Interdisciplinarity in Migration Research: Combining law and anthropology
Blog post

What can we learn from getting lost in translation?

What follows are mid-term reflections from a human geographer and a legal researcher about their experience working together on the interdisciplinary project TemPro.

Blue sky dotted with white clouds
Kari Anne Drangsland

Main content

TemPro (Temporary Protection as a Durable Solution? The “return turn” in European asylum law) is financed by the Norwegian Research Council (2020-2024).

On designing an interdisciplinary project

Jessica: The idea for the TemPro project grew from my PhD on the concept of the “internal protection alternative” (IPA) in refugee law. That project was coming to an end in 2015-2016, a time when European governments were innovating with ever-restrictive measures   to deflect would-be refugee claimants and to make asylum for those already in Europe more insecure. I became very interested in how the spatial and temporal scope of asylum was being squeezed in ways that states claimed were consistent with their obligations under refugee law.

For example, some of these new measures included:

  • The fragmentation of refugee status, by granting Convention refugees subsidiary or even tertiary status to delay or limit access to refugee rights.
  • The intensification of “safe return reviews” to permit the withdrawal of refugee status and revocation of residence on account of changed circumstances in a refugee’s country of origin.
  • Increased obstacles to permanent residence, such as language and income requirements. Although these requirements are part of what is often called the “civic turn” in integration policies, they were also purposefully leveraged to extend the possibility of applying the cessation criteria to people who do not yet have permanent residence.

The idea of TemPro was to look at this new trend towards more temporary and insecure protection; not only for people escaping a mass influx, but for all refugees, no matter what their underlying need for protection might be or how long that need is predicted to last. I wanted to draw attention to how these policies infiltrated the daily, rather than the exceptional, practice of refugee law. An anthropologist at the University of Bergen, Marry– Anne Karlsen, joined the application and helped to situate these developments in the broader social science research on temporality and legal consciousness.

Defining monodisciplinary research questions

The obvious place to start was to map the policies and laws making up the “return turn” in refugee law. We chose to focus on four countries positioned in different ways legally, geographically, and politically within Europe: Norway, Denmark, the UK and Germany. We also wanted to know how these policies of temporariness interact with other facets of the welfare state designed to promote integration.

Methods: desk research/interviews/ethnographic methods

The second question was how the increased insecurity of status and residence shapes people’s perception of their own protection. How do refugees manage the competing demands of a potential return while establishing their lives here in Europe?

Methods: ethnographic methods

And thirdly, as a legal researcher I was interested in the normative legal questions around the legitimacy of these practices under international refugee and human rights law: the legal criteria being applied for cessation, discrimination on account of nationality, breaches of the right to family life and most recently the relationship between the temporary protection mechanisms, like those applied in the Ukraine context, and refugee law.

Methods: doctrinal legal methods.

A multidisciplinary versus an interdisciplinary approach

Jessica: However, what I couldn’t work out was what made this project interdisciplinary. I knew it would involve people from different disciplines, working together. I felt there was a certain logical order to the project: a mapping of law and policy followed by research to understand people’s experience. This was indeed the model I had seen many times in migration research (see here and here).  Success with the research application required us, on the one hand, to demonstrate interdisciplinarity. On the other, we had to prove the project’s potential for ‘excellence’ by showing that each partner was an expert in their own discipline.

There was something unsatisfying about this, though, because it suggested certain limitations on the transformative potential of working together. It was also interesting, I thought, that when I approached my colleagues with experience in “interdisciplinary research,” they emphasized the need to maintain one’s disciplinary focus within the collaboration, and highlighted three main challenges:

  • Speaking past each other. Different disciplines understand shared concepts differently. For example, the term “refugee” might have a narrower meaning for a legal researcher than it does for another social scientist. Even the concept of a “concept” requires elaboration!
  • The instrumental use of each other’s knowledge. I noticed a certain ambivalence among anthropologists about their ethnographic findings being used as “spice” for an otherwise dry legal analysis. As one colleague put it, “We give the colorful stories to illustrate how law works in practice.” Another problem they identified was the selective use of their contextualized knowledge in legal practice (as a witness, or expert on country-of-origin information). Likewise, legal researchers sometimes find that they are valued mainly as “legal experts” called on to explain or translate the law or give legal advice – not as critical researchers who problematize state positions on what the law “is.”
  • The requirements of academia. Although plenty of interdisciplinary migration journals exist, earlier career researchers may feel pressure to publish within their own disciplines, with single-authored articles.

