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Migration Series | How does a place become (less) hostile? Looking at everyday encounters between migrants and non-migrants as acts and processes of bordering

What happens if people on the move encounter others who by means of their everyday actions and interactions can render environments hostile or who actively try to prevent this? What are the effects of these encounters on the places migrants inhabit and traverse? This article introduces a blog series that highlights a diversity of encounters between migrants and non-migrants[1] to put the reader in the shoes of those who are migrating, crossing borders and/or settling in. Through the series, we aim to show how both migrants and non-migrants navigate terrain that becomes hostile through modern manifestations and practices of nation-state borders amidst so-called ‘migration crises’.

Photo Credit: Ain't no Border by Calais Migrant Solidarity

Everyday encounters between migrants and non-migrants in host communities can contribute to or challenge the exclusion and marginalization of people on the move in places they come to inhabit, for instance when both groups simultaneously attempt to access limited social services. Such encounters not only have productive power in terms of reinforcing or resisting the exclusionary mechanisms of migration management – they also expose the different mechanisms that can turn places into hostile terrain through (a lack of) policies, existing marginalizations, and xenophobia.

Moreover, studying these everyday encounters provides insight into experiences of both migrants and non-migrants, how they diverge or may be similar, and what implications their shared experiences may have for taking action on behalf of and/or together with people on the move. A group of recently graduated ISS MA students we supervised looked at such (dis)similar experiences and will share their insights in a series of forthcoming blog articles. In this article, we focus on everyday encounters and bordering to reflect on key links between imaginaries of human mobility, the role of host communities and local implications of migrant presence.


How human mobility is imagined affects how migrants are received and places are reconfigured

The productive power of human mobility and attempts to curtail, manage, or stop people from migrating have been at the center of critical migration and border studies that think and write against a supposed or desired “national order of things”[2]. Such national order imaginaries emphasize the prominence of rootedness or staying put and the fixed nature of state borders, and approach migration and migrants as a problem. Acknowledging both the centrality of (cross-border) human mobility for our societies and the inequalities surrounding it, this blog series comprises several reflections by former ISS MA students who have researched multiple forms of mobility and encounters between migrants and other actors, including acts of support and instances of anxiety. In turn, such encounters can make the terrain more, or less, hostile for both residents and those passing through.

They conducted research in various places that are located differently in the ‘geo-bodies’[3] of respective states and emerge as ‘zones of contact’[4] for both local communities and people on the move. While border towns are rather obvious sites for such encounters, involving actors such as INGOs (Aristizábal-Saldarriaga) or mobile border communities (Miranda van Iersel), these field reflections also look at encounters in small rural towns that may be out of sight from a migration management perspective but are situated along key roads for caminantes (González Ronquillo), or in a relatively renowned tourist city that hosts different types of newcomers – including migrants with irregular legal status (Gamboa Bastarrachea). But why do we think these different places and actors should be looked at together? How are they related?


Capturing a diversity of border sites, actors, and processes

As part of our ongoing project titled Revisiting the Migration-Development Nexus from a Cross-Border Perspective[5], we are interested in looking closely at encounters that have productive power in terms of reinforcing or resisting the exclusionary mechanisms of migration management. We do so by building on critical scholarship that acknowledges acts and processes of bordering beyond state borders (through concepts such as urban borderscapes[6] or border internalization[7]). This requires us to acknowledge actors beyond those identified as migrants or refugees, as the experiences of migrants and non-migrants are intimately connected[8]. This way, we seek to contribute to the de-migranticization of migration research[9], by questioning a priori categorization of people on the move and nationalist research interests and by reorienting the unit of analysis away from the migrant population to (parts of) the overall population affected.

Previous research we conducted in Greece, Turkey, and Central America shows that everyday encounters in spaces with a bordering function, i.e. spaces that prevent or challenge migrants’ entry and presence physically, legally and/or socially, are instrumental to understanding, on the one hand, how migrant trajectories[10] and translocal livelihoods[11] become illegalized by changing dynamics of border control, and on the other hand, how the geographical location of places where migrants are hosted[12] and the historical and geographical entanglements of neighboring states and communities[13] shape migrant trajectories, translocal livelihoods, and life at the border.

Following this perspective, we suggest turning our gaze to these divisive and connecting aspects of bordering in places beyond territorial nation-state borders. In this series of blog articles, the research of our students illustrates the value of such an approach as they shed light on how particular actors can be instrumental for people on the move as they navigate a diversity of hostile terrains.

These actors are local collectives that are outright supportive of migrants’ rights, as manifested in the CSOs fulfilling the sheltering role that the municipality has formally committed to but is unable to implement in Granada (Spain). They are former migrants taking on the role of hosts for people on the move whereas their own situation remains precarious and their journey unfinished (Ecuador). They can also be the staff of INGOs who need to balance the needs of those on the move with the needs of a local population suffering from chronic disregard by the state (Colombia). Finally, they can be a historically marginalized, mobile indigenous population whose position may shift from solidarity with migrants to suspicion and collaboration with the state as their own mobility and livelihoods are hampered by new migrations and the subsequent militarization of the border (Chile).


Acknowledging all those who dwell in a border site

These insights show that while places with very limited resources are fertile grounds for hostilities, exclusion, or indifference towards migrants with irregular legal status, attempts to pass through or stay in these places are experienced quite differently in the presence of people and organizations willing to support newcomers or those on the move. Paying attention to these local encounters and interactions, particularly in spaces with a bordering function, allows us to capture the similarities and convergences between the experiences of migrants and non-migrants. It also invites us to appreciate and learn from these interconnected experiences and take this into account in any further action pertaining to human mobility, be it academia, in policy making processes, or through societal engagement.

[1] We chose these terms for readability though we are aware that this dichotomy does not do justice to the complexity we try to represent here.

[2] Malkki, Liisa. 1992. “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees.” Cultural Anthropology 7 (1) Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference:  24-44.

[3] Winichakul Thongchai. 1997. Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation. Honolulu: Hawaii University Press.

[4] Pratt, Mary Louise (1991). Arts of the Contact Zone. Profession, 33-40. Retrieved October 29, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25595469.

[5] This project is supported by the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam (RIF-5/ 18202010.041, year 2020 grant) and runs from January 2021-December 2023. It involves research by both authors, in the Eastern Mediterranean and Central America.

[6] Fauser, Margit. (2019) The Emergence of Urban Border Spaces in Europe, Journal of Borderlands Studies, 34:4, 605-622. doi: 10.1080/08865655.2017.1402195.

[7] Menjívar, Cecilia. (2014). Immigration law beyond borders: Externalizing and internalizing border controls in an era of securitization. Annual Review of Law and Social Science10, 353-369. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-110413-030842.

[8] Çağlar, Ayşe & Glick Schiller, Nina (2018) Migrants and City-Making. Dispossession, Displacement, and Urban Regeneration. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

[9] Dahinden, Janine. 2016. A plea for the ‘de-migranticization’ of research on migration and integration, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39:13, 2207-2225. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2015.1124129.

[10] Winters, Nanneke. (2023b). Making a Living While on the Move: Migrant Trajectories, Hierarchized Mobilities and Local Labour Landscapes in Central America, in Ilse van Liempt, Joris Schapendonk and Amalia Campos-Delgado (eds), Research Handbook on Irregular Migration. Cheltenham: Elgar, pp. 250–260; Winters, Nanneke. (2021). Following, Othering, Taking Over. Research Participants Redefining the Field through Mobile Communication Technology, Social Analysis, 65:1, 133-142. doi: 10.3167/sa.2020.650109.

[11] Winters, Nanneke. (2023a). Everyday Politics of Mobility: Translocal Livelihoods and Illegalisation in the Global South. Journal of Latin American Studies, 55(1), 77-101. doi: 10.1017/S0022216X23000020.

