‘Stop talking; listen to me first!’ Fieldwork in India

By Pankhuri Agarwal

Fieldwork research has a significant effect on one’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. However, it is astonishing that not much time, space and attention is devoted to exploring, learning and deliberating upon the variety of fieldwork experience that goes undocumented in academic work including on topics such as gender bias and mansplaining; nationality and cultural ethos as a researcher of particular origin; uncertainties, failures and long periods of waiting; emotional and mental harm to the researcher, to name a few.

I realised this more when I recently completed seven months of socio-legal multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Delhi and neighbouring states. The fieldwork broadly comprised of investigating the performance of Article 23 of the Constitution of India, ‘prohibition of traffic in human beings, begar and other similar forms of forced labour’ and its effect on the everyday lived experience of people (begar means non-payment of wages for work done). This entailed accompanying sex workers and bonded/forced labourers in their legal journeys as internal migrants (in various occupations) through various sites such as the courtrooms, police stations, prison, shelter homes, red light area, informal worksites and district and central government offices. I conducted in-depth interviews with sex workers and bonded/forced labourers, besides interviews with related legal stakeholders. These interviews were complemented with courtroom observation, participant observation and a study of legal case files, which captured the entirety of the participant’s long, unpredictable and complex legal journeys.

G.B. Road (Swami Shradhanand Marg), red-light area, Delhi, India
G.B. Road (Swami Shradhanand Marg), red-light area, Delhi, India

The process of following these movements through various sites meant that I often occupied multiple (assumed) positions and identities simultaneously – that of a researcher, female friend, student, journalist, lawyer, intern and so on. This also implied that I was seen in the light of multiple assumptions in terms of my class, caste, occupation, marital status and age. Whilst the fieldwork was filled with many positive experiences due to the support and encouragement of comrades and activist organisations, in this article I want to focus on the gender bias and emotional burden the fieldwork demanded of me as an ‘Indian female researcher’.

Several researchers before me have taken the responsibility of writing about how their gender, age, caste, nationality, class or their very being were put into question while doing fieldwork (see Ravina Aggarwal, Elizabeth Chacko, Isabelle Kunze and Martina Padmanabhan Erdkunde, Isabella Ng, Nitasha Sharma and Jillian M. Rickly among others). This is because as a female researcher, one can be constantly put off by enquiries and curiosities surrounding one’s marital status, age, race, caste, class or clothing. It is often assumed that the researcher is unaware, innocent or naive. Dressing ‘maturely’ does not help either. When I interviewed some elite male participants, they (ignoring my questions) started by offering me basic definitions of terms and concepts that I did not even ask for. On some occasions, I was stopped with an angry hand gesture (while I was talking) and, in a very aggressive tone, ‘Stop talking; listen to me first’. This was even though I had explained that I had worked on and researched these issues for over six years.

This is not surprising especially when we know that power relations, gender violence and hierarchy are embedded in the soul and spirit of Indian society. We are a society built and sustained on the robust, unshaken and eternal foundation of patriarchy. Amidst this, the intellectual work, emotional labour and the mental health effects of such experiences go unnoticed, let alone compensated for. It is generally accepted and internalised that women, especially feminist women invite such reactions. And you alone are responsible for them. ‘You must have done something’, people say, or, ‘Just ignore it; you think too much’.

Women from all walks of life gather at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 4th April 2019 to raise their voices against gender-based violence, patriarchy and caste-based politics and to demand a secular, equal and tolerant State.
Women from all walks of life gather at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 4th April 2019 to raise their voices against gender-based violence, patriarchy and caste-based politics and to demand a secular, equal and tolerant State.

I also realised that in the field, people (in both personal and professional relationships) were less concerned about my research and well-being than with the roles I should be playing as a woman. I was expected to be ‘back home’. I wondered what for. ‘You should not take up such fieldwork travels while [your partner] is left alone at home.’ These accusations were followed up with solutions. ‘You do not have to travel. How will you travel? We will arrange for a ten-minute phone call and you can write that you interviewed this person. This will make the fieldwork quicker and you can return soon.’

