Religious encounter and identity formation among international students  

By Lin Ma.

Studies of religion and migration tend to focus on how faith and beliefs travel with migrants, especially in the case of religions that are purposefully spread by their adherents. However, the story differs with my recent doctoral research on identities of Chinese international students who explore or convert to biblical evangelicalism in the UK.

International students stand out among other migrants for their chosen transient and temporary status. Unlike refugees – whose basic rights are often violated and institutionally denied – the choice of international students to migrate for educational purposes is often welcomed by host countries. Anglophone universities are among the oldest institutions to receive foreign students. And yet all international students are not equal, and some have more opportunities available to them than others. Of all these opportunities, why would Chinese international students favour a biblical, Christian identity in the UK?

(Image: Daniel Morton on Unsplash)

There has been growing awareness of the conversion of overseas Chinese people to Christianity. Since the 1980s, the number of Chinese Christians has increased steadily, along with the academic interest. In the US, where scholarship in this field first emerged, Fenggang Yang documented a ‘mass conversion’ of Chinese immigrants to Christianity. I was fascinated by this religious conversion of adults to a fundamentalist identity – one that they alleged to be more important than all others. More intriguingly, exposed to the same setting, why do some convert but others not?

Based in the UK, I did not observe a ‘mass’ conversion of Chinese to Christianity but rather the influence of colonial legacies in drawing people towards this church. Hong Kong Chinese are the backbone of established ethnic Chinese congregations in the UK, with active but separate evangelical outreach programmes aimed at Mandarin-speaking Chinese students and students-turned professionals.

To reach these international students, British evangelical Christians actively present their church as a way of accessing British culture, practising English and integrating into local communities (Ma 2021). Such depictions are especially appealing to Chinese international students whose participation in local society is compromised by their linguistic and cultural differences. Consequently, even though Christian proselytisers want to evangelise indiscriminately, they are much more likely to succeed with particular types of international students. 

The UK has been seen as ‘exceptionally secular’ in comparison with the ‘exceptionally religious’ US (Berger et al. 2008) but to the Chinese, the white-majority Anglophone culture of both overrides their religious differences. As I have recently shown (Ma 2021), two thirds of the Chinese students I surveyed when they had just arrived in the UK had thought that ‘Britain is a Christian country’ and that ‘Most British people are Christians’. Indeed, such perceptions were shared by those Chinese students who sought out and participated in local Christian settings.

Most of the Chinese international students I spoke to or interviewed came from the People’s Republic of China, where Christianity has never been coupled with politics as it has been in the West. Nor has China had a good record of human rights and religious freedom. Nonetheless, none of the students saw themselves as victims of limited religious choice before coming to the UK. Some had had a Christian upbringing or prior Christian encounters, but all insisted that they only became true believers after they came to study in Britain.

Following six months of multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork at biblical, evangelical settings – including churches and faith-based organisations on and around university campuses in the UK – I recruited over 30 Chinese students for life-story interviews. Half of the students were self-identified Christian converts, and half were not converted. Had those who converted been seeking to become religious in the first place? Or how did their educational mobility to the UK intensify a search for this faith?

It became clear that in China students are taught that the cultural core of the West is Christianity. This is especially reflected by students majoring in globally oriented subjects – such as English language and literature, international business and cultural studies. As such, they were encouraged by their Chinese tutors and seniors to learn about Christianity. Is this an Asian construct of the West? Evidence suggests that within the religious landscape in the West, a Christian hegemony succeeded in defining Western culture this way, and that the image was accepted by those outside. My research found that contemporary encounters between different peoples continue to reflect this legacy.

The presence of these nonconverts in evangelical settings suggests that these Christian spaces provide more for overseas Chinese students than just religious support. In the context of a ‘white’ Anglophone university where not all international students have an equal footing, the Christian organisations have helped Chinese students settle into their British surroundings. All of my interviewees acknowledged the kindness, care and conversational space that Christians had provided for them. Their subjective sense of crisis often accompanied their intellectual interest in the Western culture core. In addition to attending language and culture events tailored for international students, their requests at the prayer sessions frequently unveiled their struggle to fit in, to belong, and to deal with an unfamiliar academic environment. Prayer content ranged from dealing with mentors who neglected their emails to loan agencies’ delayed responses, which could jeopardise their visa status.

When local Christian support addressed students’ requests, it was linked to the theological belief in a divinely ordained intervention. Such experience gave strength to those who had felt disempowered following their migration to the UK. Their intense desire for a just, omnipotent being to oversee their lives reflected the moments of helplessness they experienced in the UK when injustices – such as personal and institutional racism – were directed towards them. For converts, the power and love of a supreme being made them feel valued and validated, something they struggled for in the higher education context.

My research sits across studies of religion, migration and internationalised higher education. Within religious studies it challenges the crude secularisation thesis that, in modern society, people walk away from religion. It also challenges higher education studies that recognise the privileges of international students but do not consider universities as a place for cultivated religious identities, especially for those situated on the margin. Equally, migration studies, though acknowledging religious claims of migrants, shrink from a rigorous examination of how and why religious belief can become a significant part of the migration experience and shape the decisions that migrants make. In using a decolonial epistemology my thesis initiates a necessary conversation between these fields and unveils the liminal space in which individuals, with both their privileges and vulnerabilities, come to navigate new identities in the global arena.

