Judgment, Doubt, and Self-Doubt: A Reflexive Turn from the Borderland of Lampedusa

In: Public Anthropologist
Alessandro CorsoDepartment of International Development, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK,,

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As borders kill under the premises of saving lives and distributing order, border regimes emerge in everyday life as sites of uncertainty, fragility, and doubt. The paper explores the spaces of uncertainty that pervade everyday life at the borderlands of Europe with a particular focus on the island of Lampedusa (Italy), and it deploys doubt as an analytical tool to produce a reflexive turn in border studies. From an autoethnographic perspective, it calls for a re-evaluation of the directions we take as scholars when we think and write about borders. By exploring the potential of selfreflection as a path for knowledge of the "other", the paper suggests a shift in gaze which builds on judgment and self-dialogue as forms of responsibility.


As borders kill under the premises of saving lives and distributing order, border regimes emerge in everyday life as sites of uncertainty, fragility, and doubt. The paper explores the spaces of uncertainty that pervade everyday life at the borderlands of Europe with a particular focus on the island of Lampedusa (Italy), and it deploys doubt as an analytical tool to produce a reflexive turn in border studies. From an autoethnographic perspective, it calls for a re-evaluation of the directions we take as scholars when we think and write about borders. By exploring the potential of selfreflection as a path for knowledge of the "other", the paper suggests a shift in gaze which builds on judgment and self-dialogue as forms of responsibility.

What to Do?

On 23 May 2022, I attended an academic discussion entitled “The criminalization of solidarity,” at compas, the centre for migration studies located at 61 Banbury Road, Oxford. It was afternoon, and Salam Aldeen, (the founder of Team Humanity)1 took the floor. He was in Ukraine, helping to evacuate refugees, but his face was on the big screen. While some borders continue to be constructed, others are easily overcome.

Salam recounted some of the tragic events which had led him to initiate his work as a humanitarian activist. Originally from Denmark, but with Iraqi heritage, Salam first learnt about Europe’s so-called “refugee crisis” when a friend asked him to collect clothes for the refugees in Greece in 2013. He decided to fly to Greece and learn more about the situation. He could hardly hold back his tears when he talked about his first experience at the Turkish-Greek border, where hundreds of people in desperate conditions were seeking help. Being in Greece was for Salam the catalyst to actively becoming involved in the human tragedy he was learning about. He decided to become a rescuer and dedicate his life to helping refugees at sea. The Greek authorities accused Salam of smuggling activities and imprisoned him multiple times. He explained that police agents used detention, imprisonment, and physical assault to make his life impossible; to make him go crazy, as he put it. In Salam’s story, there seemed to be a clear-cut divide between humanitarian actors and border agents: the former were vulnerable to the power to which the latter were entitled. Salam’s experience further reflected the schizophrenic moves of border regimes, caught in an interminable battle between securitisation and humanitarianism which only seems to reproduce dynamics of violence, inequality, and the suspension of human rights.2

As the workshop approached its conclusion, we all agreed on the fact that the attitude of policy makers and national and supranational actors in handling forced migration at the borders of Europe is tragic. As time goes by, dramatic scenarios continue to unfold. “Crisis,” we learn from scholars who have worked in the field for decades, is certainly not the result of a lack of knowledge on the part of policy makers and supranational actors.3  We do know “stuff,” as Ruben Andersson put it during the conversation, referring to the increasing number of testimonies of suspension of human rights (as Greek lawyer Dimitris Choulis had spoken about) and the proliferation of the witnesses of border violence (addressed in the discussion by Italian journalist Nancy Porsia). The connections between the EU’s criminal policies and the production of (more or less intended) tragedies have been explored.4 The relationships between legal procedures of securing borders and the development of an industry of illegality have been traced and analysed in detail.5

As Ruben Andersson suggested in his concluding remarks for the last session of the conference entitled “The Way Forward,” the question scholars should pose is not about producing knowledge that policy makers or actors involved in the migration sector do not know. What we could push for instead is to make powerful actors reflect on a different level. We should change language, and by doing so make them revise the logics that determine their apparently faultless econometric graphs. Building on this call, some scholars have used ethnography as a powerful political language to suggest that the border regime is showing serious cracks which will eventually make it sink.6 But where do these cracks lie? How can the ethnographic method escape the fixed boundaries formed and maintained by border regimes and the logics of “otherness” which keep producing physical and conceptual walls between some individuals and others? As we learn about the unfolding tragedies that take place at the “Doorsteps of Europe”7 and across multiple other borders around the world, one question remains for most scholars: what to do?