I often pondered upon such encounters and noted them in my reflection journal. Where am I supposed to return? To who and why? Why this rush and pressure? Why was my mobility between fieldwork sites a matter of concern and curiosity to some people? Why was there no interest in my research or the emotional roller coaster I was going through in the field? The mystery of my return concerned and perturbed many people in the field. Due to this, I was constantly called to account for myself, not as a researcher, but because of my position as a woman with a partner. My identity was constantly attached to his as if I did not exist as an individual. This was overwhelming not only for me but also for my partner because, in these conversations, he was made an implicit participant without consent.

Once such distressing encounters had become a usual occurrence, I mastered the poker face. I needed to collect data and could not risk annoying anyone. So, I laughed when they laughed, expressed concern when they did, shook my head often as they did and in rare instances, gave a ‘shy woman-like smile’ when ‘uncomfortable topics’ were discussed, as was expected of a woman from a ‘good family’. If I did not, they stared. So, I did.

During such emotionally troubling times, fortunately, I had some comforting companions. My supervisor shared with me her own fieldwork experience of ‘mansplaining’. This encouraged me to reflect on my experience of fieldwork as a feminist woman with those of the female participants of my research; how different yet similar our lives are in terms of how we all ‘risked lives, homes, relationships, in the struggle for more bearable worlds’ (Ahmed, 2017, p.1). The subaltern resists, speaks and revolts invisibly and powerfully, even in the middle of moving, parting from their land and homes, and often their families and children. How powerful, beautiful and empowering is this!

Released bonded labourers from across the country protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 1st March 2019 to demand compensation in long-pending legal proceedings.
Released bonded labourers from across the country protest at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on 1st March 2019 to demand compensation in long-pending legal proceedings.

I also found comfort in Maya Angelou’s autobiography where she, through her brilliant and unapologetic writing, stumbles through life from one role to another both personally and professionally, fighting and discovering the multiple ways in which women are not only made to feel small and incompetent but are often treated as second-class citizens. They are expected to fit into many roles and stereotypes and made to feel guilty if they do not follow the norm. Maya Angelou was speaking to me, ‘Onus and guilt were shifting into my lap, where they surely didn’t belong’ (2008, p.246).

Amidst these reflections, Sara Ahmed gave me the reassurance to not ignore, give in and ‘adjust in an unjust world’ (2017, p.84) (emphasis my own). I then realised that the politics of fieldwork research was gradually merging with my feminism(s). The personal was indeed political and the political became personal. This transported with it the (un)comfortable consciousness of my being, beyond that of a researcher and a woman. These musings kept visiting me because of how I was seen and how I was not seen during fieldwork. This is even though I have spent more than 28 years growing up in India, being accustomed to conducting myself in an ‘appropriate manner’ in both public and private spaces, not because I want to but because I need to. I know and have experienced that speaking up does not always help. It often leads to accusations of creating an ‘unnecessary scene’. ‘To disappoint an expectation is to become a disappointment’ (Ahmed, 2017, p.52). So, in a society where people are accepted, rewarded and applauded for being sexist, casteist and misogynistic, bringing out wrong can often make you the reason for the wrong. How shocking is this revelation? Not at all.

I am sure that these experiences resonate with some other researchers and require space, time and attention for ‘revelation’. For this reason, I am organising a series of (three) seminars with the MMB Networking Funds Grant between January and June 2020 at the University of Bristol for PhDs and ECRs. Each seminar will have a specific theme around fieldwork research. These seminars will be followed with a writing workshop where experienced researchers from across disciplines will be invited to mentor PhDs and ECRs to bring this important discussion together in an edited volume, report or podcasts. If you would like more information about the seminars and the writing workshop, please e-mail me at pankhuri.agarwal@bristol.ac.uk.

Pankhuri Agarwal is a PhD Researcher in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol.

 

MMB hosts the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants

By Diego Acosta, Bridget Anderson and Lindsey Pike

On 3 July 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, Professor Felipe González, visited the University of Bristol. The event was organized by Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) with funding from PolicyBristol. Here we outline the scope of his work and focus of his visit.

