Immigration Otherwise: taking the Mapping Immigration Controversy project into schools (Part 2)

In the last of three posts updating on the afterlife of the Mapping Immigration Controversy research project, we discuss the process of exploring our research findings with school pupils through a drama project, Immigration Otherwise.

By Yasmin Gunaratnam


The flows between research and teaching and getting a new project off the ground take time. The snail’s paced cycle of social research—making connections with research partners, negotiating roles, drafting proposals for funding, ethics committee submissions, recruiting participants, fieldwork, analysis and writing up—affects the development of projects like Immigration Otherwise, not least in how the original research can date relatively quickly. In our case, immigration control had continued to dominate media coverage, gaining more rather than less public attention in the wake of Brexit.

Even though Vaken had taken place in 2013, Vaken and the “Go Home” vans resurfaced in media coverage of the Windrush cases at the beginning of 2018, symbolic of the government’s hostile environment policies. Although the young people were in primary school at the time of the campaign and had never heard of the Go Home vans, most were aware of contemporary immigration debates and the demonising of migrants and refugees in media and popular narratives. Yet, their knowledge of immigration was patchy, gained mostly from social media. Many felt confused rather than informed by political debates, media reporting and immigration vocabulary. One of the first ice-breaking exercises that actREAL devised was an activity in which we were asked to define common terms— “immigrant”, “asylum seeker”, “right to remain”. Misunderstandings and a lack of knowledge about the meaning of different words, even the most familiar, were apparent. “I didn’t even know what the word “immigrant” meant”, one young person told us at the end of the project.

Because immigration is an emotionally charged subject, shot-through with racialised inclusions and exclusions, it falls under what methodologists call a “sensitive topic”; a subject that is threatening to think about and discuss. The games, activities, role-play and on-going post-workshop de-briefings provided more opportunities than conventional social science methods to move between distance and closeness to personal experience and opinions. The interview extracts as short scenarios often led to the sharing of personal experience and feelings.


Counter-performing research

What seemed to make a difference to the young peoples’ understanding of immigration politics was that the script was based on research; real people talking about their lives and describing a spectrum of situations, feelings and opinions. “I just don’t think you can fully understand how complicated life is for immigrants unless you hear all the different voices”, one young person said in their reflection on the project.

Being “real” did not stop play or the subverting of the research materials however, especially with figures of authority. Border agents were improvised as comic and conniving Men In Black persona in the Oxford performance. In Coventry, the border was a menacing, masked and aggressive presence.

There were times when we felt uncomfortable with the re-staging of interview extracts and how contextual meaning and detail could be lost. The narrative of a British National Party (BNP) supporter, hostile to migrants was a parodied and reductive portrayal early on in the workshops. As it turned out, the young people were not aware of where the extract had come from and did not know what the BNP was. At another point, the performance of a refugee talking about her terror when caught up in a Vaken immigration check at a railway station lost its emotional tones and nuance. Observing some of the workshops and the rehearsing of the different scripts meant we could offer context to some of the narratives. We did not want to replicate and reinforce an “original”. Rather we wanted to keep in mind the emotional economies that Vaken played to and incited while allowing the young people to explore and experiment with the creative impulses, free-associations and inchoate thoughts and feelings sparked by the empirical materials.

The matter of how the research was conceived and for what purpose is where the tides between activism and the extensions of research became most palpable. The sampling and curation of research materials, their locating within socio-economic contexts and the extent to which these various shapings were taken up, teased out, avoided, changed or resisted, affected how the research travelled and the ebbs and flows from the initial political impetus of the MIC research (to archive, track and make accountable the impact of aggressive government anti-immigration campaigns). Hearing the words of research participants re-storied by the young people brought new empirical insights and questions, not least in how to respond to the troublesome openness of qualitative research.

In our 2017 book about the MIC research, we thought of Operation Vaken as a manifestation of what Shirin Rai has categorised as “political performance”; activities designed by governments to convince and persuade audiences of a particular political stand. In Vaken we saw a performance aimed at convincing certain publics that the government was getting tough on immigration control. A toughness that was heavily reliant on the literal mobilisation of xenophobic and racist hate speech.

For Rai, political performance is inherently unstable. It is open to disruption through misrecognition, misreading and counter-performance. In Immigration Otherwise, counter-performance became a doubled performance in which the young people played with and restaged our countering of Vaken, producing a sort of counter-counter performance. As we begin to analyse and produce different materials from the project—scripts, lesson plans, images, evaluation data, interviews and focus groups—sharing them more widely with schools, we are keen to explore how social research and creative methods can contribute to imaginaries of immigration otherwise.