[12] Ikizoglu Erensu, Aslı, & Kaşlı, Zeynep. (2016). A Tale of Two Cities: Multiple Practices of Bordering and Degrees of ‘Transit’ in and through Turkey, Journal of Refugee Studies29(4), 528–548. doi:10.1093/jrs/few037.

[13] Kaşlı, Zeynep. (2023). Migration control entangled with local histories: The case of Greek–Turkish regime of bordering, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space41(1), 14–32. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/02637758221140121.

Read the blogs on the migration series:

How does a place become (less) hostile? Looking at everyday encounters between migrants and non-migrants as acts and processes of bordering.

From caminantes to community builders: how migrants in Ecuador support each other in their journeys.

From branding to bottom-up ‘sheltering’: How CSOs are helping to address migration governance gaps in the shelter city of Granada

“Us Aymara have no borders”: Differentiated mobilities in the Chilean borderlands

Precarity along the Colombia–Panama border: How providing healthcare services to transit migrants can foster new logics of inclusion and exclusion

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Zeynep Kaşlı is Assistant Professor in Migration and Development at ISS, affiliated with the Governance, Law and Social Justice Research Group. Her research interests include mobility, citizenship, borders, transnationalism, power and sovereignty with regional expertise in Turkey, Middle East and Europe.



Nanneke Winters is an assistant professor in Migration and Development at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research interests include im/mobility, migrant trajectories, and translocal livelihoods in Central America and beyond.

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Amid increasing disinformation and the silencing of speech, scholars must strive towards speaking truth

With the rising assault on free speech and with disinformation being used as an instrument by states to undermine dissent, the role of researchers has become pivotal. Scholars need to transcend their role of complicit impartiality and should seek to reveal and tell the truth as cognisant political agents, writes Haris Zargar.

Last year, the Israeli government formally labelled several Palestinian rights outfits “terrorist organizations”. These Palestinian human rights organizations, including the prominent rights outfit Al-Haq, have been working in the West Bank. Many who have closely worked with Al-Haq believed that the banning of the Palestinian rights groups occurred not only because of their credible work on documenting the rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, but also for setting an impeccable standard in research, documentation, and advocacy.

Weeks after the ban, I happened to speak to a Palestinian friend and former colleague at SOAS who works at Al-Haq – a word which in Arabic literally means ‘the truth’. I wanted to enquire about his wellbeing and how the ban was impacting their work. “We are terrorists for them, you know, for speaking the truth,” he told me, and added: “They are all afraid of the truth. Speaking the truth is now terrorism.” For us, the ‘they’ and ‘them’, left unidentified by my friend, explicitly meant the Israeli government in his context, and in a not so obvious way in my context the Indian government that has likewise criminalized all forms of dissent and have jailed human rights defenders, scholars, and journalists on terrorism charges.

My friend’s ‘metaphorical’ words arguably echoed a larger reality and perhaps the peril of our times – an era of disinformation, a period in which documenting and speaking truth is equated with terrorism. And this criminalization of truth is done not just by authoritarian regimes, but even by those states who project themselves as custodians of free speech and freedom of expression. We live in an era where misinformation and fake news is pursued as state policy to cripple people’s perceptions of reality and truth. Twitter’s takeover by a billionaire represents just another example of that reality in which the ruling political and corporate elites are seeking to choke perhaps the few remaining alternatives spaces that have provided a platform for ground-up perspectives on events in real time. ​

Having said that, I do not want to claim that social media platforms have safeguarded free speech or absolve them of responsibility for the dissemination of disinformation. In fact, these platforms have been at the forefront of censoring political dissidents and have worked closely with authoritarian regimes to polarize societies and push right-wing narratives, conspiracy theories, and misinformation.

Over the past decade, we have witnessed a growing assault on civil rights groups, human rights defenders, academicians, scholars, journalists, artists, whistle-blowers, and those who have merely sought to speak the truth. These assaults include direct attacks ranging from assassinations, incarceration, criminal and terrorism charges to physical assaults, exiles, and indirect threats/intimidations including travel bans, cyber bullying, etc. There is an apparent concerted effort to criminalize all legitimate forms of dissent and expression.

Scholars, activists, and journalists everywhere are facing violence. The case of British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who has been in Egyptian prison on spurious charges of spreading false news, is one glaring example. Similarly, a prominent Kashmiri human rights defender, Khurram Pervaiz, has been in prison under a draconian anti-terror law. Khurram is the chairperson of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), a rights organization that investigates forced disappearances in Asia. He also leads the Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a group that has published scathing reports on rights violations committed by armed forces in Kashmir.

In India, authorities have illegally detained and prosecuted scholars and students under anti-terrorism laws for simply expressing views that contradict those of the current ruling party. Last year, Iranian authorities arrested three professors from Poland on charges of espionage. The state in Hong Kong has used its  , leading to prosecutions and dismantling of student unions from various universities. There has been an intensifying crackdown on free speech in Turkey. Central Asian states are often not spoken about and the situation in these places remains gloomy.

This is not a phenomenon restricted to rest of the world – Western Europe and America remain complicit and guilty of the same infringements. In fact, Western Europe and America are culpable of not only enabling and emboldening these authoritarian regimes in Asia, Africa, and Latin America but remain the main precursor in censoring civil rights activists. In recent times, we are seeing the silencing of Palestinian voices in Germany and the UK. The Goethe-Institute decision to de-platform Palestinian activist Mohammed el-Kurd or Berlin’s police banning several Nakba Day protests are just a few examples.

In the US, many states have introduced bills that would direct what students can and cannot be taught about the role of slavery in American history and the ongoing effects of racism in America today. France has doubled down on their perpetual smear campaign against French Muslims and migrants. Italy’s new regime is doubling down its attack on migrants coming from Africa and elsewhere as well as criminalising NGOs. We witnessed police brutality directed at migrants and non-Europeans even during the emergency times like the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukrainian conflict. The chargesheet is long and exhaustive.

What I am alluding to and what I want to highlight is that our job and responsibility in these bleak times as scholars has become even more important, especially in holding up the mirror to those in positions of power and upholding the truth – which is often subjective. Truth is unlike a bare fact, which, devoid of context, is often used in disinformation campaigns. Most of us are engaged in work that we are passionate about, be that issues of women’s and gender rights like the ongoing women’s protests in Iran or struggles for abortion rights in the US, Poland, or labour rights in China, West Asia, Africa, the imminent environmental and climate change crisis that is impacting the poorest of the world, rising authoritarianism and ultra-right-wing populism, and the stifling of people’s self-determination movements, be that in Palestine, Western Sahara, West Papua, or Kashmir.

We are not just academics but citizens and an integral part of global political and social systems. It is imperative that we work towards the betterment of this world. As states pursue their direct assault on civil rights groups and launch disinformation campaigns to discredit activism and those who strive for justice, we must carry the responsibility of upholding truth and preserving it. I must emphasize, as I often tell myself this as well, that different forms of oppression are interlinked and therefore the resistance to these oppressive systems must be collaborative. We must stand in solidarity with each other to preserve, uphold, or speak the truth in whichever way we can. There can be no selective resistance or single cause to fight for.

The world we knew is fading and the new emerging world must be built on the foundations of freedom, justice, and egalitarianism – not in a Western neoliberal framework. We must envision a world where there is no place for racism, xenophobia, homophobia, antisemitism, islamophobia, or misogyny. That new world cannot be a reality if our hearts are not stirred by the torrents of revolution in which truth and justice is the central motif. My speech this evening reads like a political manifesto, and it should be taken as such, for our responsibility to uphold al-haq (the truth) is not just a moral obligation but should be our political stance as scholars.

I conclude with the words of poet-Philosopher Allama Iqbal, also known as the poet of the East, who wrote:

Does your heart tremble from the fear of the impending storm? Know that you are the sailor, you are the ocean, you are the boat, and the destination.

This article was first presented in the form of a speech and is posted here with the permission of the author.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Haris Zargar is doctoral candidate at ISS focusing on political Islam, social movements and agrarian change. He has worked as a journalist for over a decade writing on the intersection of politics, conflict and human security and has degrees in Journalism and Development Studies.