The following paper sits within this broader debate. I have heard such questions expressed during formal and informal conversations in conferences and workshops, by a great number of scholars who are leading the field of migration studies in the UK and across Europe and the US. This paper argues that in order to re-think language and our approach as researchers, witnesses, and communicators, we should include the private, personal, and often untold ethical difficulties that researchers face as they study borders and forced migration into these scholarly conversations. As academics question their role and the utility of their research, their inevitable interconnectedness with EU funding, government support in Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, looking for potential ways to escape the frustration of feeling that we are powerless actors in a world that moves towards catastrophic scenarios of nationalism and indifference, it is imperative to step back, in reflection.8 In Ethnographies of Doubt, David Pelkmans writes that “precisely because of the conspicuous presence of nationalisms, populisms and fundamentalisms, it is essential not to take their strength for granted, but to examine the dynamics of conviction and doubt through which their efficacy and affective qualities are made and unmade.”9 He adds that although these movements may have powerful effects, “their foundations are often surprisingly fragile.” But how do we convince our audience – whomever that audience may be – that there may be fragility beneath the guise of strength?

In the years following my fieldwork research in Lampedusa, I reflected upon questions that never left me once I arrived on the Sicilian island in March 2016. Where do we draw the boundaries between what should be included in the academic conversation, and what should be excluded? How do we, critics of border structures and regimes, become producers of the border inequalities that qualify the kind of knowledge that counts, and the one that has less use? And use for what? And count for whom? I will address these questions in this article and examine the direction in which scholars often tend to think and write about migration and border studies. Inspired by a moment of intimate discomfort that I felt after several months of my fieldwork in Lampedusa, I will consider the importance of “writing the anthropologist in” the conversation on forced migration and “ways forward” as we engage with borderland situations.10 This exercise builds on a long tradition of scholars whose work evinced the power of self-reflexivity11 and thick ethnography12 in exploring anthropological complexities, and a kind of scholarship which invites researchers to look at the border through the lens of ordinary life,13 from a perspective which is sensitive to the intimate fragilities and doubts14 that emerge from everyday encounters in the field.15

A Reflexive Turn

Academic research conducted on the island of Lampedusa has been helpful in detailing the traps and gaps in public knowledge, which is typically generated by the media and systematically used by politicians to their own interest. Research has advised us of the important questions raised by the Lampedusans who also become marginalized subjects within the tactics through which the frontier is produced, militarized, and left in a state of pervasive abandonment.16 However, the mechanisms through which such knowledge is produced in Lampedusa often lead to a counter-narrative of the borderland which is the outcome of individuals and local collectives and associations that often dismiss the insightful experiences of the migration workers, deemed as ‘enemies’ of the migrants and servants of the border regime. A well-formed network of individuals who live and work in Lampedusa inform the researchers who often visit the island for a limited time, returning for multiple short trips to gather further material.17 Although these individuals and associations help raise awareness about the complexity of the “refugee crisis” and provide a thick experiential baggage of knowledge which is precious and deserves much attention, their counter-narratives often silence the voices of the migration workers, who are often perceived as enemies.18 As researchers, we probably tend to explicitly support the migrants and those individuals who clearly work on their side. Such approach, I often thought, seemed to me to be symptomatic of a problem that must be solved at its root. By projecting sovereign power onto the quite generalized category of the migration worker, did we not risk reproducing the mechanisms of exclusion which we sought to criticize? Although excluding migrant voices is rather different from excluding migration workers’ voices, in both cases, the language that we use is one that produces dramatic differences between pre-established categories – the migrant/the migration worker, the legal/the illegal, the insider/the outsider. Politics rests on the sovereign power of inclusion/exclusion, which ethnography can reveal thanks to the processes through which the ethnographic experience is selectively turned into ethnographic knowledge, and the role of the ethnographer and their intimate engagement with the field in producing that knowledge.