Immigration Otherwise: taking the Mapping Immigration Controversy project into schools (Part 1)

In the second of three posts updating on the afterlife of the Mapping Immigration Controversy research project, we discuss the process of exploring our research findings with school pupils through a drama project, Immigration Otherwise.

By Yasmin Gunaratnam

Over the past year Hannah Jones and I have been working with Ida Persson and Vanessa Hughes from actREAL (a company using theatre to engage publics with academic research), taking findings from the Mapping Immigration Controversy (MIC) study into two secondary schools in Oxford and Coventry.1 The new project “Immigration Otherwise”, uses creative and performance methods to further extend the MIC research, with the aim of finding out how immigration is understood and matters in the lives of young people, families and schools. We have also been interested in what methodological insights an iterative, participatory reanimating of research materials and dispersed analysis might offer.

The MIC team was already using materials from the study in our university teaching, influenced by feminist, queer and critical race methodological discussions. Feminist and queer research often exists “at the thresholds of ‘research’ ‘public pedagogy’ and ‘activism’”, Renold and Ringrose (2019) believe. It is a mixture that they think of as the “‘more-than” of research, a longstanding concern in Black, indigenous and feminist of colour research. Drawing from the work of philosopher Brian Massumi, Renold and Ringrose have worked with artistic and craft methods to produce “dar(t)a” as data informed by the arts, as “an explicit intervention to trouble what counts as social science data and to foreground not only the value of creative methodologies but also the speculative impact of art-ful practices”.

For us, there were varied layers to the “dar(t)a” created with the consent of young people, parents/carers and schools in Immigration Otherwise. The artistic elements of the project were woven into the research materials through scripting, drama workshops, set design and performance. The process of developing a generic script for the performances took place over months, with Hannah and I identifying interview and ethnographic extracts, images and social media messaging that we felt captured the many impacts of the government’s immigration 2013 campaign “Operation Vaken”. We shared these with actREAL and Ida Persson developed the materials into drafts of a script, which was revised several times, largely through email exchanges. A final script was then workshopped with the year 9 and 10 students in 10 weekly sessions, with on-going improvisation that produced two different public performances in each school.

The pedagogical facets of the project moved in varied, sometimes unanticipated directions. Practically, the project was very much reliant on the time and commitment of the schools’ drama teachers. The teachers recruited young people to the project and stayed after school with them at each of the workshops. They also accompanied young people to an exchange day at Warwick University, where the two groups met each other for the first time and watched each other’s performances (the day was also organised to provide an opportunity for students to learn more about university life).

The accompaniment of the project by the teachers—what felt akin to ethnographic observing of what the young people were doing, how their thinking developed, how the script and performances evolved—created space for reflection on how academic research might be incorporated into teaching. Teachers told us that they had thought immigration a too complex and controversial topic to be taught with this age group of students, but the project had changed their views. They had also rarely (Coventry) or never (Oxford) used academic research in the classroom.

“Watching how Year 9 have engaged with this idea of immigration could probably be a move forward for us and could be something that we implement into the curriculum”,  “I would definitely consider using academic research in my teaching in the future”, “I would really like to use research in future to challenge students and open their minds to topical issues that may affect them either directly or indirectly” were some of the comments from the teachers, gathered through an independent evaluation by Mita Pujara. Mita used a blend of arts-based and qualitative and quantitative methods to generate baseline data with students and staff, as well as in evaluations at the mid-way point of the project and at the final performances (which included audience evaluations).

An image of the back of a student's head, with the text 'Drama is a good way of getting people involved and their ideas across. Not everybody is a learner by sitting in front of the board and being told facts. A lot more people learn by physical action an discussing it with people who have a totally different opinion to you.'

Image by Mita Pujara


In observing the workshops and learning from the evaluation methods and findings, I was motivated to renew more creative approaches in my teaching. But there are differences between the vulnerabilities in participating in activities as 14-15 year olds in a school drama community and at university. There are fewer opportunities for play and reverie in university social science teaching and these types of activities are not always a positive experience for students with disabilities and/or who have anxiety. Certain university students can also be more assertive in identifying and voicing what they don’t want to do. At the same time, learning necessarily involves risking oneself and being vulnerable.