Lin Ma is a Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, University of Bristol. Her doctoral research examines the role of Christianity in the globally constructed identities of Chinese international students in Britain.

What can we look forward to in 2022?

By Bridget Anderson.

January always feels like a slog. All the chores put off until ‘the New Year’ in expectation that 2022 would never come have mounted up. It’s dark and too cold/not cold enough. Summer feels it will never happen. And COVID, ugh COVID. So, instead, I’m thinking of things to look forward to in 2022.

First, there’s the launch of the ESRC Centre for Sociodigital Futures co-directed by Susan Halford and Dale Southerton. One of the domains of digital practice explored in the Centre is moving. We will be partnering with Goldsmiths and with Forensic Oceanography to research the significance of individual technologies and data analytics in shaping mobilities. We will also look at how the imaginaries, designs, uses and accessibility of digital technologies shape experiences, understandings and regulations of the movement of people and things. This is a new field for us and we’re very excited about developing it further with these fantastic new colleagues.

(Image: Greg Rakozy on Unsplash)

From future to past. There’s a great book coming out that I’ve had the privilege to get a sneak preview of. Global Labor Migration: New Directions (University of Illinois Press) edited by Julie Greene, Eileen Boris, Joo Cheong Tham and Heidi Gottfried, is now in press. It is a wide-ranging collection that looks at global labour mobility from the late 19th century to the present day. And it is truly global, looking at mobility patterns across the world, global empires, intermediaries and migrant labour’s role in anti-colonial resistance. It includes contributions from MMB’s own Katie Bales and Rutvica Andrijasevic, as well as postgraduates doing cutting-edge research. It is a fantastic range of essays that includes: the exploration of how FAIR challenged asylum seekers’ right to work on the basis that the INS has a duty to ‘protect’ US workers from the economic migrant; how assertations of national sovereignty, anti-communism and racist restrictions resulted in moving from migrant labour governance by the ILO to the foundation of the IOM; and how states, through UN mechanisms, have depoliticised migration and underdevelopment even as they have acknowledged a connection between them.

Taking these essays together we can see how the nominal equality of states, whose power, in practice, is deeply unequal, only obfuscates this inequality further – an inequality that has been hewn, resisted and fostered through human movement. Race is occluded by ‘nationality’, and racial hierarchies by hierarchies of poverty and power, but the interconnections between race, nationality and global inequalities are exposed by international migration and the intense efforts to control it. Do take a look at this edited volume when it comes out.

Those of you with an interest in history might want to check out some of the History Department seminars in the coming weeks too. Several are related to migration and mobilities including MMB member Dr Saima Nasar on ‘We Refugees? Discretionary Humanitarism and the Ugandan Asian Expulsion’; Professor Santanu Das (Oxford) on ‘Experience of Sea Voyages in the 20th Century’; and Stephen J. Brooke (York University, Toronto) on ‘Spectacle, Violence and the Ordinary: London’s Political Culture, 1981-86’. Contact the History Department for more details.

Then we have the visit of Professor Nandita Sharma to look forward to. MMB will be hosting Nandita as a Benjamin Meaker Distinguished Visiting Professor for one month from 21st June. Events will include a public lecture where she will discuss how, from the 1950s onward, racism was increasingly considered unacceptable in mainstream politics at the same time as state sovereignty was nearly universally nationalized. Her talk will chart this history to unpack the complexities of the relationship between ideas of race and national sovereignty. As well as her lecture we hope to hold an event in the Watershed Cinema,  and a graduate seminar.

If that feels too far in advance, we have our fireside plotting to look forward to. We will be working with the Brigstow Institute to host a series of conversations at the (de)Bordering plot in Royal Fort Gardens. These will be informal and highly interactive events – with wine! – around a fire. Given it will be outside, we are hoping these plans will not be waylaid by Omicron, though you never can tell.

And if that’s too cold for you we have a new Insights and Sounds series starting in the spring that will bring interviews on the latest in migration and mobilities thinking to you online. In this series we have very varied interviews carried out by different MMB members including our Research Challenge leads, Reading Group co-ordinator and a PhD student in the School of Education. Some of these will fit into our ongoing series on ‘New writing in migration and mobilities’, in which we feature recently published books that take a new angle on the subject through blogs, interviews and events. We are also commissioning a new blog series in partnership with the Cabot Institute on migration and climate change, which will bring together researchers working on these themes from different disciplines across Bristol.

It was very disappointing to have to cancel our Christmas party due to COVID but we will hold an event in early summer to gather everyone together in person again. Until then, enjoy our blogs, interviews and events and do let us know if you would ever like to contribute to our MMB output. Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2022!

Bridget Anderson is Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol and Professor of Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol.

Addressing discomfort: the politics and ethics of representation in qualitative research

By the Critical Methodologies Collective.

The Politics and Ethics of Representation in Qualitative Research (2021), published in July by Routledge, draws on experiences from nine different PhD projects. These have been brought together by our Critical Methodologies Collective to offer insights into the politics and ethics of representation for researchers working on justice struggles. Moments of discomfort in the qualitative research process provide important sites of knowledge for exploring representational practices. We argue that these moments help us gain essential insights into the methodological, theoretical, ethical and political issues crucial for the fields with which we engage. While the moments of discomfort opened up in this book are specific to our particular research processes, we hope that they will resonate with similar dilemmas in other fields and contexts and disciplines.

