Difference is something that exists in the bodies and culture of ‘others’
Sara Ahmed, 2007
In the wake of the recent intensification of activism and debate on why and how Black Lives Matter it is important to keep interrogating the multifaceted ways in which racism is pervasive within institutional practices – often in not immediately visible ways. In the UK, the current hostile environment (Grierson 2018) is designed to create forms of social disadvantage for migrants, especially those in situations of vulnerability, feeding into an ever expanding and invisibly coercive system of oppression.
Our London-based research explored the kind of support that asylum seeking and migrant women receive by charities, especially around mental health. Compared to statutory services, charities are able to better understand and address the complex intersection of social, political, economic and emotional factors at stake in mental health, as opposed to psychiatric diagnoses which often tend to decontextualise people’s experiences of distress. Third Sector Organisations (TSOs) are well suited to respond to complex needs of asylum seeking and refugee women because the support they provide relies on empathetic understanding for different aspects of these women’s lives – ranging from acknowledging culturally embedded notions and experiences of mental health to being responsive to the structural position they are placed in by the state and society. Both material and emotional support are particularly important for newly arrived migrants, who have weaker social ties in the host country, are often less able to navigate support systems due to language barriers and because they are unfamiliar with or denied access to statutory services.
‘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
In times of rising nationalism, expressed through growing support for anti-migration and anti-globalisation political parties, the nation seems under question in its unifying thrust.
Historically, the nation has emerged in association with a given ‘people’, defined in terms of common myths, language and ethnicity (Smith 1986), who claims sole entitlement to a given territory (Gellner 1983). With the ongoing demographic transformation, spurred in great part by international migration, the question is whether and how the nation might change because its ‘people’ is changing.
In normative terms, civic, liberal and multicultural nationalism have tackled this issue, offering various ways of reconciling nation and diversity. Yet, the recent upsurge in the Western world of what can be called ‘white nationalism’, i.e. the (re)claiming of the nation as the privileged property of the white dominant group, openly challenges these normative projects.
In our Identities article, 'Ethno-cultural diversity and the limits of the inclusive nation', we explore specifically how nation and ethno-cultural and religious diversity are jointly mobilised in political discourses and policies in order to assess the possibilities and limits of the idea of an inclusive, plural nation.
We focus on the case of Italy, a country which since the 1980s has experienced a fast demographic change and which has remained till March 2017 a main destination of migratory flows from Sub-Saharian and Northern Africa.
Our content and discursive analysis of parliamentary debates and policies related to migration from 1986 until 2014, complemented with individual interviews with relevant civic officers and politicians, reveals a clear divide between an inclusive rhetoric and an exclusive legal framework.
By looking more closely at the Turco-Napolitano Law (1998), possibly the most progressive legislative attempt at incorporating migrants into the Italian nation, this divide is also clearly apparent.
On the one hand, the political left, which authored the Turco-Napolitano law, talked of remaking the Italian nation in civic terms, centred on citizenship’s universal rights.
On the other hand, the same political left decided to pass a law which framed immigration first and foremost as a security problem, thus casting an original doubt on the would-be ‘new Italians’, whose social status and moral standing would never be the same as the one of the Italians by descent.
The reasons for this short-circuit between rhetoric and legal provision are related to the international and domestic contexts. Internationally, Italy’s room for manoeuvring was and remains constrained by the EU legal framework, whose Schengen agreement prevents to make the national borders more permeable.
Domestically, as the political right successfully capitalizes on citizens’ fears towards migrants, the political left finds itself cornered and has to follow suit for electoral gains. In both cases, the end result is the reaffirmation of an ethno-cultural nation which makes conditional any national incorporation of migrants and their children.
As much as this is what happens at the national level, in our article we also suggest that in order to fully explore the possibilities for generating an inclusive nation is also important to look beyond the national scale (Jones and Fowler 2007). In other words, the possibilities for generating an inclusive nation should also be considered away from a centralised, normative discourse which aspires to evenly spread across the national space.
By adopting a multiscalar understanding of nation is for instance possible to attend to local initiatives where evidence of more inclusive and plural forms of nationhood has been highlighted (Rossetto 2015, Downing 2014).
This approach returns a more articulated and fragmented picture, but also a more realistic one which dispels the idea that a progressive, inclusive nation can homogenously apply across the national space.
Downing, J. 2014. Contesting and re-negotiating the national in French cities: examining policies of governance, Europeanisation and co-option in Marseille and Lyon. Fennia-International Journal of Geography 193: 185-197.
Gellner, E. 1983. Nations and nationalism. Oxford: Blackwell.
Jones, R. & C. Fowler. 2007. Placing and scaling the nation. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25: 332-354.
Rossetto, T. 2015. Performing the nation between us: urban photographic sets with young migrants. Fennia-International Journal of Geography 193: 165-184.
Smith, A. D. 1986. The ethnic origins of nations. Oxford: Blackwell.
Blog post by Marco Antonsich, Loughborough University, UK; and Enza Roberta Petrillo, University of Rome 'La Sapienza', Italy
Read the full article: Antonsich, Marco & Petrillo, Enza Roberta. Ethno-cultural diversity and the limits of the inclusive nation. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1494968