Studying Them, Studying Us, Studying Up: What Role for an Engaged Anthropology?

by Ruben Andersson

This guest post is part of a series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington DC. UC Press authors share insight into their research and stories that reflect this year’s conference theme “Producing Anthropology.” We hope these personal glimpses into their scholarship will inspire a broad community of readers. Come back for new posts every day between now and December 5th

It was at the end of a volunteering shift in a migrant holding centre that the question I had expected finally came, voiced in eloquent French. “Ah, so you are studying us?”

The speaker was a Malian man in his fifties, undocumented like everyone else in “the camp”, as migrants called their precarious home in Ceuta, a Spanish enclave in North Africa. During research on irregular migration for my book Illegality, Inc., I often heard such retorts. “What can you offer us?” deportees asked me in Senegal, “and what do you want?” Their questions seemed the wrong way round, but for a good reason: they had seen too many visitors already.

At Europe’s southern fringes, migrants find themselves at the crosshairs of a powerful border apparatus – and they know it. “Human trading” was how one migrant stranded in Ceuta glossed his predicament. “They have work thanks to us,” said another, referencing not just camp workers and police but also the reporters, researchers and do-gooders waiting outside the facility’s fences. As one embittered Senegalese deportee summed it up, “there’s lots of money in illegal migration.”

As anthropologists strive to fill what Joel Robbins calls the “suffering slot,” focusing on marginalised people, we have entered “field sites” that are busy places indeed. How to frame and justify our studies here, amid the stampede of NGOs, reporters, officials and undercover police? These dilemmas became clear to me as I sat in sand-swept Dakar courtyards parrying questions from angry deportees. Yet as our discussions deepened, I glimpsed a way out. The deportees’ insistent question started guiding my research: “Who gains from ‘illegal migration’, and how?”

As I shifted focus from migrants to those working on migration, I entered another busy field beset by similar problems. Studying “up” and “sideways” have become ethnographic buzzwords – yet how do we retain our epistemic convictions, our anthropological sensibility, as we mingle with policy officers and political scientists, “quants” and criminologists, police and reporters? At times, it seems as if our distinctive ethnographic approach, relational and subjectively anchored, inhibits our ability to contribute to broader debates on pressing political problems.

I believe that we can take the lead in such debates thanks to, rather than in spite of, our convictions. But to do so we need to be able to speak beyond our discipline, as anthropological work on debt, conflict or humanitarianism has shown is eminently possible. We also need more methodological “promiscuity,” poaching tools and partnering up – just like my new border worker “informants” were doing as they built networks connecting humanitarians, border agents and journalists. Here we can tap into the knowledge of “marginalised” participants, too, who may serve as co-analysts of these very networks. And as we move between the small-scale and the systemic, between the “phenomenal” and the political, we may also gain an audience. Our ethnography puts flesh on the bare bones of academic abstraction.

True, these justifications may not satisfy my Malian questioner. However, we cannot shirk away from addressing large political problems, not least since we already inhabit a political arena that frames or funds our research – an arena, moreover, in which our work can easily be appropriated by powerful groups regardless of our intentions. Stepping fully into this field, anthropology can play an insurgent role in moving between disciplines and pushing beyond their stale confines, in a manner not too dissimilar to that of a clandestine migrant crossing fences and borders.

Ruben Andersson is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of International Development, London School of Economics and Political Science, and an associated researcher at the Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University.

 

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