During the event, the Rapporteur presented the work of his office and his latest activities. He then heard from the City Council, civil society, NGOs, business representatives and academics about the challenges migrants and refugees face in the UK. This included discussions about the situation of EU citizens after a possible Brexit, the Windrush scandal and the effects of the so-called hostile environment policy.

MMB provided a dossier of notes to accompany his visit. This outlined the breadth of interests of MMB researchers, and salient issues about the rights of migrants in Bristol. As this was not an official visit, the Rapporteur will not be producing a final report with his observations. However, he took good notice of all the issues raised, and we are pleased to have been able to facilitate connections between the Rapporteur, the University and the city of Bristol.

The Special Rapporteur’s role

The Special Rapporteur’s role was created in 1999 by the Commission of Human Rights. Professor González, a Chilean, is the fourth person, and third Latin American, to hold the mandate, which covers all countries regardless of whether a state has ratified the 1990 United Nations Migrant Workers Convention (the UK has not). He can request and receive information from various sources, including migrants themselves, about individual cases of alleged violations of human rights, or about general situations of concern in a particular country. The Rapporteur is not the ‘last resort’, meaning that complainants can approach him at any time; they do not  have to exhaust domestic remedies first.

The Rapporteur has three main tools to carry out his work:

  • Country visits (also called fact-finding missions) allow the Rapporteur, following an invitation by the relevant government, to examine first-hand the situation of human rights protection in a particular state. Following such a visit, a report is submitted to the Human Rights Council with his findings, conclusions and recommendations.
  • Communications’ allow the Rapporteur to bring to the attention of a particular government alleged violations of the human rights of migrants, without the need to visit that particular country. This was, for example, the case with his
  • The Rapporteur produces an annual report to the Human Rights Council about the global state of protection of migrants’ human rights but can also produce thematic reports on issues of interest, such as the one on bilateral and multilateral trade agreements and their impact on the human rights of migrants. The Special Rapporteur also reports to the General Assembly.

We were honoured to host Professor González and hope to continue our exchanges in the coming years.

Further information

Further information about the mandate of the Special Rapporteur is available here.

Please email mmb-sri@bristol.ac.uk if you’d like to be involved in MMB’s ongoing communication with the Special Rapporteur.

Everyday Integration

By Bridget Anderson

The new Conservative leader, Boris Johnson, during the July hustings in Darlington complained that, ‘There are too many too often there are parts of our country and parts of London still and other cities as well where English is not spoken by some people as their first language, and that needs to be changed and people need to be allowed to take part in the economy and in society in the way that that shared experience would allow.’ ‘Integration’ continues to be a hot topic. We are looking forward to making an important contribution to these debates with evidence from the research project ‘Everyday Integration’ funded by ESRC that we’ll be starting in October. The project, led by Jon Fox (SPAIS) and also involving Bridget Anderson, Therese O’Toole (SPAIS) and David Manley (Geography) proposes a radically new approach that develops theory and learns from and contributes to the city of Bristol. We are particularly excited to be working with Bristol City Council and 25 community partners in the research design and implementation, and in the co-production of an Integration Strategy for Bristol, and an Integration Toolkit for other UK urban contexts.

Photo by Harry Kessell on UnsplashIn Bristol as in other cities, lives are very different. Histories, cultures, and structures of feeling that in the past were separated by enormous distances can now, as Gilroy puts it ‘be found in the same place, the same time: school, bus, café, cell, waiting room, or traffic jam’ (Gilroy 2004: 70), and here they shape our institutions and our relationships, including racisms and other social divisions. We take as our starting point that integration is about the everyday rather than abstract ‘national values’, and that it must be embedded in very local contexts – in our case, Bristol. We also recognise that the debates about integration must themselves be ‘integrated’ into our understandings of class, racism, and disability for example.

