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No one wants to be the “Global North”? On being a researcher across the North and South (May, 2019)

No one wants to be the “Global North”? On being a researcher across the North and South

In this blog post I would like to share my personal experiences of carrying out qualitative research in what contemporary scholars call the “Global South” (Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt) and the “Global North” (Australia and the United Kingdom). To convey my message clearly, I adopt the classical political geography of “South” and “North” with the intention of neither confirming these narrow categories nor of universalizing my personal experiences but in order to work towards an honest sociology of knowledge through such peculiar experiences.

In particular, I discuss what I think are some of the emerging behavioral and ethical tendencies in today’s research economy and its main methodologies. On the one hand, the reluctance in the “Southern” environments in recognizing their own tendency to embrace predominant ways of producing knowledge. On the other, the reluctance of “Northern” research entities to acknowledge their own positionality within the global scenario – that is, accepting the fact of conducting research as outsiders and, above all, the sociological harm of pretending localism. The result of these two tendencies is, from my perspective, a globalized impoverished attention to factual awareness, which depends on the personal involvement of researchers in the context they study and the cultivation of the capability to build and rebuild a continual relationship with the subjects and the places studied beyond the duration of fieldwork research.

The “Southern” tendency to perceive the practice of producing research as antithetical or substantially different to the North consistently builds on the universal romanticization of the research produced in the Global South, cutting across the North and the South. Indeed, while the research and academic institutions that I worked for in the Global South tended to believe that their fieldwork quality standards were inherently higher, the fact of being at the mercy of external – and unstable – sources of funding often endangered their existence and alternative ways of working. In these circumstances, fieldwork mostly took place in relatively small timeframes and, likewise, theories needed to be quickly wrapped up, making it difficult to identify any effective counter-culture of knowledge production. Studies on publishing locally and perishing globally have importantly highlighted the material constraints of localizing research. While “Southern” knowledge is barely known and mentioned by North-produced researchers (although it often marks significantly several fields of studies), it is also important to add that, in my own experiences across the Arab world, large segments of upper and middle classes tend to receive their postgraduate education and establish their scholarship in Northern institutions, thereby being trained according to Northern criteria while trying to preserve their reputation of being local researchers. In similar ways, Southern institutions often delegate fieldwork to research assistants who struggle to receive intellectual acknowledgment. (The same acknowledgment that many “Southern” research institutions have been looking for in the international arena, still dominated by Global North’s epistemologies and funding sources). In this regard, I have seen no co-authorships offered to research assistants, who undergo processes of alienation similar to those recently discussed in the context of the institutions of the Global North. Likewise, I have witnessed similarly exploitative relationships which seek to build knowledge upon the anonymity and the belittling of an underpaid workforce, whatever the latter’s passport is.

Despite acknowledging the partially ethnic character of some of these power dynamics – such as European academics versus local researchers in the Arab Levant, mostly when the former lack the necessary linguistic skills and in-depth knowledge of the research settings – I would like to emphasize some nuances. While the global archetype of neoliberal academia certainly does not stem from Southern institutions, largely due to colonial legacies, in my experience I have identified hierarchical and alienating structures of research-making across different cultural patterns of knowledge production.

Dauntingly, ethical research and decolonial methodologies are becoming tokenistic worldwide, turning into a further disenfranchisement of diversely vulnerable researched subjects, such as refugees. In this scenario, the Global North currently promotes itself as a pioneer advocate of ethical research – a phenomenon which has led to a proliferation of publications on the topic, rather than finally aiming for a radical transformation of research and for the uprooting of the vulnerabilities of the researched.

With no intention to bury unequal historical relationships, the intrinsic “non-ethicness” of such structural deficiencies needs to be observed across Norths and Souths. To ethnographers, if quality fieldwork means collecting relevant data, it also needs to mean collecting what matters at a local level and in an appropriate way. Contextual relevance and cultural appropriateness inevitably require generous timeframes. Doing less but long-term research and paying under-explored forms of respect to the researched may be the way to go.