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From balloons to masks: the surprising results of doing research during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown that ensued caused disruption in every possible dimension of life, including the way in which academic research projects were conducted. In this article Wendy Harcourt, who led the recently completed EU-funded WEGO project, reflects on the effect the pandemic had on the project, showing how its network of researchers had to think and work together creatively and innovatively to keep the project going.

In March 2018, I was proud to launch the EU-funded WEGO (Well-being, Ecology, Gender and cOmmunity Innovation Training Network) project – my dream project. I had been awarded 4 million euro to set up this innovative training network with a group of dynamic feminist political ecologists and had the chance to select 15 talented young people from around the world to do their PhDs with us. As we celebrated with balloons and cake on Women’s Day at the ISS, what we couldn’t have foreseen is that the COVID-19 pandemic would appear smack bang in the middle of our four years together. The pandemic scattered the dreams we had but, as I suggest here, it also offered surprising insights into how to do research differently. The project was recently concluded, which allows me to reflect on what happened during the past four years – the good and the bad.

WEGO’s research focus was the hugely challenging idea to investigate how communities were building resilience strategies to cope with environmental, political, and economic change in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa by learning from the ground up. WEGO PhD projects were designed as intimate studies on communities’ resistance to extractivism, embodied experiences of ageing and care, community economies, emotional engagements with water, and contested academic debates around and political protests.

The PhD researchers, supported by a network of nearly 30 academic mentors from around the world, headed out in 2019 to record and analyze the dynamic everyday experiences of damaged and contested environments, collaborating with women and men in communities who are rarely visible in political ecology research. The network used participatory action methods along with self-reflective and non-extractive feminist research approaches to engage with individuals, local communities, and social movements.

Then COVID-19 hit in early 2020, and all PhDs had to close down their research projects and literally flee to places where they had permission to reside. For some, that meant going home; for others it meant moving back to the place of their university. For all of them, it meant major adjustments to their research plans. The network as a whole was thrown into the unknown – could we continue to do research as the world was shutting down? Would we continue to be funded? We worried that it seemed we had to break every rule in the EU book. But, like everywhere else in the world, the EU had to adjust – and so did we.

And, to our surprise, we survived and even, in an odd way, became stronger. The two-and-a-half years of the pandemic meant moving from individual research projects with rigid expectations of what were to be the results to learning to work collectively, connecting online, opening up conversations about how we dealt with our emotions, as well as our concerns about how the (often very vulnerable) communities with whom the PhDs were doing research were coping with pandemic restrictions and lockdowns.

The pandemic changed the nature and focus of WEGO’s research in creative and unexpected ways. Going online meant opening up new questions about embodied and in-place convergences and between the personal and political space. This posed a challenge in the implementation of feminist methodologies engaged with participatory action research techniques, but it also allowed for creativity to transform how we harnessed digital spaces to reach faraway voices in the places the research was situated.

Doing research during the pandemic allowed the network to raise diverse questions around languages of care in feminist and environmental justice research, and politics. The encounters with the virus, and our isolation, reinforced conversations about how to include more-than-human actors to think together with non-western epistemologies, natures, and voices.

Moving from a research project that was designed for face-to-face connections to going online, forced us to respond and adapt to disruptions. We realized it was important to make visible the troubles of doing politically engaged research, learning from the pandemic restrictions on mobility, lack of face-to-face engagement, as well as the possibilities of using the technical openings in digital space. We created new methodological, theoretical, and epistemological ways of doing research across geographical arenas, breaking down some older barriers around needing to travel and be in-place. As a result, WEGO produced writing that is collaborative and fluid (Harcourt et al. 2022) allowing for reflective, emotional, and creative responses to the thorny questions we found ourselves asking about power, resistance, and pain, using art, photos, drawings, and storytelling.

The experience of WEGO during the pandemic illustrates the importance of innovation and adaptation in research. It is crucial to be experimental, creative, and flexible in order to deal with individual, institutional and global uncertainties. And, in this way, we learn to cope with disruption as the new normal.


Harcourt, W., K. van den Berg, C. Dupuis and J. Gaybor (2022) Feminist MethodologiesExperiments, Collaborations and Reflections

Download for free here

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Dr Wendy Harcourt was appointed full Professor and a Westerdijk Professor together with an endowed Chair of Gender, Diversity and Sustainable Development at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam in The Hague in October 2017. She was Coordinator of the EU H2020-MSCA-ITN-2017 Marie Sklodowska-Curie WEGO-ITN from 2018-2022. From 1988-2011 she was editor and director of programmes at the Society for International Development in Rome, Italy. She has published 12 monographs and edited books and over 100 articles in critical development theory, gender and diversity and feminist political ecology.

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Transformative Methodologies | Changing minds and policy through collaborative research?

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.


Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

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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Addressing threats to scholars on the ground demands proactive measures from Academic institutions: Notes from fieldwork in Kashmir

Fieldwork is the most critical, and perhaps, the most demanding component of research, especially in difficult and hazardous contexts such as active conflict zones or nations with authoritarian regimes.

I started my fieldwork in June 2021, at a time when India was slowly recovering from a severe second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that had also affected the disputed region of Kashmir, where I was undertaking my research on the rise of anti-state socio-political movement in relation to the restructuring of land relations in this restive Himalayan valley. Although the entire region had been put under a strict lockdown – restricting public mobility and access to government offices – I steadily began my fieldwork.

​I had been cautious in interacting with people and gathering data because of the sensitive nature of my research and the region’s extensive hyper surveillance. Despite being a native of the place, I found it difficult to have people talk to me on record or being interviewed. At the time, there was a massive clampdown on political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers who were critical of the state.

​Despite my cautious approach, I soon found myself under investigation by state police, who started querying for information about me from my family, friends, and acquaintances. They even visited my home to take my picture and additional information. It was suggested that I put my research on hold and resume it after the situation had calmed down. While the situation was still unravelling, I remained unaware of the extensiveness of the problem of state surveillance and continued traveling to different parts of the valley.

However, it became clear in the first week of September that I was not only facing the possibility of being detained by the state, but that the sensitive data that I had collected was also at risk of being accessed by state agencies, which would not only have violent consequences for me, but would also jeopardize the safety of my interviewees. The situation had escalated after the residences of four of my fellow journalists were raided by the police, and their documents, books, and phones were confiscated. As the state police was widening its crackdown, I was informally being informed from different sources that I was also at risk of police search and questioning.


Current pre-fieldwork protocols inadequate to ensure researchers’ safety on the ground

​Given that state authorities often confiscate all electronic devices, including phones, computers, and hard drives, and force you to give up all passwords as part of the interrogation process, I discovered few resources for protecting and securing research data in such scenarios. As a researcher, I knew I had very little legal options and protections.

I was also informed that my name had appeared on the list of three dozen researchers, scholars, journalists, and activists that had been put on the ‘no-fly’ list and faced the risk of passport cancellation. As a researcher, I had followed all the required procedures to ensure that the research I was undertaking was done in an ethical, responsible, and safe manner. However, when I became aware of the state machinery creeping in on me, all the existing guidelines and protocols appeared inadequate.

The data and privacy management plans the institutions expect researchers to follow fail to include the possibilities of scholars facing detention or confiscation of their research material, especially when researchers can be detained without trials even on the flimsiest pretext of holding contact details of an interviewee or a document deemed ‘anti-state.’

​It appears that the pre-fieldwork safety evaluation does not reflect the possibility of incarceration, material seizure, or travel prohibitions. These assessments, it appears, only look at the level of threat, nature of possible hazards, and ethical issues. There is no training to prepare or inform scholars what to expect from the institutions in situations where they are detained or restricted from traveling..


