Introductory Blog: Taking a “Critical” Approach to Statelessness

by Deirdre Brennan & Thomas McGee

July 2020

The Critical Statelessness Studies Project emerged to promote reflexive critical analyses of mainstream approaches to statelessness that have emerged over the past decade or so in both academia and civil society. The CSS blog series provides a platform for (emerging) statelessness scholars engaged with critical theory or critical methods. Critical approaches take many forms and have been applied to an immense variety of subjects, disciplines and fields. In this introductory blog, we elaborate on what critical approaches can mean for the statelessness sector and invite readers to reflect upon their own practices or approaches to statelessness work. We encourage you to join us in the CSS project, to take up a critical lens in your work and to expand on the thoughts below.

Mainstream Statelessness?
It is widely understood by those in the sector, that statelessness research has been historically dominated by legal approaches. For example, analyses have focused on states’ responsibilities to end statelessness under their ratified Conventions or on relevant landmark cases in public international law. There has been an effort too by international NGOs and UN bodies to raise awareness of statelessness and to campaign for its eradication, both at a diplomatic-level and amongst the general public. We now have space to critically reconsider the implications of these campaigns and the way they, and academia, tend to frame the issue of statelessness and the people affected by it.

All this is not to say there is a correct approach, and in fact the field of statelessness studies arguably benefits most when several disciplines work together. The point, however, is that value can be added to both the ‘mainstream’ legal approaches and the newer disciplinary approaches through self-reflection on the theoretical framing of questions. Indeed, the time has come to interrogate many of the assumptions that have become embedded within statelessness studies through lack of prior questioning. Critical reflections and readings against the grain must also not be divorced from the reality of lived statelessness.

Critical Epistemology
Within the last ten years or so, statelessness research has started to partly detach itself from its legal studies foothold, expanding into analyses by geographers, feminists, anthropologists and so on. In an encouraging development, a small, yet growing, number of stateless people have themselves undertaken research on the issue. However, the reality remains that those working on statelessness – as academics or in paid positions internationally – are disproportionately not directly affected by the issue nor from countries inhabited by large stateless populations. As such, when stateless people are the ‘subject’ of work or research conducted by non-stateless actors, it is useful to look to critical literature for tools to critique how such work is carried out, and to reflect on and decentre the power dynamics of knowledge production.

For example, we can actively resist the use of phrases that immediately Other stateless people and the environments, homes and cities in which they live. Avoiding references to research conducted ‘on the ground’ or ‘in the field’ is a simple action that may help diminish the false dichotomy implicit in the use of these phrases. The underlying implication is that there is another place that is ‘not-the-field’ where we, the educated, unaffected citizens live and work. And so, the 'field’ becomes shorthand for power relations as well as geography. The differentiation between the ‘field’ and ‘not-the-field’ further entrenches the Global North as the knowledge producer. Critical thought, instead, recognises that stateless people are the experts on their lives. As such, bigger steps to work towards decentring knowledge production can be taken in research method planning (e.g. feminist standpoint theory) and engagement with critical epistemological theories (e.g. de-colonialism).

Agency and Representation
Another pressing concern of the CSS project relates to the representation and agency of stateless people in work on statelessness. The linguistic framing of stateless people as ‘invisible’ or ‘hidden’ as became a trope within pioneering statelessness work now needs to be challenged. Critiques of neoliberal power would have us question such representations that essentialise the vulnerability of stateless people. Drawing from post-colonial and critical race theory, CSS makes a point to challenge discourse that effaces the agency of people affected by statelessness. We further acknowledge the tension at work in employing legalistic language that may both provide protection and simultaneously dehumanise. The term ‘stateless persons’ (as per the 1954 Statelessness Convention) is a case in point since the somewhat unnatural, and stilted, expression may serve to de-familiarise those who experience statelessness as not regular people but rather an exceptional category of ‘persons’.

Visual representation of stateless people must also be the focus of critical consideration. Just as Cynthia Enloe’s notion of assimilating vulnerability into the compound category of ‘womenandchildren’ has been effectively applied to representations of refugee communities, images of statelessness are often quite problematic. Stateless people have tended to be pictured as misery personified. An alienating depiction of stateless people is found in the series of images for the UNHCR #IBelong campaign: ethnically diverse models - possibly stateless or intended to represent stateless people – squat in an uncomfortable pose, objectified within the metal clamp-like stand of a spinning globe. The presumed intended message that stateless people exist across the world is lost in the unusual depiction.

We can here draw on lessons from the refugee context where anthropologist Liisa Malkki has argued that ‘the term refugee has analytical usefulness not as a label for a special, generalizable “kind” or “type” of person or situation, but only as a broad legal or descriptive rubric that includes within it a world of different socioeconomic statuses, personal histories, and psychological or spiritual situations.’ With this, we advocate a return to questioning the basics of what it means to be stateless, and to consideration of how academics should most effectively and appropriately work with the concept and experiences that statelessness entails.

Going Forward
The above highlights just some of the areas and ideas we hope that the CSS project and blog can engage with. We welcome contributions that borrow useful concepts from other disciplines in order to interrogate the discursive implications of framing and characterisation used within statelessness studies to date.

Deirdre Brennan and Thomas McGee are PhD researchers at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness.

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

The CSS Blog serves as a space for short reflective pieces by individuals working on statelessness from a critical perspective. Click here to learn more about the CSS project or here to read about how to contribute to the blog.