What I wish to propose in this article is that further attention in exploring intimacy, including that of the migration workers, is required in migration and border studies, because if we do not engage in a serious conversation about the fragilities of the Self – being the ethnographer, the scholar, the border guard or the migration worker, or the general privileged citizen – it will be difficult to produce “a turn” in how we keep conceptualizing the “other,” be it “the migrant,” “the African,” the EU, or the sovereign state. In other words, before we attempt to construct the foundations for alternative future worlds and narratives, we must consider how much we are involved in the world of the “other,” ask ourselves who is the “other,” and how the process of understanding the “other” depends on the ability to question the “self.”19 Academia itself, of course, constitutes a site of privilege, and academics traditionally tend to speak for the voiceless “other” from a secure and elitist stance.20 Such perspective must be constantly challenged, and although the social worlds we inhabit call for certainty and a firm grasp of the phenomena we study, scholars are responsible for initiating a conversation which reflects upon all that is doubtful, and accepts the limitations and difficulties which are inherent to anthropological knowledge.

As I lived on the island of Lampedusa from March 2016 to May 2017 to conduct my doctoral research funded by the esrc at the University of Durham (UK), I learnt about multiple actors who were involved in the business of forced migration. The island of Lampedusa has been turned into a frontier to handle illegalized migrants crossing the Mediterranean into Italy,21 and it hosts a great number of migration workers (including, in this case, doctors, cultural mediators, coast guard agents, lawyers, border agents and police guards) from all over Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, who work to “secure” the border (Frontex, the Italian Coast Guard) but also to protect migrants (easo, iom, inmp, the Red Cross).22 In considering all these actors who constitute the “spectacle of the border,”23 gradually one learned that these entities were made of individuals with singular life experiences, motifs, hopes, dreams, sensitivities, and strategies to handle their jobs. Each had their own sense of what being at the frontier to carry out their work caused and meant to them, professionally and emotionally. Uniforms signal them as players in control of a situation.24 Nevertheless, the contexts they deal with often lead them to have ethical dilemmas, and raise questions around what could and must be done. Their presence at the border changes who they are, and how they act.

The fragility and “lightness”25 of border and migration workers has been extensively analysed in ethnographic works which looked at humanitarian actors, lawyers, volunteers, police agents and even smugglers.26 While I will not detail these works in the paper, my intention is to build on such work to demonstrate how the ethnographer’s emotional and ethical involvement in the business of forced migration can display the strengths and fractures of border regimes, as well as their rhetorical imageries. Following this methodological and theoretical path, the paper contributes to debates on border studies27 and ethics28 using a reflexive lens, by demonstrating how the exposure of doubt via autoethnography can produce a turn in how we conceptualize border regimes and the actors at play at the border. As autoethnography asks its readers to engage with the text from a moral, emotional, aesthetic, and intellectual perspective,29 it becomes the ideal expressive form to let doubt emerge. In the process, the display of the ethnographic ethical experience through which the anthropologist can learn about the vulnerabilities of those who are called to “protect” the border and “save” the migrants, acquires particular relevance. The fragility of migration workers emerges as the outcome of a knowledge process which begins with strict judgment of others’ (mis)conduct, and shifts to suspension of one’s certainties, self-doubt, and finally, the re-consideration of the “other” (the migration worker from the perspective of the ethnographer). The structure of the article follows these four moments, although for the purposes of the argument I wish to make, I attempt to resist a clear-cut and conventionally academic style.30

On a theoretical level, the article directly builds around debates on the question of doubt in ethnography through the specific lens of the anthropology of borderlands within the context of forced migration via the Mediterranean Sea. It considers the importance of openly displaying ethnographic notes31 that would otherwise often be erased to avoid confusion for the reader, and it explores how we could use doubt as an analytical tool to reveal the fallacies of border regimes. Doubt here is to be considered as individual, personal, or subjective. Doubt is the echoing response to the processes that take place in the borderland, and that affect both the anthropologist and the migration workers. It is an alarm that alerts us to something which must not be dismissed: the beginning of knowledge, and the opportunity to comprehend the relationship between “us” and “them” through a dialogue with the self – a moment of self-reflection, via self-doubt.


