Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Forced Displacement and the Violence of Theory


Phil Cole


Time to read

4 Minutes

Guest post by Phil Cole. Phil teaches Politics and International Relations at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

placards by a busy road
Photo by Phil Cole

One aspect that tends to be missing from much discussion of forced displacement is the extent to which refugees are excluded from meaningful participation in the policies and practices that determine their life chances – the lack of refugee voice, in the sense of having a significant say over those processes.

This is, of course, a very important issue, but in this blog post I turn attention to the level of Political Theory itself. Based on my chapter in the volume Postcoloniality and Forced Migration, I explore Political Theory as a process, specifically where it seeks to provide some normative basis for refugee policies, criticising those that exist and proposing better ones. The question here is whether refugees have any voice or agency in that process.

My argument is that they are largely excluded, and that this should be a cause for concern. While there are people doing Political Theory who have a refugee background (for example Behrouz Boochani and Shahram Khosravi), they are a significant minority. The majority of theorists who write about forced displacement have no experience of being a refugee, myself included.

We could ask whether this matters. Would it make any difference to the content of the political theory of displacement if people with a displacement background made a significant contribution to it? The answer from postcolonial critics of ‘western’ academic work is, of course, that it makes an enormous difference. Much political theory has to be seen as a product coming out of a specific location, a ‘centre’ which seeks to pronounce what ought to happen within the ‘margins’, without much contribution from people who experience what happens in those ‘margins’.

The result is a system of knowledge production which works to sustain the status quo when it comes to the distribution of power. This means that political theorists working in the global North may be complicit in sustaining unequal and unjust power relations. That complicity can take the form of working with a conceptual framework that may be in some sense complicit in the oppressive systems they are working to overthrow; or occupying a privileged place in an academic structure that systematically excludes others.

And so I have had to address my own location as a global North academic and the power it has given me to write political theory about forced displacement. I need to think seriously about the problematics of that power, and how I can address the challenge of complicity.

That power is expressed in two ways – first, in the representation of refugees, and second, in their categorisation. As a political theorist writing about the ethics of forced displacement, I claim to represent refugees in the sense that I make policy recommendations about their life prospects: I stand in for them in the normative theoretical process in order to make those recommendations, so acting as their representative. But what gives me the right to represent them in this way? They haven’t asked me to, and I have not consulted them about what they think is in their best interests – and so despite seeking to identify an ethical framework on forced displacement, I am not acting in a particularly ethical manner.

The second issue of power is that of categorisation. This is the process of defining the refugee, who counts and who does not, and what characteristics make up a refugee. We are all familiar, I’m sure, with the problems with how refugees and other migrants are categorised by the media, by political leaders, and also by humanitarian agencies. In much political and media discourse they are framed around the themes of unlawfulness and even criminality, and when it comes to humanitarian agencies they are often portrayed as helpless victims, devoid of any power of agency.

unofficial refugee camp at Oranienplatz in Berlin
unofficial refugee camp at Oranienplatz in Berlin (https://www.montecruzfoto.org/08-04-2014-Oplatz-eviction-End-of-Refugees)

I may seek to categorise the displaced differently, in terms of their rights and their agency, but my point here is not what is wrong with these specific categorisations, but the practice of categorisation itself. Because again this raises the question of power: who has the power to categorise others, whatever the content of that categorisation, negative or positive?

If this power to categorise the other is in itself problematic, then I have to recognise that this is a central practice in political theory: political theorists set out to provide contesting definitions of refugeehood, who counts and who does not. Even if my intentions in engaging in this practice are what we might describe as benign, putting forward positive categories with the emphasis on agency and rights, I have to accept that I am engaged in a process of power. If I define the refugee, I have defined them as objects of study, objects of discourse, rather than as subjects – this is an act of power.

This raises the possibility that those of us who engage in normative political theory on questions of membership, migration and displacement are exercising a form of power, and this may be a violent process in that it defines and confines people in a theoretical space, a conceptual border zone, and does violence to their own view of themselves as agents. And so far from normative political theory being a space of reason, it is a space of power, violence, exclusion and marginalisation.

If this is a genuine challenge, how are those of us who engage in political theory about displacement to address it? What is needed is a series of radical and disruptive displacements. The first is that of the citizen of the liberal democratic state from the centre of the picture, a position they dominate at present so that displaced people are constructed as a ‘problem’ that must be solved on behalf of that central figure.

But the second displacement is that of the political theorist as the exclusive owner of the process of arriving at normative answers to these questions. I must problematise my own power to determine and answer those questions, and ask by what right I believe I can make normative recommendations for policies that determine the life-prospects of displaced people, however ‘progressive’ I believe those recommendations to be.

And I must problematise my own complicity in the silencing and disempowerment of the voices of the displaced and their agency, through hyper-self-reflexivity about my role in constituting displaced people as objects of theory. I can no longer go about doing political theory without working in solidarity with those I theorise about, thinking carefully about what solidarity means in this context. This entails the recognition that they themselves are agents of theory, and that experiences of being displaced may support crucial theoretical insights that would otherwise be missed.

I must learn how to speak with, rather than to only speak for, and must also learn when to remain silent.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

P. Cole. (2023) Forced Displacement and the Violence of Theory. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/06/forced-displacement-and-violence-theory. Accessed on: 18/07/2024

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