Prioritising researchers’ safety is possible with bold and proactive measures by academic institutions

Conducting research has become increasingly difficult for many scholars in growingly illiberal and authoritarian countries like India, where scholars are actively targeted.  Recently, an anthropologist at University of Sussex, Filippo Osella, was denied entry and deported from the country. Many others have been jailed and remain incarcerated for years. Many scholars, especially from Kashmir, who study in universities across the globe have faced intimidations and raids from state agencies, with many unable to return to even visit families, let alone conduct any research. The government is actively censoring all forms of research to erase the facts, and their documentation, on the ground.

As scholars, these are critical challenges to address, given that governments are increasingly targeting researchers, thereby making it harder to undertake any kind of study, especially those deemed critical of the state.

One conceivable agreement that universities and critical research institutes like the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) can establish is to set up mechanisms with governments, through their embassies or other state organisations, that make them the guarantor of academicians’ and researchers’ safety, especially for those undertaking research in places like Kashmir. Universities must make governments pledge their support for establishing such mechanisms through legally binding bonds or MOUs.

If such requests to ensure safety of scholars are not met, institutes must discontinue undertaking any research in countries that refuse to ensure the safety of scholars and academics. This will guarantee that the government doesn’t only say it’ll provide a safe atmosphere for researchers to undertake research, but also holds them accountable if something goes wrong. This idea will be key for securing protection of scholars and academics, who otherwise lack any immunity from the state onslaught.

Hope, Play, Relate: Changing narratives for greater solidarity and open civic space

Narratives or the stories we use to set our perceptions and experiences in a larger context of meaning are powerful tools for both supporting civic space and engagement and oppressing them. As we are often not even aware of these narratives, changing them is not easy and requires much more than spreading information. A roundtable at the recent EADI/ISS conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice” explored successful practical examples how a deeper change of narratives can take place in favour of positive social change and freedom of expression. Nicole Walshe and Anne Mai Baan summarize its recommendations.

In our work to strengthen and support civic space worldwide (i.e. the space for freedoms of meaning, and shape our understandings of the world – are like layered currents. Sometimes only a part of the narrative is visible, the tip of the iceberg, but beneath the surface it is connected to deeply held and shared social norms and values, history and culture which are often invisible and difficult to melt down.

We seized the opportunity at the recent EADI conference on ‘Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice’ to understand different strategies to influence narrative currents. The virtual roundtable on solidarity-building narratives affirmed that such narratives can be powerful tools to protect and strengthen the space to practice our civic rights – as key enablers of peace and social justice. We also learned that narrative change work is about:

  • Hope and Play. Narrative work finds creative ways to move people to new ideas and experiences, tapping into feelings of hope and visioning possible futures.
  • Relationships and Understanding. It is a process of mutual learning – demanding openness to have one’s own mind changed too.
  • Listening. It is most powerful when you reach out to those you don’t necessarily already agree with, to find shared values and meet in the middle.
  • Co-Creating: It is a constant iterative process, asking interaction with all kinds of actors and individuals, finding expressions of solidarity to create a better future together.
  • Showing, not telling. Narratives need to be embodied, and solidarity is best expressed through concrete actions.
  • Moving beyond strategic communications: The end goal of narrative change work is a deeper level of social change based on power analysis and social norm change strategies.

So what does this look like in practise? Read about the approaches, tactics and lessons from Bulgaria, South Africa and Colombia….and how funders can support this work.

The importance of Hope – shifting perceptions in Bulgaria

For Fine Acts – a global creative studio for social impact –  hope is the thread that cuts through all their work. Research about what makes people care reveals that opinions don’t change through more information but through compelling, empathetic experiences. Yana Buhrer Tavanier explained that if our messaging triggers fear and guilt, people will shut down. We need to communicate hope and opportunity to engage people and gather the positive and creative energy for change! Fine Acts applied this in their Love Speech campaign, which engaged 35 leading Bulgarian artists in a vast campaign against hate speech, which has been on the rise particularly against Roma, LGBTQI+ people and refugees. The campaign featured a series of urban art interventions, a participatory installation, a viral online video, and a large free-to-use collection of illustrations, and reached more than one million people, raising awareness of the implications of hate speech on wider society. Through creativity, playfulness, hope and wit, the campaign was able to engage people in a non-threatening way to shift perceptions of these marginalized groups and counter dominant hateful narratives.

Yana’s tip: – don’t let trying to do things the ‘perfect way’ hold you back – experimentation is just as good. Try, learn, adapt, learn and adapt again!

The importance of Play – challenging beliefs in South Africa

Narrative change work combines campaigning and communication strategies. In order to be effective it needs to focus on understanding the interests and psychology of those whose perceptions you want to change, and taps into culture, humour, history to connect with the audience on multiple levels. This also requires a certain amount of playfulness – in particular when serious and demanding human rights activism can lead to burnout or feelings of powerlessness. Ishtar Lakhani illustrated the creative and playful mixed approach through the example of raising awareness on the rights of sex workers in South Africa. The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) chose to focus on challenging the specific image of sex work pushed out by Hollywood blockbuster imagery. By instead showing the multiple working identities of sex workers – as mothers, carers, often combining different jobs – the campaign demonstrated that sex work is not the only work that sex workers (can) do.  For example, SWEAT also seized the opportunity of the 2019 South African National Elections to deploy their creative activism and started a fictitious sex worker-led political party called SWAG. Through political party posters, convincing social media coverage and a campaign video with the one-liner ‘Your Rights, Your Freedom, Your SWAG’ they gained attention and public space to talk about the rights of sex workers and managed to get the two largest opposition political parties to include this as an issue in their election manifestos.

Ishtar’s tip – changing the language you use can sometimes create bridges to unexpected allies and new ways of looking at the issue. You can then jointly make a new narrative!

The importance of Relationships and Showing, not Telling – Human Rights outreach in Venezuela

Doing narrative change work can also be about using concrete action to show people what we mean when talking about rights. Often those concrete practical examples are precisely what pulls people towards  social change activism rather than mere rhetoric and general statements about rights.  In Venezuela two things came together to change the way a team of pro-bono lawyers did human rights outreach to communities. The team had already been facing narrative attacks labelling human rights proponents as ‘anti-Venezuelan’, and had been working on a series of events that would ‘materialise’ rights in ways beyond their traditional legal accompaniment. By offering opportunities for sports, music, and entrepreneurial training, for example. With the onset of COVID, the need to creatively rethink how they reached community members became even more urgent. So they held upcycling workshops to make PPE face-shields, began partnering with community kitchens, and formalized a position for creative community activism. These creative approaches resulted not only in more effective community engagement, but also prompted reflections on what it means to be lawyers and how they might give a face to human rights that resonates more with the lived experiences of the communities they work in.

Lucas’s tip: Appeal to people’s ideal collective future, to reveal how much the values underlying these visions of an ideal society align. Narrative success depends on making relationships and experiences the ends of your project, not the means.

The importance of FAILing and funding failure!

FAILing, or a First Attempt In Learning, is something James Savage from the Global Fund for Human Rights encourages all funders to not only be excited about, but to incentivize and enable. He suggests some key points for funders who are interested in supporting narrative change work to bear in mind:

  • Focus on the process, not product, and fund the process. Work on shifting norms, perceptions and deep currents in society has different timelines and measures of change!
  • Embrace risk, unpredictable outcomes and experimentation. ‘Success’ is redefined by the learning, iterations and ‘FAIL’ing forward.
  • Understand the objective of a funder as ‘accompanying a learning journey and building of narrative power’, and translate this directly into an accountability framework focusing on changes and learning instead of impact.
  • Resource local narrative changemakers & foster connection for mutual support, learning and collaboration. Lots of small initiatives may be the answer.
  • Support an infrastructure of narrative work with the means to widely disperse and deeply immerse narratives over time that shape how societal norms are set.

James’s tip: Funders need to be prepared to FAIL forward and to support others to FAIL forward.