In “Responsibility and Judgment,” Hannah Arendt32 refers to the notion of judgment as strictly related to responsibility. Building on her pioneering work around ethics and intersubjectivity based on a study of Nazi concentration camps in the Second World War, she argues that judgment is the beginning of political action, and that it is precisely because of the resistance to judge, and the avoidance of engaging with the implications of judgment, that horrible events can become embedded into the “banal” and normalized lives in which we live. Judgment is also an inherent component of ethnographic work.33 Any kind of observation of the work is in fact dependent upon interpretation, and “part of the work of interpretation involves ongoing judgment concerning which roles or scores or values to take on, to continue to follow (to ‘remember,’) and how far (‘or die’) and how to articulate them.”34 In other words, when we produce ethnographic knowledge, we choose what to value, and what to leave aside, what matters, and what does not.35 Building on this hierarchy of values, we produce some version of the realities we experience, and judge what to pay attention to, and what to exclude from our analysis.36

When I first attended migrant landings in Lampedusa, I did not have any experience of the everyday life of border agents, rescuers, doctors, and cultural mediators, who operate at the southernmost frontier of Europe. As I got closer to Eritrean cultural mediators who had themselves crossed the Mediterranean as illegalized migrants many years before, and Italian doctors who had never worked in the context of forced migration, I witnessed multiple encounters among these migration workers, and the migrants who approached land after rescue operations took place in the high sea. I struggled to make sense of what the hundreds of people who approached land meant to my research around ethics and everyday life at the border, and looked at the migration workers sitting or standing next to me, wondering how we could be witnessing what we did with such an attitude – such “lightness of being.”37 Landings took place very frequently, mostly when the weather was favourable for travelling at sea, and the scenes of arrival became normalized for the migration workers:

The first patrol boat arrives, and everyone gathers around the pier. “They’re coming. They’re here: come on, come on,” shouts one of the cultural mediators. It’s incredible to think of the dynamics I’m both witnessing and participating in. We [some cultural mediators and I] wait at the pier. We wait [for what purpose?]. Often with impatience, sometimes with annoyance, at other times with worry, but we wait for them to arrive. We wait to take pictures, to see, to know, to welcome, to get rid of those snacks which are already open, and nobody knows who to give to anymore, to make sure that everyone is healthy, to check that everything is going ahead as planned. While we wait, we make jokes, we laugh, we talk about football, we think about what to do later that day, we live our normal life which will soon come face-to-face, albeit only for a short amount of time, with the lives of those we have been anxiously and nervously waiting for...

fieldnotes 17/05/2016

Experienced anthropologists who worked with border crossers and migration workers rightly point out that anthropologists should not express their moral views in the attempt to improve the situations they experience in border zones.38 The widespread urge to produce a “change,” risks making “anthropologists complicit in perpetuating the increasingly neoliberal business of our discipline,”39 to undermine the value of empirical analysis.40 Nevertheless, judgment lies at the heart of the ethnographers’ experience. It is an inevitable process which recalls our cultural, moral and individual limitations – the boundaries between what we ought to understand, and what we can comprehend at that given time, and in that given context.41 As I stood at the pier and witnessed the moments of encounter between migrants and migration workers, I could not help but wonder how they could possibly laugh and make jokes during a landing. How they were able to talk about their private love affairs or football gambling before hundreds of people were disembarked on land in horrible conditions. Questions of this kind may be considered naïve or dismissed as mere outcomes of inexperience. However, even experienced scholars who lead the discipline of anthropology and have dealt for a long time with questions of knowledge production and ethics, suggest that ethnographers should never lose touch with such breakdown moments – rather, they should always be aware of their potential to tell us something about the realities we aim to study.42 In other words, the need to somehow distance myself from the perceived position and role of the migration workers, raised the question of the limitations of my comprehension of others’ attitudes. This signalled a gap between my knowledge of reality, and my response to it.