Front cover design by Sarah Hirani

Grounded in empirical research, the book is relevant to students, postgraduates, researchers, practitioners, activists and others dealing with methodological dilemmas from a critical perspective. Instead of ignoring discomforts or describing them as solved, we stay with them, showing how such a reflective process provides new and ongoing insights. Working on this book has involved not only countless collective writing days and a collaborative editorial process but also workshops with some of the scholars who inspire us, namely: Bridget Anderson (June 2019); Yasmin Gunaratnam (August 2019); Johanna Esseveld (January 2020); and Diana Mulinari (June 2020).

All our studies are politically committed to different struggles for social justice: from queer recognition of non-binary sex characteristics, through asylum rights and migrants’ rights, to antiracist critique. In some chapters, ethical and political dilemmas related to representational practices are analysed as experienced in fieldwork. In others, the focus is on the production of representation at the stage of writing. Meanwhile others draw parallels between these stages. The book deals with questions such as: what does it mean to write about the lives of others? How are the ethics and politics of representation intertwined, and how are they distinct? How are the politics of representation linked to a practice of solidarity in research? What are the im/possibilities of hope and care in research?

These questions are considered in terms of accountability. Representational practices in research, like any other representational practices, always involve a process of translation. Such a process carries with it the inherent violence of transformation, reduction or obliteration. In so doing, it opens up the dilemmas of the ethics of representation. Such general questions of research ethics should, however, not be divorced from those concerning research politics. As we have learned from work on representation in the feminist, critical and postcolonial field, these processes are deeply implicated in the power relations of societies in which the research is taking place. In this sense, creating a representation is always a political endeavour – and likewise for critical research concerned with issues of justice.

Structuralist and semiotic traditions teach us how representational practices operate, while critical, feminist and postcolonial traditions encourage us to contextualise these practices in particular historical moments to explore how they impose, maintain or resist unjust social structures. Thus, accountability for us is about being accountable towards both individuals (research participants) and the justice project in which we are engaged. In many of the projects discussed in this book, this question is complicated by the fact that researchers often face competing or even conflicting accountabilities. Most importantly, tensions might occur between accountability towards the research participants and accountability towards political struggles in which the research project is situated.

Representation is also analysed in relation to solidarity and accountability. Some key questions that we pose to ourselves in this context are: what modes of representation are both ethically accountable to those represented in the study and politically accountable in the context of contentious struggles for justice? Furthermore, what if these two types of accountabilities not only diverge but even remain in tension? What stories are we to tell, how do we tell them, and how do we ‘get hold of them’? These questions are also related to the very production of this book. Signing the agreement with the publisher required us to reflect upon: how would we resolve the editorship with several members? Who should stand as editors? Furthermore, how could the ideals of working as a collective be translated into the legal language of copyrights and liabilities?

These questions required us to recollect the beginning and making of this group. The Collective started as a small group of doctoral students in 2012 who met regularly to read and discuss texts from queer, feminist, materialist and decolonial/postcolonial scholars that helped us situate, problematise and liberate our research practices and discomforts. This process helped us articulate what was necessary for the group and what visions we had in collective writing. However, it also showed that going against the norm in academic publishing requires not only inventiveness but also extra labour. Thus, we decided that the Collective stands as overall editor of the book and author of some individual chapters. To make this formally possible, we registered the Collective as a legal association.

The Critical Methodologies Collective consists of nine feminist researchers early in their careers with a shared interest in, and discomfort of, doing critical research. The members come from varied social, political and academic backgrounds, with roots and routes in Denmark, Finland, India, Iran, Poland, Sweden, Turkey and the UK. One of these researchers, Pankhuri Agarwal, is the MMB Early Career Representative.

The Politics and Ethics of Representation in Qualitative Research: Addressing Moments of Discomfort was published by Routledge in July and can be accessed free online here.

Top tips on how to apply for a PhD – from an MMB Alumni Ambassador

By Ella Barclay.

Applying for a PhD in the UK can be an incredible opportunity to connect with scholars, focus your research ideas and challenge yourself along the way, regardless of the outcome. Having gone through the process in the past year I’ve learned that it’s an exciting experience but also a very steep learning curve. So, in an attempt to help the next wave of students, I’ve compiled a list of tips that I wish I’d known at the start of my journey. If you’re particularly interested in doing a PhD on migration and mobilities at Bristol, then these tips build on the advice on the MMB doctoral studies webpage.

Top tip 1: Funding applications are often separate from the PhD course application

To anyone who has anything to do with PhDs this may seem obvious, but it took me a long time to figure it out! Put simply, applying for a PhD at a UK university is only half the battle for most candidates, as this often does not include funding. For example, if you want to apply for a funded PhD at the University of Bristol, you need to complete the university’s online application and then apply separately to one of the relevant funding bodies.

Inevitably, there will be a crossover between the supporting documents for each application, but you should tailor the statements towards the specific institution or funding body. With this in mind, I would recommend not applying to too many universities, as you want to make sure you put enough time into each application and produce your best work. It is also worth noting that you cannot apply twice to some doctoral partnerships, so you may want to avoid applying to multiple universities in the same region.

Importantly, PhD course deadlines may be in July, for an October start, but funding deadlines often fall in January. Work backwards from the funding deadline and ensure that your university application is completed before this, to give you plenty of time to discuss your proposal with your supervisor.

