Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective

By Maissam Nimer

The presence of over 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey today, has led to a proliferation of research projects often commissioned by institutions in the ‘Global North’ that tackle several aspects of migration. We can safely say that the Syrian community in Turkey is ‘over-researched’. Research with these groups often benefits the careers of researchers but does not improve the lives of the researched in any significant ways and respecting the principle of ‘do no harm’ is often insufficient for research with refugees. In this light, I reflect on my position as a researcher in the field of forced migration in Turkey within the broader political economy of global research. I consider implications of the political economy involved in the funding allocation and research design and implementation on doing sociological research outside the Global North in the particular field of forced migration. In this process, I shed light on the role of Turkish research institutions in the power dynamics between funders in the ‘Global North’ and researchers and participants in the ‘Global South’. 

Inadequacy of the IRB Process in Forced Migration

When conducting ethnographic and interview research in Turkey, I had to apply for Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval through the Research Ethics Council of the university. I was asked to answer the following questions, among others:

Describe in detail any safeguards to minimize risks or discomforts.

Do the potential benefits to the subjects and/or the anticipated gain in research knowledge outweigh the risks to the subjects?

While these questions provide a good starting point for reflections on the risks and discomforts posed to participants in general, researchers often answer with broad statements about informed consent, anonymity and confidentiality. This process, which uses ‘language reflective of medical models for research’ is particularly inadequate in the context of forced migration. 

Most interview situations are usually marked by a particular form of symbolic domination between interviewer and interviewee. Bourdieu suggests ways to reduce the symbolic violence exerted through this relation such as establishing a relation of ‘active and methodological listening’ and ensuring total availability to the interviewee. However, it becomes apparent during interviews with forced migrants that abolishing the distance, limiting the ‘intrusion effect’, and engaging in ‘non-violent communication’ are unrealistic. 

In addition to the symbolic violence, which is to a large extent applicable to most research with marginalized populations, there are some further risks that I have encountered, particularly among refugees. 

Through my fieldwork, it appeared that the interview process tends to expose forced participants to relive the trauma related to their forced migration experience. This appeared most clearly among individuals who were still coming to terms with post-traumatic symptoms, having fought and/or lost loved ones. The interview process involves creating a relationship of trust for participants to open up and share details about their lives. It is unnatural for this relationship to be severed abruptly once the interview is done. However, given that developing continuous relationships with participants requires reiterations of informed consent, it is common practice that once the researchers leave ‘the field’ participants are reduced to sources of data. 

Some participants, especially those who had similar experiences with researchers before, did not see the point of research and seemed frustrated by the disconnection from the outcome. A young woman, a 25-year-old university student, describes this sense of detachment from the researchers, ‘There was this woman, she came from the UK. She wanted to do interviews here. She talked to us last year. She asked us the same questions, and then went back. We didn’t hear from her again’. Another young man, 20 years old, working as a trainee in a factory, expressed, ‘We always talk and talk and nothing changes’. 

These statements reflect the disconnect between the interviewees in over-researched groups and the outcome of the interview. The practice of hiring ‘informants’ or ‘gatekeepers’ in order to arrange interviews, mediate, and translate in cases in which the researcher does not speak the language appears to further alienate the interviewee from the research process. According to the findings by Sukarieh and Tannock, participants question what a researcher can actually get out of fieldwork in which the he/she does not speak the language. This sense of alienation is also shared among sub-contracted researchers. As participants and sub-contracted researchers are shut away from the project, the principal investigators engage in intellectual reflection and then disseminate findings in a process that often excludes the participants. This highlights the importance of moving beyond the ‘dual imperative’ approach, that researchers be both academic and policy relevant, to a more inclusive approach, enabling participation of actors throughout the project.

Furthermore, the entire consent process operates within an ‘imagined context of free choice’ in contexts far removed from the context of liberal voluntarism that informed consent presumes in more developed contexts in which the status of refugees is not as precarious. Forced migrants can be in such a difficult situation that they are desperate for any form of assistance and agree to participate in the interview with the hope that there might be some kind of tangible assistance. In such cases, I found that providing detailed information about the study, its goals, and giving the participants the chance to ask questions is important to create an exchange process in decision-making but often insufficient. The fact that the researcher or project is affiliated with a recognized, often foreign, university still fed the hope that the interview will lead to change at an individual level. As I was interviewing a mother of five children, she kept emphasizing how urgent it was for them to get Turkish citizenship. She pleaded for me to reach out to the authorities saying: ‘if you can just give them our names’ despite my continuous affirmations that I had no such contacts with authorities. This puts into question the significance of informed consent in these cases where the consent is accompanied by expectations.

