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.


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