Top tip 2: Contact prospective supervisors whose research interests align with yours

Finding a potential supervisor can seem daunting, but it is typically a requirement for PhD applications. Building a connection with your prospective supervisor allows you to create a focused and persuasive application, so finding someone who shares your research interests is essential. There are a few ways to go about this. First, if any of the core writers on your prospective research topic are PhD supervisors, reach out to them! Second, use contacts you already have, such as lecturers or personal tutors, as they may have recommendations. Finally, think about what is important to your research: if a university has access to useful archives, look through the profiles of available PhD supervisors at that institution and find one whose interests align with yours.

In your first email to a supervisor, briefly introduce yourself and your proposed research; they will appreciate the assertiveness! Remember, you will be working with this supervisor throughout your PhD and therefore these interactions are as much for them to learn about you as they are for you to learn about them.

Top tip 3: Consider the 1+3 PhD, even if you already have a Masters

This was a big question for me when thinking about what kind of PhD to apply for. The main difference between a typical +3 or +4 award, in comparison to a 1+3 award, is that the former consists of just the PhD, whereas the latter includes an associated Masters course.

Many funding bodies have a list of postgraduate degrees that they view as having sufficient emphasis on research skills, thereby preparing students to dive straight into a PhD on a +3 or +4 award. However, if your course is not on this list, then you may be encouraged to do the 1+3 qualification. This should not be viewed as a setback, but rather as a chance to develop your research skills and ease into the PhD life.

Top tip 4: Interviews are a great opportunity to showcase your proposed research

If you have been offered an interview then the institution has faith in both you and your proposal and simply wants to see this in action. As such, the interviewers are not trying to catch you out, but rather are allowing you to outline your research and explain why you are a worthy candidate.

You will often be asked to give a short presentation about your work, your suitability and why you think you will be an asset to the institution. Importantly, the interviewers will have already read your application so don’t just recite your written proposal or go into excessive detail; they will ask for more information if they need it. Additionally, consider not using a PowerPoint presentation. As well as avoiding potential tech issues, not using slides allows the interviewers to see you speak about your research with enthusiasm and confidence. The more you engage with the panel the better.

For the question portion of the interview, it is always worth talking to your prospective supervisor beforehand, as they will have an idea of what questions may come up. But most commonly interviewers want to discuss your contribution to the field. Understanding where your research fits in the landscape of existing literature and its potential influence in both academic and non-academic spheres is essential to any PhD application.

You will also be encouraged to ask questions at the end of the interview, which is a great way to show interest and enthusiasm. Also, if you forgot to mention something in your presentation, then you should add it here. Again, this is welcomed.

Top tip 5: Believe that you can do it!

It wouldn’t be a list of top tips without one clichéd point! That being said, this is an essential part of the process: applying for a PhD is challenging and there is no room for self-doubt. Whether it be in your personal statement or final interview, you need to show the panel that you are more than capable of carrying out your research and creating an impact.

If you’ve got to the stage where you are handing in an application or attending an interview, you have the support of both your supervisors and your referees. All these people believe that you are capable of succeeding in this exciting challenge, and you should feel the same!

Ella Barclay is an MMB Alumni Ambassador and graduated from the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol in 2020. She is currently working at North Bristol Advice Centre before starting her PhD at the University of West England researching the sexual and reproductive rights of undocumented migrants in the UK’s hostile environment.

(Images: Hannah Wei and Ran Berkovich on Unsplash.)

MMB in 2020 – forging new partnerships

Happy New Year from the MMB team!

We have exciting plans for 2020 as MMB continues to develop its dynamic research remit and build an ever-stronger community of scholars. Our four research challenges are running a range of workshops, seminars and networking events in the coming months, which will showcase the breadth of approaches to migration and mobilities studies among our members. We will also be organising a public lecture by a prominent international activist and scholar – identity to be revealed soon. 

New this year is the MMB film group, in motion, which will be screening films about migration and movement on the last Tuesday of each month. We are also starting a regular MMB research seminar for members to share their work and receive critical feedback from colleagues. And one of our PhD students is running a series of workshops on the logistical, ethical and intellectual challenges of fieldwork. Keep an eye on our website for details of these and other events coming up. 

Don’t forget, the website is a place where you can showcase your research. Do contact us if you have any questions or would like help in developing your text and illustrations.

At the end of last year we published the MMB 2018-2019 Annual Report to show our progress in building an interdisciplinary network of scholars and supporting the wide range of migration-related research across the university and city of Bristol. The report outlines the focus of each of our research challenges, which bring people together from diverse disciplines to think about migration and mobility in new ways. The report features many of the research projects of these challenge members as well as highlighting some of the key events organised by MMB in the past year. 

In 2019-2020 we will continue to consolidate and support our internal community while also developing closer partnerships with institutions and organisations outside the UK. These include The New School in New York, the European Public Law Office in Greece and the Universities of Linkoping and Malmo in Sweden. We are also delighted to be liaising with a network of University of Bristol scholars working in Latin America to support their research on movement and migration in the region. 

Do get in touch if you have any news about relevant events, publications or research ideas. We also still have a small amount of funding for networking events and activities, so if you have an idea that will take place between now and the end of July 2020 please complete the application form. We will next review applications at the end of February. 

We look forward to working with you in 2020! 