Solidarity in Narratives, Narratives for Solidarity

Humans tend to assemble mutually reinforcing stories in order to establish common sense and construct shared beliefs or truths about people, places, communities, cultures and their understandings of rights and social justice.  Narrative work is about changing what is ‘known’ about a group of people, or about a situation. It is, however, not about ‘convincing’ people; rather about building new and different relationships and understanding. Co-constructing narratives can be a key way to connect with different constituencies and build solidarity across groups, including those that didn’t start out with the same perspective or agreement. It is as much about story-listening as story-telling. And the stories continue to be written:

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Nicole Walshe coordinates Oxfam’s Knowledge Hub on Governance & Citizenship (KHG&C) – a network for staff working on themes of governance & citizenship, with a specific focus on civic space, fiscal justice and active citizenship. She does this together with the inspiring KHG&C Core Team, who are based in The Netherlands, Bolivia and Vietnam. Nicole is passionate about the topics of civic space and human rights and combining these with influencing tactics and strategy, and has a keen interest in supporting knowledge and learning processes that can help us take action and make strategic decisions based on what we observe and learn. ​

Anne Mai Baan is a Knowledge Broker on Civic Space & Narratives in the KHG&C Team at Oxfam. This position is all about convening connections and building relationships across Oxfam’s network on the topics of civic space and narratives. Within the knowledge Hub we find creative and inclusive ways to make different forms of knowledge (experiences & expertise) more visible, accessible and useful for greater reach, impact and influence! Anne Mai is passionate about issues of power and exclusion, the way language shapes our experiences and the impact of competing narratives in humanitarian and development contexts.

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EADI ISS Conference 2021 | Risk dumping in field research: some researchers are safer than others

Researchers who conduct their fieldwork in unfamiliar or hazardous settings are routinely exposed to risks that can bring them harm if these are not anticipated and circumvented. Often, junior PhDs or foreign researchers conduct fieldwork on behalf of more senior researchers; and in doing so, they also take over the risks that fieldwork poses. The practice of ‘risk and ethics dumping’ that was discussed at a roundtable session on safety and security for researchers at the recent EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 Conference should end, and research institutions and senior researchers should start feeling greater responsibility toward those they work with or employ, write Linda Johnson and Rodrigo Mena.

Balaji Srinivasan (Unsplash)

A quick glance at who is out collecting data in ‘the field’, including in remote and sometimes hazardous environments, is enough to make our point clear: the main executors of in-situ research (also known as fieldwork research) are local researchers and research assistants, sometimes together with junior or PhD researchers from research institutions in the Global North. These groups are being systematically and disproportionately exposed to safety and security issues linked to field research.

Senior and more experienced researchers from these institutions are not likely to be doing hands-on field work. Instead, they often lead projects, supervising those doing the fieldwork and providing advice on to how do fieldwork while keeping a safe distance from ‘the field’ itself. In cases where senior researchers do engage in field research, they usually do it with adequate resources and strong social and professional networks at hand. This protects them from the hazards of doing fieldwork.

Moreover, universities feel compelled to protect themselves from liability, but not their researchers from harm. University managers often approach security with the objective of protecting the university from liability. This means that entire countries and sometimes even continents can become inaccessible to international researchers, mainly by being declared off-limits due to a broad-brush approach in response to hazards identified, but not well understood, by ministry officials and/or university administrators. In reality, such hazards can often be geographically limited to relatively small areas, and relatively safe travel to much of the areas considered off-limits would be feasible, if only more detailed analysis of the actual situation were used in the risk assessment process, and a sound risk plan were developed.

A lack of concern

In her introduction to the topic at the roundtable on “Safety and security for university staff, students and research participants” that formed part of the recent EADI ISS #Solidarity2021 Conference, Thea Hilhorst from the ISS warned about  “risk dumping” on a large scale and discussed some of its dimensions. Risk dumping, which means that risks are diverted to others or simply ‘dumped’ on them, often takes place unintentionally, she argued. She also mentioned that junior staff, PhD candidates, or local researchers are less likely to be insured against risk or trained in risk mitigation, which makes it more difficult for them to identify, mitigate or confront the hazards they come across in the field. Such an insurance policy and appropriate training would also include potential risks for research participants and collaborators. Hilhorst thought that the following four things were crucial for improving the security and safety of researchers:

  1. Safety guidelines. These are essential for ensuring that researchers have a basic knowledge of risks in the field and how they can limit exposure to these.
  2. Safety training. Guidelines without training do not serve much purpose. Researchers with experience of hazardous contexts can help others understand some of the risks better.
  3. Strong safety and security support structures. Universities and research centers need to develop adequate protocols and structures to prevent and manage safety and security risks.
  4. Good insurance cover (including protection against so-called acts of God, i.e. natural hazards and conflict). Both international and local researchers, and those who work with them locally, should be protected in this manner.

What other panellists had to say:

Local researchers are often overlooked

Vagisha Gunasekara from the American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies argued that research policies rarely pay attention to the role of local researchers and enumerators, and the main researchers (principal investigators) fail to recognise that there are ethical issues to be resolved in this respect.

PhD researchers are worth their weight in gold…

Rod Mena from the ISS reminded us that PhD researchers play a vital role in collecting and analysing data for research projects led by more senior academics. He stressed this by asking the participants to imagine a research landscape without PhD researchers: huge swathes of research would never happen without them. However, he said, “although they are clearly vital for research, the approach to their safety is often cavalier at best”.

…but they are forced to put themselves at risk

Mena also pointed to the fact that most PhD researchers have limited resources to conduct fieldwork, thus making it necessary for them to opt for the cheapest options in terms of transportation, accommodation, and even food. This necessity to skimp on costs often increases risks, including to their safety and health.

The implementation of guidelines is important

Eric Beerkens from the Dutch funding division WOTRO Science for Global Development pointed out that his organisation requires adherence to the Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings, which is a step in the right direction, but feels that funding organisations like WOTRO could do more to ensure the implementation of regulations and to raise awareness about the possible risks involved in fieldwork and the need for protective measures.

Researcher exploitation reveals a colonial mindset

Finally, EADI president Henning Melber said that there is clear evidence of colonial mindsets in academia that lead to asymmetric power relations and unashamed exploitation of both PhD researchers and local researchers.

Collectively taking responsibility

All panellists agreed that it is time to end the (often unintentional) risk and ethics dumping in the field of development studies and to self-critically assess our policies and practices. Only by taking responsibility as an academic community can we ensure that important research in the future will be conducted according to high ethical standards and under safe conditions for all involved. The recent letter to the European Commission from many rectors’ conferences and university umbrella organisations in Europe on ‘Enhancing Research Excellence at African Universities through European/ African Cooperation’ signals an intention to collaborate more intensively on research with partners in the Global South. The need to improve our practices has never been greater.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Linda Johnson was the executive secretary of ISS, but has now retired. She is particularly interested in the societal relevance of research. In addition, she has done recent work on the safety and security of researchers and co-developed a course on literature as a lens on development.
Rodrigo Mena is assistant Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Governance.  Mena is Board Member of the International Humanitarian Studies Association (IHSA) and as convener of the Peace and Ecology in the Anthropocene commission at the International.

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Positioning Academia | Let’s talk about it: embedding research communication in transformative research

Discussions on the transformative potential of research have focused little on how research is communicated once it has been conducted and, indeed, while it is conducted. Instead, the focus hitherto has been primarily on data generation processes, with topics such as inclusion, research ethics, and agency frequently discussed. Fundamental questions such as who the knowledge produced through research reaches, at what time, and with which purpose require greater scrutiny, write Dorothea Hilhorst, Lize Swartz, and Adinda Ceelen.

"Books of Knowledge." by Tessss is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

There is a large collection of terms that label efforts to make academic work relevant to and heard and seen by society – research uptake, valorization, knowledge utilization, societal relevance, impact, and so on. Yet, for research to be truly transformative, the way in which knowledge is communicated needs to change. Too often still, the use of abovementioned concepts reveal a way of thinking where research outcomes are seen as a package that needs to be ‘transferred’ to ‘society’ at the end of the process. We argue that research can be more transformative if research uptake is integrated into the objectives and process of the research and if we further unpack the following question: is knowledge produced in the name of social justice, inclusion and the eradication of poverty reaching those that need it most?

