Reflections and Directions for Research in Refugee Studies

Alice Bloch

Ethnic and Racial Studies, Volume 43, Issue 3 (2020), Pages 436-459


Refugee studies emerged as an area of scholarship in the 1980s. This review piece discusses developments in the field of refugee studies and identifies areas for future research.

Main points:

  • Attempts to theorize refugee migration are relatively recent, compared to general migration literature that dates back to the late 19th
  • Early literature focused on the specificity of the refugee experience, for example Kunz’s ‘kinetic model’ (1973,1981) theorized the relationship between the reasons for flight, circumstances of refugee flight (acute or anticipatory), the likelihood of return, and settlement decisions.
  • Subsequent scholarship grappled with the idea of refugee agency, and less clear delineation between voluntary and forced migration. For example, Richmond (1993) theorized that most refugee movements are driven by a complex mix of political, economic, environmental and social factors, which interact with structural constraints or facilitators to migration. Van Hear (1998) introduced the idea of mixed motives for migration, theorizing that almost all migration involves some compulsion and some choice. And Van Hear, Bakewell, and Long (2018) move beyond the traditional push-pull model of migration, by proposing a typology of migration drivers: predisposing drivers include the context and structural factors that might lead to migration; proximate drivers reflect the conditions in both countries and regions of origin and destination; precipitating drivers lead to migration or the decision not to migrate; and mediating factors reflect the conditions that facilitate or constrain migration such as economic resources, social networks and migration regimes.
  • Refugee studies rarely engage with historical contexts, partly because each refugee-producing situation is regarded as unique and so the lessons learned from the past are rarely applied or reflected upon. Banerjee and Samaddar (2019) argue that what is required is a critical post-colonial approach that integrates history with an understanding of the specific aspects of the post-colonial political and social structures.
  • Refugee studies, as an area of scholarship has been orientated towards policy driven research, based on research funders’ ideas of what has policy relevance. Some scholars argue that, since research is generally funded and carried out by institutions in richer countries, it maintains the power of the hegemonic state within the post-colonial world order, and can be tainted by post-colonial racisms.
  • Scholars also highlight ethical issues relating to the value of research and who benefits. For example, Turton (1996) argues that it is hard to justify research into ‘situations of extreme human suffering’ where positive change does not form an explicit part of the research agenda. Mackenzie, McDowell, and Pittaway (2007) maintain that research can only be ethical where it results in ‘reciprocal benefits for refugee participants and/or communities’. And Jacobsen and Landau (2003) argue that the imperative for academics to conduct academically rigorous research while producing knowledge that protects refugees and influences policy can limit the type of research that is carried out.
  • The design of research using categories defined by policy interests (e.g. who is a refugee) limits possibilities for engagement with social processes and inhibits the development of theory. Crawley and Skleparis (2018) call for engagement with the ‘politics of bounding’, which are the ways in which categories are constructed, the reasons and the effects.

The paper suggests three crucial areas for social science research in refugee studies going forward: durable solutions; borders and bordering practices; and experiences of second-generation people from refugee backgrounds. These proposed directions for future research reflect some of the key challenges for the field, namely: (a) ongoing failures and a rigidity in approach (durable solutions); (b) ways in which a preoccupation with controlling immigration has relevance beyond the physical space of the borders (borders and bordering); and (3) the need to take a longer term perspective by considering, not only the immediate crisis, but the extended impacts of refugee backgrounds (generations) and their intersections with transnational and diaspora studies.

The author argues that research and scholars must be attentive to ways in which knowledge is produced and used, and the power relationships that are at play. In particular, research should incorporate meaningful collaborations with displaced people, scholars, practitioners and policymakers in the regions where the majority of refugees and other forcibly displaced people live so that their expertise frames debates, interventions and theoretical advances.