invited talk

AAA Annual Meeting 2021

November 18, 2021

Baltimore, United States

Researcher Responsibilities: Perspectives from Undocumented Organizers

keywords:

immigration/migration

advocacy

theory

As xenophobic policy intensifies across the “Global North,” undocumented migrants increasingly find themselves on a collision course with militarized borders and aggressive policing measures that funnel them into detention camps, deportation centers, and early graves (Andersson 2014; De Leon 2015; Fassin 2005). Scholars who study undocumented migrants have sought to theorize their subjugation and disempowerment, characterizing the undocumented as “impossible subjects” (Ngai 2005) who live “in the shadows” (Chavez 1992) of “spaces of nonexistence” (Coutin 2000) where they are “abjected” (Gonzales and Chavez 2012; Willen 2007) by the state and reduced to a condition of “bare life” (De Genova 2010) and even “social death” (Cacho 2012). Yet in contexts of profound marginalization, undocumented migrants build political communities, contest dehumanization, access resources, and change public policy. From detention centers to agricultural fields, from caravans to border zones to sites of deportation, migrant activists lead hunger strikes and educational workshops, engage in sit-ins, create community organizations, and help craft legislation. Ethnographic attention to these efforts reminds us that theories of state power which emphasize sociopolitical dehumanization must eventually reckon, much like state practices themselves, with the lives of people engaged in struggle. The papers in this session build on Audra Simpson’s 2018 assertion that scholars who work with highly marginalized people have a responsibility to acknowledge, and even support, their political struggles for recognition and resources. Our failure to do so, Simpson argues, ultimately renders our work complicit in the silencing and victimization of people in struggle. Thus, we ask, what is scholars’ responsibility to illuminate conditions in which people find social meaning, as well as those that render their lives perceptible as “abject” or “bare”? How can theoretical characterizations of undocumented migrants and other disempowered groups best reconcile the dehumanizing violence of state oppression with the significant agency of marginalized communities? More concretely, what do communities want from those of us who would study them? What truths do they need amplified, and what responsibilities fulfilled? This session engages beyond disciplinary boundaries, bringing together anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and community organizers to address changing scholarly responsibilities to politicized truths among those we study. In particular, we emphasize emic understandings of state violence and dehumanization, as well as of struggle, community, and solidarity among undocumented organizers and their advocates.

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