There are many ways in which our local communities are stratified and people are stereotyped and marginalised, and moving within and into the city can be as important as moving across national borders. Mainstream conversations about integration too often float free of these crucial considerations. An integrated city is not without its differences, disputes, or competing interests, but these differences don’t lead to exclusion, segregation, or marginalisation. We are interested in the ways that residents of Bristol experience and practice integration (recognising they may not use the term ‘integration’) and what we can learn from this, not to make everyone come together but so that everyone can come together. Rather than starting with mobility as the ‘integration problem’ and seeing ‘community’ as sedentary, we approach mobility (spatial, social, economic, and civic) as necessary to sustain and develop our relationships. We have developed some really exciting methods that, as you would expect from MMB, engage with the opportunities for mobility: Uber rides for urban snapshots, flash focus groups on Bristol buses, GPS logs to see how people manage mobility within the city. Keep an eye out too for our ‘Integration Roadshows’, four town hall meetings in different parts of Bristol to help build an integration strategy for our city.

We have just advertised for two research assistants on the project – .  Further details onthe project can be found on the MMB project page and we will have a website later this year so do check in and see how we’re doing. It is going to be a very productive two years, and we hope you’ll hear more about us in Bristol and beyond.

 

SMart solutions for the self-employed beyond the ‘British Way’

By Harry Pitts

At first glance the UK’s current record of job creation seems impressive. But the numbers conceal more than they reveal. Self-employment represents an increasing amount of new jobs. Among these number those who have sought out self-employment to enjoy more freedom in where, how and when they work. But alongside them co-exist a vast expanse of gig workers whose legal status as ‘self-employed’ is mediated by platforms that connect customers with the providers of a service. The algorithmic control to which they are subject makes them just as compelled to work as any employee, with none of the security. Hence, this and similar situations have been labelled ‘false self-employment’ by some.

The self-employed workforce is therefore diverse, home to a range of motivations and experiences. There are certainly perceived and actual benefits to the independence it grants workers, often working in sectors where self-employment is a more appropriate way to deliver the specific kind of good or service produced. But this frequently comes at the expense of the security of workers and the stability of their income. Late payments are a major problem, with over half of invoices paid late by clients. Volatility of income negatively impacts upon the ability to get mortgages and loans.

Moreover, the introduction of the Universal Credit, with a monthly ‘Minimum Income Floor’ claimants must reach in order to be eligible for support, is set to exacerbate the consequences of income volatility for the several hundred thousand of self-employed people forecast to claim the benefit. Among these will be some of the least well-off and most precarious self-employed people, unable to evidence steady monthly income in line with the reporting criteria. The measure is currently subject to legal challenge, but it is important to remember that part of the initial impetus for the Universal Credit reforms was to drive people in unformalised, apparently unprofitable forms of work into more formalised, productive parts of the economy. It appears the Minimum Income Floor may serve to have this effect, at the risk of severe financial and personal discomfort to those on the receiving end.

Before Brexit came to occupy the legislative agenda, Theresa May’s premiership set out its stall on an agenda pitched to addressing the interests of workers. As part of this, and in recognition of some of the wider issues surrounding the formalisation of the self-employed as part of the architecture of British employment regulation, the government commissioned the Taylor Review. The Taylor Review proposed a number of recommendations for how the government could stimulate and support the creation of new platforms that, in a cooperative spin on the capitalist ethos driving their development as means of exploiting workers, bring independent workers together to organise for better pay, benefits and conditions. However, the report tends to focus on quite a individualised representation of the self-employed that overlooks the importance of collective responses to the issues they face.

More problematically, the Taylor Review advocated that in seeking to address the contradiction between security and autonomy among the self-employed in the UK, policy solutions should narrowly follow the path of a so-called ‘British Way’ distinctive to the specificities of the UK’s supposedly unique political economy, which Taylor perceived to possess sufficient dynamism to make it worth preserving. This appeal to a ‘British Way’, however, obscures the plenitude of practical examples already in evidence across the Channel among our possibly soon-to-be-former European partners. In countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands, in somewhat different political-economic contexts, social innovations responsible to the risks incurred by the self-employed are at a much more advanced stage of development.