This is a tricky question because it requires thinking about how knowledge can be communicated directly with – or indeed by – research participants, and with other actors that can work towards tackling the fundamental societal challenges that are now more pervasive than ever. Knowledge is powerful, and those who can avail of the knowledge can make the difference for, or ideally with, the people whose lives may be directly affected. Transformative research communication seeks to address the issue of the failure of knowledge to trickle down to the ground, so to speak, by asking how research is communicated at different stages of the research process, to whom and where, and with which intent.

The existence of a plethora of definitions of research communication has led to ambiguity on what it means and how to go about it. Unfortunately, research communication is often still seen as an activity done separately from the actual research and often after the research has been completed. Many view it as a step in the research process – between outputs and outcomes – where complex research outputs and findings are translated into a language, format and context that non-experts can understand. Notwithstanding the importance of this type of communication, research communication should be seen to go beyond such translations. Our call is to develop research communication and uptake activities that are in line with – and embedded into – transformative research methodologies.

The above questions form part of a process of rethinking research methodologies by changing the approach we as researchers take to our own role as researchers. By seeing researched communities as knowledge actors rather than populations we need to obtain data about, we work with research participants to bring about change through the research process. Participatory Action Research (PAR) is one way in which this is being done. We see research communication and uptake as an integral part of these research processes, rather than an add-on.

There is room to move beyond conducting research to communicating it not only after knowledge has been produced, but also in the process. Academic blogging for example has emerged as a promising avenue that allows researchers and research participants to make Internet users across the world aware of issues and communicate in a timely way about work done by researchers and societal actors to address these. Increased communication that amplifies the voices of marginalized communities or reports about collective action and social mobilization may for instance inspire solidarity networks in other places to adopt some of the innovative strategies discussed in blog articles, or current research on specific topics may encourage researchers to focus on similar issues in their own contexts or follow up on related research questions and corresponding studies that emerge after reading such articles.

Tackling today’s most pressing global challenges is a highly complex process that is anything but linear. Research communication geared towards durable uptake must therefore be multi-dimensional and multi-scalar, and the messages and targeted audiences will necessarily differ. There is no one size fits all. Thus, knowledge outcomes intended to reach audiences in society at large is communicated differently from knowledge that can inform change within researched communities.

This means that research uptake can take many forms. Yet, it remains important to always choose those forms that align with the long-term objectives, epistemology and processes of research. Here are some directions in which research uptake can be made consistent with transformational, participatory research for global development and social justice:

  1. Make research uptake integral to the process of participatory research. As much as possible, have research participants reach out with their stories or social actions to policy actors or wider audiences. An example concerns research on adolescent perceptions of healthy relationships, where youth were trained as youth peer researchers and subsequently trained to engage in advocacy in their communities.
  2. Favour durable research uptake that has a long-lasting effect. Together with research participants, opportunities can be found to bring about durable change through research. An example is (MOOC) as part of the ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ project of ISS. This MOOC was developed on the basis of the research findings, together with the Global Network of Disaster Reduction, which is a network of 1500 civil society organizations. In the first year of the MOOC, it had 2,500 participants worldwide.
  3. Engage research participants and partners early on and develop a knowledge-sharing and uptake plan with fit-for-purpose outputs and activities. Animations for example can explain the research in simple terms, while timely produced research/policy briefs may appeal to policy makers and practitioners. An example is the publication of a policy brief, soon after the onset of the COVID-19 global health crisis, containing recommendations to improve access to healthcare for undocumented people in the Netherlands. Moreover, make sure that not only your research, but also your communication is participatory. Get input from participants and partners to find out how you can share your research findings in a way that serves their interests and needs. For research participants, this might mean developing non-academic outputs in the participants’ local language(s).
  4. Stay in touch with research participants and continue to engage after the project has ended. The extraction of research from research sites – and our subsequent self-extraction from these settings – without returning and engaging with research participants shows indifference and a lack of concern. Durable research uptake would thus require durable relations between researchers and research participants – a relationship lasting much longer than a research project. Examples are long-lasting international research collaborations and scholar-activism that is embodied in working with research participants to challenge structural problems.

The challenges researchers face in making research transformative are formidable. Conceptualizing transformative research communication and concentrating on research uptake in the design and process of the research is an important strategy to make research part of profound change we wish to see – if only we are willing to engage. So let’s talk about it.

About the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

Lize Swartz

Lize Swartz is the editor-in-chief of ISS Blog Bliss and a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, where she researches political dynamics of socio-hydrological systems. She is part of the newly formed Transformative Methodologies Working Group situated in the Civic Innovation Research Group.

Adinda Ceelen is Knowledge Broker & Research Communications Advisor at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), where she works together with researchers on strengthening links between research and society. She holds an LL.M degree from Utrecht University and a BA degree from University College Utrecht, and furthermore completed the Advanced Master in International Development (AMID) at Radboud University.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

Disasters, Dilemmas and Decisions: Notes from a monsoon fieldwork in Assam, India

Taking an ethnographic route to study disaster-affected communities makes us grow deeply aware of seething worldly inequalities that disasters bring forth. At the same time, it makes us compassionate towards the world outside. It is imperative we reserve a piece of that compassion for our own selves, too, writes Mausumi Chetia.

On a summer night eleven monsoons ago, sleep evaded me. Outside, the winds were growing stronger by the hour and the rain refused to stop pouring. My sleepless thoughts held the image of a family and an incessantly shaking, Kare Okum (chang-ghar in Assamese) or stilt houses built over a flowing channel of water. I was in Majuli, a densely populated island in the Brahmaputra river of Assam, my home state in northeast India. I was collecting data for my Master’s dissertation around the time the monsoons began, bringing the annual floods to our state.

A few days later, my then research supervisor pulled me out of the field site. With a calm, but commanding voice, she asked me to return to ‘safety’ at the earliest. With partially collected data, mixed emotions and a river that was continuously expanding (due to massive erosion of its banks), I left Majuli for my home’s ‘safety’.

Fast forward to fieldwork for my current research in Assam in 2019. I was faced once again with the ethical dilemma of applying a methodological approach focusing on people first and foremost vs prioritising my own safety as a researcher. They were the very puzzles I had left behind in Majuli when I left a decade ago. Research is a deeply political process, but it is a humanising journey, too, as I would come to see (and as Kikon 2019 explains).

The half-written story of a monsoon auto ride: taking a submerged path

My fieldwork in June 2019 took me to one of Assam’s severely flood-prone districts. The geographical location was chosen based on longstanding professional relationships and empirical familiarity with that region.

Map of Assam
Figure 1: Map of Assam, India

A local humanitarian organisation aided me in accessing the research site. I found an accommodation in the district town, about 45 kilometres away from the actual site of study. My research populations lived about 15 to 25 kilometres away from a national highway, on a rehabilitated government-owned piece of land situated along the banks of a river.

The initial fieldwork days were about establishing access and meeting key contacts. The weather was mostly cloudy with occasional showers. One day looked particularly promising, with the sun high up in a clear, blue morning sky. Predictably, the sky got dark in no time. Despite warnings of rising water levels, our auto-rickshaw driver decided to risk continuing the trip. Then the drizzling started.

I could see a blurring silver line across the trees. It was the water. My heart skipped a beat as I remembered the last time I was in a heavily flooded river in a steamer boat, almost two monsoons past. Some thatched houses appeared inundated already. Buffaloes and cows were clutching at tiny islands that had formed in the paddy fields, which in turn resembled huge lakes on either side of the road.

Stranded animals Assam
Figure 2: Stranded animals on islands of submerged paddy fields (photograph taken by the author, July 10th, 2019).

