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In conversation with Ruben Andersson
Can you tell us about your current research and what got you into migration?
I’ve been working on migration for many years as an anthropologist doing field research with irregular migrants principally heading from Africa towards southern Europe. I’ve also been doing research with border guards, aid officials and other professionals working on controlling migratory flows in southern Europe, West Africa and elsewhere. More recently I’ve been working on conflict as well, and conflict interventions, humanitarian interventions, particularly again in West Africa. From an ethnographic perspective, I always wanted to see the human stories behind these flows of people across borders. I’m also interested in the institutional responses to these movements with increasing amounts of money channelled into border security, humanitarian operations and related fields That's what keeps me going back to this story of human migration.
Why would you encourage new students to study migration?
Migration is obviously one of the hot political issues of our time. There are a lot of misunderstandings in the public debate either about what really drives migration, where people are really moving to, what the future trends might be, or how well official responses to migration are working or not. There's a dearth of reliable information out there in the public sphere. Our students, who come from a wide range of backgrounds from the humanities, social sciences and beyond, are prepared for understanding migration in a different way, getting an in-depth understanding of deeper patterns, realities and politics of migration beyond those simplistic views and superficial debates. When they leave this programme, they are well-placed to contribute to those debates, to change the narrative, and to provide different policy and academic angles.
What do you personally find exciting or challenging about teaching this programme?
Students come to this degree from very different backgrounds, countries, academic settings across the world, and from different disciplines ranging from history to literary studies to anthropology to economics, political science and more. And everyone comes in with their own personal backstory and broader interest in this hot topic of migration. So, it's challenging in that sense to teach such a diverse group of people, but that also makes it very rewarding and interesting because you have great conversations once you get such a diverse group of people together. And one thing I really want to emphasise here is learning from each other. We can really make the most out of having this intellectual diversity and this diversity of backgrounds to think of new angles and fresh analytical perspectives on migration. While teaching and supervising on this degree, I find myself learning as much as students each year from what they bring to the table.
What makes this programme unique among others?
Oxford has been a leading place for studying migration for a long time, with a long trajectory of migration scholarship. We have a decades-long heritage on the issue with research centres and scholars, building the field of migration studies via social scientific approaches to migration in particular. That is a real strength of Oxford that continues into the present and into the future. There are also more specific aspects of what's happening in Oxford today. We have an incipient Migration and Mobility Network here that tries to broaden the scope beyond core social sciences to include other disciplines and approaches. There is also a lot of expertise and enriching activity across the whole university related to migration. The degree itself is run by two departments: anthropology and international development. That adds some flavour to the degree regarding the anthropological side of course, but also the policy angle in the research centre, COMPAS, and a development studies angle that captures wider linkages between migration and international development.
How might this programme fit into students' career goals?
We have a diverse range of students coming to study this programme: very ambitious, driven, with a lot of experiences from different sectors including outside academia. And, of course, we get a high variety of pathways after this programme among students every year. Many naturally gravitate into doctoral programmes and further research, which they've done very successfully at Oxford and elsewhere at top universities across the world. They often follow up on key topics that they start to develop during their masters dissertations, so there's a natural lead-in there from one project to another. Others go into the policy field, where again there are clear linkages to develop for students each year during the degree via the work at COMPAS and discussions we have in class around policy. We see alumni working for a wide variety of agencies, institutions, and think tanks with a clear migration angle. And, to come back to a theme I raised before, there's a shortage of migration expertise in the public debate. Students from our programme strengthen and contribute to that expertise through their own passion, their own research interests and their own ways of understanding contemporary migration from a broad interdisciplinary perspective.
What are your suggestions to prospective students?
My simple advice to anyone considering this programme is to apply. Often, of course, Oxford can feel a bit intimidating to some applicants, who may feel like maybe they should put it off. But one thing we are really keen on is to ensure we have a diverse cohort on our programme and bring in as many different perspectives from across the world as possible. So, we'd very much encourage applications from across the world no matter what your particular background might be. Of course, it's a social science programme with high requirements for being admitted, but we take a global view of each candidate and see real potential in having cohorts from different intellectual backgrounds to this programme.
This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with academics teaching on our courses.
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