Creating a separate work package on interdisciplinarity

We decided to make legal-ethnographic interdisciplinarity a topic of investigation in its own right in order to encourage ongoing reflections on our own process over the course of the project. We would start by making a resource page on Interdisciplinarity in Migration Research, with a focus on law and anthropology. So far, this page includes:

  • Resources explaining the methods applied by legal researchers to anthropologists, and vice versa, as well as a page on ethics.
  • Examples of, and reflections on, individual experiences in migration-related research projects involving anthropologists and lawyers.
  • Short pieces exploring concepts like temporality, intersectionality, legal consciousness and so on that may be useful in bridging the legal study and anthropology of migration.

Interdisciplinary research in practice

Jessica: The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic forced us into a kind of collaboration across disciplines from the very beginning because not doing field work freed up the time of ethnographers to do legal and policy mapping. This has accelerated some of our discussions, particularly about the scope of the project and its point of departure in refugee status.

Kari Anne: I have been doing fieldwork for TemPro in Hamburg in Germany this spring, and in Norway last autumn, and have struggled with the expectation that the relevant research participants are people who hold a refugee status.

The tensions I have felt are both methodological and epistemological in character. I could mention a couple of examples. Firstly, while the category of “recognized refugees” might seem straightforward, real life is messier. In practice, people often move between legal categories during research. Some of the people I work with have held a protection status in Greece, but not in Germany where I met them. Others have the German toleration status - a status they hold for years while being subject to many of the same regulations and administrative practices as do recognized refugees. So, it’s not always straightforward who falls within the scope of this project.

Secondly, this tension regarding who falls within the scope of the project relates to a broader question of how we understand our research objectives. For me it has been important to understand how temporariness of protection – as a mechanism of migration governance - forms part of the broader regime of migration governance. In other words, to understand the rationalities, practices and relations of power that shape the policy push towards temporariness we need to think across the policy categories of migration such as forced migration, labour migration, legal migration and irregular migration. This has methodological implications. In Germany, for instance, I find that working with some of the tolerated migrants I met during my PhD fieldwork in 2017 and researching their encounters with the state provides insight into the disciplining of migrants into what Bridget Anderson calls “good citizens”, which I find to be an important dimension of temporary protection.

Yet, that being said, the continuous discussions about the scope of our project, and the very occupation with the category of refugee status, have also opened new avenues for thinking. An example is how the legal discussion on the proliferation and fragmentation of refugee statuses as such, that Jessica spoke to, has contributed to my understanding of the role of refugee law in the European governance of migration and, particularly so, in the disciplining of migrants.

Ways of working: Interdisciplinarity as “throwntogetherness”

Kari Anne: A point of departure for TemPro is the acknowledgement that spaces of interdisciplinary encounters do not evolve from themselves by putting people together in a project. They must be actively created. One way I have come to think of such interdisciplinary encounters, based on previous projects I have conducted in collaboration with architects and designers, is in terms of feminist geographer Doreen Massey’s concept of throwntogetherness. To Massey, as Jacobsen notes in another engagement with interdisciplinarity through the lens of “throwntogetherness”, throwntogetherness is one of the truly productive characteristics of material spatiality. Throwntogetherness, as Massey conceptualizes it is “the potential for the happenstance juxtaposition of previously unrelated trajectories, the business of walking around a corner and bumping into alterity. This is an aspect of the productiveness of spatiality which may enable ‘something new’ to happen.” (Massey, 2005: 94).

In TemPro we have sought to create such spaces of encounter – where new knowledges and knowledge practices might evolve – in various ways. Our three main practices so far have been: talking together, co-producing material, and conceptual labour.

Practice one: Talking together

Jessica: The simplest method, which should not be understated, is simply talking together informally on a regular basis. One early finding from my colleagues’ fieldwork was that the threat of deportation was not the most prominent source of insecurity. Refugees in Norway are not directly at risk of deportation, but without permanent residence they describe themselves as “second-class citizens,” not welcomed even though their reasons for being here are recognized.  Also, the emphasis that their informants put on mobility as a source of security, and a condition for belonging, has resulted in an extension of the mapping to barriers that refugees face in accessing and maintaining their citizenship. In both Norway and Germany, people emphasize the importance of citizenship to secure this mobility even though they do not think that long-term residence in their home countries, such as for instance Syria, would be safe.

