9. Researchers shifting positionalities and power in migration research

Convenors: Liselott Sundbäck, Åbo Akademi University; Maija Kalm-Akubardia, University of Helsinki, Social Work

Contact: liselott.sundback (at) abo.fi

Session 9.1: Thursday 2.12.2021 at 13.00-15.00
Session 9.2: Thursday 2.12.2021 at 17.00-18.30

In recent years, we have seen an increase in research specially in social sciences on migration and inclusion. This raises specific ethical and methodological challenges posed by researching (potentially) vulnerable individuals, as has been emphasized by various researchers (Nordberg & Wrede, 2015; Pittaway, E., Bartolomei, L & Hugman, R., 2010; Leinonen, J; Lyytinen, E; Tiilikainen, M; Kmak, M. 2020).

The focus of the workshop is on methodological aspects of migration research from a power and positioning aspect. Firstly, we examine the shifting positionalities of the researcher and research participants throughout the whole research process starting from defining the research questions and methods. We as individuals and as representatives of our institutions and other sources of interests are inseparable parts of society’s power structures. Thus, recognizing the self as relational has implications also for the ways in which we, as researchers, encounter our research participants and reflect upon these encounters in our writings. How do we position and reflect ourselves and our power structures is a central ethical question. What and how are we essentially promoting in the study?

Secondly, we look at how knowledge is contextualized and produced and how the forms of knowledge we collect and rewrite during our research might reproduce oppressing structures when it comes to power relations. Conceptual practices of power are often unnoticeable even to those who are engaged in it (Harding, S, 2008, 226). How can we as researchers avoid othering our research subjects and their knowledge? We explore who produces knowledge and how is the “local” knowledge transferred to “academic” thinking and writing without stealing stories in the way problematized by Pittaway, E., Bartolomei, L & Hugman, R. (2010)? Can we continue doing qualitative research with clear power-relations between researchers and informants? Or is the only way forward co-writing and co-researching, forms of participatory research, or something else? We invite scholars in every stage of their academic career to submit paper drafts or thoughts on this subject conceptually, methodologically or analytically.

Back to the workshops

Presentation order and abstracts:

SESSION 9.1 Thursday 2.12.2021 at 13.00-15.00

  1. Ethical and empowering research with adult migrants investing in a Finnish basic education program
    Sanna Riuttanen, University of Jyväskylä

As Leinonen, Lyytinen, Tiilikainen & Kmak (2020) state, ”conducting research with forced migrants necessitates a continuous critical consideration of research ethics.” The paper I propose is based on the data gathered for my dissertation, which is longitudinal critical ethnographic study focusing on the investment (Darvin & Norton 2015) of adult refugee-background students in a basic education program in Finland. The aim is to find out why and how the students are investing in their learning, and which social, ideological or institutional factors either support or stand in the way of their education.

The data come from a rural Finnish community college that offers a two-year basic education program populated by refugee-background adults from mostly SWANA (South West Asian/North African) countries. Interviews and classroom observations are in the centre of my inquiry. Many of the students participating in my study are in a vulnerable position, being refugees or asylum seekers who have arrived in Finland recently. I aim to conduct research in both ethical and empowering ways, meaning I try to minimize the inconvenience I might cause my subjects, and also help them achieve their own goals (Cameron et al. 1992). As a young researcher doing data collection among refugee subjects, I have had to ponder many of the questions proposed as basis for this workshop. Thus, in addition to presenting my findings so far, I would like to use the presentation space to discuss some or all of the following questions in relation to my study:

  • How do I ensure voluntary and informed consent throughout my research process, considering the power relations in place as well linguistic and cultural differences?

  • What are some concrete ways in which I could involve my subjects in the research and/or writing process?

I hope my presentation sparks fruitful conversation on conducting empowering research with migrants.

  1. From a teacher into a researcher: reflections on studying Integration Training in Finland

Tanja Seppälä

My PhD dissertation investigates adult migrants participating Integration Training in Finland, their Finnish language learning in the training and language use after the training. Integration Training is criticised in reports (OECD 2018; VTV 2018) for language learning results that are considered to be weak. My aim is to display participants’ heterogenous backgrounds, which are often left out from the reports.

My motivation to do this research comes from my background as a Finnish language teacher. At the moment, I’m conducting a research about people whose life situations are different from mine. I’m also doing it from former teacher’s perspective.

Research participants of my study are newly arrived, unemployed migrants. They attended Integration Training for Adult Immigrants (Kotoutumiskoulutus aikuisille maahanmuuttajille) consisting of, for example, Finnish language studies, classes about society and work life in Finland. The participants have a residence permit for Finland, and they come from diverse backgrounds, e. g. some are refugees, some asylum seekers and some have family ties in Finland. Financial allowance depends on participating in the training, so participation is usually compulsory. (Opetushallitus 2012.)

