The following extract is taken from an interview with GDI’s Reader in Migration Studies, Dr Oliver Bakewell, in the recently published Handbook on Forced Migration. Below, Oliver responds to a question about the risks we run when aligning research agendas on mobility with the priorities of policymakers. He returns to previous critiques of policy-centred research, discusses whether the relationship between research and policy has evolved in recent years and expands upon the ethical questions facing scholars working in and around migration studies today.
What concerns me is that the focus is on the relevance of research to policy. And by ‘policy’, I do not just mean governments, but all institutional actors, whether they are governments, international organizations, NGOs or even community groups. They have a way of looking at things, a way of diagnosing problems, a way of framing debates that need to be examined. They share the same language, without questioning its validity, and it frames how they think. Let’s consider ‘durable solutions’, ‘mixed migration’, ‘forced displacement’, etc.: my argument is that for academic researchers, one of the privileges and duties we have is to be able to step away and challenge those concepts. For instance, what does ‘durable solutions’ mean? Why do we have to think in terms of the three durable solutions? Challenging this lexicon, these problems, is fundamental. ……
These debates must be made public and discussed in an open way. The conceptual discussions, the complex discussions around migration seep into public discourse in different ways. Not always in a positive way, of course, often in a politicized, simplistic way; but sometimes in a richer, more fruitful way. Let’s take the example of the term ‘diaspora’. This term is a good example of an abstract, conceptual discussion that has moved from the political to the vernacular level. Nick Van Hear talks about the circularity of the term ‘diaspora’. It’s a fairly abstract idea, which then became the subject of questions, without a policy orientation. But the term has now become of concern to politicians, and frames decisions about resources and programmes. We hear ‘Let’s support the diaspora’. It has reached a wide audience, and people identify with the word: ‘I am part of the diaspora’. The term ‘diaspora’ was born in the realm of cultural studies in the United States. Nobody really used it much. And now it’s become almost inescapable. There’s a question of whether it still has the same use. So, it’s essential to understand the origin, the determinants, the evolutions of the term. We need to probe its historical roots.
‘Host community’ is also a problematic term insofar as it was created and tailored by policymakers to think about reality. Researchers cannot therefore use it without some suspicion, which also applies to all the terms in the migration lexicon. Concepts and frameworks must be questioned. When we do research, we are working on a problem, or a puzzle. Puzzle is probably a better word to describe what is at stake: thinking about what is new, what is not yet understood. The privilege and task of academics is to identify and explore these puzzles. That exploration will have a more profound impact in the longer term than research that is only directed at specific policy, programme or implementation issues. There needs to be space for research that is not framed by questions that come from an immediate problem that requires a solution. We cannot only be concerned with action and implementation. The impact might not be on immediate, expected and often superficial consequences; it is rather about new ways of thinking, changing how we identify problems, which will potentially have a much more profound and longer lasting effect.
Keen to read more? Check out Oliver’s full interview in ‘Labels, norms: The illusion of control’, in which he explores the importance of deconstructing and contesting legal concepts and bureaucratic labels used to discuss mobility and migration, his critique of discourses surrounding ‘vulnerability’ and ‘vulnerability criteria’, and the boxes asylum seekers are expected to tick in order to legitimise their cases.
Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.