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

How do research processes and protocols funded and designed in the ‘global North’ reflect the needs and expectations of researchers and interlocutors in the ‘global South?’  In this piece Maissam Nimer reflects on her position as a researcher in the field of forced migration in Turkey, and within the broader political economy of global research.  Nimer examines specific aspects of research design and practice, such as the process of ethics approval, the engagement and use of ‘gate keepers’ or ‘informants’, and the consent process, to problematize both the global relationship between research programmes, funded and designed in the ‘global North’ for use in field sites in the ‘global South,’ and the individual, sometimes alienated, relationships between researchers and interlocutors. These are concepts that we have been exploring in the Southern Responses to Displacement project, particularly in our ‘Thinking through the Global South’ series, where we critically interrogate different meanings and understandings of key concepts and frames of reference, such as the ‘global South’ and ‘global North’, here and here. Nimer further highlights and problematizes the difficulties found in research programmes, although designed and funded by the global South, that adopt Northern approaches to research that often neglect the contextual, historical, relational contexts found in the global South. Further discussions on the politics of knowledge production can be found in our Launch of the Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations podcast. Nimer highlights the importance of involving participants throughout the research process and of collaboration and coordination between research programmes to avoid over research in specific areas, in addition to arguing that more autonomy and flexibility is needed within the research process to ensure research programmes adapt to the needs of local contexts and interlocutors. 

If you found this piece of interest please visit our Thinking through the Global South series or visit the recommended reading list at the end of this piece.

This piece was posted on 20th August 2019

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

by Maissam Nimer, Mercator-IPC Fellow at Sabanci University, Turkey

The presence of over 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey today has led to a proliferation of research projects commissioned by institutions in the ‘Global North’. We can safely say that the Syrian community in Turkey is ‘over-researched’. I want to reflect on my position as a researcher in the field of forced migration in Turkey within the broader political economy of global research.

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

This ‘language reflective of medical models for research’ is particularly inadequate in the context of forced migration. Through my fieldwork, it appeared that the interview process tends to expose forced participants to relive the trauma related to their forced migration experience. 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 been through this type of interview process before, seemed frustrated by their disconnection from these projects and their outcomes. 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’.

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 he/she does not speak the language. This sense of alienation is also shared among sub-contracted researchers. Principal investigators can 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.

The entire consent process operates within an ‘imagined context of free choice’ 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. The fact that the researcher or project is affiliated with a recognised, often foreign, university still feed the hope that the interview will lead to change at an individual level. As I was interviewing a mother of five children, she kept emphasising 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.

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. 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.

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’ frame the study. The chances of  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. 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.

Leading research institutions in the Global South have adopted the IRB process line-by-line, mimicking dominant Euro-American conventions without much consideration into how informed consent may differ in different contexts, and with forced migrants. The ethics in question become instrumental and purely procedural allowing institutions to join the competition for resources, as well as a tool for them to defensively protect themselves in case of harm.

To mitigate harm, 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 global political economy, and to analyse critically the ways in which research into forced migration is commissioned and implemented in this context. Sociologists and others working in this field must keep the interests of researched communities at the heart of the process.


If you found this piece of interest please visit our ‘Thinking through the Global South’ series, listen to our Launch of the Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations, or read the pieces below:

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?

Carpi, E. (2019) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction

Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.

Featured image: Shops in the multicultural and economically deprived areas of Beyoglu, Istanbul, where many refugees from Syria, including Syrian-Kurds, live alongside Turkish-Kurdish neighbours (c) A. Greatrick, Feb 2018

This piece first appeared in the Sociological Review.  

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