My own background as a Finn with academic training, native Finnish speaker and former teacher has affected all aspects of my research. It made the research possible, it is related to why I began to do my research in the first place and it affected my research questions. My position has also had effects on my data gathering. My interests guided me in the analysis and in the interpretation of results.

I want my research participants to have a voice, but I can’t avoid othering the migrants and constituting a migrant in my research process nevertheless (see also Kurki 2018). That means I will maintain power relations between academics and research participants. Due to these reasons, ethical reflection needs to be an integral part of my study.

3. The challenge of me as a researcher between the burden of East and the West

Maija Kalm-Akubardia, University of Helsinki

My PhD process opened my eyes for the troublesome relation between Russia and so-called western countries in academic research. In my presentation I will be discussing the challenges related to my position and overall possibilities of studying global issues in Russian context from the human rights perspective. I am underlining the burden of the East-West dichotomy in academic discussions and the way it is maintained for the use of local and global power structures. As terms, east and west are often loosely used. With east I refer to Russia and its affects in neighboring East-European countries. With west I refer mostly the European Union, but also to the United states, when it comes to the immigration question and research.

While the attention in the immigration question seems to be often pointed to the undocumented immigrants, not to the power structure maintaining and creating the inequity, with my PhD work I aim to bring light to power structures behind the phenomenon, studied through the experiences of the long-term undocumented immigrants in Moscow. The participants (15) are visible members of the society and its’ national economy, but their capabilities have been manipulated and restricted. The vulnerability arises from political, social, and economic inequity. I base my research mostly on Steven Lukes’ Three Dimensions of Power (2005) but I greatly benefit from Martha Nussbaum’s Capability Approach (2011) and studies of populism.

With a study background in Finland, in Belarus and in Latvia and with a Georgian family name, I would like to see myself positioned in a fruitful playground constructed especially for reflecting and criticizing different positions in the dichotomy of east and west Europe. In my presentation our politics go hand in hand with the academic discussion and in the end they both stumble upon questions of cultural differences and/or political sensitivity.

Session 9.2 Thursday 2.12.2021 at 17.00-18.30

  1. Building relationships in forced-migration settings – theoretical, methodological and ethical choices
    Lotta Kokkonen and Sari Pöyhönen, University of Jyväskylä

In this reflective paper, we describe interpersonal relationships initiated, developed and closured with research participants during a longitudinal research project. We will unpack our theoretical and methodological choices in building relationships, and in negotiating, gaining and maintaining trust. We also reflect on ethically responsible practices and the challenges of undertaking collaborative research with participants who are experiencing vulnerable lives in liminal spaces.

Our insights derive from a team linguistic ethnography Jag bor i Oravais (I live in Oravais), located in and around a reception centre for asylum seekers in a Swedish-dominant rural area of Finland, and ongoing since 2015. The project explores the ways individuals seeking asylum tell about their everyday lives, while they wait for a decision on their asylum claim, and considers these lived experiences in relation to wider political and social structures such as asylum policy and employment (e.g. Pöyhönen et al. 2020; Pöyhönen & Simpson 2020).

The study is not only about establishing interpersonal relationships with individuals, but a web of relationships and connections, that needs to be taken into consideration when conducting a study like this. The aim of this paper is therefore to critically reflect our researcher positionalities and bring about the wide spectrum of relationships of the individuals participating in the study.

We will focus on two persons, Fatema and Mohammad, with whom we have worked from the beginning of the project. We start by describing how we entered the so-called research field, how Fatema and Mohammad became research participants, how the relationships with them and their networks developed, and how we researchers positioned ourselves and what kinds of ethical choices we made during the research process.

  1. Positionalities and ethics of power when researching institutional trust and distrust among forced migrants
    Liselott Sundbäck, Åbo Akademi University

The aim of this paper is to examine ethics in research on institutional trust in a forced migration context in Finland. I reflect on how I relate to my research topic and my research subjects by digging into the essence of my theoretic framework - the multifaceted concept of institutional trust. I problematize the notion of trust asking weather the strong westerns theoretical conceptualizations are problematic for my research analyses.

Despite the vast academic literature on trust, the majority of publications on migration and trust seems to be from strongly western perspectives thus forming the notion of trust from what Harding (2015), Mohanty (2002), Mbembe, (2017) refer to in various words as from within the Western hegemonic perspective. Thus, the conceptual framework and the theories stemming from within this framework represents the way trust has been mostly articulated in the western societies, from western academic positions. Further, the notion of trust has been articulated by what Mills refers to as the hegemonic groups of the liberal social order, bourgeois white males (Mills, 2017).

I also examine my fieldwork with young forced migrants in Finland in the light of ethics of power. I discuss positionality, reflexivity and power in knowledge production. With fieldwork, I refer to twelve semi-structured interviews. At the core of the fieldwork laid young migrants experiences from institutional encounters, especially about the construction of institutional trust/distrust. How to go about transfer of knowledge and knowledge production? From an epistemological perspective, what do I need to consider as a researcher when it comes to forms of hermeneutical injustice?