Aurora Massa: “Knowledge production, ethical participation and political commitment. Notes from the Annual meeting of Escapes”

Knowledge production, ethical participation and political commitment

Notes from the Annual meeting of Escapes

by Aurora Massa


At the end of June I attended the conference Ragion di stato, ragioni umanitarie. Genealogie e prospettive del sistema di asilo (Reason of state, reasons of humanitarism. Genealogies and perspectives on the asylum regime) in Milan, where I presented a paper about my ethnographic research on Eritrean refugees in Rome. In this post I share some preliminary reflections on the thorny relationship between scientific knowledge and ethical-political commitment in social sciences and, particularly, in HOMInG.

Tags: fieldworks, ethical dilemmas, political stance, refugees, European asylum regime, critical approach


On June 28th and 29th, Statale University of Milan hosted the conference Ragion di stato, ragioni umanitarie. Genealogie e prospettive del sistema di asilo (Reason of state, reasons of humanitarism. Genealogies and perspectives on the asylum regime). It was the 5th annual meeting organized by Escapes, Laboratorio di studi critici sulle migrazioni forzate (Lab for critical studies on forced migration). This is a research center established in 2013 with the aim of building a multidisciplinary network for (mainly Italian) scholars who deal with constellation of phenomena labelled as “forced migration” (i.e. asylum seekers, refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons, etc.). Far beyond the creation of a network of scholars and research centres, Escapes challenges the isolation of academic community and its boundaries. It aims at fostering a wider exchange of opinions and experiences of people working in migrants’ reception systems, and at promoting a critical approach towards the current political and media spheres that contribute to migrant stigmatization.

As in the previous editions, the conference was characterized by a multidisciplinary approach, with a huge involvement of non-academics (social workers, civil servants, NGO members, activists, photographers and film-makers) who offered a variety of languages and perspectives. Speakers and audience discussed about the current Italian and European migration and border policies, the reception systems for asylum seekers, rejected applicants and international protection holders, and the increase of racialization and discrimination in the Italian public sphere.

In her opening keynote, anthropologist Alice Bellagamba highlighted how a genealogical perspective on the juridical and political terminology about migration can help deconstruct their taken for granted uses, showing their historically made and politically oriented nature. By analysing the history of past antislavery and anti-trafficking movements, Bellagamba highlighted the semantic slippages of the terms “slavery” and “trafficking” in the last two centuries, and examined the consequences of these slippages in contemporary juridical instruments for governing, protecting and im/mobilizing bodies on the move.

The session Refugees: from exclusion to self-organization was dedicated to refugee housing arrangements in Italy. It focused on the (hundreds of) informal settlements of refugees and migrants scattered all over the country (MSF 2018); on the EX MOI squat in Turin, where a thousand people live since 2013 (Stopani, Pampuro 2018); on the experiences of social co-housing in southern Italy; of the advantages and limits of so-called accoglienza diffusa, namely the housing of refugees and asylum seekers in houses and apartments rather than in big collective reception facilities.

Generally speaking, the two plenary sessions and the four thematic streams stressed the relationship between scientific knowledge and ethical-political commitment. This is anything but new in social science. In anthropology, for example, the mingling of scientific production and political positionality was at the core of the reflection carried out by those generations of scholars involved in anti-imperialist and pacifist movements. They contested the values of neutrality and objectivity characterising an ideal of researcher based on the nineteenth century natural sciences. The interlacement of ethics, politics and knowledge production is a key element also for those who deal with migrants and refugees, border and mobility regimes nowadays. However, for them this interlacement is made more complex by the lack of public recognition of intellectuals’ expertise and by intellectuals’ limited ability to concretely affect reality. This is particularly the case in social contexts characterized by populist movements, such as the Italian one.

The round table Who governs? Decision-making processes and roles of experts in migration policies focused precisely on this point. Lawyers, sociologists and political scientists reflected on their role of “experts” in the public sphere. In so doing, they covered a variety of topics. Among them, the agreement signed on June 27th 2018 by the European Council; the problematic use of circolari amministrative (written communication that give orders and/or transmit information, holding no normative value, and not applying outside a given administration) in the Italian policies on migration; the authoritarian turn of the European migration governance; the discrepancies between the perception of the migratory phenomenon and statistical data. All speakers agreed on the importance of preserving the slow times of social sciences for safeguarding the accuracy of our analysis, despite the overrepresentation of refugee issues in the public and political spheres. They also agreed on the implicit political stance of our intellectual and scientific work. Indeed, when xenophobic movements increase, seeing migrants and refugees not as a matter of public order nor people to be refused/saved, is in itself a scientific stance with political implications.

There was less agreement, instead, on the role of militancy and dissidence in the intellectual endeavours of the “experts”. To which extent should political commitment and ethical involvement orient the process of knowledge production? Some participants, including social and political scientist Jean-Pierre Cassarino, claimed that adopting a dissident stance is a good way to insinuate doubts, create innovative terminologies and communication strategies, and ushering new topics in the public debates. Sociologist Maurizio Ambrosini argued instead that a militant stance risks undermining analytical rigour and de-legitimizing experts, by discrediting their critical knowledge in the eyes of policy makers and public opinion.