In her research on feminist classrooms, Pereira (2012) has identified the challenge for teachers of responding to the “didactic discomfort” that can be “triggered directly or indirectly by the material covered and/or methods deployed in a course, and is perceived by teachers (and often also by the students themselves) as an experience that can enable or generate learning.” (p.129). The positive potential of didactic discomfort is threatened, Pereira believes, by the neo-liberal imperatives that drive Higher Education in Europe. Recognising these dynamics, the demands on time and the emotion work that responding to didactic discomfort entails and how these demands are unevenly distributed in academia, prompted me to re-examine how I teach; an outcome of the project’s creative methods that was unanticipated.

1. Both schools are in Cities of Sanctuary and have been evaluated as “Good’ by Ofsted. The school in Oxford was almost three times the size of the Coventry school, with twice the number of students from “minority ethnic” backgrounds.

Check back for further reflections on what we learned from working with young people in this way, in tomorrow’s post.


From racist vans to racist tweets

As Donald Trump ‘plays the race card’ to distract from his brutal immigration regime, we look back at the parallel politics of racism and immigration control in the UK, and how this is playing out for young people growing up in the Hostile Environment for immigration.

By Hannah Jones.


Images of the four Congresswomen attacked by Trump, clockwise from top left: Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez

Images of the four Congresswomen attacked by Trump, clockwise from top left: Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

As you will likely have seen by now, Donald Trump bought himself headlines again with his tweets over the weekend which, among other things, told four US Congresswomen to ‘go back’ to ‘the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came’. In the UK, Prime Minister Theresa May ‘condemned’ the US President’s words as ‘completely unacceptable’ (via her spokesperson). But she, like many US politicians and the two candidates to be the next UK Prime Minister, refused to call Trump’s racist statements racist. It is hardly surprising, since, as many pointed out, Theresa May herself was responsible for what quickly became dubbed (also on Twitter) the ‘racist van’ which the Home Office used to tell Londoners to ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’.

The USA and the UK have different contexts of race and immigration politics – but the implications of being told to ‘go home’ are pretty much the same. They are, as Ilhan Omar, one of the Congresswomen, pointed out in response, the politics of white nationalism. The slur is used by the speaker to claim ownership of a place and question the target’s right to be there – and it is traditionally used by white racists. Telling someone to ‘go home’ or ‘go back to where they came from’ is not about accuracy – it doesn’t matter to Trump or people like him that the four Congresswomen are US citizens, and all but one were born in the USA. It doesn’t matter to them that in the USA, the land was stolen by Europeans from indigenous people of the Americas, or that black people were brought to the USA in chains and against their will by Europeans. It doesn’t matter to them that in the UK, the majority of British people of colour are there because their ancestors came from lands colonised by the British as part of a British Empire. The justice or truth of calling a place ‘home’ is not what they care about; it is a way of devaluing and excluding people racialised as lesser human beings.

When Theresa May’s Home Office launched the Go Home van and associated campaigns that publicised ‘tough’ immigration controls, they denied accusations of racism. Mark Harper, Home Office minister at the time, insisted the campaigns were simply about asking people without the right to be in the UK to leave and said he found accusations of racism ‘astonishing’. As the Mapping Immigration Controversy project team has previously written, perhaps he would have been less astonished if had the experienced or understood the legacy of racism and its entanglement with immigration and border control.

The purpose of the Go Home van and associated campaigns was, as we have shown, to demonstrate to voters that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government was tough on immigration, buying into and escalating the fear and hatred of ‘others’ fomented by the publicity given to Nigel Farage MEP. There appeared to be no qualms about the ways that migration control is entangled in race politics. Though the UK government was able to argue on technicalities that their Go Home van approach was aimed at people without the legal right to be in the UK, their publicity tactics were not expected to be effective at limiting irregular migration. Rather, they predictably sent a message of suspicion which works to increase harassment of people racialised as non-white and non-British.

Of course, Trump’s intervention comes amidst controversy about border control. As the Congresswomen have pointed out, the attention focused on his personal attacks have distracted from their own campaigns about the horrific conditions in US border detention sites and a weekend of planned immigration raids. Similarly, in the UK, the bold language of the Go Home van which gained much more attention than the ongoing, everyday violence of racialised border controls in our streets, workplaces, healthcare, welfare and education.

Our research traced the effects of the UK Home Office’s public campaigns about immigration control, including the Go Home van, between 2013 and 2015. The story didn’t end then. In this new updated video, you can hear a flavour or our research findings and our reflections on how this research is relevant to controversies up to 2019.

In two further posts to follow, you can read about how we have been continuing to explore and develop responses to the politics of immigration control, in work with schools and theatre practitioners actREAL, to find out what it is like growing up in the era of the Hostile Environment.