Exploring the Challenges of Working with Migrants, Migrant Organisations and Migrant Communities: an Ethnography of Participatory Action Research Projects

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Migrants and sanctuary seekers can be exploited by researchers, partly because they live in rights-impoverished environment. The cross-cultural context of migration research can increase this risk further, encouraging a colonial dynamic where researchers pathologise participants, become the sole source of knowledge production and impose Western values. This paper aims to understand if and how Participatory Action Research might reduce the risk of researcher exploitation of migrants on individual, organisation and community levels. PAR aims to raise the collective consciousness of all those involved in research, to name the issues facing participants and improve their conditions. PAR seeks to equalise researcher-participant power dynamics and address power imbalances in other areas of people’s lives. To examine PAR’s influence on researcher exploitation, I used organisational autoethnography during three PAR projects I conducted with Afghan and Iranian community organisations in London. This method aims to understand social practices in an organisational setting in which the researcher is part of the ethnographic population. With permission from the people I worked with, I collected ethnographic observations, interviews, team documents, reflective notes, emails, organisation literature and social media messages. I used a unique combination of ethnographic and thematic analysis to analyse the information I collected. I generated three clusters of themes: 1) Negotiating Iranian and Afghan diaspora community values and dynamics. This cluster explored researcher misconceptions about diaspora communities, the challenges in providing space to quieter voices in participatory teams, and the process of researcher and community ethical priorities. 2) Collaborating with migrant organisations effectively. This cluster sought to explain how power in PAR often lies with the organisation, and how organisations exercise power through the control of space. 3) How researchers can, or cannot, equalise power dynamics through PAR principles. This cluster talked about how researchers can impose strenuous research obligations on participatory team members, and how that researchers should aim for relationships of equity rather than absolute equality. PAR is not a panacea to researcher-participant power differentials and may even aggravate problems under some circumstances. Nonetheless, the autoethnography produced a range of recommendations for reducing exploitative practices. Before starting research, researchers must acknowledge and respect participant ethical values and knowledge. To facilitate this , universities could support the creation of migrant community ethics boards to approve and monitor researchers. Researchers should also offer participants a choice of approach, including the possibility of not starting or discontinuing research. During research, researchers should consider challenging organisational hierarchies when appropriate, engage in a continuous cultural dialogue to unravel exclusionary assumptions around migrant communities, and offer participants a range of avenues to equitably contribute to research.
Original languageEnglish
JournalNew Sociological Perspectives
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 30 Dec 2022

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