Guest post by May-Len Skilbrei. May-Len is a professor of criminology at the University of Oslo. Her main research interest in the last few years has been the regulation of mobility, gender and sexuality, and she has published on the policing of prostitution markets, the implementation of anti-trafficking policies, asylum adjudication and the formulation and execution of policies to return rejected asylum seekers. This is the third instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series, which includes short posts based on chapters from the book 'Criminal Justice Research in an Era of Mass Mobility', edited by Andriani Fili, Synnøve Jahnsen and Rebecca Powell. 

The push for research to have societal impact has both ethical and epistemological consequences, some of which I have discussed in my chapter ‘Manoeuvring in tricky waters: Challenges in being a useful and critical migration scholar’ and will summarise here. I take as a starting point what Nils Christie has written about as the danger of ‘oversocialization’: ‘It is just not true that officials as a rule are negative to social research. On the contrary, they are encouraging of research, and they are eager consumers of the results. But what they ask for is answers to problems as seen by themselves, helpful answers for running the state’. What he points to is a problem that runs deeper than self-censorship and strategizing; he is pointing to how researchers’ thinking can be thoroughly framed and thus limited by institutions and their perspectives. That research should produce impact in society is a legitimate goal that opens up for emancipatory and critical scholarship. The question is whether it is this potential that is realised by the way research is funded and organised today, or if instead the imperative to be relevant is one that mainly ensures that research is instrumental to powerful institutions. Several have argued that this is making research state centric (e.g. Jacobsen; McAra) and that researchers in this way become part of and invested in state practices and policies with very dramatic and negative consequences on people’s lives (Sharma & Gupta).

This is also problematic for research that takes place in the nexus of immigration and crime. What is researched about migrants at any given time, and thus what is known about them, is political in the sense that it is directly or indirectly influenced by priorities among politicians, bureaucrats and NGOs, as much of contemporary European research on migration and beyond is expected to ‘be relevant’ for policy developments. Calls from funding bodies communicate what researchers should prioritise in developing a research proposal but also highlight how topics should be framed, not least by calls from the European Commission research programme Horizon 2020 for research that contributes towards solving ‘societal challenges’. Funders often build on a particular problem definition and worldview, much like the additional H2020 calls from 2017 ‘in response to the refugee crisis’.

There is a danger, then, that what is deemed interesting and necessary data about migration is closely linked to state centric views about what migration is and what should be done about it. In contemporary Europe, migration as such is often presented as a problem per se, and research is easily enlisted in political and bureaucratic efforts to reduce the mobility of migrants, to alleviate the ‘crisis’ it creates. In this way, what research is funded is bound to policy agendas. But I would argue that it impacts also in a more indirect way as the whole research field is structured by administrative and political categories and boundaries. Herbert Blumer has pointed to the need to investigate the foundational ideas about what we study, ‘the entire act of scientific study is oriented and shaped by the underlying picture of the empirical world that is used’. In this context, research is intended to provide evidence of how migration policies work and how they can be improved; thus, becoming a cog in the machinery of migration management. And this may, as argued above, happen through ‘oversocialization’, rather than active strategizing. When researchers are understood as taking part in attempts to improve how an institution approaches migration, this impacts the possibilities of critique and whether new perspectives are genuinely welcome.

In several research projects I have been involved in, there have been discussions between the representatives of the funding body and researchers about what terms should be applied. A few years back, Norwegian governmental bodies spoke of ‘voluntary return’, which I and other researchers problematised in meetings with representatives fromf the government. Now, the term ‘assisted return’ is applied, and governmental representatives will no longer speak as if they believe that assisted return is not marked by its relationship with deportation. But still the term ‘deportation’ sits uncomfortably with governmental representatives. They prefer the term ‘enforced return’ with the argument that this is the administrative term for it, and if we as researchers desire to get our points across to them, we need to use their terms.

Another example is how legally and administratively, the state makes a division between forms of mobility and migration. Mobility, a term in line with the EU lingo, is a reference to intra-European human movement, while migration is a term for the mobility of third-country nationals into Europe through the various regulated entry-schemes (family reunification, student, expert labour, asylum) and irregular entry. In one sense, the division is a very realistic and necessary delineation, as these are the terms and legal divisions that the people studied by researchers have to relate to. In another sense though, appropriating them uncritically redounds in normalising this as a legitimate and ‘natural’ division.

Independence is a central scientific virtue encompassed in the concept of ‘research integrity’ that in recent years has become an important principle in European research ethics. The main threat to this is, I would argue, not clear-cut attempts to steer conclusions. Instead, independent thinking and research are infringed by how researchers adapt to the perceived needs of funders and society, both for strategic reasons but also due to ideals internal to research, such as the desire to be relevant and produce impact, and by how researchers not always are able to extend their analysis beyond common sense understandings. I would like to see this situation solved by fewer and weaker ties between government and research, but realise that is not very realistic. In such a situation it is upon researchers to be able to demonstrate the value of critical research, and to be sensitive to ways in which one’s research becomes implicated, embedded and loyal.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Skilbrei, M-L. (2019) Manoeuvring in Tricky Waters: Challenges in Being a Useful and Critical Migration Scholar. Available at: (Accessed [date])