Moreover, a pressing question may center on the tyranny of grants and funding, which is said to dictate the design of today’s projects. To what extent is this the cause of such an unacknowledged sociology of failure in academic research? The present tendency is to design methods that involve an extremely large number of interviews and what I would call the “participatory approach fever”. The result of a misinterpretation of what “participation” should mean is subcontracting scientific evidence to researched subjects overburdened with theoretical expectations and over-theorizations, a tendency which seldom turns out to provide sound empirical evidence. In this vein, Northern-led research not only tends to romanticize the South, which would not be new in postcolonial scholarship, but increasingly invites the South to actively participate in its own romanticization. Affected by “participatory approach fever”, many scholars in the Global North feel urged to depict their work as local, while also missing the fact that sharing their own conscious positionality vis-à-vis the researched would instead be an invaluable point of departure in the effort to avoid ethical and scientific failure. Indeed, such a self-acknowledgment would finally contribute to nuancing the multiple cultures in which research design, data collection, writing, and knowledge production are embedded – cultures that are hardly definable within the categories of “North” and “South”.

In light of these considerations, I ask myself how ethnographic studies can survive without being sociologically relevant and, at times, even culturally appropriate. Subcontracting the production of knowledge either to local researchers or to the researched themselves is certainly not a one-size-fits-all answer. Yet it looks unfeasible for many researchers across the globe to dispose of proper time and funding to conduct research over a longer timeframe and develop a localized understanding of the contexts they wish to study. I identified a similar issue when I realized that some researchers who have a poor command of the local language shy away from hiring an interpreter due to a lack of material means or because they are in an environment that frowns upon social science researchers who lack contextual skills. While peacefully sharing one’s own limits and assets would potentiate empirical analysis overall, everyone wants to be the “voice of the Global South”. Instead, no one wants to be the Global North, impeding a honest sociology of knowledge. Thus, how do we decolonize sociological and anthropological knowledge and, at the same time, the sociology of knowledge, if the drivers of epistemological coloniality, across Norths and Souths, have managed to make themselves invisible?

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The ‘Need to Be There’: North-South Encounters and Imaginations in the Humanitarian Economy (December, 2018)

I have contributed to the Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations, edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Patricia Daley (2018), which has just been published!

https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781138652002

The edited volume collects an important number of critical contributions which question contemporary political geographies of Global North and Global South. Here below you can read the abstract of my chapter which focuses on my work on humanitarianism in Lebanon.

chapter 22|13 pages

North–South encounters and imaginations in the humanitarian economy
ByEstella Carpi
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Based on ethnographic research conducted in Beirut’s southern suburbs (Dahiye) and northern Lebanon (Akkar) between 2011 and 2013, this chapter advances a critical reflection on humanitarian lifeworlds in Lebanon and their encounters with war-stricken local citizens and refugees. Defining Southism as a structural relationship that cements the ‘global South’ as the key symbolic capital of Northern empowerment, accountability and capability, the chapter discusses the attitudes and thinking that have characterised the Lebanese humanitarian economy during the Israel–Lebanon July 2006 war and the Syrian refugee influx into Lebanon from 2011. While it defines ‘epistemic failure’ and ‘material discrimination’ as the actual encounters between humanitarian providers and their beneficiaries, this chapter proposes that ‘humanitarian tourism’, ‘politics of blame’, and the ‘betrayal of the international community’ represent the local and refugee imaginary encounters with global humanitarian lifeworlds. With the purpose of problematising ethnic and political geographies in provider–recipient power relations, it finally theorises a de-geographicised notion of Southism that can better capture the complex role of international and local humanitarian workers in crisis settings, as well as the ad hoc relevance of nationality within humanitarian economies.

 

Categories: Africa, Asia, Europe, Middle East, Nord Africa, United States | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Migration Influxes and European Compassion: How Long Do We Need to Wait for an Informed Sustainability? (by Estella Carpi, November 2015)

hungary migrants new m

(Photo taken from France24)

http://trendsinstitution.org/?p=1520

Over the last two months, everyone with internet access has surely come across the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler drowned in Turkish waters on a beach of Bodrum last September 2.  It seems the photo of Aylan, along with waves of refugees trying to cross to Eastern Europe – mainly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan – have finally shaken the Western public from its lethargy and has made frighteningly tangible to all of us the human limit to which political crises, transnational disputes, and the controversies of a “North-South” humanitarian system have led us.

