Populism and migration studies should be a vital voice to people and should include individual narratives and multi-perspectival methodologies into work instead of limiting themselves with the meta-narrative discussions and frameworks. Until then it can produce multi-perspectival, grounded narratives that develop a certain critique before populism.
By Dilek Karal
In a book club or let it be an intellectual cafe of castaway academics, one of us said: “How weird is that we all are KHK[i]people…” KHK was the abbreviation for governmental decrees that cost more than a hundred and fifty thousand people their jobs and more in Turkey… Among them were bureaucrats, state officials, journalists, teachers, and us: a group of academics trying to survive in different countries rounded in a Zoom meeting discussing “ethics.”
Another meaning of KHK –that you could not find any international report or local dictionary was that– the labeled, scapegoat, the unwanted… one step further: terrorist. All times’ usual suspects, persona non grata. Its effect grew in your gut and your surroundings after you got it like an epidemic. If you become a KHK person, you get scapegoated, isolated, have to explain yourself, or keep your silence to have a second chance out of humiliating, pejorative legal mechanisms.
All of us paused and thought over the memories of the past 6 years that drastically changed our lives after the controversial coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Not all of us had the KHK but some of us were still unwanted ones of the state since we either were families with people, the state found dangerous or we were dangerous because of our opposing positions or views to government. This was a scene beyond overarching holistic discourses and populistic cacophonies. Life experiences and stories of real individuals, where their life is directly affected by any populistic discourse or action. Like it happened to me and my colleagues.
The problematic aspect of generalist or data-centered perspectives in social science is that when a bad happens to thousands of people, you get the feeling that a personal story is of non-significance. Just a thing, among other things. All the pain, social isolation, curfew, fear become unfortunate “normal” as if it does not count. Overall, the immigrants in this personal example are just numbers in totalistic data-centric perspective of today’s migration studies, however, as being one of them, I can personally tell beyond data or any dictionaries. This personal example reminded me of the two major problematic perspectives that we encounter in today’s populism studies: responding to generalist and data-centric claims of populists with generalizations. Second, limited space is given to populism in ethnographic studies.
Taking anti-immigrant discourse as a departing point example, I suggest digging into reflexive ethnographies more to make human narratives more vivid and distancing migration research (or any kind of social research) from highly populistic and politicized discussions on migration today. In this short introductory discussion, I claim that populism studies to be a vital voice to people, should and must include individual narratives and multi-perspectival methodologies into work instead of limiting themselves within the meta-narrative discussions and frameworks. Until then it can produce multi-perspectival, grounded narratives that develop a certain critique before populism.
Populism vs. Individual
Defined as a “thin-centered ideology and rather a discursive frame” (Mudde, 2007), populism is a meta-discourse between discourse and ideology playing in with the “antagonism between people and elites against the backdrop of popular sovereignty” (Aslanidis, 2015: 88). As Frank (2017) pointed out earlier, as individuals evanesce from the public space, populism speaks for the masses. “The defining claim of populism emerges from the democratic necessity and impossibility of the people speaking in their name. Populism emerges as an event by exploiting this tension between the authorized representation of public authority and the enactment of popular power that proceeds without authorization” (Frank, 2017: 631). That is how populism stands against the individualization of discourse.
Anti-elitism, people centrism, popular sovereignty stands as the core dynamics of populism (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2012) along with xenophobia and anti-immigrant discourse. However, the populistic perspective considers people, the nation as a collective or as if an organism that moves in tandem. That is why we encounter much of a terminology “our nation”, “others”, “elites” as if there are groups of people carrying fictitious banners of their group. Similarly, immigrants are the modern scapegoats for populist leaders. They are considered as the perfect other of populist vision of the nation. However, immigrant as a general term is more generalized in the hands of populists where they are counted as long as they are considered as a nation of immigrants.
There is no space in populistic policies for the individual. The only individual at the center is their “charismatic leader” in the Weberian sense. As once philosopher Carl Jung used to define Hitler: You cannot speak to Hitler, such an initiation is alike speaking to a whole nation. Rather than an individual with weaknesses, psychological problems, or clumsiness, populistic leaders are perfectionated personalities as “nation” in their terms.[ii]
Possibility of an Ethnographic Reflexive Critique towards Populism
As expected, populism did not find a large resonance in ethnographic studies or anthropology though it is largely handled as a topic of political science or more generalist frameworks. The growing political wave was “anathema to anything and everything anthropological thought has ever represented” (Bangstad, 2017). While ethnographic studies centered upon individual experience as a core starting point to evaluate social, populism and alike ideologies are mostly seen as topics of the more holistic kind not suitable for ethnographic studies. Similarly, Mazzarella (2021) names populism as an awkward topic to discuss for anthropologists, criticizing the ethnographic and anthropological studies’ distancing themselves from political or popular topics.
In this regard, anti-immigration discourse is overall highly populist where individuals’ stories dissolve from the scene while answering populists’ holistic claims. For example, when a populist leader calls immigrants a burden on the economy, we are trying to prove that they are not. However, within this dichotomic thinking, we are underestimating the humanitarian value of individual for just being a human being, even this individual is a person who cannot make any contribution to the economy. Think about immigrants who are elderly, living with disabilities, or just children. I insist that instead of defending immigrants via generalizing data before any populist policy, we should propose the value of the individual through developing more of an individualistic discourse both in populism and migration studies.
