About place, access and positionality in migration research

Stefano Piemontese / November 2023

Reflecting on ethics, data protection, positionality, and the role of emotions and affect in research with so-called irregular migrants can evoke a sense of disorientation and complacency, similar to falling down the hole of the White Rabbit. This feeling of comfortable discomfort researchers may feel when reflecting on their own practices is all the stronger as the distance between the daily experiences of their research subjects and the spatial context in which scholarly research is produced. It is therefore not surprising if disorientation and complacency were some of the feelings my colleagues and I put on the table, together with a couple of beers, at the end of a workshop on the ethical aspects of conducting fieldwork with irregular migrants organised in September 2023 by the PRIME project at the European University Institute in Florence.

A rabbit hole in the ivory tower

The fairytale context of the noble villas in which the EUI campus is located, always and generously lends itself to a reflection on the spaces in which research takes place, especially for inveterate ethnographers who have conducted research in places that are not typically talked about in fairy tales. But the EUI campus is nothing but an ivory tower synecdoche.

Already during my doctoral research, I remember the discomfort of transitioning from the impoverished and bustling suburbs of Madrid, where I spent my everyday life with homeless young Roma migrants, to the relatively affluent venues where migration scholars would gather before, during or after their conferences. Obviously, it was not always this way, but sometimes, I found myself counting how many people could fit in my hotel room. And while I used to look down upon that schizophrenic world, I also found solace and allure in its comfort, much like the homeless kids I was working with would do.

After all, places are physical reminders of our identity, past experiences, and possible futures. In the context of universities, our offices, campuses, conference venues, and modes of transportation between these spaces remind us of the social position from which we produce research. However, acknowledging that our contribution to a more just and equitable world (who would openly argue their research aims at something else?) always occurs within a framework of unequal relations of power and domination can evoke intricate emotions that are challenging to reconcile. And this regardless (or precisely because) of the fact that researchers, by default, they always see themselves occupying a position of advantage and privilege over the participants

So, as we gazed down from the hills overlooking Florence, our most cynical selves warned us that while we were racking our brains on how to conduct more sensitive and ethical research, oh gosh, we were nothing more than the dummy version of a postmodern Prometheus destined to fail under the looming erosion of political and moral standards characterising anti-immigration actions and narratives. On the other hand, the most optimistic version of ourselves suggested that change can also occur through example and action and that learning more sensitive ways of conducting research and engaging with our interlocutors could lead to more ethical, respectful, and transformative fieldwork practices.

The “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” approach with which some of us tend to confront the contradictions of our work is the compass I want to use to outline some of the themes discussed during the workshop, as if we were still gathered around that table, enjoying those beers.

From “the problem of access” to “the problem is us”

One main challenge identified by workshop participants was accessing their interlocutors during fieldwork. While this is not a new issue, the emergence of this topic as one of the main concerns for researchers conducting fieldwork with irregular migrants brings up the issue of positionality.

The “access problem” raises the question of who exactly perceives it as a problem to access whom. It therefore encompasses trust, power relations, and the relevance of the frictions and overlaps between the experiences and identities of the researcher and those of their interlocutors. Against this backdrop, it is unsurprising that white researchers holding EU passports and working in so-called high-skilled jobs raised the problem of reaching and establishing connections with immigrants with no or precarious legal status, working in high-risk sectors and likely to belong (at least in part) to racially minoritised groups.

In order to describe the challenges of accessing research participants, the academic jargon has coined the term “hard-to-reach.” However, this term seems to crystallise the mutual positionalities of the parties involved in the research process rather than serving as a conceptual catalyst of their inflexion point. By generalising the difficulties faced by some categories of researchers and attributing the problem to their interlocutors, it implies that “they are difficult to reach”, shifting the problem (and its solution) away from researchers themselves. One may question whether this term is merely another manifestation of methodological institutionalism, whereby scholars adopt the perspective of state authorities and label individuals as hard-to-reach when, in reality, “hard-to-reach” populations are constructed as such through exclusionary institutional policies. Another equally plausible truth is that the logic of exclusion and domination, prevalent in public policies, also exists and is reproduced within universities, and therefore, the term must be understood just as evocative of asymmetric epistemic relations. If this were the case (as it actually is), assuming that the difficulties of accessing research interlocutors decrease as the identity and experiences of researchers and participants are closer, does not solve the “access problem”.

Regardless of the commonalities we share with our interlocutors, in the best-case scenario, they will view us as friendly representatives of a powerful and reputable public institution that collects detailed and personal information on individuals. Ultimately, they may not fully trust us, but at most, give us the benefit of the doubt. This may be the maximum researchers can aspire to in a context of increasing criminalisation of immigrants in Europe, where public institutions (from schools to universities to hospitals) and even private actors (from airlines to employers to landlords) are required to perform border police duties. In a context where the deontological “firewall approach” researchers provide to their participants appears to be more of a rare exception than the norm, we cannot automatically be seen as the “good guys”. The most crucial ethical issue to tackle, therefore, is that of trust.

Intentions over identities

 Sharing similar life experiences or identities between researchers and researchers can help provide access by building trusting relationships, but this approach does not appear to be sufficient nor free from ethical issues.

First and foremost, the value of overarching bonding identities, while significant, can pose problems depending on the level and context of their enforcement. Postulating that homophily between researchers and researched is a preferable research scenario risks confining research only within one’s own peer group, or it could even serve as a more sophisticated strategy to conduct extractivist research. Against this backdrop, the only alternative, though, is to recognise that the relationship between researchers and those being researched, as well as the knowledge that emerges from their interactions and how it is interpreted and translated into publications, is deeply influenced by a complex and often unresolved history of conflicts stemming from the various identities that shape their biographies. To address this, researchers must reflect on their own identities in relation to their interlocutors (and viceversa) and consider the standpoint from which they produce knowledge together. By doing so, we can better understand and navigate the power dynamics inherent in academic knowledge production and work towards negotiating the inevitable asymmetries that exist between researchers and the group being researched.

Secondly, in order for mutual trust to be considered valid in the context of fieldwork relations, I suggest that it must also involve a sharing of intentions and perhaps even a common objective. In other words, since we do not freely choose the position from which we view the world, and our identities and experiences are more complex than what we are told, trust should be based on the shared goal of achieving something together beyond (or regardless of) those elements of our biographies which, at the end of the day, are beyond our control. The relationships of trust that enable the development of more ethical and sensitive research are not (exclusively) about “who we are” but rather about the collaboration and alignment towards a common direction: “where we go”. In such circumstances, walking together requires researchers to recognise and address the legitimate claims of their walking companions to exert a certain level of control over the path they are taking – the research process. The how and abouts of this endeavour will be the content of the next post.

Ester Ellqvist-Bauer i Fiesole, Italien. Source: Digital museum

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