Researching Migration: Reflections on Ethics and Practice

Reflective blog by Myra Mufti (Centre for Care)


But I need this information – and it’s crucial they (research participants) share it with me

A conversation with a class fellow

Myra Mufti (Centre for Care)

I remember having a conversation with one of my class fellows during the time of my Master’s dissertation and expressing myself this way out of frustration when I was trying to recruit participants for interviews and was facing issues chasing them down. It was after undertaking multiple research assignments and projects as a researcher and policy practitioner that it became evident to me that I cannot have strict expectations from my research process or participants – and that flexibility is key to getting the best research outcomes.  

Principles of ethical research

The discussion on the ethics of researching (especially vulnerable groups) during our masterclass with Ċetta Mainwaring (on 1st December 2022) disclosed further nuances, challenges and opportunities of researching migration which I had previously either subconsciously ignored or was unaware of. For instance, my earlier sentiments on the absolute pertinence of participants sharing the required information was dubbed “extractive” and “exploitative”. One of the three main important themes discussed in the masterclass which linked to this concept was reciprocity in social research. I learned that research should be a reciprocative and collective process wherein relationships are built on the principles of trust, mutual wellbeing and a sense of cooperation for the agenda/project. We extensively discussed what ‘doing no harm’ means in migration research and the importance of building relationships with vulnerable research participants so that the research process does not seem extractive and also so that their bitter life experiences do not surface in a way that they feel exposed or threatened. Moreover, the research should not treat the participants as subjects who are being studied and do not hold any agency over the project  – what could be called as intrusive empiricism (a term I was not familiar with before but really intrigued me to explore the concept further). Rather, it should be a co-produced and mutually benefitting process. Participants should feel that they are contributing to the research and share agency to drive the project.

In this context, what I particularly enjoyed about the discussion on reciprocity was the concept of ‘giving back’. It is worth questioning oneself as a researcher that why would people want to engage in our research and what’s in it for them? An open dialogue during the session on whether payments, vouchers or other forms of help to the research participants can be viewed as pitying or looking down upon the participants made me reflect on the side-effects of reciprocity. While it can be tricky to pin down exchange relationships in a research pertaining to vulnerable groups, it is important to compensate the participants for their time and effort they are putting into sharing their sensitive stories which will significantly help in shaping the research but may re-open their vulnerabilities. Through our discussion it became clear that while compensation is critical in shaping the participations of structurally vulnerable individuals, it can also further marginalize them - thus its always best practice to inform the participants pre-hand the intent of the compensation and that it’s in place exclusively as a sign of respect for their time and effort.

A photo of students studying

The realities of migration research

Access and Representation were the other two themes discussed during the masterclass. The conversation on access revolved around ways in which participants can be recruited for the research and challenges that can be faced. A wide portion of the discussion was on access in relation to policymakers and various ways policy practitioners can be engaged on research concerning migration. Aspects such as relevance, time, importance of the agenda and political viewership emerged as the important ones to keep in mind while accessing policymakers.

The discussion on representation was particularly relevant to my current PhD research which is focusing on caring responsibilities in transnational families and their negotiation of migration processes especially from perspective of older migrant parents. Being fairly new in the field of migration, I have always struggled with the ways certain groups, situations and processes are labelled or termed. While my personal views do not resonate with those terms at times, I’ve still had to use them for clarity of narrative for the larger audience. Ċetta explained during the masterclass how language, categories and even statistics can play a significant role in shaping narratives and how a more simplified approach can be taken to cater to complex concepts and issues pertaining migration research. For instance, instead of repetitively referring to migrants as migrants, a more sensitive approach could be to use phrases such as people with migration backgrounds or individuals from cross-borders. This was especially useful in context of my research which is based on older migrants since I have to be mindful of using both the terms migrants as well as older as I don’t wish to offend my research participants and at the same time capture the voices and experiences of my participants with rationality. 

In conclusion, the masterclass offered deep insights into the realities of migration research and presented a problem-solving lens to some of the challenges we may encounter as young researchers. It is not possible to capture all the discussion in this short blog post, but the key takeaways for me had to be the fact that there is no right or wrong way of conducting research as long as we as researchers are mindful of i) the impact on our research participants, ii) policy implications of the research (if any) and lastly but importantly iii) the learnings we had from our research and ways to make improvements in future. Ethics concerning migration research is a continuous learning process and one has to constantly keep reflecting on the best practices and mistakes made during the course of research.

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