I claim that reflexive ethnographies can present alternative research methodologies both for the study of immigration and anti-immigrant populistic discourses. Ethnographic reflexivity, on the other hand, is mainly the researcher’s positioning herself as a part of research and adding her insights, observations, distance or closeness to the narration of the research and analysis. While “postmodern individual is structuring itself via language, that is narrative” (Neyzi, 1999: 3), we should seek new frameworks to develop a critique of populistic meta-narratives, epic and didactic stories that consider people as long as they belong to a group with clear boundaries such as a nation.
Reflexivity values ethnographies though the critique of the categorical and national character of migration research claiming perspectival, political and performative nature of categories are lacking to describe migration phenomenon (Dahinden, Fischer & Menet, 2015: 31-33). Alike reflexive methodologies can develop objective and realistic research that inherently facilitates a critique towards populism: irrational populistic cacophonies vs. human narrative and experience.
Contrary to dichotomic thinking present in sociology, in search of a more social constructivist way, autoethnography also functions as a passage “by definition operates as a bridge, connecting autobiography and ethnography in order to study the intersection of self and others, self and culture” (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 446). Researching of the self through autoethnographies, qualitative researchers develop introspection via “diaries, journals, freewriting, field notes and narratives of his or her lived experiences, thoughts and feelings, and then using these as data” (Ellis, 1991 as cited in Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). Through a reconstruction of experiences, reflections and memories, the researcher became both the subject and the object of research (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451). I argue that reflexive ethnography can fully integrate reflexivity without abandoning its claims to develop valid knowledge of social reality before populistic claims (Davies, 1999: Preface). Autoethnography provides us means to deconstruct the dichotomy between the researcher and the researched. In this regard, “Author’s own experiences emotions and meanings become data for exploration” (Ellingson & Ellis, 2008: 451).
This type of knowledge is omnipresent in multiple mechanisms of migration policies however, has it given value in social science apart from ethnographers or sociologists? As Fischer (2017) claims “anthropology has to “reinvent itself as a vital public voice, activating society and supporting values of the social good for the contemporary worlds emergent around us.” That sound critique can be reversed and directed towards any studies around popular topics including but not limited to populism studies while “all the apparently informal sayings, doings, and feelings that in fact become decisive for formal political outcomes, especially in populist times” (Das, 2006; Gutmann, 2002; Spencer, 2007 in Mazzarella, 2021: 54). If so, why do not we activate the power of the individual as an agent who produces multiple, vivid discourses instead of assigning individual a presupposed subaltern, subordinate, pathetic role in politics and research?[iii]
Aslanidis, P. (2015). “Is Populism an Ideology? A Refutation and a New Perspective.” Political Studies. 64 (1_suppl):88-104. doi:10.1111/1467-9248.12224
Bangstad, S. (2017). “Academic freedom in an age of populism.” Anthropology News. Feb. 13.
Dahinden, J.; Fischer, C. & Menet, J. (2020). “Knowledge production, reflexivity, and the use of categories in migration studies: tackling challenges in the field.” Ethnic and Racial Studies. https://doi.org/10.1080/01419870.2020.1752926Das 2006
Davies, C. A. (1999). Reflexive Ethnography: A guide to researching selves
and others. Routledge: London and NY.
Ellingson, L. L., & Ellis, C. (2008). “Autoethnography as constructionist project.” In: J. A. Holstein & J. F. Gubrium (Eds.), Handbook of constructionist research. (pp. 445-465). New York: Guilford.
Mazzarella, W. (2021). “The Anthropology of Populism: Beyond the Liberal Settlement.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 48:45–60. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102218-011412.
Mouffe C. (2018). For a Left Populism. London: Verso.
Mudde C. (2007). Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.
Mudde, C. & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2012). (eds). Populism in Europe and Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy.
Neyzi, L. (1999). İstanbul’da Hatırlamak ve Unutmak: Birey, Bellek, Aidiyet. Tarih Vakfı Yurt Yayınları: İstanbul.
[i] After the controversial military coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the government in Turkey, using emergency decrees, dismissed more than 152,000 civil servants, including academics, teachers, police officers, health
workers, judges and prosecutors. Turkish government has taken more than 150,000 people into custody during the state of emergency and arrested more than 78,000 on terrorism-related charges, 50,000 of whom are still in jail (European Commission, 2019). 155,560 people are still currently under investigation due to their alleged links to the coup attempt (Hurriyet Daily News, 2019). (Information retrieved form the report: Political Persecution and Intersections of Violence against Women in Turkey by Hand in Hand for Women).
[ii] For a detailed discussion on totalitarian leadership and its reflections among public please see Arendt, H. (1964). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A report on the banality of evil. New York: Viking Press
[iii] For a detailed discussion of subordinated individual please see Spivak, G.C. (1988). “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In: Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. London: Macmillan.