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The Encyclopedia of Migrants

Ángel Belzunegui

Sociologist, Social & Business Research Lab (SBRlab), Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona

The Encyclopedia of migrants project raises interesting questions that require clarification both conceptually and in terms of meaning. Legitimate knowledge maintains a constant dialectic with other types of knowledge, particularly that which has become known as so-called conventional wisdom. The process establishing knowledge as accepted knowledge has formed, and continues to form, part of the hegemonic position of certain conflicting social groups. Throughout this historical dialectic “other knowledge” normally opens up a path for itself by way of the oral tradition, far removed from the academies where a one-way rationalism and normativism prevail.

As opposed to the imposition of official knowledge that produces a technical knowledge, “rendered natural” and intentionally aseptic, the Encyclopedia of Migrants provides content developed by the migrants themselves converted into purveyors of knowledge; a type of knowledge that has remained (and still does) concealed and unappreciated. The people’s stories reflect the material and relationship conditions of their lives; conditions that are interpreted by the actors themselves and are revealed as new sources of knowledge. This social history has highlighted the importance of knowledge of daily life. From an ethno-methodological focus, we also underline the importance of getting to know the interpretation given by the actors themselves of their own daily life. Composed in the form of letters written to someone, the stories specifically summarise the everyday life of their authors, in which they express their perceptions, yearnings, insights and meaning of their migratory experiences.

The Encyclopedia is not a project to “talk about migrants”, but rather a project that “lets migrants speak”. This is both a departure and, at the same time, an important arrival point about which there was general consensus among the project’s participants: from the steering committee to the participants themselves who shared their stories.

Never before have so many migrant voices been gathered together in a single collection. The letters are meaningful and significant. The Encyclopedia records are as important formally as they are content wise. The people and their texts are not objects of study in the classic sense, but rather are the subjects that construct the material on which the Encyclopedia is in turn compiled and which has been made publicly available, which forms part of another type of knowledge and wisdom. As opposed to a type of research that tends to reify what is being studied, converting the dynamic into static, the active into passive and the agent into the patient, the Encyclopedia contains uncoded, living testimonies, directly provided by those who have lived through them without being filtered in any way by other people.

The Encyclopedia also contains the moment the different actors meet: trust, understanding and empathy also form part of this collection, while not manifestly explicit. The generation of bottom-up knowledge is based on contacts, on the explanation of the relevance of each one of the stories, on the importance of constructing a collection of different yet shared meanings. Such pressure has been exerted over the validity and utility of knowledge that we have come to think of our own knowledge as irrelevant.

The dynamics of collaboration among the individuals who took part in the Encyclopedia revolved around the idea of closeness between the contact person and the migrants, prior knowledge, work in the community, personal empathy towards the phenomenon of migration, even the militancy in favour of displaced people’s rights, all of which generated a mutual understanding when working together.

The migrants who have written their letters talk to us about their perceptions and share both their stories and their photos. The drafting of the content of the Encyclopedia started off and developed from an approach that could very well be referred to as “ethno(photo)graphy”. In this case, the social reality cannot be understood as if dealing with an object. That is not the best methodological option for a type of project like the Encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia is instead based on something similar to an action-interaction.

The action-interaction materialises in: a) an open commitment to collecting information, b) based on the creation of group and/or individual mechanisms built up among the individuals that take part in exchanging information; c) the use of non-invasive technical tools, i.e. instruments and techniques that users can assimilate and adapt to themselves and their discourse; d) neither standardised nor typified information is being sought, but rather information that expresses the meaning people give to their acts and experiences.

Individuals participated in the Encyclopedia openly, democratically and independently. Accordingly, the use of the letter format was also open in terms of both the process and the result. The personal contributions were true, felt and meaningful for the people who wanted to share them. They reflect how people imagine and perceive their vital experiences as migrants. The Encyclopedia speaks many languages. It has gathered peoples’ expressions, their linguistic codes, their signifiers.

Revel (2011:3) considers that colloquial language attributes banality to the common, that which is never known as the object of desire, that which abounds. The common deserves no recognition, except that of an existence that is a little more or less than overly abundant, too present for us to pay it any attention, too clearly exposed to be investigated.

The Encyclopedia represents common learning for many people that have been experiencing and expressing ideas about social reality from different angles. Social researchers, artists, people involved in public administration, activists, neighbours, etc. have all collaborated to design something new and co-produced.

As a result, the Encyclopedia has never been a conventional research project, which could have conditioned the drafting of the letter or photograph. Analysis was never prioritised, that is to say, a preconceived plan of analysis, to avoid everything fitting in with any such a plan, but rather the peculiarities of the individuals, relations and processes were taken into account. In traditional research methods, when data allows us to conduct a preconceived research plan, the work is discarded on suspicion of not being reliable. This happens quite often without taking into account that in a lot of cases the contradictory data are precisely those that arise as a result of the tension between the subject converted into an object of study and the researcher (or the project in itself). It is a sort of unconscious rejection of a mechanism that turns actors into mere cogs in a machine that has to work. This explains why classic research avoids improvisation, as if it wasn’t part of the curiosity acting as a source of knowledge and understanding of social reality.

Nevertheless, in practice, we often find ourselves facing profoundly dynamic social realities, which means thinking of them as mutant elements of human creations, rather than closed systems that can be investigated using fixed cameras and dark rooms. Conceiving social reality as something given and external to the subject projects flat, shorthand-like images. To overcome this way of (re)producing reality, the Encyclopedia proposed superimposing different takes to make it possible to capture the polyhedric dimension of migration, with a view to encompassing a greater depth of complexity and avoiding the typification trap.

The research protocol used in the Encyclopedia of Migrants was based on what we call cooperation sequences to design mechanisms that were created on the basis of the experiences of all those involved in the process, with as little hierarchical positioning as possible given that we were generating open mechanisms, ones in which chance, surfacing in the process itself, plays an important part in the generation of information. Nevertheless, in these cooperation sequences it was important to define the roles of the people who took part to safeguard a basic principle of the mechanism which is none other than the recognition of all the contributions from the actors that took part with their stories, as well as the people who initially designed the mechanism at the L’âge de la tortue association and which was later discussed and validated by a public reflection group, thus coming up with a novel methodology.

The migratory experience has become a topological activity, exerting a decisive influence on the redefinition of geographical, cultural and social frontiers, as well as on the notion of place and sense of belonging to a particular context. Indeed, migration has burst into traditionally homogeneous spaces and rearranged the places and relations that occur in these spaces. Accordingly, the Encyclopedia is a map of emotions.

This map of experiences and emotions forms part of a collection that is ordered using the random logic of the Latin alphabet. We did not wish to confer an order on the Encyclopedia based on the nationality of the stories, or on age, or country of residence. We felt that the most logical order for this project was the complete absence of any order. Devoid of prior categories, the only feasible solution was the alphabet, not as a way of classifying, but as a manner of discovery. The voices in the work arise from their personal expressions and experiences, and it is those voices that govern the areas about which the migrants wish to talk.

With this idea in mind we wondered about the life of the Encyclopedia after the Encyclopedia. What will become of it? And we came to the conclusion that its life span depends on the capacity it contains to be read, observed, examined, and much more, by different people in different situations. In keeping with the idea of making this knowledge general knowledge, the Encyclopedia can serve to reveal experiences that would otherwise go unnoticed, be forgotten.

We hope that this Herculean labour, this Encyclopedia of Migrants can contribute to all of those who are aware of the complexity of migration as an intrinsically human phenomenon.