When I was an undergraduate student studying for my history Finals, my friends and I were introduced to the work of the French philosopher Michel Foucault. In lectures, tutorials and seminars we were told that Foucault’s writings had profoundly changed the way that historians had come to understand concepts like power, governance, control, knowledge and even truth. Foucault’s ideas, they seemed to be saying, could turn our otherwise run-of-the-mill essays on peasant uprisings and courtly intrigue into something much more exciting, insightful and, crucially for our tutors, ‘critical’.
Imagine my excitement, then, as I sat in a secluded corner of my college’s library and opened up a huge, battered book of Foucault’s. I read the first couple of pages. I paused and re-read the first couple of pages. I paused again. I tried some of the middle pages. I tried the end pages. I was stumped. What did it all mean? What was ‘governmentality’? What was ‘biopolitics’? What was a ‘regime of truth’?
Looking back, I never really got to grip with these concepts. Although I began to draw on Foucault’s writings in my essays (often consulting a copy of The Foucault Reader that my friend had discovered in the library), I never fully appreciated them and did not really understand their significance. I could parrot quotations but I had not truly gotten underneath the technical jargon of the ‘mysterious Michel’ (as I called him) to recognise the arguments that his language pointed to.
I think that this problem crops up for lots of individuals trying to get to grips with academic writing, whatever the topic. When we open a book or start scrolling through an article, we start reading excitedly, only to find ourselves swamped by long, complex sentences and strange-sounding terminology. Without serious dedication and patience, it is hard to find the basic arguments lying underneath the surface.
In my opinion, one of the greatest skills that you can have as an academic (or just a writer more generally) is the ability to explain complex ideas simply and quickly. I truly believe that, in order to understand a subject, we should not have to turn into verbal archaeologists, digging through the rubble of overly-long clauses or sifting through countless ‘isms’ to find the bones of an argument. Some ideas and arguments are, admittedly, more complicated than others and are therefore harder to explain. Nonetheless, with a little bit of work it is possible to de-mystify them.
Over time, I have come to understand Foucault’s ideas and to truly appreciate why his writings so powerfully influenced philosophers, historians and scholars from many other disciplines. Yet, I don’t think this journey need have been quite as mentally arduous as I found it! I would have felt far more able to plough though his rather dense works if I had been given a brief summary of each one’s main ideas to read first.
This site is an attempt to make some of the arguments, concepts and ideas that crop up in my area of study – Refugee and Forced Migration Studies – quickly accessible and easily understandable. It summarises the key viewpoints of those individuals who write about displacement and briefly explains some of the most important topics in this field of research. I aspire to amplify the voices of scholars and refugee writers so that more people can learn about their ideas, reflect on them and begin to engage with them.
Since my aim is to spark interest in writers and topics, I am not attempting to cover the whole of Refugee Studies scholarship comprehensively (an almost impossible task). Nor am I trying to capture every nuance of the topics it explores. I am trying instead to pick out some thought-provoking or original contributions to this body of scholarship and to explain what these contributions are and why they are important. The entries here form a mixed bag of material. They examine legal terms, postcolonial arguments, anthropological texts and ethical viewpoints, all of which help to illuminate issues related to displacement.
Summaries and explanations are no replacement for slow, detailed reading. It is often very helpful to read whole books or articles in full, richly absorbing all the little examples and explanations which writers put in to flesh out their argument and bring it to life. At other times it helpful to be able to quickly understand key claims and discussion points. These two types of studying in fact go together – if you start exploring a topic or book with the key ideas it espouses already sitting in the back of your mind, it is much easier to sit back and enjoy the process of ‘slow reading’.
I really hope you enjoy learning about this subject and that these entries help you in your studies and writing.