Broodfonds, for instance, is a Dutch project that establishes a mutual fund into which independent workers pay a monthly sum, the accumulated commonwealth of which can be drawn down upon by those that fall out of work due to sickness or other factors and have no statutory right to the sick pay or other benefits afforded those with the legal status of employees. The scheme is organised around local branches and coordinated through a ‘platform cooperative’ model. Inspired by the Broodfonds, an organisation, Breadfunds UK, is currently exploring whether the slightly different structure of British financial regulation permits the implementation of such a scheme in the UK.

More extensive and interesting still is the SMart cooperative. Primarily based in Belgium but with branches in eight European countries, SMart is a platform that acts as a defacto ‘employer’ of its self-employed members. Rather than self-employed workers doing business with clients themselves, SMart invoices clients in their behalf any chases any late payments, in return for a percentage of the amount invoiced. It also guarantees those payments should clients fail to pay from a mutual guarantee fund similar to that found in the Broodfonds scheme.

SMart workers can manage their income through the SMart platform, drawing down what would otherwise be business income as a formal salary apportioned equally across months. This confers upon self-employed workers the legal status of employees with all the rights and access to benefits that flow from it. But it also enables them at the same time to enjoy the autonomy and independence of self-employment as a career choice, and mitigate some of the negatives of so-called ‘false’ self-employment in the gig economy.

An important aspect for the UK context is that the platform grants workers the ability to smooth out their income month-by-month, standing a potential solution to the problem of income volatility vis-à-vis the monthly reporting of the Minimum Income Floor for those self-employed people forecast to claim the Universal Credit.

There is already precedent for the presence of such intermediary institutions in the shape of the often exploitative ‘umbrella companies’ used to manage payroll on behalf of temporary workers and the agencies through which they are hired. The UK’s new Director of Labour Market Enforcement has set about to stamp out the abuses made possible in the latter. But SMart would represent a radical appropriation of a similar intermediary status within UK law.

Rather than further confusing the contested legal status of some forms of self-employed work under British employment regulation, the creation of a new category of what the Belgians call ‘SMart workers’ could serve to clarify it. SMart has become a semi-formalised part of the apparatus of employment relations in Belgium, and there is no substantial reason why a similar scheme could do the same in this country. Indeed, the Department for Work and Pensions have shown interest in the Business and Employment Cooperative model SMart represents.

A potential basis for experimenting with SMart in the UK may be Indycube.Community, a cooperative trade union for the self-employed established by Indycube, a co-working cooperative spreading out from South Wales to establish branches in a number of UK towns and cities, and the Community Union who, in the wake of the decline of the steel industry, adopted a new model of non-industrial organising more adept at accommodating the specific needs and demands of the self-employed than less agile UK trade unions.

Currently, Indycube.Community provides to members co-working space, invoice-chasing, financial and legal support and advice, and a campaigning voice for the representation of self-employed workers. It stands well-placed to begin bringing into reality aspects of the SMart model in the very different regulatory ad political space of the so-called ‘British Way’ of employment relations.

At a time where one half of Britain wishes to pull itself away from European institutions, it is essential to look across the water and learn from others what can be done to support real self-employment endowed with both autonomy and security, against the precariousness of its sometimes ‘false’ reality.

 

Harry Pitts is a Lecturer in Management in the Department of Management at the School of Economics, Finance and Management, University of Bristol, where he also leads the Faculty Research Group for Perspectives on Work.

Collaborating to improve responses to migration: Employment and the labour market

By David Jepson (ACH) and Bridget Anderson

Huge changes to the labour market are underway, and digitisation is changing how people are recruited and the kind of work they do, not least in phenomenon of the gig economy.  Can these changes benefit refugees and migrants and if so, how? These issues were discussed in the second workshop, in a series of three, aiming to break down barriers between academic research and practitioner organisations.  This particular event was led by Tonia Novitz and Harry Pitts (UoB), with David Jepson and Lydia Samuel (ACH/Himilo) and was attended by about 20 people from a range of backgrounds and interests.