Gradually, it felt like we were surrounded by a sea of water. There came a point where the road ahead looked completely submerged. Our auto-rickshaw came to a halt. A few vehicles had stopped ahead of us. The rain continued pouring. There was chaos and confusion. People needed to cross the submerged part of the road to reach their homes. But the prospect of crossing the waist-deep water with their luggage, infants and children delayed their decision. Three of my fellow passengers told me that they were indeed afraid of the water. Nonetheless, they had to cross it on foot. Devoid of alternatives, two women and a teenaged boy started marching ahead. Many, like them, were from villages as far ahead as 15 kilometres.

An ethical-methodological dilemma

I continued standing there next to our auto-rickshaw, almost in a stupor. A billion thoughts crossed my mind. And here was my dilemma. By design, understanding the ‘everydayness’ of the research population was at the heart of my research methodology. By that virtue, even the present situation of crossing a flooded area should theoretically have been something I would have had to prepare for. However, faced with the disaster first-hand, I was anything but prepared to encounter the ‘lived experiences’ of my research population. I found myself debating whether loyalty to my research methodology was more crucial than my personal safety or, more importantly, whether being an empathetic researcher and registering the real difficulties faced by the research population, in hosting me in their flooded homes, was the most important objective.

The first thing that was stopping me from stepping into the waters was not the fear of the water itself. We were witnessing people crossing the submerged road. And in all fairness, it was not an ‘alarming flood situation’ by any measure, while perhaps only moving towards that. My concern was one of return: my rapport with these families had not matured adequately to a point that I could stay unannounced in my interviewees’ homes. At the same time, if the rains continued (which was most likely), it would have been risky to return. The families were already struggling with minimal living spaces. Basic amenities like food, drinking water, public transport access, markets, hospitals, etc. were already limited and at far-off distances. With rising waters, it would be inappropriate to obligate them to accommodate an additional person, that person being myself.

I was tiptoeing ahead absent-mindedly with all these thoughts in my head when my auto-rickshaw driver called out, asking me to return to the vehicle. Along with a few passengers, he was planning to return to the main highway. He insisted that I must, too, as I looked like an ‘outsider’ and I wouldn’t be able to cross the road like the ‘locals’. With a sense of self-betrayal, I shut my umbrella and got back to the vehicle.

The next morning, we were informed that the entire road till the bank of the river (located at least 15 kms from where we had returned) had been submerged. Even steamer services to Majuli were shut down indefinitely. I realised my return to meet the families would have to wait. This reflected my limited role as an ethnographic researcher – to study the research population during disasters that very much defined the everydayness of their lives.

The ethnographic project is in itself embedded within power relations between the researcher and the researched (Behar, 1993: 31 cited in Prasad, 1998). Empirically speaking, the research population and I share our homeland (of Assam), culture and language, both literally and figuratively, to a considerable extent. Yet we are anything but parallel in the legitimacies of our respective lives. To begin with, for instance, my family or I have never encountered a disaster first-hand. Concurrently, in my research, it is I who determine the design, selection of site, population for study and methodology. This essentially puts me in a position of power and privilege over the research population I study who, in contrast, had no choice in choosing my research through which to share their everyday lives.

Given this inequality, the power (of the researcher) could end up being wielded against the best interests of the researched in ethnographic studies during or after disasters. The delicate balance between prioritising the research methodology and prioritising the research population then becomes crucial for us as disaster researchers. The power divide and our mandate to negotiate these nuances becomes much more apparent during our fieldwork. Critical reflection (Foley and Valenzuela 2005) at this juncture might prove to be a useful exercise.

My fieldwork experience has underlined that remaining empathetic and putting the interests of the research population facing disasters before our own research methodology is fundamental. The classic ethnographic training for young researchers is to become ‘one among them’ (the research population), given all other factors are in place. Thus, from the start, there silently remains a distinction between ‘them and us’. However, coming from the wider socio-cultural horizon of the researched, local researchers like myself must be trusting of one’s own understanding of issues and instincts for making decisions in the field, even if such decisions do not necessarily fit within the our methodological approaches that have been argued to be rooted in western thoughts. Engaging in other aspects of fieldwork then, for instance making contacts with local experts, especially with researchers based and working in the field site for sustained periods, could be fruitful.

Growing together with our research: prioritising researchers’ self-care

More than a year has passed since the field experience elaborated above. Since returning to safety that day, I keep wondering if the decision was methodologically ethical. My choice that morning reflects the power imbalance between the researcher and the researched very clearly. I call it a power imbalance because I had the choice to not move ahead to meet the research population, whereas they themselves had no choice to leave their flooded home and return on a sunnier, drier day. That is their life. These families continue living in similar conditions of high risk and vulnerability, even today.

Auto Rickshaw in monsoon in Assam
Figure 3: Our auto-rickshaw returning towards the highway (photograph taken by the author, July 10th, 2019).

I made my choice balancing the palpable risks of entering a flooded area and as an ostensibly empathetic researcher. That being said, it was also because I prioritised the safety of the self. Many of our decisions as disaster researchers get shaped by our relationship of accountability to our host organisations (if any) and towards our own families and loved ones. Ensuring our own safety is one such challenging decision.

From the dilemmas of my ethnographic fieldwork, I learnt to appreciate that our research is as much about us as human beings/researchers as they are about understanding research populations. As I examine their lives and they examine mine, we grow together. After all, ours is a social and not a controlled laboratory situation. What I seek to reiterate here is this: many aspects of fieldwork are beyond our control. What is in our capacity, however, is to take care of our own research, the research population we engage with and our own selves.

By self-care, I refer to not just the physical and mental/emotional health safety. Beyond such strictly defined medical aspects of health, I emphasise being self-empathetic throughout the period of research while referring to a researcher’s self-care. This is especially true if we engage with disaster-affected populations over long periods. Having and practising contingency plans for safety prior to the fieldwork and regular communication with supervisory teams and our support system is a must for disaster ethnographic researchers. That being said, a researcher’s self-care must be held dearly by none other than the researcher herself.

Traversing the ethnographic road to meet disaster-affected populations

Upon my return from the flooded area, I found that colleagues at my host organisation had been worried about me, as had been my friends and family. I am glad I retraced my steps, albeit guiltily. In hindsight, I question whether I should have changed my methodology considerably for smoother sailing or perhaps should have conducted fieldwork in areas with minimal probability for a disaster. In that case, how true would I remain to my research question and how ethical would that be? My original fieldnote from that day reads,

… this sight (of the flooded paddy fields all around me) is making me question whether my original study population is even living in the same place where I’d met them, or have they already had to move to avoid the rising river? What, then, does it reflect about the (mobile) lives that these (displaced?) families lead and about the credibility of the gaze I want/need to have for this research?

(‘Reflections’ – Fieldnotes of a missed interview, July 10th, 2019)

Such reflexivity helped me reshape aspects of my fieldwork’s methodology in tune with the dynamic external environment. Physical safety and mental health of aid workers are integral to the everyday conversations of the world of humanitarian aid. While discussing reflexivity in her auto-ethnography with disaster-affected communities of Aceh, Indonesia, Rosaria Indah (2018) shares that secondary traumatic stress (STS) could be one of the long-lasting impacts on disaster ethnographers. Thus, this conversation deserves to pick pace within the academic community too, especially for researchers engaging in long-term humanitarian contexts.

Taking an ethnographic road to disaster-affected communities makes us grow deeply aware of seething worldly inequalities that disasters bring forth. At the same time, it makes us compassionate towards the world outside. It is imperative we reserve a piece of that compassion for our own selves too.

This is an edited version of the article that was originally published on the LSE blog.


Foley, S. and Valenzuela, A. (2005) Critical ethnography: the politics of collaboration. In: N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln, eds. The Sage handbook of qualitative research. 3rd edn. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, pp. 217–234.

Indah, R. (2018) Probing problems: Dilemmas of conducting an ethnographic study in a disaster-affected area. International journal of disaster risk reduction 31, pp.799-805.

