Research Methodologies and Ethical Challenges in Digital Migration Studies: Caring for (Big) Data?

Author:   Marie Sandberg, Luca Rossi, Vasilis Galis & Martin Bak Jorgensen
Publisher:   Palgrave Macmillan. Switzerland
Reviewer:   Ahmed Murtala Hassan

Edited by Marie Sandberg, Luca Rossi, Vasilis Galis & Martin Bak Jorgensen. Research Methodologies and Ethical Challenges in Digital Migration Studies: Caring for (Big) Data? Palgrave Macmillan. Switzerland, 2022.


Sandberg, Rossi, Galis and Jorgensen, in their book ‘Research Methodology and Ethical Challenges in Digital Migration Studies: Caring for (Big) Data? address the implications of methodology and ethical issues associated with digital migration studies. The premise of migration studies is based on a scenario that brings migration governance and migrants into closer interaction with communication technology. In these new ways of interaction, nation-states apply smart technology to control migration and on the other hand, migrants, especially those operating in the irregularized migration spaces together with their network of solidarity use communication technology and the internet to facilitate passage into their intended countries of destination. As a result of this, migration scholars face new sets of research challenges- from data access to privacy protection (research ethics). For instance, if irregularized migrants are the subject of studies, they face the risk of being exposed to the state authorities as a result of their participation. Already, migration studies are characterised by the issues of security, trust and informed consent; yet the digital paradigm added to it further issues of security (online), privacy and confidentiality. Traditionally, migration studies depend on qualitative research methods to obtain ethnographic evidences, which include participating observations, in-depth semi-structured interviews and online “netnography” (page,18). The introduction of digital methodology to migration studies has led to the emergence of new data formats, the so-called ‘big data’. Furthermore, the book draws the attention of migration researchers to concerns about ethics in digital migration studies. Traditionally, ethnographic research put emphasis on the dignity and safety of migrant research participants, especially migrants who lack recognised papers and are in danger of being rejected and deported. It is also important when conducting ethnographic fieldwork accompanied by digital migration studies to ensure that the use and scrutinization of migrants’ online activities doesn’t put them in danger.

The book is grouped into three parts: part 1 (Digital and Qualitative Data Dynamics, covering 4 interesting and innovative chapters), Part II (Ethical Challenges in Digital Migration Research and Beyond, covering 3 chapters about caring for Big-data), and part III (special comments on caring for data and the future prospects of Big-data-based knowledge development in migration studies)

Part I: Digital and Qualitative Data Dynamics

Chapter two by Vasiliki Makrygianni, Ahmad Kamal, Luca Rossi, and Vasilis Galis, discusses the Migrants Digital Space (MDS), a digital environment that brings migrants and solidarity workers together, which enables the integration of digital data and ethnographic observation possible. The authors discussed various ways of defining MDS and argue that the variation depends on the actors involved, the size of the space and the challenges it poses; an concluded that MDS is formed by “(a) digital subjects (accounts, pages, hashtags, channels) touching on (b) migrant-related topics (such as discussions on migration routes; language lessons; football conversations; university enrolment; job seeking) through conversations across (c) various digital platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.)” (pp. 31). In Chapter three, Marie Sandberg, Nina Grønlykke Mollerup, and Luca Rossi demystify the relationship between Social Media Data and Ethnography in Digital Migration Studies. The authors present the relationship in a contrapuntal manner showing ethnography and digital data-centric approaches as the two faces of a coin. Information in the chapter is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in the Danish–Swedish borderlands in 2018–2019 as well as social media data collected through API access from public Facebook pages. Ethnography followed a well-established qualitative procedure and, in total undertook 16 interviews with 12 refugees, and 16 interviews with 16 solidarians situated on both sides of the Danish–Swedish border. After transcribing all interviews, the transcripts were manually coded with field notes (526 pages in total) for different themes that had emerged through the fieldwork and through reading and re-reading material and ended up with 97 codes.  At the same time, Facebook API enabled the collection of a final dataset comprising 200 pages, 84,359 posts and 2,254,923 comments, produced between 20/12/2010 and 24/09/2018. And for ethical reasons only social media data from publicly available groups were collected, because non-public information (including private messages on Messenger, WhatsApp, and similar platforms as well as posts and comments in non-public groups) is not included in the research material. A seamless analysis of the data obtained from both sources is offered based on the interaction of migrants with the border: politico-legal border, solidary border, and border navigated. Interestingly, both ethnography and social media data spoke to the three different borders differently but about the same subject. Chapter four by Giacomo Toffano and Kevin Smets discusses the experiences of irregular migrants crossing EU borders based on the Migration Trail, a web GIS pseudo-reality of irregular migration available on; which is an online interactive platform that allows users to have 10 days of exploration of the relationship between data visualization, cartography and migration fiction. Migration Trail is a big data model that represents very well the impact of social media on the lives of migrants. Although the authors identified the GIS model with some shortcomings, Migration Trail undoubtedly represents an original attempt to re-humanise migrants’ narratives in interactive spatial data visualisations. And Chapter five by Laura Steilike addresses the challenges and prospects of big-data-based migration data and knowledge production. Stelike believes that the global need of the international community to fulfill migration concerns enacted in the SDGs 2030 (goal 10) requires timely, reliable data & disaggregated data, and social media big-data has the potential to achieve that. The author presents the imperatives of big-data production through the three major migration narratives in migration governance: demography, integration and humanitarianism; a statement that emphasises the importance of big-data as an opportunity to gain access to new migration data and have a better understanding of migration in the light of these narratives. Big-data sources are diverse and the procedure of data analytics to gain insight into big-data is also diverse. Therefore, to make sense of migration knowledge through this kind of data, the author borrows Annemarie Mol’s proxiographic perspective; presenting migration as a multifaceted phenomenon occasioned by the diverse nature of big-data. Steilike analysed 17 big-data-based research papers related to migration and concluded that it is possible to establish knowledge on migration data governance based on the experiences of migrants as they interact with different social media platforms and the peculiarities of the different technologies that make up those platforms.       