Reflections on the Global Political Economy in Research Funding and Design

In order to ethically carry out refugee research, one has to question and elucidate the broader political economy of global research involved in the funding allocation and research design.

The first step towards change is to build awareness among various actors working in the particular case of over-researched refugee communities in which the traditional ‘do no harm’ principle is not sufficient. To avoid over-researching, attention should be given to coordinating efforts with others who are working on similar topics. This should not be left to the initiative of researchers or institutions but should be required by/of funding agencies commissioning research. 

Further, Taha urges researchers to decide on the topic of research only after talking to individuals in the field, instead of letting funding organizations in the ‘Global North’ decide on the research topic. In reality, large scale multi-national, projects are rarely designed and led by local researchers and institutions. The chances of a local institutions of forming a multi-national coalition and getting funded are very low, as reported by a stakeholder within the project development office of a leading university. Instead, the best chances of participating in such projects is for the institution to be brought into a multi-national team, led by a major university in the Global North. As such, the design of the research project in social sciences is ‘dictated’ from abroad and the local partner becomes mere implementer. Even when the research is designed in local institutions, it is designed in a way to appeal to the interests of the funding agencies in the Global North and rarely to accommodate needs of participants in the field.

In order to be able to compete for funding, leading research institutions in the Global South adopted the IRB process line-by-line mimicking dominant Euro-American conventions without much consideration into how informed consent may differ in the particular context of Turkey, and with forced migrants. The ethics in question become an instrumental and purely procedural one. The IRB, then, instead of ’protecting the rights and welfare of human subject involved in research activities’ becomes a way for institutions to join the competition for resources from the Global North, as well as a tool for them to protect themselves in case of harm. To mitigate harm during the interview, the researcher could be given more autonomy and flexibility in the interview process to make decisions quickly to think of alternative ways that are tailored to the situation at hand. This could involve allowing researchers to maintain relationships past the interview through open and continuous channels of communication and thus reciprocate the trust relationship. 

It is thus essential to develop awareness of and further debate the global political economy involved in the way research in forced migration is commissioned and implemented in order to keep the interests of the researched communities at the heart of the process. 

Maissam Nimer is a Mercator-IPC fellow at Sabanci University and the recipient of a one-year Koç University Seed Grant exploring the role of language instruction in integration of Syrian refugees in Turkey. As a postdoctoral researcher at Koç University, she works on the topic of experiences of Syrian refugee youth in Turkey. She obtained a PhD in sociology at Paris Saclay University in July 2016. In her thesis, she looked at the mechanisms of social and cultural selection that explain the inequality of access to higher education in Lebanon. Nimer teaches a course on sociology of education at Galatasaray University in Turkey. She holds an MSc from the London School of Economics and BS from the American University of Beirut. Maissam tweets @MSNIMER

This blog is part of the Global Sociology special collection. Read other contributions here.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective

  1. I would add that much of the research done in refugee communities is contracted for by NGOs, UN agencies, and donors who have a pre-existing policy agenda rooted in the donor countries. Contracting for research is often done with the next grant proposal in mind, and likely to serve first the goals of the donor community, and not the refugee community. In the process, refugees are reduced to the category of “caseload” who are in need of what donor community has identified as refugee needs. Most often this starts with the categories of things they identify: liters of water, kilocalories of food, square meters of housing, medical care measured with morbidity and mortality rates, etc. This is what you call the language of medical research. To a large extent this reflects the fact that international assistance is always organized bureaucratically, just like in many other institutions. The difference with refugees is that, as you point out, the power differential is particularly great. Researchers are well-paid, have some access to decision-makers and leave the refugee camp at night. This is not the case for the refugees who are reduced to a caseload number.

  2. Brilliant reflections. I would add that neoliberalism has something to do with the professional formation of forced migration researchers both in the Global North and Global South. The commodification of refugees is a case in point, this time as ‘research subjects’.

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