Can collaborative research with marginalised communities be transformative, turning around unjust social relations, and supporting solidarity and rights in a practical sense? In this blog post, we (Jack Apostol, Helen Hintjens, Joy Melani and Karin Astrid Siegmann) reflect on this question based on our experience with the PEER approach, a participatory research methodology, that we used in a study on undocumented people’s access to healthcare in the Netherlands. The answer? We posit that the claim that social science methodologies can directly transform social realities, may be raising expectations too high, at least for the PEER approach. Yet, dissolving barriers between academic and non-academic knowers might be useful in itself, leading to greater respect for, and the amplification of the voices of marginalised people.
What is PEER?
PEER stands for Participatory Ethnographic Evaluation and Research. The participatory aspect stems from the involvement of members of marginalised and stigmatised communities as co-researchers. It is used in contexts where it is essential to build trust, where new insights are needed, and where the underbelly of sensitive topics can be exposed through mostly non-directive (open-ended) interviews with hard-to-research and marginalised groups in society. Examples of such topics include research on sexual health, sex work, the illicit or informal economy, and refugees on the move.
PEER research on undocumented people’s access to healthcare
We used the PEER methodology to understand the puzzle of why undocumented people in the Netherlands rarely access healthcare, despite their health rights being formally guaranteed in Dutch and EU regulations. Our research team consisted of people based at universities, like Helen, Karin, and our colleague Richard Staring, and non-academic experts from a group of undocumented peer researchers, including Joy and Jack. Interview questions were developed within the team, with peer researchers knowing best how to address sensitive issues with other undocumented people. Once interviews were concluded, debriefing meetings with the peer researchers formed the starting point of our data analysis.
The benefits of the PEER methodology for accessing and learning from people, who have good reasons to remain under the radar, came out clearly in our study. Joy highlights trust as the main advantage of reaching out to fellow undocumented persons for an interview: “Undocumented people cannot trust anyone. But if we interview them, they know that we are undocumented, and they can open up easily. They can tell the real story, their own emotions, and experiences. Because they know, having the same situation, you can understand them, how they feel, their thoughts.”
Time constrains were tough for peer researchers for whom research came on top of their normal working day. Working as a domestic worker full time, Jack recalls: “I worked as a full domestic worker that time. I started my work from the morning until 6 in the afternoon. Attending workshops and meetings during the whole period of PEER research project were a challenge to me. Usually, I rushed to the evening meetings at ISS [International Institute of Social Studies] after my whole day work. This made me physically and mentally a bit tired to participate in the discussion and share my ideas. Sometimes, I came late due to extra work. But I ought to do it as part of my commitment to the project.”
Two PEER researchers simulating an interview during training, August 2014, The Hague
So can the PEER Methodology change minds, influence policy?
Contributing to social change clearly motivated Jack:
“First, I believed that the project was for the well-being of the undocumented migrants in the Hague. This was about a health issue which was vital for the interest of the undocumented migrants whose access to medical care had been hindered by lack of information, discrimination, and ignorance of some medical professionals about the existing health policy of the government.” But what is the actual potential of such collaborative research to transform the injustices that undocumented people experience? Jack soberly concludes that any broader impact depends on the political context: “Absolutely, a rightist government is against migrants. Any outcome of the research based on a PEER approach would not actually convince the rightist government to take initiatives to change their policy in favour of migrants.”
This suggests the practical limits of what one can realistically achieve with academic research under an illiberal dispensation. On its own, without a shift in attitudes, social research cannot shift policy parameters. As the saying goes, one can take a horse to water, one cannot make it drink! Yet PEER research does break down barriers. The status-quo that segregates undocumented people from the rest of society is challenged, as PEER researchers open doors to long-concealed stories of undocumented life in the midst of plenty. Those without status are respected experts in self-organisation, and can be supported to negotiate access to rights and services. In conclusion, one can highlight the vital transformative role played by migrant self-help organisations like Filmis and others, whose solidarity work has stepped up since the start of the COVID pandemic.
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About the authors:
Jacob Apostol is the co-founder and the current president of the Filipino Migrant in Solidarity (FILMIS) Association. He is a human rights advocate.
Helen Hintjens has been interested in pro-asylum advocacy for about 40 years now. She is inspired by the self-advocacy of those confronting current deterrence-based policies on migration and asylum.
Melanie (Joy) Escano is the Vice-President of Migrant Domestic Workers Union. She is also the co-founder and the current public relation officer of the Filipino Migrant in Solidarity (FILMIS) Association.
Karin Astrid Siegmann is Associate Professor in Labour and Gender Economics at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS).
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