Bridget, Emma and Emily 

 

 

‘Stop talking; listen to me first!’ Fieldwork in India

By Pankhuri Agarwal

Fieldwork research has a significant effect on one’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. However, it is astonishing that not much time, space and attention is devoted to exploring, learning and deliberating upon the variety of fieldwork experience that goes undocumented in academic work including on topics such as gender bias and mansplaining; nationality and cultural ethos as a researcher of particular origin; uncertainties, failures and long periods of waiting; emotional and mental harm to the researcher, to name a few.

I realised this more when I recently completed seven months of socio-legal multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Delhi and neighbouring states. The fieldwork broadly comprised of investigating the performance of Article 23 of the Constitution of India, ‘prohibition of traffic in human beings, begar and other similar forms of forced labour’ and its effect on the everyday lived experience of people (begar means non-payment of wages for work done). This entailed accompanying sex workers and bonded/forced labourers in their legal journeys as internal migrants (in various occupations) through various sites such as the courtrooms, police stations, prison, shelter homes, red light area, informal worksites and district and central government offices. I conducted in-depth interviews with sex workers and bonded/forced labourers, besides interviews with related legal stakeholders. These interviews were complemented with courtroom observation, participant observation and a study of legal case files, which captured the entirety of the participant’s long, unpredictable and complex legal journeys.

G.B. Road (Swami Shradhanand Marg), red-light area, Delhi, India
G.B. Road (Swami Shradhanand Marg), red-light area, Delhi, India

The process of following these movements through various sites meant that I often occupied multiple (assumed) positions and identities simultaneously – that of a researcher, female friend, student, journalist, lawyer, intern and so on. This also implied that I was seen in the light of multiple assumptions in terms of my class, caste, occupation, marital status and age. Whilst the fieldwork was filled with many positive experiences due to the support and encouragement of comrades and activist organisations, in this article I want to focus on the gender bias and emotional burden the fieldwork demanded of me as an ‘Indian female researcher’.

Several researchers before me have taken the responsibility of writing about how their gender, age, caste, nationality, class or their very being were put into question while doing fieldwork (see Ravina Aggarwal, Elizabeth Chacko, Isabelle Kunze and Martina Padmanabhan Erdkunde, Isabella Ng, Nitasha Sharma and Jillian M. Rickly among others). This is because as a female researcher, one can be constantly put off by enquiries and curiosities surrounding one’s marital status, age, race, caste, class or clothing. It is often assumed that the researcher is unaware, innocent or naive. Dressing ‘maturely’ does not help either. When I interviewed some elite male participants, they (ignoring my questions) started by offering me basic definitions of terms and concepts that I did not even ask for. On some occasions, I was stopped with an angry hand gesture (while I was talking) and, in a very aggressive tone, ‘Stop talking; listen to me first’. This was even though I had explained that I had worked on and researched these issues for over six years.

This is not surprising especially when we know that power relations, gender violence and hierarchy are embedded in the soul and spirit of Indian society. We are a society built and sustained on the robust, unshaken and eternal foundation of patriarchy. Amidst this, the intellectual work, emotional labour and the mental health effects of such experiences go unnoticed, let alone compensated for. It is generally accepted and internalised that women, especially feminist women invite such reactions. And you alone are responsible for them. ‘You must have done something’, people say, or, ‘Just ignore it; you think too much’.

Women from all walks of life gather at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 4th April 2019 to raise their voices against gender-based violence, patriarchy and caste-based politics and to demand a secular, equal and tolerant State.
Women from all walks of life gather at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 4th April 2019 to raise their voices against gender-based violence, patriarchy and caste-based politics and to demand a secular, equal and tolerant State.

I also realised that in the field, people (in both personal and professional relationships) were less concerned about my research and well-being than with the roles I should be playing as a woman. I was expected to be ‘back home’. I wondered what for. ‘You should not take up such fieldwork travels while [your partner] is left alone at home.’ These accusations were followed up with solutions. ‘You do not have to travel. How will you travel? We will arrange for a ten-minute phone call and you can write that you interviewed this person. This will make the fieldwork quicker and you can return soon.’

I often pondered upon such encounters and noted them in my reflection journal. Where am I supposed to return? To who and why? Why this rush and pressure? Why was my mobility between fieldwork sites a matter of concern and curiosity to some people? Why was there no interest in my research or the emotional roller coaster I was going through in the field? The mystery of my return concerned and perturbed many people in the field. Due to this, I was constantly called to account for myself, not as a researcher, but because of my position as a woman with a partner. My identity was constantly attached to his as if I did not exist as an individual. This was overwhelming not only for me but also for my partner because, in these conversations, he was made an implicit participant without consent.

Once such distressing encounters had become a usual occurrence, I mastered the poker face. I needed to collect data and could not risk annoying anyone. So, I laughed when they laughed, expressed concern when they did, shook my head often as they did and in rare instances, gave a ‘shy woman-like smile’ when ‘uncomfortable topics’ were discussed, as was expected of a woman from a ‘good family’. If I did not, they stared. So, I did.

During such emotionally troubling times, fortunately, I had some comforting companions. My supervisor shared with me her own fieldwork experience of ‘mansplaining’. This encouraged me to reflect on my experience of fieldwork as a feminist woman with those of the female participants of my research; how different yet similar our lives are in terms of how we all ‘risked lives, homes, relationships, in the struggle for more bearable worlds’ (Ahmed, 2017, p.1). The subaltern resists, speaks and revolts invisibly and powerfully, even in the middle of moving, parting from their land and homes, and often their families and children. How powerful, beautiful and empowering is this!

