As the human misery in Lesbos, Malta and the Mediterranean Ocean hits the world media, a debate has emerged on how to speak about this crisis. Some argue that the public debate and part of the media coverage has become ‘too emotional’. A few voices emphasise the lack of context, including the history of war and oppression in the region from which a majority of the Moira refugees and migrants have travelled in search of safety.
As a media researcher with an international journalist background, having travelled and resided in countries in the Middle East and beyond, it is hard not to agree with those asking for historical context. Far too often, the public debates on asylum seekers and migrants narrow the scope to the nation’s sustainability. Another argument relates to ‘whataboutism’, highlighting the plight of people who are even worse off, such as in Yemen.
For academics and other experts alike, it does make sense to approach refugee discourses from a multi-level perspective. It is hard not to see the high number of Afghan refugees in Moria as related to the last two decades of NATO-led intervention, and the hopes that turned to ashes while the Taliban (again) grew stronger.
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.
Transnationalism is a fundamentally agentic concept. Emerging as a critique to methodological nationalism, it emphasises processes that occur between, beyond – and often in defiance of – the boundaries of the ‘nation state’. Applied to international migration, it stands as a dominant paradigm for framing sustained economic, social and cultural ties maintained by migrants across international borders, and enduringly celebrates the agency of transmigrant actors with fluid connections to countries of origin and destination.
Our Identities article, 'Forced transnationalism and temporary labour migration: implications for understanding migrant rights', takes a very different view of transnationalism. We suggest that, while the tone-setting ‘first wave’ of the transnationalism literature offered an important critique of assimilationist immigration regimes in the global north, its agentic emphasis had little resonance with highly-restrictive guest-worker migration prevalent across the global south – particularly the major migration corridors of Asia.
In these settings, state power was then, and still is now, pivotal in circumscribing the transnational existences of millions of migrant workers who emigrate out of economic necessity but are trapped between multiple political and economic interests that ensure their migration is strictly temporary. Though scholarship on transnationalism has typically shied away from defining these temporary labour migrants as transmigrants on account of the narrow scope of activities presumed to be carried out by the remitting labourer, this seems disingenuous.
Migration, like all social issues, is an ever-evolving phenomenon. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of extreme right-wing politics worldwide and the economic and ecological crises, among others, further add to those identified in our Identities article, 'Interwoven migration narratives: identity and social representations in the Lusophone world', published a few years ago.
Surely, the field of Migration Studies demands a constant examination of social changes and, among other things, how they intersect with and influence migration flows and migrants’ life experiences. However, it is important to stress that, alongside new representations of the world and its power dynamics, there are long-standing ones. From the perspective of the Humanities and Social Sciences, it is crucial to understand the ruptures, continuities and accommodations of social representations and the effects these have in shifting or maintaining the status quo.
To this end, the argument of our article provides a useful framework to situate the analysis of migration narratives. Specifically, we present three elements of enduring discursive constructions and social representations of commonality among the Portuguese-speaking countries: the ideas of a shared past; a common language; and a sense of community, marked by hybridity and deep cultural ties. Aiming to contribute to the understanding of how deep-seated these ideas are, we explored the intersections, reverberations and clashes of these dominant ideas of Lusophony in migrants’ life narratives, understood as tools to explain, organise and frame the world as well as to make sense of one's self-identity.
In our Identities article, 'Private empowerment and public isolation: power in the stories of migrant ‘Mother-Poles’, we seek to understand what kinds of empowerment and disempowerment narratives can be linked to migrant motherhood and mothering in the case of Polish women raising their children abroad.
By linking two perspectives of migrant mothers themselves, as well as at looking at stories of adult children brought up by Polish mothers outside of their country of origin, we investigate maternal power which may, on the one hand, ground women as managers of their households but, on the other hand, does not seem to alleviate the general isolation they face in regards to the broader society.
To gain a better understanding of the specific type of Polish migrant mothers we call ‘Mother-Poles’, it is vital to clarify that the particular Mother-Pole construct is a significant yet somewhat blurry notion of Polish motherhood. Moulded from both a religious inspiration of the Virgin Mary’s cult in Catholicism, and an experience of managerial matriarchy which described women’s resourcefulness during the time of State Socialism in the Central and Easter European block, the Mother-Pole figure is omnipresent in religious, social and political discourses, imbuing a reference point for the everyday life of many Polish women over 40.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rendered people around the world homebound, home for some US citizens turned out to be the colonial town of Granada, along the shores of Central America’s largest lake, Lake Nicaragua, in a country many of these settlers had known only as the bloody battleground of the revolutionary Sandinistas and the counter-revolutionary (US-Backed) Contras.
These ‘expats’ began migrating to Nicaragua, in earnest, in the early 2000s (though an American presence in the country extends much further back in history). They are drawn by a quest for adventure, but also by affordable, spacious Colonial-era homes, maids and gardeners, and upscale restaurants in a country ranked second poorest in Latin America. In stark contrast to the attention focused on ‘caravans’ of migrants fleeing Central America en route to the US, these US citizens and other north-south migrants go generally unnoticed in the public discourse on global migration.
My Identities article, ‘Rooted in relative privilege: US ‘expats’ in Granada, Nicaragua’, examines this group of international migrants, incorporating some of the same concepts used to study their counterparts moving from the Global South to the Global North. Based on fieldwork in Granada, Nicaragua and in-depth interviews with 30 US citizens who have made their homes there, I focus on how these individuals negotiate a sense of identity and belonging as US citizens residing full-time in Nicaragua.
The concept of ‘cosmology’ has a long-standing history in anthropology. Derived from the ancient Greek ‘cosmos’ – order, harmony, world – and ‘logos’ – discourse – cosmology was historically intended as the knowledge or study of the structure and shape of the world.
In anthropology, cosmologies are conventionally defined as widespread representations of the world as a hierarchically ordered whole. Traditionally associated with the study of religions, cosmologies have progressively come to refer more generally to systems of classifications, and their related moral and emotional attitudes.
My Identities article, ‘Cosmologies and migration: on worldviews and their influence on mobility and immobility’, shows that this concept can be applied to understanding the hierarchical worldviews of a diasporic population, such as Eritrean migrants and their left behinds. In particular, the article argues that these worldviews are crucial to understand why people are ready to undertake very dangerous and complex journeys to reach their their 'promised land', as suggested by the Eritrean painter Ambasager Welday in his beautiful reinterpretation of the biblical exodus (see the image above).
To escape an undetermined national service, they leave Eritrea without a permit. They face the challenges of living as refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan with limited possibilities to move (out of camps) and prospects to work. Legal avenues to move out of these first asylum countries are also extremely limited: less than 1% of the refugee population worldwide manage to resettle in a third country. If Eritreans manage to reach southern Europe, usually Italy, they have a hard time finding decent housing and jobs that would allow them to achieve some socio-economic and existential stability. Due to the Dublin Regulation, however, many cannot easily move to other European countries. There are huge risks for those who attempt to cross the borders, including detention and harm, but being returned to Italy is often the most feared option among Eritreans.
The idea of cosmologies of destinations point to the specific moral prescriptions about where a migration journey should end and what the person that arrives there should do. The narratives of the many Eritrean refugees whom I met in Italy between 2008 and 2014 well represent these moral prescriptions. While survival in Eritrea becomes increasingly dependent on resources from abroad, Eritreans leave their homes not only to flee political oppression, but also to provide for those left behind. The journey, thus, should end where the migrant is able to fulfil his/her family obligations. ‘We are here for our families, not only for our own sake’, as one refugee living in a shanty town of Rome told me. He had already tried twice to seek asylum in Sweden and was on the verge of trying again.
In this context of transnational obligations, moral worthiness is judged by families and local communities on the basis of the support that migrants are able to offer in many different aspects. The comparison between migrants settled in different countries reproduces not only a hierarchy of moral worthiness among migrants – it also shapes a hierarchical shared imaginary in which some countries are pictured as transit places, such as Italy, and others as desired destinations, such as northern European countries.
Cosmologies of destinations represent crystallised hierarchies of geographic preferences widely shared by the members of a group. Building on previous literature on cultures of migration and geographic imaginaries, cosmologies of destinations point to the connection between imaginaries of places and the moral and symbolic values attached to living there. In doing so, it facilitates the understanding of how migrants can place their desired destinations in a hierarchy of value that motivates them to move on from the good to the better destination.
Blog post by Milena Belloni, The University of Antwerp, Belgium
Read the full article: Belloni, Milena. Cosmologies and migration: on worldviews and their influence on mobility and immobility. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1748357
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
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on 26 April 1986 in the Soviet Union. Children born before and after 1986 were at risk of developing different health conditions. For example, instances of thyroid cancer increased 40 times due to release of radioactive iodine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, borders opened and many Western charities offered recuperation to affected children in host families abroad during summer. The idea was to take children out of contaminated territories and provide them with an environment free from radiation. Belarus was the most affected, having 23.5% of its territory contaminated with radioactive cesium and strontium. Italy was the most active in these recuperation programmes; it has hosted more than half of all affected children from Belarus.
The goal of my Identities article, 'Kinning as intimate disaster response: from recuperation in host families to educational migration of the Chernobyl children from Belarus to Italy', was to uncover what happened to these children and their host families over time. I demonstrate that one of the unexpected outcomes of Chernobyl children’s recuperation in Italy was their educational migration to Italy for further education as they grew up (some went on to attend high school in Italy; the majority of these went on to do their Bachelor and/or Master’s degrees in Italy, as well). I argue that educational migration became possible due to kinning – strong emotional bonds developed between the Belarusian children and their Italian host families over their repeated encounters during the humanitarian programme of child recuperation abroad. The concept of kinning has been used in the studies of transnational adoption (by Signe Howell) and domestic and institutional care work (by Loretta Baldassar and colleagues). My article applies kinning to the studies of disasters, migration and humanitarianism.
Educational migration of Belarusian children to Italy was chosen over other unintended recuperation outcomes (e.g. being adopted by the Italian host family, meeting a life partner in Italy, changing religion from Orthodox to Catholic, choosing a profession related to Italy, or coming to Italy in adulthood with children of Chernobyl children), as it revealed how important a triad relationship between children, their biological families in Belarus, and their host families in Italy was in deciding to study in Italy as these youth came of age. I therefore argue that disaster migration occurred, not because of the damage done by the disaster, but due to the human relations formed between people involved in disaster response.
On the basis of ethnographic interviews I conducted with the grown-up Chernobyl children from Belarus, I examined the relational consensus and conflict between children, their biological parents in Belarus, and their Italian host families, which evolved around frequent contact, material and emotional support, family obligations, co-residence, over-parenting, etc. Educational migration of grown-up children as disaster survivors was not just about aspirations to improve their future career prospects and socio-economic statuses, but was also shaped by social relations with family members in both host and home countries in the negotiation of a simultaneous sense of belonging to different places.
In practical terms, formally recognising and supporting kinning in humanitarian assistance for disaster survivors would do great service to those who have already developed kinning and to those who are restraining themselves because of organisational rules. Kinning as a form of a long-term social support can be beneficial for children in overcoming prolonged consequences of a humanitarian crisis.
Blog post by Ekatherina Zhukova, Lund University, Sweden
Read the full article: Zhukova, Ekatherina. Kinning as intimate disaster response: from recuperation in host families to educational migration of the Chernobyl children from Belarus to Italy. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1686877
‘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