“Is it fair though?” – Researching racism, class and immigration

By Yasmin Gunaratnam and Hannah Jones

What is becoming known as the “refugee crisis” is unleashing a series of contradictory, sometimes erratic, feelings and actions across Europe’s nations. As lorries at Hungary’s border with Croatia spew out more razor wire fencing, refugees and migrants have been filmed walking across unguarded Slovenian borders. Closer to home, the latest opinion polls suggest a splitting of views in how we should respond. While 4 out of 10 people in the recent BBC Newsnight poll of 1,000 British adults, thought that Britain should allow in more refugees, opinions seem to be divided along class lines. Fifty-four per cent of those who were classified as middle class were in favour of more refugees, compared with 24% of people classified as working class. There are also worries that resentment against asylum seekers and refugees is at boiling point among some white working class communities, already stigmatised and squeezed by virulent austerity measures. Will Enoch Powell’s 1968 prophesy materialise as our housing estates implode and foam Tiber-like with blood or will there be more convoys to Calais?

In between these extremes what is clear is that migration is being talked about more energetically – on street corners, in shops, on the news – than it has been for decades. Our research has suggested that attitudes towards immigration are always complex and layered and that policy makers are very much influenced by public opinion. But what role might social research play in current events? What responsibilities do we have as researchers, at a time when there are greater calls for research to engage the public?

In the face of a pull towards certainties, and to the hardening of hostilities between groups under threat, the ethical bottom line for sociologists is the maxim, “first, do no harm”. This can mean taking care that how we present our research does not add to ethnic, class and gender oppressions, and equally, avoiding  a well-meaning shrug and a response of “It’s complicated”. The “sociological imagination”, as C Wright Mills conceptualised the ability to relate “public issues’ to “private troubles” seems as vital a touchstone as ever in how we might negotiate the ethical and political challenges of research on immigration. At its best, sociology takes seriously the personal, everyday struggles and inconsistencies of individuals; but it does this while also keeping in mind the larger structural forces that shape those everyday struggles and give them meaning. And while sociologists might maintain their own ethical and political positions, and aim to make these transparent when doing research, this does not mean condemning or championing the actions, views or feelings of the people they work with or study, especially when these views risk symbolic violence or inciting further antagonism towards other vulnerable people. As those working with psychosocial methods have pointed out, in qualitative research there can be layers of conscious and unconscious exchanges between researchers and participants and it is important to go “beneath the surface” of what is said. As Sasha Roseneil has also argued, this work of analysis often entails recognising “the uncomfortable fact that sociologists probably often produce analyses which are not congruent with their subjects’ own self-identifications.” (p. 865)

In our research, we have met participants whose views we disagree with. But our roles as researchers has been to listen attentively and try to understand how those views were reached, and why; and what the consequences of those views are in individual lives and within wider scales.

One research participant in Barking and Dagenham in the East End of London, who told us that he voted for the far-right British National Party in the last election, felt that “immigrants” were getting preferential treatment in the borough. He was clearly angry and upset about this. He asked ‘Is it fair?’. Would you, he asked the researcher directly, invite someone with TB into your home when you had small children? Isn’t that what the government is doing when it allows people to enter the country who might have TB, he asked? The implication was that “immigrants” are coming into our home (the nation) and are not only abusing our hospitality but are also threatening the health of the nation.

These are not the kind of research encounters in which there is a “right” answer. The researcher could of course decline to answer – to turn the questions back on the participant, refuse to participate oneself. But might such a stance of hiding behind the distancing “objectivity” of a certain model of research, be to fall back into a hierarchy of research relationships that as feminist researchers we imagine ourselves to have rejected? The researcher could enter into a conversation with the research participant – providing “facts” about the actual amounts of state help given to those who arrive into the UK with TB – but this recourse to “facts” not only ignores the emotional content of the question, but it can also reinforce other divides – the researcher as a figure of authority who always already knows best. And whether or not this might be a productive conversation or even change the participant’s mind (unlikely), it does not take us much closer to understanding what is happening in this encounter.

The matter of how a researcher might respond to such uncomfortable questions in the moment are difficult to plan for. But there is also the medium and longer-term response of the researcher. How do we think about this exchange as it lingers? Is it written off as too difficult or painful to think about and analyse? Is it used as evidence of ‘whiteworkingclassracism’? Is it taken and reported as face-value evidence to demonstrate why immigration is damaging, since whether or not the man’s assertions about unfair state allocations are true, he thinks they are? We often see all of these reactions in public debate, particularly in the work of figures that receive excessive media coverage by offering soundbite certainties.

But shouldn’t social researchers work a bit harder at their analysis? We don’t need to dismiss the stories and views of research participants as untrue, or spiteful. We don’t have to agree with them, either. What we can do is to try and understand and follow the path of their reasoning and logic, and also look beyond it, and offer another perspectives: that it does not have to come down to zero-sum relationships about whether government/society decides to support British people in need, or refugees. That encouragement to think this way comes directly from political rhetoric and media coverage. That in desperate situations, people often seek to blame and scapegoat those in an even weaker position. And rather than developing narratives in which the poorest British-born population are positioned in opposition to people born overseas but living in destitution in the UK, we might consider, as Bridget Anderson’s work suggests, how these groups are subjected to state power in similar ways.

One of the campaigners for migrant rights who we interviewed told us that she saw parallels between the ways that systems of asylum seeker support are run, and changes to the regular welfare system. It is hard not to draw this conclusion if we look at some of the parallels: on and off since 1999, asylum seekers in Britain were not given any cash to live on. Instead they were given special vouchers or cards to spend at supermarkets on specific items. In 2012, both Labour and Conservatives were involved in discussions about applying a similar system to social security payments for benefits claimants, to avoid ‘irresponsible spending’ on items such as alcohol. Following the 1999 Asylum and Immigration Act, a system of dispersing asylum seekers across the UK was introduced, in order to more evenly spread numbers across the country and reduce their concentration in London and the southeast. In the Home Swap Scheme of 2011, council tenants in London have been encouraged to swap their homes for cheaper tenancies outside London, and a number of other policies have combined to systematically encourage council tenants to leave London – the ‘bedroom tax’; the benefits cap; and organised schemes for dispersal including during redevelopment of housing. Asylum seekers who are refused refugee status, or do not comply with rules attached to their status, are ‘without recourse to public funds’, meaning they are not able to receive help from the NHS, education or any public services, including money for food – while they are also not allowed to work. The application of ‘benefits sanctions’ has increased dramatically in recent years, meaning that people on benefits who do not meet requirements set by the DWP (often spurious or arbitrary) can be denied access to welfare payments.

If this list of the parallels between the ways in which people seeking refuge in the UK and people living on the lowest incomes are treated is not enough to suggest there might be space for solidarity, we might look to the rhetoric of both government and the press. The “Go Home” van and other campaigns encouraging individuals to report on people they think might be “illegal immigrants” echoes advertising from the DWP asking people to report on others who they think may be making false benefit claims. The language of “scroungers” echoes the language of “swarms”, both threatening the lives of “decent” people.

When we hear the voices of those asking “Is it fair” that they are treated this way, in comparison with others, we need to take their questions and their experiences seriously. But this does not mean dismissing the experiences of others, or the larger questions of power that lead to feelings of injustice in the first place.

'Take More Refugees' sign at demonstration next to the Ritz Hotel. Photograph by Hannah Jones.

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