Released bonded labourers from across the country protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 1st March 2019 to demand compensation in long-pending legal proceedings.
Released bonded labourers from across the country protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 1st March 2019 to demand compensation in long-pending legal proceedings.

I also found comfort in Maya Angelou’s autobiography where she, through her brilliant and unapologetic writing, stumbles through life from one role to another both personally and professionally, fighting and discovering the multiple ways in which women are not only made to feel small and incompetent but are often treated as second-class citizens. They are expected to fit into many roles and stereotypes and made to feel guilty if they do not follow the norm. Maya Angelou was speaking to me, ‘Onus and guilt were shifting into my lap, where they surely didn’t belong’ (2008, p.246).

Amidst these reflections, Sara Ahmed gave me the reassurance to not ignore, give in and ‘adjust in an unjust world’ (2017, p.84) (emphasis my own). I then realised that the politics of fieldwork research was gradually merging with my feminism(s). The personal was indeed political and the political became personal. This transported with it the (un)comfortable consciousness of my being, beyond that of a researcher and a woman. These musings kept visiting me because of how I was seen and how I was not seen during fieldwork. This is even though I have spent more than 28 years growing up in India, being accustomed to conducting myself in an ‘appropriate manner’ in both public and private spaces, not because I want to but because I need to. I know and have experienced that speaking up does not always help. It often leads to accusations of creating an ‘unnecessary scene’. ‘To disappoint an expectation is to become a disappointment’ (Ahmed, 2017, p.52). So, in a society where people are accepted, rewarded and applauded for being sexist, casteist and misogynistic, bringing out wrong can often make you the reason for the wrong. How shocking is this revelation? Not at all.

I am sure that these experiences resonate with some other researchers and require space, time and attention for ‘revelation’. For this reason, I am organising a series of (three) seminars with the MMB Networking Funds Grant between January and June 2020 at the University of Bristol for PhDs and ECRs. Each seminar will have a specific theme around fieldwork research. These seminars will be followed with a writing workshop where experienced researchers from across disciplines will be invited to mentor PhDs and ECRs to bring this important discussion together in an edited volume, report or podcasts. If you would like more information about the seminars and the writing workshop, please e-mail me at pankhuri.agarwal@bristol.ac.uk.

Pankhuri Agarwal is a PhD Researcher in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

 

Conforming to stereotypes to gain asylum in Germany

By Mengia Tschalaer

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash
Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

LGBTQI+ Muslims seeking asylum are more successful if they speak, dress and act in accordance with Western notions of homosexuality. My work recently published in the Journal Ethnic and Racial Studies, has found that LGBTQI+ asylum applicants reported they were often expected to be “flamboyant” and “outspoken” in their asylum interview, and that overall, asylum seekers were more successful if they could prove their ‘gayness’ by being involved in gay/queer activism in their country of origin, visiting gay bars, being members of lesbian and gay groups and attending gay pride marches.

As part of my EU-funded research project on queer asylum in Germany, I interviewed 15 lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) refugees and asylum seekers from Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon, Iran and Pakistan, as well as asylum lawyers and judges from Berlin and Cologne, and representatives of LGBTQI+ refugee counselling centers in Cologne, Munich, Heidelberg and Mannheim – project website.

The majority of successful applicants were from middle to upper-class backgrounds, were assigned male at birth and had been actively involved in gay/queer activism in their country of origin. Along with class and educational background, membership of LGBTQI+ organisations and access to local queer and gay refugee organisations in Germany were the most important factors in securing a successful asylum claim. In order to gain asylum, asylum seekers must convince officials of their permanent identity as ‘gay’, ‘lesbian’, trans’, ‘bi’, and/or ‘intersex’,  and they also need to demonstrate that their sexual and gender identity has led to them being persecuted in their home country.

The most successful applicants were very well informed about what is expected from them at the asylum interview – which was for their asylum story to align with Western notions of queer/gay lifestyles, i.e frequent visits to gay discos and parties, public display of love and affection, wearing rainbow-coded clothing etc.

In addition, and despite efforts to render the asylum process safer for LGBTQI+ individuals, it was reported there were still incidences where asylum seekers were expected to answer questions about their sex life during their asylum interview – despite this being against EU law – and some interviewees stated they felt judged on their clothing, or how they acted in the interview.

People who were more open about their sexuality and gender identity in their country of origin as well as the country of arrival were much more likely to be granted asylum, in part because they were more likely to seek out LGBTQI+ refugee organisations in Germany and receive support for the preparation of their asylum interview. However, people who were not ‘out’ at the time of their interview, or who found it difficult to speak about their sexuality due to fear of persecution, stigma or shame felt marginalised.

“LGBTQI+ asylum seekers who felt forced to hide their sexuality and/or gender identity, and who felt uncomfortable talking about it were usually rejected, as were those who were married or had children in their countries of origin. This was either because they were not recognised or believed as being LGBTQI+, or because they were told to hide in their country of origin since they had not come out yet.

Quite a few of my interviewees also mentioned that they felt that their translator held a homo-/transphobic attitude or did not translate properly due to their lack of knowledge of gay/queer/trans issues. For example, one Somalian man said that his fear and shame of coming out as gay – coupled with his translator’s known negative attitudes toward homosexuals – stopped him from being able to talk openly about his sexuality, leading to the rejection of his asylum claim.

