'I cannot see the ways in which we can study migration without reflecting on the impact of media technologies'

In this episode, we speak with dr. Amanda Paz Alencar (Associate Professor at the Department of Media and Communication of Erasmus University Rotterdam) about her initial motivation to study migration, the necessity of including technology in the conversation about integration and migration, and the LDE Centre GMD.

By Vanessa Ntinu

Amanda Paz AlencarYou have such an interesting and impressive profile! What sparked your initial interest in migration and media?

That's a very important question that we oftentimes overlook and forget to reflect on. I will start with going back a little bit in time. My childhood and teenage years were very much shaped by movement. I was always moving with my parents. We were moving because of my father's work at the bank as he was transferred to a different branch every year. I think within a period of 10 years, we moved to 9 different towns in Brazil. I am originally from Brazil and Brazil is very big. I was moving towns, but it almost felt like crossing international borders. Coupled with this is the fact that we did not have access to technologies back then. So, that meant I would not see friends or teachers anymore. Those experiences shaped my view of place, of belonging, how I see these issues.

As an adult, I also continued to move. I have lived in three different places: in the US, Spain, and the Netherlands. I have been away from Brazil for 18 years - so I have had to negotiate and re-negotiate my relationships with technology for transnational family communication. There were periods at the beginning where I couldn't communicate with my parents often. I have also missed several family milestones. As a result of these issues, I developed an interest in trying to understand how technologies could intersect with the lives of long-term migrants. However, over the years, I have developed a specific interest in processes related to forced displacement. As a privileged migrant, I recognize that I can go home anytime. I understand that these possibilities are very difficult for people that are forced to move. It is very confronting to see how we experience migration in completely different ways.

In your previous research, you have married the themes of migration and media quite well - how do you reckon the two relate to one another?

These two are two phenomena that are always undergoing changes and transformations in society. On one hand, we have migration - which of course includes integration, place-making, and belonging. On the other hand, we have technologies, and both are constantly changing and being shaped by social processes. I cannot see the ways in which we can study migration without reflecting on the impacts of media technologies. Likewise, different types of mobility are happening within a digital space and that also involves migration issues - such as transnational family communication, jobs, digital livelihoods, the gig economy, remittances. With technological advancements going so fast, we really need to think about how migration is being shaped by these developments. For example, how digital traces are being used by institutions - such as border agencies - to monitor certain populations. In Denmark, the UK, and Germany, you have governments that check the smartphones of asylum seekers and use automated decision-making as part of the asylum procedure. Therefore, we researchers need to ensure our research remains accessible to certain populations, particularly forced migrants, so they too become aware of these technological advancements that have an impact on their lives.

I cannot see the ways in which we can study migration without reflecting on the impacts of media technologies.

You are part of the ESHCC department (our newest LDE member), tell us a little about your work there and what the department is about. Can you also tell us about any work you have done with our Board member Suzanne Janssen?

I have been working in the department for 6 years and I specialize in the study of migration and media, with a focus on the role of social media and digital technologies in the processes of mobility, place, and integration of forced migrants. I have been investigating the digital lives of different migrant populations, particularly asylum seekers, and how that shapes their understanding of place, their processes of belonging, how they rebuild their lives, how they socialize, and how all these inadvertently shape their aspirations. Therefore, I have been doing fieldwork in Spain, the Netherlands, the UK, and Latin America - particularly in the context of Venezuela and forced migration in Northwestern Brazil. In 2019, together with a local researcher, we have conducted a longitudinal WhatsApp research project where we followed the everyday lives of 18 Venezuelan participants for 6 months approximately - with the goal to understand how the WhatsApp group acts as a space and a tool for peer support.

Parallel to this, I have recently started a project in Kampala, Uganda with a local researcher where we are studying the different ways through which mobile communications have been central to responding to COVID-19 amongst displaced urban communities. In the department, we are a very diverse team, not only culturally, but also with the different topics that are being developed. We develop both qualitative and quantitative research; we have colleagues working on intercultural communication in relation to migration and others on the intersection of race, ethnicity, and communication. We also have a lot of research focused on technology and surveillance.

Suzanne Janssen has been my supervisor since I joined the department and has always been very supportive of my work. Currently, we are supervising a Ph.D. project on media migration in China, in particular the ways in which elderly internal migrants use technology to move within China.

Tell us a little bit about your VCC-granted study on the ways in which digital media technologies can be effectively and creatively employed by refugee and host community actors to enhance social inclusion.

Yes! This project, titled Digital placemakers, is being carried out in the context of VCC and is being funded by Trustfonds. It’s a project that involves a digital participatory approach to understanding how digital technologies intersect in the place-making processes of people with lived experiences of displacement settling in the city of Rotterdam. It’s a pilot study and we are working with 15 refugee collaborators on this project. It’s a 7-week workshop on how digital technologies are creatively and effectively employed in the everyday practices of placemaking. The 15 collaborators will be producing their own audiovisual pieces, a field guide, and will be discussing a variety of topics, where they will be bringing in new insights into the workshop. The intention is to combine these experiences in a field guide and relate that to policymakers to get a better view from below. Beyond the 15 refugee collaborators, this project also aims to interview practitioners, NGO representatives, policymakers, and advisers who are working directly with refugee integration in Rotterdam so we can compare perspectives in the construction of (digital) spaces of refugee settlement. The outcome of this project will be to see how technologies are intersecting in the lives of these migrants in positive and negative ways.

In the department, we are a very diverse team, not only culturally, but also with the different topics that are being developed.

I read that you are an Associate Producer on The Migration Podcast (I'm a sucker for a good podcast) - tell us a little bit about that.

I just joined the podcast this year and it was initiated by Fiona Sieger as part of the IMISCOE initiative. The first season of the migration podcast began last year, and I was always a fan of their work. We are now with 4 or 5 contributors. We select speakers, including practitioners, researchers, policymakers, based on their knowledge background and on geographical location. We try to develop a very diverse range of topics for each season, for instance, issues related to family reunification, digital work, LGBTQI+ rights but also forms of violence, and so forth. Each of us selects and invites 2 potential interviewees. We produce and conduct the interviews and Fiona does the final cut and finalization. We want to enhance our reach since our first season was quite popular.

How could we as LDE GMD support your work? Where do you see points of convergence in working together and collaborating in the next academic year?

Well, thank you! I think through the meetings and conferences the centre has already organized. This is a great way to unite and discuss common topics, such as the kind of research we're doing and/or the possibilities for collaboration. More formally, it would be great if we could collaborate on research or perhaps even on developing educational programs and grant applications. We should have more meetings discussing these possible collaborations because we all know they are there. We have so much in common but sometimes I feel like there is a lack of communication and we are often unaware of what the other department is doing. It might be nice to have a space where we could see what each of the members is working on and identify some overlaps.

What are potential blind spots for us as LDE Centre GMD and migration scholars, in general, we should be mindful about?

I think in relation to migration, diversity, and media, for instance, a lot of scholars have been able to make substantial contributions in this area, but I still feel that there is a lack of links between migration theories and media and communication theories. When I send a paper to a migration journal, there is always skepticism about the application of media theory to understand migration processes. And the other way around! We need more research that bridges, more than ever, especially considering technological advancements. When focusing on contemporary migration processes, there is an urgent need to create more bridges between different disciplines. Beyond this, it is important to decolonize the way we understand and analyze mobility and communication processes taking place in the Global South.