According to the studies of Lili Chouliaraki, the phenomenon that we currently witness consists of new “ironic spectators” watching the suffering of the Other: so to speak, the user of the compassionate “Facebook like” vocabulary, who celebrates and self-advertises her/his acts of charity, and exchanges the ethical consumption of solidarity for information and sustainability. Once again, the ephemeral solidarity cultivated in the media, and the compassion towards an abstract multitude of “desperate migrants”, too rarely claim back the historicity of the events, and are rather concerned with telling us their sad stories to consequently stimulate our intentions and defend them.

Once again, the solidarity that seldom questions the reasons behind the European public rapidly turning from indifference to mass sympathy, is promoted in terms of lifestyle rather than informed and responsive civic-mindedness.

After the diffusion of the picture of the lifeless body of the little Aylan, European media have offered much more space to the discussion of the (in)formal aid that civilians are providing to refugees, and their civil protests organised to express a “European spirit” of solidarity. These initiatives, until the Syrian emergency and the chronic predicament of neighbouring populations were mostly affecting the Middle Eastern region, had not been implemented in the European Union (EU) to the same extent as presently.

The public compassion in the wake of the massive “refugee crisis” – a definition that is actually able to conceal the political causes and the external responsibilities underlying such crises –[1] has now become the driving force of transnational assistance, pushing couch spectators beyond their mere sympathy.

The “sentimental education” that Richard Rorty[2] was advancing may be able to cultivate at school a co-feeling of empathy among the youth and provide a new common ground to tackle international crises. While human sensitivity to differences should not be taken for granted and should rather be taught, how can we prevent the culture of rights, traditionally championed by the so-called “Global North”, from remaining ephemeral as much as the public attention to desperate exoduses and displacements? In the current media morass, the promotion of human rights through philanthropic campaigns and the proliferation of NGOs, which has long tasted of Western neoliberalism and paternalistic third worldism, still struggles to offer deeper explanations to such crises.  And it is even more alarming that the average European spectator remains unlikely to accept that the stories recounting South-North migrations are not all necessarily sad.

The average European spectator has proved, once again, to mobilise and face her/his encounter with refugees and migrants in purely humanitarian terms, and not in the political recognition of their right to a new life, asylum, or protection. It is not only the fact that “they suffer like us” that should be pitied and recognised. That ”at the end of the day they suffer like us”, although being a sine qua non prelude of generosity, is still unable to give birth to informed and sustainable solidarities. As long as refugee crises and political failures are not recounted to the open public with substantial historical information and upcoming legal challenges, individual spectators will keep struggling to identify continuities between the physical presence of refugees and their need for assistance in the host country, as well as the need for politically recognising their rights and the ways in which naturalisation of rights can be dealt with in contemporary societies. The humanitarian effort, regrettably, is presented as a moral duty that remains independent from immigration issues.

Over the past months, the temporary restoration of border controls in Germany and Austria, the construction of the wall at the Serbian-Hungarian border, and Hungarian journalist Petra Laszlo tripping a Syrian refugee, all clearly point to the reinforcement of moral and material borders in the countries most affected by the refugee influx. These episodes point to something that seems to be much larger than a mere “refugee influx”, as they are rather unraveling a massive crisis of human encounters.

Moreover, recent developments have shown that EU countries cannot cope alone with these migration flows, and the overall UN commitment to the provision of relief has therefore become more consistent within their boundaries. One of the greatest challenges is now the adaption of the conventional humanitarian response, normally provided in refugee camps populated by sedentary residents, to multitudes of mobile people, who tend to remain in a place for a few days, or even for a few hours, before seeking to continue to the desired destination. The management of what can be called a “transit emergency”, especially in Italy, Greece, Serbia, and Hungary, is still an unexplored way of intervening for European humanitarian organisations. The opening of new local offices of some international NGOs – such as World Vision, Islamic Relief, and Action Aid – has therefore become inevitable.

