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Negotiating research in the shadow of migration control

Access, knowledge and cognitive authority

Damian Rosset and Christin Achermann

This article recounts the failure to gain access to the Swiss asylum agency's ‘country of origin information’ (COI) unit and how it negatively impacted access to similar research sites in Europe. As producers of indispensable expert knowledge, these units play an important instrumental and symbolic role in asylum procedures and policies. Interpreted as a situated case of knowledge control, rather than a general resistance to research within the institution, the denial of access reveals how the intended research challenged gatekeepers’ idealised construction of COI – both as a type of knowledge and as a field of practice. The negotiation about access gradually shifted to other topics, such as the researcher's competence, the field's situation and the nature of legitimate knowledge – all related to politics of expertise and the COI units’ legitimising functions in the wider migration apparatus. The negotiation became a competition over cognitive authority and the monopoly of legitimate knowledge production about the field. By black‐boxing country information, the gatekeepers fostered the illegibility of bureaucratic processes and the legibility of the state as discourse. Analysing the 30‐month negotiation process also reveals the difficulties to seize the contours of the state when encountering transnational bureaucratic fields.

Open access

Barak Kalir, Christin Achermann, and Damian Rosset

Contributors to this special issue realised that reflecting on experiences of getting access (or not) can tell us something important about the institutions we aimed to study and, more broadly, about the migration control field. Put differently, attempts at approaching and approximating state actors within a charged field exposed us to some of its most fundamental organising principles. We have, therefore, set ourselves the task in this issue of SA/AS to ask and answer the following question: What do attempts at studying migration control tell us about the state? Our exercise is, thus, squarely set as an attempt to intervene in a burgeoning debate around the ways in which the ‘anthropology of the state’ can develop. Both the issues at stake – the management of undesired others – and the field in which we conduct our studies, migration control administrations, are indeed changing to become acutely central to the governing of our societies. By gathering findings from different research projects across Europe, this special issue offers a comparative perspective on some of the most salient features of the migration control field from the eyes of ethnographic researchers in search of access.