Part II: Ethical Challenges in Digital Migration Research and Beyond

This part of the book addresses ethical issues in digital migration studies.  Chapter 6, by Leandros Fischer and Martin Bak Jørgensen set the scene with a focus on the Impossibility of Digital Migration Research considering ethical challenges in the (Digital) Study of Deportable Populations Within the European Border Regime. The chapter addresses two major issues: migration research ethics with its associated challenges, and a critical debate on two major approaches (militant research approach and the Autonomy of migration) on the principle of “doing no harm”. On the issue of ethics, the chapter emphasises that merely observing the “procedural no-harm procedures” doesn’t guarantee safety for vulnerable migrants because the approach failed to contribute to enabling their participation. Whereas in the debate between the Militant approach and Autonomy of migration, the militant approach offers a methodology that produces knowledge that emphasises the struggles of migrants. On the other hand, the Autonomy of migration (AoM) approach offers a methodology that emphasises the agency of migrants and presents migration as a social movement. Chapter 7 by Vasilis Galis, titled “The Redundant Researcher: Fieldwork, Solidarity and Migration”, addresses the question of the legitimacy of research that is based on vested political interest, ideological loyalty and propaganda, and a hazard for the subject of research (migrants in danger). The author reported his experiences while ethnographically researching vulnerable migrants. He raises the question of legitimacy and objectivity around research that is embedded with the political and emotional personality of the researcher. In the end, he proposed a new paradigm shift to migration studies based on the “Disability emancipatory approach” which empowers disabled people to control decision that shapes their lives. He believes that critical research on migration should address the following questions: Does the research promote migrants’ control or scrutiny over the processes that shape their lives? Does the research address the concerns of migrants themselves? Does the research support migrants in their struggle against oppression and for free mobility? Does the research guarantee the safety and integrity of migrants? And Chapter 8 by Ninna Nyberg Sorensen follows up with additional evidences on the implications of emotions in qualitative migration research. Doing research about the lived experiences of vulnerable migrants results in serious emotional effects, which sometimes leave the researchers to return with traumatic symptoms. Therefore, the author suggested that potentially emotionally challenging situations should be considered in project design and methodology and form part of the evaluation made by ethics boards.     

Part III: Comments

This section presents three comprehensive analyses of the book in form of commentary. Koen Leurs in Chapter 9, titled “On Data and Care in Migration Context”, discusses how migration researchers, practitioners and policymakers can care for Data. While in Chapter 10, Anders Munk, discusses the field of digital methods as an interface between media studies, science and technology studies (STS), computer science, and information design
(pg. 235) He further argues that relying on tools that others have built to do digital methods research quickly lands researchers in situations where whole research projects become untenable from month to month as the infrastructure on which the tool is based changes or is entirely removed. He concludes that researchers must therefore be proactive enough to not only think about this challenge, but also to develop in practice, makeshift alternatives. And in Chapter 11, Anna Lundberg raised a very big ethical question on the Ethico-political nature of digital migration studies: “What should we do as Intellectuals Activists”. He advocates for creating of spaces where researchers will develop as intellectual activists based on two concepts: “epistemic injustice” and “hope”. By these two concepts, the author discusses the possibilities of dislodging the methodological silencing of vulnerable and weak voices in academic research, ensuring that the minority views of refugees and other vulnerable migrants are given enough legitimacy to prevail with equal evidences. And a way forward on this is to be offered by the emerging methodological approach referred to as “A Scholarship of hope”.

However, despite offering comprehensive collections on digital migration study, methodology and ethical care in migration research, the book is silent on the implications of a digital divide between the south and north on theoretical and policy positions on digital migration studies, that can offer legitimate evidences universally.


Ahmed Murtala Hassan

Nigeria Immigration Service,

Abuja, Nigeria.







© 2012-20 GRFDT, All Rights Reserved.Maintained by GRFDT.Designed by Abhinav Jain