Anthropologist Michael D. Jackson43 reveals one of the crucial moments in his fieldwork in Sierra Leone with the Kuranko people as he declares, after coming back to the field several decades after his first fieldwork, that he still could not forget what he had felt for his old friend and informant Morowa Marah. Morowa had participated in burying alive a young woman who confessed to having killed her brother out of witchery; being buried alive was the proper punishment for being a witch. Jackson declares that he was still unable to see that event as anything other than a murder, and although he could comprehend the logics of what took place, he had come up against the limits of his ethnographic openness, and had to acknowledge it.

Judgment can be considered, then, as a primary form of non-acceptance of the logics of the world we encounter – a rebellious act. In extraordinary circumstances which involve the annihilation of humanness (the Holocaust in this particular instance), Arendt44 further points out, judgment becomes a political action; it emerges as the choice to break the norm and the declaration of non-belonging to a particular group.45 When Jackson declared his inability to fully justify what had happened with Morowa and the burial of the young woman many years before, he stood up for principles he could not give up. Yet, his limitations also allowed him to move one further step in exploring what lied behind the logics of the murder of a witch. The rational explanations of Morowa clashed with his deep sense of uneasiness, the dreams that haunt him still after so many years, which gave Michael Jackson some consolation “in knowing that no one kills another human being… without paying the intrapsychic cost of creating and recreating self-protective rationalizations and repressing remorse.”46

It is from this standpoint that my judgment of the ethical picture of the migrant landing shall be understood at first. As a new spectator and participant to the migrant landing “spectacle,” I still needed much more time to learn about the rules of the game. Living everyday life in Lampedusa in moments of emergency and ordinariness alike helped me develop a closer sense of what was going on at the border. Political action must be anchored in the everyday, rather than reiterate exceptionalism and reproduce a humanitarian or securitarian rhetoric.47 As I lived there for longer and experienced more of the everyday routines and habits of the people who worked at that frontier, all certainties began to fade away.

Emerging Doubts

Women walk, men follow…

And this landing? What is it? What am I observing exactly? Is it the policeman in high uniform walking about and waving to his colleagues? The cultural mediators’ laughs while they sit in waiting? The pointless worries of activists getting ready to give snacks, water, or whatever it is they carried for the coming migrants? What is the focus? The exact number of disembarked migrants? How they stay put? The way they sit? As drowsy, drained and exhausted people, waiting to finally touch land after being rescued at sea. Sitting in rows, with absent and tired gazes, as opposed to the few men from the Coast Guard in white hazard-suits and face masks, all masked up as if they have just returned from the Moon, rather than the sea? And then? What else shall I observe? That very moment when someone offers a snack and someone else remains indifferent, someone says thank you politely and someone else stops, almost thankful, with a great smile, which all in a sudden vanishes from his face? Is it the women who barely can walk, some pregnant, others clearly scared, and fatigued? Or the bare feet walking on the painful floor, the wool socks some wear, the twisted foot of a man who is being supported by Vito to the bus, to then walk up to his place, alone, immune to pain, as it seems from gazing at him? What else? The tearing eyes of Seba, the journalist who has just arrived in Lampedusa, or the tears of that woman who covered her face as she came down the boat, crying, while no one would understand the reason…Only a few minutes later I hear someone saying “Yeah, she said she had pain, that’s why she cried.” Pain… what kind of pain?

