Emile’s end of project thoughts

Emile, the resident historian on the project, replies to Christina’s end-of-project thoughts with some reflections of his own.

We pay a good deal of lip-service to the notion of ‘interdisciplinarity’ these days. But the reality is that most interdisciplinary projects involve scholars who essentially share similar approaches to a particular subject. It is rare for a research project to bring together people who genuinely want to cross disciplinary boundaries without necessarily already knowing how to.

This point was brought home to me from the moment I joined the SIMs project in the application phase. I was clearly the odd one out. I was a historian. Neither Christina, nor the three postdocs we subsequently appointed to the project, had the same disciplinary or intellectual background as me.

I had always considered myself theoretically inclined, and most of my historian peers already thought of me as a social scientist because of the very contemporary history that I do, but this didn’t actually mean I knew what it was to work with a group of social scientists.

In the event, I could not have wished for a better introduction.

Not only was the whole team a model of collegiality and friendliness, but there was a genuine desire on the part of the (numerically more significant) group of social scientists to learn about the ‘historical method’ and ‘archival data’. If interdisciplinarity has a tendency to expose the sharp edges of a discipline, this was a decidedly soft landing.

The problem was that I had not properly considered what ‘historical method’ was, or indeed how one might ‘code’ archival ‘data’. Yes, these are things that all trainee historians are asked to think about – and things I have taught to undergraduates many times. But here I had to put them into practice in front of a more mature – and more demanding – audience.

The first lesson of this project, then, was that I did not really know how complicated my subject was until I had to explain and justify it to others. As historians, we are so used to prioritising the finished product – the argument, the material, the sources – that we forget how much the process matters.

This became particularly obvious to me when I had to teach our eager postdocs how to ‘use’ an archive. I was tempted to say, ‘well, just go there and see what you find’, a typical historian’s answer. But Christina had me down for two training ‘sessions’ and was expecting me to find 6 hours worth of stuff to say about archives.

Fortunately, the 6 hours went by in a flash. I found myself deconstructing the genealogy of archives, the catalogue, the organisation of the material, the ‘mind’ of the archive. A whole range of unexpected insights, gathered over years of quiet historical sleuthing, poured out. By the end, I realised that I had not just ‘done’ history for the past few years; I’d built a whole unspoken method.

This realisation extended deeper into the project as well. I spent quite a lot of time looking on in admiration as my fellow team members developed ‘puzzles’ for their next journal article, and arguing over the exact theoretical positioning of their arguments. I was lucky to be around such bright people.

At the same time, I took increasing pleasure in playing the role of the historian by demanding more ‘sources’, more ‘evidence’, and a more speculative approach to building arguments.

I knew from experience that the huge amount of archival material amassed during the first year of the project would take years to digest properly. I also thought – and still think – that the narrative of events remains too unclear for us to make any grand theoretical claims. It will take us a lot of time to disentangle the various explanations, logics and justifications that led to the emergence of a whole new category of political action, ‘illegal immigration’.

The French case captures many of these complexities. It is clear that a range of political and economic factors pushed the French government to develop certain categories of ‘illegal’ migration in the 1970s, but the balance of these factors is not easy to work out. Should we emphasise the legacy of a violent and fraught decolonising moment, overlaid with racism and a fear of ‘agitators’? Or should we focus on the growing belief in policy circles that the French labour market was ‘saturated’ with foreigners who could not be tracked and traced properly? Might we even pay more attention to campaigns by pro-migrant organisations who, while denouncing the supposed ‘illegality’ of some non-French citizens, inadvertently made visible forms of illegality that the state would have preferred to keep hidden?

There are similar empirical questions to be answered about the other cases. Why did the German state develop such extraordinary databases to monitor citizens and non-citizens? Why did the British state so consistently – and, until the 1990s, so successfully – practice forms of ‘strategic ignorance’ in relation to illegal migration?

These questions raise further methodological challenges. The most obvious of these is how to integrate the archival material we collected and the interviews conducted by our postdoc team. In various articles and books I’ve written in the past, I have tried to juggle these two different kinds of source, either by playing one against the other, or using oral testimonies to fill in the gaps left by the archive. We will no doubt have to do something similar here, although it is not exactly clear how.

The final point I want to make while wearing my historian’s cap is just how much this project has reinforced my sense that so-called cross-national comparisons are perilous. We were extremely fortunate for this project to have a team composed, not simply of specialists in our three case studies, but also of project members who grew up in Germany, France and the UK.

Saying goodbye: our final team gathering, after the writing retreat. From left to right: Sara, Elisabeth, Christina, Mike and Emile

This was not simply a case of well-meaning diversity. It was essential to the project. Anyone who thinks that ‘European’ – or ‘Western European’ – states can be easily compared and conflated needs to spend a few days reading the material we have collected. Our archives and respondents spoke different languages, approached their problems entirely differently, and operated within radically different administrative structures.

To take one of many examples, the British archival material is full of marginal notes and friendly banter between civil servants, whereas the German material is resolutely formal and hierarchical in its presentation. It is not nearly as easy to dissect the inner motivations of bureaucrats in the German case – the material simply isn’t there (or, more likely, we haven’t found it yet…)

Still, for all the worries about how we might be able to bring together disparate material and distinct histories, my overwhelming impression after two years on this project is one of success. We ran up against plenty of obstacles, many of which will surely return to haunt us as we try to present our findings in written form. But we’ve made a real attempt to bridge multiple disciplinary divides, and we’ve got some extraordinary material.

I can’t wait to see what comes out of the melting-pot.

— Emile