Asylum applicants who portrayed Germany as a liberal, tolerant country free of discrimination, while portraying their Muslim countries of origin as homophobic and morally ‘backwards’ were more likely to receive refugee protection. While Germany, and Europe more generally are traditionally seen as a safe havens for LGBTQI+ refugees compared to many majority Muslim countries – where homosexuality is illegal – there is a concern that the narratives and stereotypes perpetuated by the German asylum system may serve right-wing discourses on immigration in Germany.

More needs to be done to ensure that all Muslim LGBTQI individuals enjoy the same right to asylum. We need to train decision makers, judges and translators around the topic of LGBTQI+ so that they are more knowledgeable about LGBTQI+ identities and sexualities, and so as not to reproduce Islamophobic tendencies in the current immigration practices and debates in Germany. Access to legal resources and support for LGBTQI+ also needs to be streamlined, as LGBTQI+ asylum seekers who had access to information on the asylum process in Germany were much more successful.

Dr Mengia Tschalaer is Marie Curie Research Fellow at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

The content for this blog was previously posted by Taylor and Francis as a press release.

The ERS article can be found here: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01419870.2019.1640378

All news reporting in relation to the study can be found here.

Language as a component of integration

By Tom Dixon (ACH Senior Project Officer) and Pier-Luc Dupont from MMB

On 16th April, ACH and Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB, University of Bristol) hosted the third in the series of joint workshops, this time on the topic of Language. Tom Dixon, Senior Project Officer and Rachel Sharp, Support and Integration Team Leader presented from ACH and Pier-Luc Dupont from MMB. The audience was made of academics from various universities across the South West and Wales.

Workshop held at the ACH offices

This workshop was the final in a series of joint workshops aiming to break down barriers between academia and practitioner organisations. ACH has delivered ESOL both via traditional methods and using our own innovative methodologies.

ACH talked about the current model for ESOL provision in the UK and the limitations and issues inherent to it. We also then discussed some of our alternative approaches including English My Way and our SEESI ‘life before language’ methodology.

MMB discussed the problems posed by nationalist approaches to language learning and more specifically by the assumption that the linguistic needs of migrants and refugees are limited to the learning of standard English. As studies on cultural diversity and transnationalism have shown, intra-state linguistic diversity and international mobility mean that plurilingualism and translation services are often necessary for people to participate in economic, political, cultural and social activities. In this context, the challenge is not only to find out how to teach languages effectively but also what languages to teach, to whom, and at what level of proficiency or formality. To answer these questions, language educators must understand why people may want to use certain languages at specific stages of their life course. They must then identify the barriers they face and design interventions to overcome the barriers in the short, medium and long term. In some cases, this may entail the simultaneous teaching of English and other languages or the development of multilingual public and private services. MMB illustrated this with the lived experience of Roma participants in an EU-funded project on justice (ETHOS), which found that linguistic exclusion and stigma were often bound up with racism and other sources of inequality.

After the two short presentations a discussion followed with all participants asking questions of the presenters. These discussions quickly moved from language learning to a broader conversation about learning in general, employment and wider integration. This direction is indicative of the intersectional nature of work undertaken at ACH and MMB and why taking a holistic approach to integration is so essential.

All three workshops have been very useful in sharing expertise with a wider audience and learning from each other.

ACH is always keen to remain informed of relevant academic work which can improve the way in which we support tenants and the wider refugee community in Bristol. If you want to learn more about our projects and approaches, please contact tom.dixon@ach.org.uk.

Risky Relationships

By Katharine Charsley, University of Bristol and Emma Agusita, University of of the West of England

Access denied illustration
Credit: Radley Cook @radleycook. Illustrator for the Visualising Love exhibition

The Risky Relationships workshop, held at the Arnolfini on 27th & 28th March 2019, aimed to explore the navigation of immigration regulation in family and intimate relationships from a variety of perspectives.

The event invited participants to view the contemporary landscape of family migration and ‘intimate mobilities’ (Groes & Fernandez 2018) from the analytical perspective of risk. The optic of risk has appeared in various forms in the migration research literature, including work on migration decision making, household risk management strategies, and the physical risks of some forms of cross-border mobility. Issues of families and relationships have, however, been neglected amid a focus on economic and refugee migration.  This absence is all the more surprising considering how discourses of risk are employed to justify tightening restrictions on family migration, and to distinguish some kinds of border-crossing relationship from others. For couples and families divided by borders, or with mixed immigration status, immigration regulations create risks of separation, and futures contingent on navigating a variety of economic, legal, practical and emotional risks. Increasing restrictions to family migration have both heightened the risks involved and expanded them to affect a wider variety of actors. These risks are often patterned along ethno-racial, gender and class lines.

‘Genuineness’ in migrant relationships

Sponsored by Migration Mobilities Bristol, The University of Bristol Faculty of Social Science and Law Strategic Fund, and University of the West of England Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education, the workshop included contributions from social science, arts and culture, and legal practitioner perspectives. After an introduction from Katharine Charsley outlining the topic and the many layers of risk discourse and risk management which interact in creating the landscape for contemporary family migration (from government policy through legal practice to family networks), Emma Agusita and Iris Sportel explored the issue of genuineness –  a key criteria for immigration applications based on marital relationships. In both papers, we saw how dominant discourses colonise the internal dynamics of couples, so that they may constantly seek to document and display the genuineness of their relationships, or question the intentions of a foreign spouse.

