The elephant in the room: Why should global civil society care about academia?

by Kellynn Wee

Academia is not a panacea, but adopting its tenets of multiple truths allows us to better understand the world in which we work.

Data. Research. Facts. Evidence. In this world’s age of migration, these terms are so often used as hopeful synonyms for ‘truth’. We would like these truths to calibrate policy-making, to buttress justice, to make compassion viable. Numbers, fed from databases, would tell us which populations are moving, and how quickly; interviews, immaculately conducted by social scientists, would tell us why.

These truths often arise from international organisations, transnational activist networks and policy-oriented think tanks, which produce working papers, research reports and policy briefs that jerk back the curtain to reveal grim realities: migrant slums; the exploitation of children; the trafficking of women. Beyond this, however, another set of truths—less immediately interesting, and more abstract—is held in abeyance: the theories, ideas, and concepts that mark the work of academia. While the researchers who work on both may be the same, they often present their truths differently. In academic journals and conferences, pre-fixes and suffixes bristle to demarcate new theoretical thresholds: mobilities, (im)mobilities; precarious work, precariousness, precarities, hyper-precarities…

The response to these ideas is often, understandably, let’s get on with it. The re-christening of construction work in Qatar is unlikely to make the tangible realities of work for Bangladeshi migrant men any safer. The perception that academia—neutral, neutered—is irrevocably divorced from the realm of policymaking is reflected in the processes of international fora. For example, the upcoming Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), held 29 June to 1 July in Berlin, divides their count of academics from civil society practitioners.

But why should civil society care about academia? What does academia have to offer? What are the ethical responsibilities of migration researchers in geography and in sociology to global civil society? Does academia have an ethical responsibility in the first place?

To answer this question, we must ask another one: in this tiredly post-truth world, what do we still consider to be true?

There is an old story: get a group of people to close their eyes and reach forward to touch an elephant. One describes the feathery ear, another the tough belly, a third the whisking tail, a fourth the stump of a leg. They are all correct. They are all partial. It is, still, an elephant.

Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

One of the critical ideas of academic scholarship is that reality does not offer up truth, neat as a dinner dish, but that truths create realities. There is no curtain, no stage, no lightning-strike revelation. Data does not mirror reality, but produces it. The more words we have for the elephant, the better we are able to understand it.

We can choose to see migration flows in numbers, counting every body that crosses a border, and that is one kind of truth, a truth that bristles with threat. We can choose to see migration as the result of complicated geopolitical ties, or as intertwined with development, or vested with entrepreneurial spirit; as waves, or infestations, or as tides, a push-pull as constant as the world. All of these truths exist, elbowing each other gently, simultaneously. (This is of course, not to say, that poorly-done research—and out-and-out lies—do not exist. Some people, for example, will swear up and down that an elephant has feathers and is out to take over every job currently available in your country.)

In global civil society, we are guilty of assuming a particular kind of truth: that, firstly, only one exists. And that, secondly, more information, better information, neutral, evidence-based, and unbiased information—a more robust truth—will help us to find it. This truth, ideally, would fix the gaps we already think we see.

What good, self-reflexive academia can do is to dislodge this idea. Our realities—and any radical potential for transformation in migration policy—are critically shaped by what we know and the ideas that we can put together to describe this knowledge. A constructivist approach allows us to acknowledge that data and research are not neutral, but are shaped by bias, methodology, and flows of funding. Flipping the relationship between “data” and “policy”—allowing research and its competing, conflicting truths to exist without needing to become revelatory evidence—opens up new and creative ways of thinking about potential policy interventions. There are no better truths; there are only many.

Part of the Migrating out of Poverty research focuses on the migration industry. If we analyse migration brokers and agents—who are often profit-oriented and help to facilitate, curtail, and shape migration—with an eye to uncovering exploitation and forced labour, then that is of course what we will see. The framing of ‘problem’ and solution’ fits nicely over the contours of this sort of (undoubtedly still invaluable) research, which supports punitive, regulatory measures in response. Hence: zero recruitment fees; licensing; the end of informal brokers; demerit points.

What we have found, however, is that migration brokers in Singapore, Indonesia and India are not (only) slavers and traffickers, but are (also) creditors, translators, protectors, ex-migrants themselves, navigators of seasonal uncertainties, or vehicles to speed migrants through labyrinthine bureaucracy. They act as they do not only because they believe migrants are less or are products or are exploitable but also because their practices are shaped by lines of credit and debt, or because they too are peddling a particular, peculiar kind of hope. In Singapore’s migration industry, for example, women migrate through debt-financed migration, in which a loan extended by a prospective employer travels all the way back to Indonesia to become capital to allow women to migrate as a livelihood strategy. But these lines of debt and credit are not a singular river; as they cross nation lines, they multiply, criss-cross, expand like deltas, meet with undercurrents, holding agent, worker, and employer in a web of liability and risk, ultimately creating a set of conditions in which workers must be coaxed or controlled for the continued possibility of future migration from countries of origin.

If we focus on understanding the social and cultural world of brokers and migrants, then this might actually open up more room for innovative policy interventions. Global civil society has the advantage of overcoming nation-states’ preoccupation with governing within their own borders. By bypassing closed state systems entirely, civil society might, for example, immediately, transnationally, and flexibly collaborate with brokers themselves instead.

There are no easy policy recommendations that come from this partial perspective of the migration industry, but an acknowledgement of these many truths. Gently elbowing. The elephant comes into better view.

Academia is not a panacea, but adopting its tenets of multiple truths allows us to better understand the world in which we work. To go forward, we need to do two things: first, academics must themselves consciously broker their own knowledges. Second, the perception of the value of qualitative research must change.

Firstly, researchers must be cognisant of the ways that their work affect social and political realities, and to seek to translate their research beyond conventional forums and outlets. The academic industry does not reward researchers for communicating their work to mainstream media outlets, policy-makers, civil society, or the general public. Doing so does not secure contracts, citation counts, or project funds. This, amongst many other factors, creates a situation in which researchers are, first, disinterested and disengaged; and, second, unable to broker their own knowledge in ways that render it accessible to non-academics who might need that knowledge most. No doubt this is a systemic issue, borne from an increasingly precarious academic industry, but migration researchers can do more to describe their experiences with that elephant in ways that others would be able to use to compare with their own.

Secondly, the perception and value of qualitative research in civil society spaces should move beyond proffering up decontextualised “stories” and “case studies”. When one makes a call for data in civil society, one is often asking for large-scale quantitative data or longitudinal panel studies. These, of course, are important; but it is also timely to recognise that qualitative and ethnographic work move beyond the scattered stories of small-n samples and can instead offer new ways of seeing.

Now the hide, rough to the touch. Now the long nose, the wet snout, curiously searching.


Originally published on the Migrating out of Poverty blog.

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