In fact, epistemological sensitivity and politically engagement are not at odds with each other. One can well study social reality and take a position against inequalities and discriminations. Yet, the harmonization of these stances can be problematic. Critical understanding, moral participation and political commitment can coexist in the same person, but probably the particular force of ethnographic work lies in their constant tension (Dei 2005).

This is particularly true when we confront ourselves with the practice of conducting empirical research. As a research team, it has been exactly a year since we started to conduct ethnographic fieldwork within HOMInG. During these 12 months my colleagues and I have faced many harsh dilemmas bond to sensitive ethical issues. In order to tackle these dilemmas, we have often relied on each other, by engaging in informal discussions during our monthly meetings and, recently, by committing ourselves in more formal activities. Indeed, we have inaugurated a quarterly seminar on ethical issues under the supervision of anthropologist Nicholas Harney. We have also co-authored a working paper (Bonfanti, Massa, Miranda 2018). Likewise, we are working on a new one (Belloni et al., forthcoming).

As far as I’m concerned, many of the doubts emerging from my fieldwork are yet to be solved. Some of them are irremediably part and parcel of any ethnographic research conducted with vulnerable people. They are intertwined with the social and political inequalities between researcher and research participants, and with the requests for help of the latter. Eritrean and Somali refugees in Rome have often interpreted my (scientific) interest as a chance to obtain a help in their difficult relationships with the Italian institutions, a support in finding a job or a dwelling, or a mouthpiece to give public visibility to the injustice they suffer. Put differently, they decode my ambiguous position of researcher as a social worker, an activist or a journalist. Whenever there is a clear impossibility for me to satisfy my research participants’ requests for help, why should I ask them, people who live in precarious housing situations, to talk about their domestic practices? Paradoxically, I am usually the one to receive help from my interlocutors, who share their time, stories and intimacy with me. It is they who lead me to wonder how reciprocity unravels over fieldwork.

Other dilemmas are related with a silent feeling of disconnection between my scientific interests and the concerns of my interlocutors, the “things they are preoccupied with, […] things they do to make them happy, […] things they see as obstacles in their life and so on” (Jansen 2017). Does a refined analytical description have any meaning vis-a-vis the violence and suffering of an eviction (see Massa 2017)? What is the reason for talking about interior decorations with people whose daily lives are burdened with bureaucratic discrimination and racism? On the other hand, could being an activist, participating in demonstrations and in housing rights movements, improve my ability to comprehend the practices of homing of the migrants I work with? These and other similar questions are going hand-in-hand with my fieldwork, with each answer being only partial and provisional.

Following Didier Fassin (2012), I embrace an approach to knowledge in social science that is not prescriptive (i.e., guided by how we would like the world to be), but descriptive. It aims at grasping how the social world actually is. At the same time, there is a political stance in HOMInG as a project. As Paolo Boccagni (2017) writes, home is in itself a political issue, because of the aspirations for better homes which drive migration, because of the metaphorical conflation between home and homeland, which pervades the public discourse of receiving societies, and because home is a discursive and emotional resource in migration-related forms of political mobilization. Nevertheless, I believe we can push this political stance further, by temporarily diverting attention from our object of investigation and focusing on the project in itself. Indeed, studying refugees’ and migrants’ search for home in receiving European countries, where many of us live and work, entails a specific vision of (our) home, understood as public space and collective entity. In this perspective, home appears not as private property to be protected from alien infiltration, as a natural bond with a place or as a static and ahistorical entity, but as a process, which is inclusive, expandable and in-progress. Implicit in our project, there is the idea that home can become a home for refugees and migrants: a meaningful place where they are (and can feel to be) entitled to live their present and imagine their future, and where they can achieve (at least partially) a sense of security, familiarity and control.




Belloni et al., forthcoming

Boccagni Paolo 2017, Migration and the search for home. Palgrave: New York.

Bonfanti Sara, Massa Aurora, Miranda Alejandro 2018. “Setting the table, having a seat. A reflection on positionalities while searching for home and migration”. Homing Working Paper, 3, 2018.

Dei Fabio 2005. “Introduzione”. in Dei F. (ed), Antropologia della violenza, pp. 7-76. Meltemi: Roma.

Fassin Didier 2012 [2010]. Humanitarian Reason. A Moral History of the Present. University of California Press: Berkeley.

Jansen Stef 2017. Homing interview with Stef Jansen,

Massa Aurora 2017. Spatial compression and spatial dispersion: the homemaking of Eritreans and Ethiopians after the August eviction in Rome,

Medicins sans frontiers 2018. Insediamenti informali. Marginalità sociale, ostacoli all’accesso alle cure e ai beni essenziali per migranti e rifugiati. Secondo Rapporto.

Stopani Antonio, Pampuro Marta 2018. “Despite citizenship. Autonomie migranti e diritto alla città: l’occupazione dell’EX MOI a Torino”. REMHU, Rev. Interdiscip. Mobil. Hum., Brasília, 26: 52, pp. 55-74.