Practice two: Writing together and co-producing research materials

Jessica: In TemPro we have written legal mapping studies, op eds and blog posts together, and we aim to write journal articles together.  We have also tried, in a limited way, to write things in dialogue with each other. So, for example, on the resource page you have my initial effort to work with the concept of “attachments” from a legal perspective, while a sociologist responds with a blog post about her discipline’s work on “belonging.”

Kari Anne: We have also developed a podcast series called Refugee Law and Refugee Lives. For me, co-hosting this podcast with Jessica has enabled me to better understand what her stakes and motivations are, and to get a better grasp of the international academic and policy debates that she relates to. For instance, we have an episode with a Syrian refugee and research participant named Hani. I shared my notes on our introductory conversations with Jessica, who read these as addressing core questions pertaining to ongoing international legal and political debates about the relation between protection, mobility, durable solutions and labor – debates I did not know much about. For Hani, these connections really resonated, and our subsequent conversation produced some important insights.

Practice three: Interdisciplinarity as conceptual labor

Kari Anne: We have also thought about how thinking through concepts can serve as an interdisciplinary methodology. As Jessica mentioned above, at the outset of the project, she and Marry-Anne defined certain concepts such as temporality, intersectionality, legal consciousness and “precarious inclusion” that could serve as “bridging concepts” between the disciplines. That is to say, we would explore how they could be used to structure our findings and create a common ground for discussions and analysis.

One way to think about our work with concepts is in terms of what anthropologists Ann Laura Stoler calls “conceptual labour.” While her project is different from ours, we draw from her work the importance of questioning what the concepts we use enable us to know and what knowledge these concepts occlude. She also emphasizes the importance of questioning the embedded normativities of the concepts we use and the political implications of the knowledge they conjure. I think this awareness also has enabled us to value the confusion that result when we use concepts differently, and to explore this confusion as moments of knowledge. Indeed, these moments when we have found ourselves temporarily “lost in translation” have been important for my thinking within TemPro.

Jessica: Take the term “temporary protection” itself – which is simultaneously a policy concept as well as an analytical one. At one project meeting, we had an animated discussion about what temporary protection is and how we understand it for this project. For example, a legal researcher said:

When I think of temporary protection, I think it is a concept that is embedded in international protection regimes (refugee protection is not permanent). It is not simply a concept in my head or your head or in a protection seeker’s head. It is something essential to how protection functions. A tool is distinct from a concept. Tools refer to a practice, a legislative intent, how policy makers interpret. I am not trying to put tool under the concept. It is both. A concept and a tool.  

We concluded that “temporary protection” is a term of art, a principle, a practice, a tool – and even a concept.  In the narrowest sense, and only for some refugees, temporary protection is a legal status. It’s all these things, and I think that realization, although it made things messier, was also clarifying and permitted us to move forward.

Reflections and challenges

Jessica: My two main takeaways so far are: First, interdisciplinary research is not just about “thickening” the answers to a research question but also about opening up the question itself. Working together has reoriented us away from a “return turn” in European asylum law towards the “temporary turn” in immigration law and its consequences for refugees in a broad sense.

Second, a certain degree of “instrumental” reliance on each other is inevitable. After all, legal researchers need to understand how law is practiced, and ethnographers benefit from people trained in reading the law to make sense of an increasingly complex and fragmented framework. However, real collaboration involves an appreciation that neither field has ownership of “hard truths” and invites an ongoing dialogue.

Kari Anne: Yes, I really agree with your point regarding the benefits for ethnographers. Indeed, our on-going conversations have saved me many hours of work figuring out the legal framework alone. Yet, that said, the costs of an interdisciplinary approach also relate mainly to time.  It takes time to write together and engage in all these discussions. It takes time to read up on the literature and debates from other fields.

Jessica. Yes, and I could add, from a management perspective, not all partners are equally interested in or have the capacity to work in this way, and it’s OK to do this meta-reflection on methods with a smaller, committed group.  Giving interdisciplinarity its own work package has helped us justify our time spent working together and paying attention to what difference our approach makes.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this way of working also has costs in terms of career. Several of the core researchers in the TemPro project are on temporary contracts. We need to publish within our disciplines to get permanent positions, and single-authored publications are still considered more valuable. Therefore, writing together, publishing interdisciplinarily and rethinking our methods may result in more innovative research, even more policy-relevant findings, but it’s hard to make the case that it will be rewarded in the academic structures within which we’re positioned.