Sian Pearce from Avon and Bristol Law Centre spoke about the risks for former unaccompanied minors who struggle to establish a right to stay in the UK as a result of inadequate representation and restrictive interpretations of the law. Any relationships formed by those with ‘precarious’ immigration status (including those with long-standing foster parents) are given little weight in tribunal considerations, but the issue of precarity has wider implications in this field, as only those with Citizenship or Indefinite Leave to Remain are exempt from this category.

Risks from control

Anna Lindley’s paper on immigration detention showed how whilst the case for risk of harm to migrants from detention is often difficult to make given restrictive definitions, considerations of risks to society presented to justify detention are much more expansive, and often based on problematic evidence. Natasha Carver’s paper contrasted the risks faced by Somali couples attempting to reunite under British immigration law, with the easier experience of those able to access spousal immigration through EU membership. As a result, the latter category of couples are sometimes unprepared for the risks and requirements of subsequent settlement applications. Bridget Anderson’s reflections on risk, uncertainty, temporality and agency in understanding migration and mobility brought together many threads from our discussions, interweaving them with new theoretical insights.

Visualising risks

Various forms of written and artistic creativity further stimulated our discussions. Some presentations from researchers who had dealt with issues of immigration in their own relationships had auto-biographical elements. Emma Agusita’s Visualising Love exhibition  brought the experiences of couples negotiating the UK’s spousal immigration regulations to life, whilst Sine Plambech’s award winning film Heartbound documented how Thai-Danish families develop and manage transnational family lives shaped both by risks of loneliness, poverty, separation, and hopes for the futures.

The workshop clearly established that this is a topic in need of attention – not only from the point of view of academic understanding, but also as a pressing issue for families navigating immigration regulations. We hope to address this gap in future collaborations drawing on the conversations and networks we established over these two fascinating days.

Blog co-authored by:

Katharine Charsley, University of Bristol

Emma Agusita, University of the West of England

New Thinking on Integration, Employment and Language

By Bridget Anderson and David Jepson (ACH)

Academics have a lot to learn from people who are on the frontline. Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) can, for example, learn from people who speak from their personal and organisational experiences of immigration controls and the hostile environment. We also believe that academics have something to offer in return – an analysis of patterns of experiences and how these are institutionally and historically embedded.

For example, ACH/Himilo is an organisation which has considerable knowledge of the issues confronting service provision and integration. It has grown in ten years from a small-scale housing provider to a leading provider of integration support for refugees and migrants, working with 2500 people per year. It challenges many assumptions about how newly-arrived communities should be ‘integrated’ and it has started to set out a new paradigm through the #rethinkingrefugee approach.

However, ACH recognises the need to test thinking more widely and to take advantage of the many academic experts in Bristol who can bring different perspectives. Furthermore, both MMB and ACH/Himilo recognise that we can learn from the talents, experiences and aspirations of newly-arrived communities and thereby benefit the individuals themselves and the wider community. It is through groups like MMB, ACH/Himilo and other key bodies such as the Mayor’s Office collaborating that we can make Bristol into a knowledge hub and make real progress in building inclusive communities.

For this reason, ACH/Himilo approached MMB suggesting we jointly organise a seminar series on the themes of integration, employment and language.

We both agreed that these would be discussion orientated, with short presentations, one from an academic and one from a practitioner. We decided on a maximum of twenty participants, ten from University of Bristol and ten non-academic interested stakeholders. We held the first of these, on integration, on 11th February 2019 in the Will Memorial Building at the University of Bristol, and we found it highly stimulating and engaging.

Of course, we were helped by having two fantastic presenters. Dr Katharine Charsley from SPAIS (Sociology, Politics and International Studies) got us off to a great start by presenting a model of integration processes that she has developed with Dr Sarah Spencer (COMPAS, University of Oxford).

This disaggregates the different types of integration that matter to an individual: the social, structural, civic/political, cultural and identity. Integration in one area does not mean integration in another and disaggregating in this way can help us design and evaluate policies better.

She was followed by Richard Thickpenny from ACH/Himilo, who discussed the ‘Invisible Line of Control’. Unreflexive policy and practice can mean that policymakers and practitioners can predetermine below optimal results for the people they want to support. For example, ACH had found that three quarters of refugees were working in entry level jobs and staying in them, not progressing to develop or adapt the skills that that they already have. In this way, interventions can end up limiting the potential of refugees to achieve full integration. Both presentations illustrated the importance of a holistic approach and attending to the unintended consequences of integration policies.

The subsequent conversations were very lively. We tackled the challenge of the basic assumptions of the language of integration – what is it that people are ‘integrating’ in to? Why is it only migrants and refugees who are targeted by integration policies? Why do we assume that the residents of Clifton ‘integrated’? It made me think that perhaps we should investigate other terms that are used to describe similar processes for different populations. For example, one of the ways to counter the exclusions faced by disabled people is to facilitate ‘accessibility’. Could it be helpful for us to learn from the struggles of disabled people and to look for parallels between integration and accessibility? Answers on a postcard please….

Blog co-authored by:

Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship, University of Bristol.

David Jepson, Director and Policy Advisor, ACH/Himilo

 

This blog has also been posted in the ACH blog feed