Europeans should now reconsider their North-South neoliberal policies, embraced under the historical banner of moral responsibility, which gradually reduced humanitarianism and development to mere instruments of international security. On this purpose, it is worth mentioning that the emergency relief provision and the development projects, which followed the Lebanon-Israel war in Hezbollah-led areas, are evidently concerned with western life and security; similarly, western securitisation was pursued in Afghanistan by toppling the Talibans from power. Also, natural disasters like drought and floods in Mozambique in the 1980s were publicly discussed as an exclusive political conflict in order to enhance foreign action.[3]

The other common challenge is realising that all individuals are advocates and actors together in different geopolitical orders that peoples on the move, and beyond, will never comply with. Facing these challenges and paving the way to understanding, rather than compassion, would not only save many lives from a bio-political perspective, but would also avert the “side effects” of such cyclical struggles for a geopolitical order from a more pragmatic angle.

Upholding and protecting the rights of asylum seekers cannot remain at the mercy of elusive and ill-informed social solidarities. Let alone in the exclusive hands of state actors and the official diplomacy. Indeed, there are still a large number of issues that can be tackled from the bottom. Some of these real challenges are to imperatively fill with deeper contextual knowledge the numerous calls for material assistance on the grounds of mere emotional piety; educate the public via media and school programmes to the legality of rights and the material hardships that displacement exposes to; and, consequently, support such rights subtending migration and refugeehood when the “fifteen minutes of fame” of the ongoing mass compassion will have come to their end.

NGOs and UN agencies issuing reports, news-makers, scholars, and researchers involved in migration issues, should rather realise their actual potential to make the general public more critical and analytic. This would already progressively mark a decisive turning point.

As a tangible result of a more responsive and informed public, grassroots’ initiatives could be advanced in coordination with state and NGO efforts.

There are several examples of how grassroots’ initiatives made a real difference, accepting refugees and migrants into their own community and not merely assisting them as humanitarian victims who need to biologically survive. For instance, in the city of Kalmar in Sweden, in a bid to help refugees integrate, the Swedish migration board, after consulting with local residents, decided to offer to asylum seekers free bus passes. Provided that refugee accommodation centers are generally located on the outskirts of towns, this move materially allowed the newcomers to come outside of their communities and be given the opportunity to influence public spaces and local cultural forms.

Similarly, in the Italian region of Veneto, when a tornado ripped through the outskirts of Venice last July causing massive destruction, recent refugees and migrants were called upon by local citizens to provide help, thereforerevealing the will to include the new civic agents into the local community, and going beyond simple aid provision. Likewise, a few years ago, the municipality of Riace in South Italy took abandoned homes and made them into spaces for the homeless. The refugees brought new life to a dying town, constituting the future human capital of the small town.

Despite the widespread determinism through which wars and disasters are frequently viewed as unavoidable or unresolvable, grassroots’ action and even individual acts, to some extent, are able to influence macrocosmic legal and political trends. However, the speed at which the latest tide of compassion is already disappearing, at the moment, does not leave much hope for far more informed, far-sighted, and effective efforts.

[1] Crisis ist the way in which political failure and the absence of will for facing social predicament or political discontent are labeled, with the practical consequence of concealing the very social, economic, and political factors leading to such crises. The expression, widespread in the international media as well as in the scholarship dealing with politics and international relations, is able to de-agentify the source of action of refugee influxes, economic downturns, and people’s resentment.

[2] Rorty, R. (1998) “Human Rights, Rationality, and Sentimentality”, in Rorty, R., Truth and Progress. Philosophical Papers, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, pp. 167-185.

[3] Barnes, S. (1998) “Humanitarian Aid Coordination During War and Peace in Mozambique, 1985-1995”, in Studies on Emergency and Disaster Relief, Report No. 7, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Categories: Asia, Europe, North Africa, Syria | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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