ACH/Himilo work with around 2500 people every year, aiming where possible to help individuals to gain median level jobs rather than simply entry level work. For example, we are currently running a training scheme for drivers for First Bus.  Economic opportunity is central to building autonomy and facilitating what at ACH/Himilo we think of as ‘self-integration’, enabling participation in wider civil, community and social networks. How will people like our clients be impacted on by labour market changes? Dr Harry Pitts from the School of Management, said that these changes will undoubtedly affect jobs but the scale of change is difficult to predict. He discussed the problems associated with the kind of precarious work generated by the gig economy including the significant increase in false self-employment where workers lack genuine autonomy. He outlined examples of initiatives such as SMART in Belgium, an organisation supporting workers who find themselves in these types of situations, and offering administrative, legal, fiscal and financial advice. This sort of initiative is beneficial to all freelancers including refugee and migrant workers.

Changes to labour markets can offer the chance for refugees and migrants to access new employment opportunities, for example via employment platforms and crowd sourcing, but they also pose risks too, according to Professor Tonia Novitz, from the School of Law. She outlined the important differences between status as an employee, a worker or a free-lance sub-contractor. Collective engagement and organisation is important here and new forms of interaction can be developed to facilitate association at work. She also explained that public authorities also had a duty under the law in relation to diversity and employment.

Dr Laila Kasem, from the University of Worcester has researched small businesses and self-employment of Syrian Refugees in the United Kingdom.  Small business can be a flexible opportunity for economic empowerment but can also be the wrong choice for some. She highlighted the problems facing middle aged men who have worked for many years in one trade which is regarded as outmoded in the UK. They can become very demotivated, and there is a need for them to have access to pathways to different forms of work.

It was very productive to have a discussion around the consequences for refugees and migrants of labour market changes as debates tend to focus on refugees’ and migrants’ impact on the labour market, and often lead to them being scapegoated for wider problems. In fact, refugees and migrants bring diversity, skills and experience that can make our economy stronger. We need that.

We look forward to the next event on 16th April which will discuss language.

Blog co-authored by:

David Jepson, Director and Policy Advisor, ACH/Himilo

Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship, University of Bristol.

Welcome to the MMB Blog!

And welcome to Migration Mobilities Bristol! For those of you who do not know us yet we are a Specialist Research Institute at the University of Bristol. We comprise a network of academics, practitioners and others who are interested in human movement and who want to expand and challenge understandings of mobility in order to contribute to a more just world. You can find out more about us here.

There’s been a longstanding interest in migration at Bristol, nurtured by colleagues like Katharine Charsley and Jon Fox for years before I came here, and later Julia O’Connell Davidson and Chris Bertram.  It’s been very exciting working with people to think about our next steps. This has been a genuinely interdisciplinary effort, with lots of different faculties contributing, and our fantastic advisory board includes people from History, English, Geography, Philosophy, Social Sciences, Film and Television Studies and Law.

How to research migration?

We’ve developed a set of four research challenges with a view to helping us to enrich the study of migration through making unexpected connections, and to demonstrate to non-migration scholars and policymakers just how important migration is. This is critical work because while we have seen a massive increase in research on migration the movement of some people continues to be scapegoated and demonised, their journeys becoming ever more dangerous and their attempts to successfully claim asylum ever more difficult. For academics this means we must grapple with how to research ‘migration’ without contributing to the construction of the strongly imagined problem ‘migrant’? I’ll do a quick plug here for the MSc Migration and Mobility Studies which is a fantastic course for people who want to think critically and about migration and migration policies, and learn new research skills.

New thinking

This blog contributes to our ambition to promote new thinking on people and movement. We hope that it will showcase research and good practice and be a space where you can make unexpected connections and try out ideas.

We don’t only need good news stories so let’s be unafraid to share our learning from mistakes and wrong turns. We want to challenge the boundaries between theory and practice, between the university and practitioners, between citizens and non-citizens, so please, feel free to join in the conversations and contribute to this blog series.

Get in touch – mmb-sri@bris.ac.uk

 

By Bridget Anderson

Bridget is Director of Migration, Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship. Her post is split between the Faculty of Social Sciences and Law and the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies