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