How to Contribute to the Public Debate as a PhD Candidate?

16 February 2018

In my PhD project I explore the encounter between people who lead transnational lives and the welfare state. More specifically, I look at how the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration experience this encounter, and how bureaucrats accommodate cross-border mobile social security receivers.

When described like this, I rarely get any exciting reactions to my project from others than migration and welfare scholars. Rather, most people seem to find it utterly boring.

In general, when studying and doing research in the field of migration, I’ve found it difficult to engage in discussion with non-academics. In the beginning of my PhD I often introduced my project as “a study on migration and the welfare state”, an introduction which always stimulates heated discussions of whether immigration is good or bad, or on how immigrants supposedly exploit our welfare systems. Growing tired of the discussions, which are far too broad to be of relevance to my PhD research, I avoided telling what exactly I focused on in my PhD, or I used less exciting words to describe it, such as “social security provision”, “benefits receivers” and “cross-border practices”.

I believe this is a challenge I share with other migration researchers, namely: how do we write and talk about what we do with the public, and engage without entering polarized, stereotyping and highly political discussions on the “problem of immigration”. I strongly believe we, as researchers, have a moral obligation to inform the public debate. Particularly in cases where there are widespread misunderstandings or myths regarding our fields of expertise. It’s particularly important, then, that our research is conveyed in such a manner that it is not misinterpreted or misused. While it may indeed be challenging, I argue that we should strive to convey our findings to the general public.

 

The major question remains: how can we enter the public discourse, make our (PhD) research interesting and exciting, while ensuring that we get to decide the framing of the discussions? Perhaps fortunately, I don’t think we can steer the ensuing discussions, but we can provide a decent frame of reference, and hope for the best. I recently wrote an opinion-editorial (op-ed) in a major Norwegian newspaper, which I think works as an example for how we can engage the general public (or those of them who read the specific newspaper we opt for) – on our own terms. The keywords are: make it relevant to a pressing news issue, make few rather than too many arguments, and make it thematically narrow.

My op-ed centred on two questions. First; is export of welfare benefits a challenge to the state economy (my opinion: no, it’s not), and second; are mobile migrants more of a threat to the welfare state economy than mobile Norwegians? (my opinion: no, they’re not). The reason I could write about this was that there recently had been a government report issued on these matters, and the government was in the process of making some decisions. Therefore it was relevant. I then decided on two main arguments, which my research could support. These are also two themes that are in need for more information since there are some strong-holding myths about the economic drawbacks of welfare export. Finally, I choose to keep it narrow – by sticking to the topic of export of two types of welfare benefits, and by not drawing in other aspects of relevance. By narrowing it, I aimed to make it difficult for people to broaden the discussion to a larger debate on immigration and migrants’ use of welfare services – the main pitfall I wanted to avoid.

At first, I didn’t get many reactions. Except for some inevitable trolling in the newspapers’ online discussion forum, I didn’t get any negative responses. Only one single op-ed came as a response and it was, to my surprise, supporting the arguments I had made. I also received some cheering emails from people who had read it, and support and positive feedback from my own network. However, the political debate I had hoped for, didn’t happen. I started doubting whether my small public act had had any impact at all – and considered whether 1) I should call the national broadcaster and ask them to dedicate some time to the topic, or 2) whether I should resign from my mission and promise myself never to write any op-eds again, since it, apparently, didn’t make any difference.

However, as time passed, I got convinced that the way I engaged had a purposeful outcome. While I’m still not sure whether I managed to make the public overly excited about my PhD, I know I entered the debate on my own terms. I stayed in my comfort zone as a researcher, and by adding some reflections on a specific aspect, I also influenced the overall discourse on welfare and migration by (slightly) drawing it towards a new direction. On its own, despite how much or relevant feedback I got, or whether people agreed or not, that was worthwhile the effort I put into it. And in addition, by the emails I received, and the op-ed that came in response, I know that it provoked some thinking on the matter.

To conclude, then: No, there may not be one ideal way to engage with the public and get people thrilled by our migration research –  or at least, I haven’t found that one ideal solution. But I think it’s valuable and useful that we continue to try. While this might seem easier for senior researchers, who are more experienced and have more know-hows on a broader array of migration topics, it is just as important for PhD students to use and develop our sprouting expertise to contribute to public debate.

How to Contribute to the Public Debate as a PhD Candidate?

is the current Representative of the IMISCOE PhD Network. She is a Doctoral Researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO). In her doctoral thesis she examines the Norwegian welfare administration’s encounter with transnationally mobile people.

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