On 30 April 2019, Leila Ullrich, a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford, gave a stimulating talk about refugee research, global knowledge production and the use of WhatsApp as a qualitative methodological tool.

Dr Ulrich’s talk – based on an academic paper she is currently writing – builds upon her research conducted for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Lebanon between November 2017 and March 2018. As a UNDP Social Stability consultant, she was awarded a grant to develop and pilot two qualitative WhatsApp surveys in the Lebanese villages of Qaraoun and Bar Elias. Over 1000 people from host and refugee communities participated. The surveys ran for one month and the analysis of participants’ answers culminated in three UNDP reports that aimed to gain insight into the humanitarian needs of refugees and capture lessons learned from using WhatsApp as a research tool: Speak up via WhatsApp, 2018, Below the Surface, 2019, and WhatsApp Surveying Guide, 2019.

So, why use WhatsApp? Dr Ullrich proposed that WhatsApp is a pertinent tool for researching migration and refugee contexts for two reasons. First, WhatsApp is popular; 84% refugee households in Lebanon use the communication tool. Second, the ‘voice note’ function is an informal, ongoing, more people-centred medium of communication.

Before delving deeper into the strengths and limitations of using WhatsApp as a qualitative research tool, Dr Ullrich embedded her analysis within a history of knowledge production of refugees in the ‘global south’.


The uneven terrain of global knowledge production: refugees as knowable subjects

Dr Ullrich urged us to acknowledge the complicity of the academic researcher in constituting the refugee as a knowable rather than a knowing subject. She proposed that ‘whatever refugees say or do is classified as data, while analysis is preserved for the academic, usually based in the “global north”’. 

In interrogating the uneven terrain of global knowledge production, she drew upon (post)colonial scholars such as Jean and John Comaroff, B.S. Chimni and Edward Said. The ‘global south’, Comaroff and Comaroff have argued, enters the intellectual gaze ‘less as source[] of refined knowledge than as reservoir[] of raw fact: of the minutiae from which Euromodernity might fashion its testable theories and transcendent truths’ (2012, 114). Knowledge production about the ‘subaltern refugee’ has historically served colonial and imperialist projects, fabricating a ‘myth of difference’, and legitimising a ‘containment’ of refugees in the ‘global south’.

The tendency to constitute refugees as knowable rather than knowing subjects still exists in more contemporary refugee and migration scholarship, Dr Ullrich observes. From the refugee as ‘bare life’, stripped of all political agency, to being idealised as a ‘revolutionary agent’ par excellence, she asks what these opposing paradigms have in common. For Dr Ullrich, they produce blind spots that conceal the intellectual agency of those forced to flee.

‘Border intellectuals’: refugees as knowing subjects

Does recognising refugees as ‘border intellectuals’ enable scholars to overcome the binary between refugees as knowing Vs knowable subjects? Dr Ullrich thinks this may be so. She wishes to use the analogies, metaphors, counter-narratives and systemic critiques entailed in UNDP survey participants’ WhatsApp messages as analytical tools to foreground ‘refugee theorizing’ which ‘has not formed a significant part of knowledge production in the field’. Considering that refugees are uniquely positioned to analyse societal institutions such as the state and the market through the lens of their economic and political marginal status, and considering that WhatsApp voice notes represent an untapped tool for qualitative research, Dr Ullrich presents the research question for her thesis: ‘whether social media methodologies that are part of the dominant order such as WhatsApp can create new forms of not only knowing refugees but of refugee theorizing and knowledge?’

WhatsApp as a source of knowledge production?

But what are the issues involved in using WhatsApp in this way? Dr Ullrich proposes that the use of WhatsApp voice notes to learn from refugees’ insights yields benefits. First, ‘it scales up qualitative research without losing its depth’. Many more people can share their perspectives via WhatsApp than would be possible through personal interviews. Second, WhatsApp has the potential for continual global communication with mobile people ‘allowing us to accompany migrants over years as they cross borders and settle in new countries’. Third, despite the fact that some people do not own smart phones, Dr Ullrich suggested that the survey is more inclusive of populations who are hard to access ‘such as illiterate people and people living in conflict zones’. Finally, it produces people-generated analysis: ‘questions were very broad which gave people more room to talk about the things that mattered to them’ leaving less room for the researcher ‘to steer the narrative towards her research interests’.

Yet there are many shortcomings that Dr Ullrich acknowledged, ranging from technical problems to sample biases. For example, women only made up 18% of the first survey’s respondents and 33% of the second. Additionally, there are methodological limitations as well as political and ethical concerns. For example, Dr Ullrich asks ‘what is lost if there is no personal relationship between researcher and research participant?’. And as the original survey was ‘embedded in unequal power relationships between the UN and refugees’, she notes that people may participate because they hope they can alert the UN to their personal case.

The talk raised important methodological, epistemological and ethical questions. Should we be pursuing quantity, efficiency and convenient access to respondents at the expense of human relationships? If so, why – what will the research be used for and for whom? What about the priorities inherent in UN research designs, or within policy research settings more broadly, given that the talk was based on data gathered for the UNDP-commissioned survey? Are we moving beyond the refugees as knowable Vs knowing binary by labelling people ‘border intellectuals’, or are we merely shuffling people around semantically, and still defining individuals by their status labels and migration experience? Importantly, researchers must consider the potential risks of administering surveys via WhatsApp. While end-to-end encryption arguably makes WhatsApp messaging safer than some other forms of communication (email, texting), there are still dangers of data breaches through the researcher or governments’ ability to access metadata (names, numbers and geolocations) that could put research participants at risk.  

Dr Ullrich’s talk challenged us to think substantially, conceptually and methodologically about refugee research, knowledge production and the uses and abuses of social media channels as qualitative research tools.

Tiffany Shakespeare, MSc student at the Centre for Criminology