Kikon, D. (2019) On methodology: research and fieldwork in Northeast India. The Highlander 1(1), pp. 37–40

Prasad, P. (1998) When the Ethnographic Subject Speaks Back: Reviewing Ruth Behar’s. Translated Woman. Journal of Management Inquiry 7(1), pp. 31-36.

Mausumi ChetiaAbout the author:

Mausumi Chetia is a PhD researcher with the ISS. Prior to joining academics, she was working as a development and humanitarian aid professional in India.

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Fighting racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies: toward mindful scholarship

Addressing racism and decolonizing humanitarian studies is urgent, and as scholars we need to step up our efforts. Partnerships between scholars and conflict-affected communities are as unequal as ever, and the disparities between humanitarian studies in the global North and global South remain large. Dorothea Hilhorst here introduces the importance of localization in humanitarian studies that will be discussed in an upcoming workshop on 20 August, highlighting the need for equal partnerships and meaningful participation, as well as continuous debate to move beyond quick fixes in addressing structural and persistent inequalities.

Scholars taking notes during a lecture
Credit: IHSA

Triggered by recent renewed attention to racism and worldwide protests urging change, the lid placed on racism in the humanitarian aid sector has been blown off. Last year’s international meeting of ALNAP concluded that inequality and discrimination in the humanitarian aid sector are a reality, and threatens its core foundation, namely the principle of humanity that views all people in equal terms. Recent weeks have seen many excellent blogs about racism in the sector and how resorting to arguments centring on capacities often obscure racist practices.

Yet racism in humanitarian studies is rarely mentioned. As scholars, we are ready to lay bare the fault lines in the humanitarian sector, but what about our own practices? It is time to address racism and decolonize humanitarian studies, too!

Turning our gaze inward

Anthony Giddens spoke of the double hermeneutic between social science and society, which co-shape each other’s understanding of the world and adopt each other’s vocabulary. In the relatively small and applied community of humanitarian studies, the double hermeneutic between academia and the field is more than discursive. Humanitarian studies can be seen to mimic many of the characteristics of its subject of research. Problems with humanitarian action are thus likely reproduced in the scholarly community that focuses on humanitarianism.

Racism-related problems with humanitarian studies can be grouped in two clusters:

First, the organization of humanitarian studies leads to a field dominated by scholars from the Global North. While scholars critically follow attempts of the sector to localize aid in an attempt to reduce racism through increasing ownership of aid processes, humanitarian studies itself may be criticized for being centred in the Global North. Adjacent domains of disaster studies and refugee studies[i] have faced similar critiques.

Research and educational institutes are mainly found in the global North, and rarely in the Global South where most humanitarian crises occur. The picture is less skewed with regards to disasters related to natural hazards, where we find many leading institutes in the Global South. However, faculties and courses dealing with humanitarianism in the Global South are scarce (see the global directory of the International Humanitarian Studies Associations for exceptions). Reasons include the dire lack of attention to higher education in donor programmes focusing on conflict-affected countries, making it almost impossible to find funding for such programmes[ii]. In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

Moreover, relations between northern and southern institutions rarely attain the nature of equal partnership[iii]. The best many southern universities can usually hope for is to become a poorly paid partner that has no say in the agenda of the research and whose role is limited to data gathering. The possibility of co-authoring may not even be mentioned. I have followed closely how a gender and development institute in DRC, built around four women PhD holders, could easily find work as a sub-contractor for research, but once they developed their own agenda and proposals, donors were not interested and preferred to rely on Northern NGOs or UN agencies.

The picture becomes even direr when we take into account ethics dumping, when risks are offloaded on local researchers. Many universities in the north have adopted restrictive measures and don’t allow researchers to work in ‘red zones’. These researchers then rely on remote research and use local researchers to collect the data. One scholar told me at a conference how frustrated he was that his university did not allow him to enter a conflict area. He took residence at the border where he could regularly meet his research assistants, who gathered his data at their own risk. His frustration concerned his own impossibility to engage with the research, not the fate of these assistants! He had not considered involving the researchers in the analysis or inviting them as co-authors.

Second, methodologies and the ethics of relating to the research participants whose lives we study are problematic. Humanitarian studies is seen to be extractive, blighted by 1) a culture of direct data gathering through fieldwork and interviews at the expense of secondary data, leading to overly bothering crisis-affected communities with research; 2) a lack of feedback opportunities to communities, who see researchers come and go to obtain data and rarely, if ever, hear from them again; and 3) the assumption that participatory methods are not possible in conflict-affected areas because it is feared that social tensions will be reproduced in the research process. It is also assumed that people facing precarity and risks may have no interest in deep participation in research.

Deep participation does not mean quick and dirty participation in data gathering, such as participation in focus-group discussions where researchers can quickly move in and out of the lives of communities. Meaningful interactive research involves partners and participants as much as possible in every stage of the research[iv]. There have, however, been positive examples of participatory research in crisis-affected areas[v], and it is time that we build on these experiences and advance this work.

Thus, racism and decolonization debates have implications for methodology. Pailey critically noted that ‘the problem with the 21st-century “scholarly decolonial turn” is that it remains largely detached from the day-to-day dilemmas of people in formerly colonised spaces and places’. Similarly, Tilley[vi] argued that decolonization means ‘doing research differently’ – equally and collaboratively.

Of course, there are also reasons for caution with participatory methods that may be more pronounced in humanitarian crises. First, social realities are, in many ways, influenced by (governance) processes happening elsewhere, beyond immediate observation. Second, participatory methods may be prone to identifying outcomes that reflect the biases of the research facilitators (facipulator effects) and/or political elites participating in the process. Third, participatory processes risk feeding into existing tensions and creating harm. Research in crisis-affected areas may entail more risks and tends to be more politicized compared with other research.

It is therefore important to build on positive experiences while maintaining a critical dialogue on the possibilities of participatory research in humanitarian studies. As scholars, we need to work hard to break down the disincentives, to work towards equal partnerships, and to develop more participatory methodologies that treat conflict-affected communities as competent and reflexive agents that can participate in all aspects of the research process.

The environments of humanitarian studies are highly politicized and complex, and there are no quick fixes for our collaborations and methodologies. Thus, while stepping up our efforts, we also need to rely on the core of the academe: continuous debate and critically reflection on how we can enhance partnership for ethical research in humanitarian studies.

Inspired? Join the IHSA/NCSH webinar on Thursday 20 August, 11-12 CET.

This blog was written at the start of a 5-year research programme on humanitarian governance, aiming to decolonize humanitarian studies. The project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, project 884139.

[i] Sukarieh, M., & Tannock, S. (2019). Subcontracting Academia: Alienation, Exploitation and Disillusionment in the UK Overseas Syrian Refugee Research Industry. Antipode, 51(2), 664–680.

[ii] In 2016, at the World Humanitarian Summit, participants drafted a set of ethical commitments that called for, among other things, more space for scholars and communities from crisis-affected countries (IHSA, 2016). Three years later, signatories admitted to a lack of progress, which they largely attributed to structural disincentives for collaboration in their universities.

[iii] Cronin-Furman, K., & Lake, M. (2018). Ethics Abroad: Fieldwork in Fragile and Violent Contexts. PS – Political Science and Politics, 51(3), 607–614. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049096518000379

[iv] Voorst, R. van and D. Hilhorst (2018) ‘Key Points of Interactive Research: An Ethnographic Approach to Risk’. In A. Olofsson and Jens O. Zinn Researching Risk and Uncertainty. Methodologies, Methods and Research Strategies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, pp 53-77

[v] Haar, G. van der, Heijmans, A., & Hilhorst, D. (2013). Interactive research and the construction of knowledge in conflict-affected settings. Disasters, 37(SUPPL.1), 20–35. https://doi.org/10.1111/disa.12010

[vi] Tilley, L. (2017). Resisting Piratic Method by Doing Research Otherwise. Sociology, 51(1), 27–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038038516656992

About the author:

Dorothea HilhorstDorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

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