Friday, 19 December 2014

The migration researcher: Who's doing the talking?

by Paul Clewett
December 18th marks the true Christmas of the migration world, as disciples of all things-migration meet and tweet their way through a copious amount of reflection on the developments of the last year. They will have talked about a global protection system in crisis and rising anti-immigration sentiment in the West; burgeoning South-South migration and global development; labour rights and the World Cup…  Yet they will not, I surmise, have talked much about themselves: a sprawling network of migration geeks united by a common obsession with understanding why people move.
So I’ve decided to make some sweeping statements about the characteristics of those who inhabit the field in a bid to provoke some group reflection on what it means to be a researcher of migration. I do so with the aim of shining a light where light is not usually shone, but without any kind of moralising agenda. We all know self-reflection is important in research, but what does this look like collectively? Who are the migration geeks of this world and why should we care?
Migration researchers are mostly women. This is in many ways refreshing as it bucks the general trend in European research which sees women underrepresented in almost every subject area. Yet one has to wonder where all the men are at. I’ve started calculating the gender balance at conferences in Brussels and, with the caveat that expert panels tend to reflect the dominance of men in senior policymaking positions, audiences are always clearly weighted towards women. I’ve found a similar imbalance in studies and at work, where far more often than not I’m the only man in the room. My unscientific hunches lead me down the dangerous path of conjecture: are there more women in migration studies because of this long-standing habit we have of portraying migrants as victims in need of (feminine) care? And are the men in migration largely confined to economics departments because policymakers, despite all the progress in the social sciences, still favour overtly economically rational (and masculine) approaches to understanding the world? Priya Deshingkar’s recent post brilliantly underscores the importance of taking a gendered approach in understanding the close relationship between social mobility and human mobility.  Maybe we should also be extending the approach to research and policy itself, where gender divisions between disciplines are part of wider gendered structures that affect the quality of our migration policy.
Migration researchers are often closet activists, supressing the urge to shout aloud about how ridiculous the stance on migration is in the north. I’ve heard more than one person express feelings of restlessness whilst in the thick of a major piece of research or trying to produce a piece of ‘dispassionate’ policy analysis against the grain of a growing internal rage at the injustices meted out by sovereign states and borders. We know that evidence is crucial to better, fairer policy, but sometimes the desk-based approach to changing the world just doesn’t feel like it can ever faithfully reflect the urgency for change.
Migration researchers often feel guilty about deriving pleasure from their work. Stephen Hopgood’s thoroughly engaging ethnography on Amnesty International - Keepers of the Flame – (which I read as part of a reading group organised by the Religion Cluster at the Asia Research Institute), dealt with the conflation by Amnesty staff of hard work and personal suffering, i.e. if you’re not in great pain and anguish yourself, then you are not doing justice to the topic.  Hopgood paints a picture of research staff who could not be satisfied with work that did not take them to the same dark places inhabited by the victims of grave human rights abuses they support. Most migration researchers perhaps aren’t at that extreme, but I think there is a fairly constant sense that enjoying what you are doing can somehow invalidate it. For instance, a friend of mine told me of his guilt that his PhD research proposal doubled-up as the perfect strategy for making his long distance relationship work. But his supervisor told him he was being ridiculous, he produced an excellent thesis, his subsequent work is original and well-respected, and the relationship is (so far) happily ever after.
Those studying mobility are hyper mobile and often migrants themselves. It stands to reason that we study those things that reflect our personal experiences and interests, but do we think enough about what this means for the subject we’re studying and the agenda we bring to our work as a consequence? Of course, many of us regularly write up reflexive pieces to accompany our work, but there’s more to this: I find, for instance, that my increasing mobility as I entered adulthood and started doing things of my own accord made me feel strangely detached from the places to which I was supposed to belong; the increasing ease and need for international travel made distance and difference less consequential. This has to matter for studying migration. Our place in the world and our understanding of what that means has to be especially important for those responsible for generating knowledge about other peoples’ place in the world. It’s not the most straight-forward conversation to have, but maybe one worth taking up.
Migration is both the Holy Grail and the poisoned chalice of contemporary global challenges, simultaneously propping up our economies whilst undermining the sacred principle of national sovereignty. Given the amount of energy expended year round through conferences and seminars trying to make sense of all of this – and the emotion that pulsates through the debate in constant duel with evidence – International Migrants Day offers a great opportunity to step back and take a minute to consider who is actually doing the talking.
Paul Clewett was the  Asia Research Institute's 2014 Migrating out of Poverty Research and Communications Intern at the National University of Singapore. He is currently Program Assistant at  MPI-Europe, the Migration Policy Institute's Brussels office. He writes in a personal capacity.