From Afghanistan to Croydon in Two Years and Twenty Minutes Later

Prof. Les Back (Goldsmiths University) came to ESRI to present “From Afghanistan to Croydon: Dialogue, Ethics and Authorship in the Craft of Ethnography”.  He began his talk by describing the incredibly moving stories of two asylum seekers who came to Britain.  Hissani took two years to travel from his home in Afghanistan but his claim for asylum was denied in twenty minutes.  Christian was given notice to leave and as he was sitting on the plane waiting to be deported he received a text message from the United Kingdom Border Agency wishing him the best of luck with the rest of his life.

Prof. Back’s research, with colleague Shamsher Sinha (Goldsmiths University) is seeking to explore the mobilities of migrants in an increasingly interconnected world, where using David Harvey’s (2011) phrase there is considerable “time-space compression” but as Les reminded us this compression is uneven.  Technologies, media, travel and capital flows bring some closer together but equally the world remains divided by national borders and regulated. The same technologies that enable the compression of space are the same used in surveillance and regulation of migrants. Les and Shamsher are trying to figure out how to appropriately research migrants in these conditions but also to ask what it means for ethnographic research more broadly.

800px-MigrantA central theme running through the talk was the relationship between the researcher and the individual migrant or asylum seeker focusing on the exchange of information, knowledge and experience.  There were issues of using interviews as a data extraction processes.  Furthermore, it is problematic to research a group such as asylum seekers or migrants who are so scrutinised and used to being interviewed.  There was a definitive shift in the research to open up a dialogue and space of representation with the participant, to include the ‘researched’ in representation and authorship.  A challenge for researchers is however to enable participants to be included in the research, by naming them as co-authors, within the ‘ethical hypochondria’ around the claimed need to anonymise participants in research.  Les thought, on this subject, that as researchers we just need to be braver.

Research is and has always been integrally related to the technologies available to the researcher, and consequential forms of doing research. Audio and video recording, photography, the humble pen and paper, even the millennia-old words/ language and numbers/ mathematics.  Each of these technologies relate to particular ways of doing research, using an audio recorder requires a quiet and potentially unsociable room.

Les talked about the ‘ethics and technics’ of doing research and this raises questions of what will be the new technologies and how will they will be used?  You could, in the near future, use Google Street View to map a migrant’s journey across continents and enable the research audience to virtually follow these routes to ‘experience’ migration.

In the research Les and Shamsher gave Dorothy, a participant, a camera and asked her to go and take pictures of things that were meaningful to her.  The photo – a picture of Buckingham Palace – enabled the researchers to expand the horizon of the research by knowing more of the research participant.  Technologies are however being purposefully developed with greater surveillance and connectivity integral to them. These new horizons might be tempting for researchers.  Participants could be given Google Glass, which would record photos, videos, locations, Internet searches and more.  For me, this prospect seems hugely problematic, but as the technology is normalised how will we view a participant’s choice to wear a product like Google Glass and ‘consent’ to take pictures and search the web… all of which will be recorded and available to the researcher?

James Duggan

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