In my 20 years of doing research that is framed either directly or indirectly by Norwegian authorities, I have come to the conclusion that even, or maybe especially, in Norway where there are close links and allegiances between research and government and where the shared assumption often is that ‘we all want what’s best for people’, there are considerable risks when scholars aim to produce research that is intended to be relevant to stakeholders and society.
In order to get funding and recognition, researchers are subjected to demands to do research in a way that is explicitly relevant to society in the short run. Such short-term relevance is also valued within research institutions and among researchers, and the evaluation of research often uses ‘impact’ as a marker for quality. The value of being relevant is heralded in many contexts, but the drive to be relevant may be problematic as this creates a situation where it may be difficult to steer free of becoming embedded in administrative or political agendas. I have experienced politicians and bureaucrats staying at an arm’s length distance to ensure the independence of my research, but I also have experience with meddling, threats and disappointment.
In my Identities article, ‘Taking on the categories, terms and worldviews of the powerful: the pitfalls of trying to be relevant’, I describe some such experiences. Much of my experience as a researcher is as a migration scholar; migration is a field that rapidly moved from the margins to the centre of both society and social science scholarship in the last ten years. This mandates that we have to think about what that entails for the framing and need for our research, but also for our practices and ability to take a critical position in our own work.
In June 1985, 331 people were killed in the bombings of two Air India flights, which investigators attributed to militant Sikh nationalist groups operating in Canada. Although the bombings are now regarded as the deadliest incident of terrorism in Canadian history, they continue to hold a complex, often contradictory place in Canada’s imaginary.
Much of the existing scholarship has attributed this complexity to systemic racism that limits how the bombings have been regarded and remembered as a ‘Canadian tragedy’ (Dean 2012, Failler 2009, Seshia 2012), even as the Canadian government devoted considerable resources to investigating and prosecuting the attacks. In 2006, the Government of Canada even commissioned a public inquiry to determine how state institutions failed to prevent and effectively prosecute the bombings.
Given that the inquiry received evidence that systemic racism shaped state responses to the bomb plot, it offers a unique vantage point to examine how state institutions reckon with their implication in racial violence.
My Identities article, ‘Racial inquiries: law and the political visibility of racism in the Air India inquiry’, suggests that this inquiry clung to liberal epistemologies that foreclosed recognition of how systemic racism affected the Canadian state’s responses to the bomb plot. These liberal epistemologies frame race as an effect of individual action and intent, disassociating race from its systemic conditions as a relation of power that affects how people are governed and rendered vulnerable to violence and death.
Before and after the bombings, these kinds of systemic conditions led to critical failures in intelligence gathering and analysis that rendered Canadian state institutions unable to prevent or prosecute the bombings. This institutional inaction engendered a distinctly racial field of political violence that has persisted beyond the bombings.
During the inquiry, a number of witnesses proffered evidence of the state’s racial inaction. Yet, this evidence was ultimately disregarded in the inquiry’s final report because of how the witnesses’ epistemic authority was devalued by its liberal epistemic practices. My Identities article shows how the inquiry was not fated to (re)affirm these epistemologies of racism; rather, by illustrating how legal forums are sites of epistemic and political contestation, my article shows that state institutions are shaped by contingent disputes over how certain concepts and issues are defined, understood and deemed relevant to their institutional proceedings.
Given that legal institutions are so frequently approached as avenues of redress against systemic racism, it is critical to determine exactly how race and racism are being operationalised to ensure state institutions are held accountable for their practices or risk extending racial relations of power and violence.
Dean, A. 2012. The importance of remembering in relation: juxtaposing the Air India and Komagata Maru disasters. TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Canadian Studies 27: 198–214.
Failler, A. 2009. Remembering the Air India disaster: memorial and counter-memorial. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 31: 150– 176.
Seshia, M. 2012. From foreign to Canadian: the case of Air India and the denial of racism. TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Canadian Studies 27: 215–231.
Blog post by Bonar Buffam, The University of British Columbia, Canada
Read the full article: Buffam, Bonar. Racial inquiries: law and the political visibility of racism in the Air India inquiry. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1600312