which we need to address within academia and bring to the public. If policy-makers – and politicians – want evidence-based research how can we as researchers contribute to this, if our position at the same time is delegitimised?
I will end with the same question that I pose in my Identities article: What is my obligation as a migration researcher? It is using my knowledge and position to engage in critical reflexive knowledge production which may help improve the rights and conditions for the people I study and collaborate with.
Holst, H. K. 2020. Topfolk i Socialdemokratiet har presset kritiske eksperter af partiets politik: »Jeg vil bare advare dig. Christiansborg kan være en krigszone«. Berlingske. 25 February 2020.
Jespersen, N. 2017. Analysen af flygtningekrisen er mere sand ved pølsevognen end på universitetet. Ræson. 11 November 2017.
Blog post by Martin Bak Jørgensen, Aalborg University, Denmark
Read the full article: Jørgensen, Martin Bak. What makes an expert? Doing migration research in Denmark. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1725311