fieldnotes 17/05/2016

The experience of “being there,” at the southernmost frontier of Europe, as George Marcus48 nicely puts it, means seeing the disconcerting fragility of people – teen-age boys, girls, infants, children, some older men sporadically – who have been rescued at sea. It means listening to their voices and meeting their silences. Exchanging smiles and glances, offering hot tea, fruit juice and snacks, or just staying still with folded arms, witnessing the endless walk of Gambian, Somali or Nigerian men, women, and children who just got off the boat; barefoot, sometimes wet, limp, many others injured. “Being there” means to become an impotent observer in the face of a human tragedy, where the “protocol establishes what must” or must not be done, as one cultural mediator from Eritrea who worked for the European Asylum Support Office (easo) used to tell me. As obvious as it may sound, the acknowledgment of the inevitable “infelicity and failure” that result from the immersion into the “ethical”49 space that originates at the borders of Europe when migrants encounter migration workers on land, is not only painful at an individual level. It has implications on the epistemology of ethnographic knowledge within such contexts.

Anthropologists have substantively demonstrated how ethnographic knowledge is always fragmentary, partial, sketchy, evanescent, and how it appears through the ordinary textures of everyday life – the details, silences, marginal and invisible spaces we and the people we work with inhabit.50 On the other hand, the academic expectation remains one of coherence and clarity which does not admit for “fragmentary and ill-fitting evidence.”51 The marginalization of any form of doubt is the inevitable outcome of such an expectation. Research grant applications, sponsors, institutes interested in forced migration, and universities, as well as humanitarian and security-oriented organizations and policy makers, require clear, specific, direct, and useful information. They push academics and researchers to be specific on their aims and goals, and to clarify (read: simplify) their thoughts, arguments, and research orientation. Ethnography in the context of forced migration, however, is a continuous questioning of any form of certainty.

Bringing together supposedly fixed imageries of internal and external borders, Ruben Andersson52 powerfully demonstrates how the widespread knowledge we have internalized about sites of the world which are inaccessible, fuelled with terror, crisis, and violence, as opposed to others imagined as secure and protected, is both a fallacy and the outcome of governments and supranational actors’ policies, agreements, and ongoing cooperation. These, however, as Ruben Andersson shows in the case of the cooperation between Spain and Niger to keep illegalized migrants away from the European border, often fail in more or less unintended ways, generating loss of money, resources,53 energies, and time.54 As an ethnographic approach enters the conversation, ethnographers feel inclined to acknowledge the rather “absurd” character of the border regime, emphasising the impacts that the policy- makers’ decisions have on the “smugglers,” or on states blamed for their laziness and inability to handle resources. Ongoing contradictions keep signalling that there is something inherently perverse – a schizophrenic nature – in the system that keeps self-generating.

As an ethnographer, one wonders how to capture such a frustrating mismatch. One feels powerless, overwhelmed, and unable to find a way out of these contradictions. Migration workers were at the Favaloro Pier because migrants were rescued at sea. Migrants were at sea because they could not travel safely to Europe. Their lack of legal and regularized move to Europe was the result of ongoing cooperation among the Italian and the Libyan governments, the EU and Tunisia, the iom and African states, Frontex, criminals in the smuggling industry, corrupted police guards across the borders and many other actors involved in the industry. Although I knew that, the question remained: how were we to respond to migrants’ arrival to Lampedusa? What choice did I have in forming my writing about that experience? What to underline, what to omit, and how would my choice determine the ways in which a potential future reader would be able to sense what I was sensing, or to feel nothing? The emotions I shared with other workers and the migrants who were present during the landings I witnessed may be easily erased, as if they never existed, as if they were irrelevant, or less relevant. Doubt haunted my work and re-emerged in my notes. What to do with it?

Doubt, writes David Pelkmans55 is a challenging topic. Doubt is “analytically challenging because of its ungraspable nature,” it is “politically challenging due to its potential to undermine action” and ultimately, it is “socially challenging because doubt is both a trigger for and the obstacle to reaching wholeness.” Difficult to grasp, threatening to action, and calling for partiality, doubt undermines academic power, that is knowledge power; it puts at risk its stability. By suspending belief, doubt can lead to uncomfortable questions, forcing us to explore potentially dangerous paths. This, Pelkmans reminds us, is the way in which anthropologists operate – by suspending assumptions and questioning taken-for-granted reality, to hopefully move from one state of knowledge to another, by the means of perspective change and immersion in everyday life. In this sense, doubt does not imply disbelief, but it operates in relation between belief and disbelief. Similarly, it stands in a liminal space between action and inaction. Doubt can both lead to paralysis and/or trigger “a need for resolution.”56

Resolution may come in multiple forms, not always easy to recognize at first.

