By Bridget Anderson.
Happy New Year all. Let’s hope that 2024 brings more peace and justice than 2023. We need it. It is difficult to be hopeful in the face of the ongoing Gaza horror, more needless (and nameless) deaths in the Mediterranean and Channel, the fall out from the Illegal Migration Act, and the anticipated Rwanda legislation. All these speak to the concerns of many MMB members. Not only migration and asylum policy, but state violence, exclusion, citizenship, nationalism, mobility and immobility, leaving and staying put and, related to all of these, the protean nature of racism.
Many of us believe that it is our academic responsibility to speak truth to power and leverage our analysis to affect transformation. But in reality the transformation has been travelling in the opposite direction to the one demanded by evidence and analysis. Over the past 20 years there has been a proliferation of migration research, Masters’ courses, conferences, journals, centres and networks, particularly in the rich world. Our understanding of human movement and the tools we use to analyse it have undoubtedly improved hugely. So why is it that law and policy are so determinedly taking us in the opposite direction, and we seem to be marching away, not only from justice, but from simple common sense? Anyone who is interested in this kind of question would do well to read Christina Boswell’s work. In her book The Political Uses of Expert Knowledge: Immigration Policy and Social Research (Cambridge 2009) she explains that the usual explanations for the disconnection between policy and research (political pressure; institutional incapacity/lack of resources on the part of government and other research users; abstraction/irrelevance on the part of research producers) are correct but insufficient. She argues that research and expertise also lend credibility, meaning that they serve two important functions for government policymakers. The first is a legitimizing function, creating confidence that decisions are well founded. The second is a substantiating function, supporting already existing policy choices and preferences.
Importantly, the legitimizing and substantiating functions of research are powerful but are not helpful if we seek a significant change in policy direction. To be transformative, scholarly research requires partnership with non-academic actors and to contribute to pressures for change these actors are exerting on state policymakers. MMB members are working with others to rise to this challenge. We have many examples, but just to pick two. Katharine Charsley and Helena Wray’s research UK-EU couples after Brexit works with key campaigning and support organisations to intervene in policy debates on the issues in the family migration regime. Ann Singleton, MMB Policy Strategic Lead, has been working with ACH to use expertise from refugees’ lived and learned experience to develop new small businesses, and models for support that facilitate integration. MMB also co-organises seminars with ACH, bringing together practitioners, policymakers and academics. The most recent seminar took education as its theme, and participants included Rob Sharples from the School of Education discussing his research on post-16 education and the Bristol Plan for Migrant Learners. Do let us know if you want support finding community partners, developing funding ideas with them or featuring collaborations on the MMB website.
Importantly, research does not have to have an immediate impact to make a difference. MMB’s tagline is ‘new thinking on people and movement’ and this also requires ‘slow science’. Longer term, research can build different understandings of migration – for example, through connecting it with movement of the more-than-human, including goods, data, animals and plants; through putting it into a richer historical context that sees how movement shapes our worlds; and through analysing and making accessible the power of representation. All of this requires multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches whose ‘pathways to impact’ are not necessarily easily traceable, but which help us to think differently and hone tools for the future. We are very pleased that Bristol University Press will be publishing a volume with us that advances this kind of thinking and are planning to develop this work in the coming years.
Thinking differently also needs international partnerships, and this is particularly true for thinking differently about movement. MMB research often is not only shaped by international borders but stretches across them. We have already learned much from the initial visit by Victoria Hattam from the New School for Social Research who joined us as a Visiting Leverhulme Professor for two months in 2023. Her second, longer visit will start in February 2024. Do come to the MMB welcome drinks on 6th February to learn more about our plans with her, which include public lectures, a workshop on visual representation, seminars on race and mobility, political economy and cross-border production, and a PGR discussion group.
Developing and nurturing these partnerships is a priority for MMB in the next two years. We are delighted that Jo Crow, Professor of Latin American Studies in the Department of Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, has joined us as Associate Director (Research Development) to take the lead in developing this aspect of MMB’s work. We are particularly interested to learn about the research agendas of potential partnerships to facilitate long-term collaboration, funded and unfunded, so do let us know if you have any ideas. We are keen to support project and network development, big or small. Partnerships, within and outside the university, local, national and international, lend new perspectives, energy and creativity. Let’s harness that to build a more just world in 2024.