As Heath Cabot57 writes in the context of forced migration specifically, there may not even be anything that we could conceptualized as a resolution. We have no ultimate or conclusive alternatives to the issues of authoritative writing, self-centred thinking, marginalization of lived experience, use and abuse of field-sites. As in the context of Lampedusa, many other borderland spaces have experienced the wave not only of migrants, but also of humanitarian workers, border agents, journalists, artists, researchers, politicians, tourists.58 The borderland has become a catalyst for many researchers, but within such reality, the ethnographer may witness the insignificance of their position in practical and methodological terms. Here the questions become: what can I possibly do to change the situation? What methods should I use in order to convey that experience? Is ethnographic detail enough? Is moral engagement the way forward? Should I be humble and avoid judgment which will surely be misjudgements? If so, how do I engage morally, if ethics is inevitably about constant acts of judgment?

The act of writing out one’s doubt, is a first step towards clarity, or better, towards a move from one space to another. Writing out doubt means letting fragmented thoughts and uncertain impressions navigate through the text. Like a patchwork,59 or an impressionist painting, one may attempt to reflect the experience of witnessing – the arrival of illegalized migrants at the borders of Europe in the specific case – into the text. Via such exercise of ethnographic writing, which is autoethnography and patchwork ethnography at the core, the anthropologist can manifest doubt – what is impossible to fully grasp.60 Ethnographic research is in fact “better endowed than scientistic approaches to accommodate doubt, hesitation and second thoughts within the research process.”61 Ethnographic research is always in the making and requires some elements of improvisation.62 As ethnographers explore alternative ways of composing the always impartial canvas of their work, their informal orientation and the ability to suspend certainty can raise important questions and reveal otherwise marginal aspects of the world.63 The marginalization of the “other” begins with a marginalization of an engaged re-evaluation of the self. If it is true that belief comes after doubt,64 comprehension of the world we live in must go through first a process of questioning our own expectations and observations.


For anthropologist Michael D. Jackson65 “understanding is usually the result of enforced displacement, of crises that wrench a person out of his or her habitual routines of thought and behaviour…Understanding others requires more than an intellectual movement from one’s own position to theirs; it involves physical upheaval, psychological turmoil, and moral confusion.” This is true for all forms of knowledge, academic knowledge not excepted, whose language, structure, and form stems from a particular tradition of other thinkers as well as the rules of the academy.66 As a result, the tension that belongs to the realm of action is one that stems from the ability to hear oneself, to be in dialogue with our inner voice, and to suspend the rules that our specific role predetermines.67 Ethics thus finds expression in the engagement with the tensions generated by the dialogue with the self. But how does such a dialogue take place? What does it sound like, and where can it lead us?

I am tired. Tired and listless. I only feel like being at home, alone, far away from everyone and everything. I don’t want to see, I have seen enough already. I have seen those scenes, those persons.68 I have seen the spectacle far too many times, and as I become addicted to it, I only want peace and solitude. And as I see my own reflection into the mirror, estranged by my own reaction, I wonder, and I try to understand why.

fieldnotes 22/07/16

Discomfort emerged from a sudden realization; I did not know who I was anymore. Faced with the mirror of fieldwork, I then had to confront another side of myself. Something or someone whose existence I was not surely aware of, was emerging, and in showing itself, causing an irritating sense of uncertainty and unbalance. “I have seen it, I have been there,” I wrote in my fieldnotes. As I go through those reflections, I recognize that “habitude” which seemed so remote from me as I observed migration workers’ behaviour at the Favaloro Pier. As Gianluca Gatta69 observed more than a decade ago during his research at the same pier, migration workers looked at the migrants as if they were one entity; they developed a categorical sense of “they” without being able to realize that each landing was unique, and each person who landed mostly did it once in his or her life.

In turn, I also began to normalize migrant landings. I soon developed a sense of frustration which led me to think that “being there” would only be a waste of time. Moreover, I simply could not take it anymore. The repetitive dynamics of the landing, with a “spectacle” that I had learned to recognize and predict as I watched it more and more, led me to the edge of my own limits. As Jackson (2013) realized during his visit back to the Kuranko people in Sierra Leone, I had met my own limitations once again. I had confronted another facet of my ethical limits.

As Michael Lambek70 puts it, the “ethical cannot be simply about what we should do but has to address what we do in fact do and face what we have done (or left undone). The shift of attention from what we (and the people we work with in our fieldwork) should do to what they actually do is crucial to articulate the following statement: “We do not always live up to our values.” Admitting our limitations and exposing them in our academic conversation does have important implications – epistemologically, and theoretically. From an epistemological perspective, confessing that during the fieldwork, and afterwards, as we try to make sense of reality, things are everything but clear and certain, signals something very interesting in the context of forced migration. The world we live in – the borderland of Lampedusa being one of the mirrors of the disastrous necropolitical system of our times – is one where individuals are continuously pushed to their limits. If the illegalized migrant is the embodied figure of a sovereignty which is built on the sacrifice of the homo sacer, the external observer is not completely excluded from such reality. Although the ethnographer is the privileged figure who can spend energy, time, and thought on studying the drama that for others is inescapable lived experience, the researcher nonetheless carries the weight of their own perspective stance. They observe from a relatively powerless position – and as intention does not match practical transformation of the world that they observe, an emotional breakdown is apt to arrive. Such breakdown mimics the unreasonable foundations upon which border regimes exist and operate; it raises intimately challenging questions about the extent to which anyone can go through the kind of absurd situations that are generated and implemented at the border, without losing oneself, or one’s connection to an understanding of humanity which does not allow a person to cross certain boundaries.

As a temporary peer of those the ethnographer is privileged enough to spend time with, hopefully in order to learn something about their worlds and the world at large, the ethnographer feels the pressure of an academic voice which keeps whispering: “you must be the arbiter of the game; one who is able to both feel and be detached from a situation, to immerse yourself into their lives while resisting to be caught by what they say, think or believe.” This voice is supported by an internal voice, a conscience, one may call it, which goes something like: “you need to help, to be present, to give yourself. You are a privileged young European man, financially supported by a UK institution to work out what is going on at the border; you cannot miss a detail. You are not allowed to feel tired, or to rest. Look at them! (yes, the migrants!) Why do they have to risk their lives like that? What happened to human rights? Where is Europe? What are we doing here?”

The voice of conscience was always there, ready to remind me what I already knew. Yet, there was another voice, which in the form of a rebellious need, emerged all in the sudden, to wake me up from the idealism of my moral stance. Although I tried to depict myself (to myself) as different from the others who worked as migration workers, I could not help but recognizing how what I ought to do often corresponded to what I felt like doing, and to what I eventually did.

Facing the mirror of fieldwork means to expose oneself to the possibility of being lost.71 By allowing oneself to be in that uncomfortable space, one may feel the paralysis of being stuck, of being unable to find a solution, and of falling into the possibility of inaction.72 Submitting to the limitations of one’s position becomes toxic when one experiences it from the side of the “powerless” observer. The experience of such uneasiness is however a telling feeling which can be used as a catalyst to move forward, to overcome the paralysis of doubt, to make it productive. To shift perspective, I needed to ask myself one important question: was my sense of discomfort, and the recognition of encountering another side of myself I struggled to recognize only mine? An individualistic, unique, and self-referential consideration – an experience which may remain private and had no space for public discourse and ethical anthropological production? Or was such an encounter with the mirror of fieldwork illuminating73 insofar as it signalled that there may be similarities, relational spaces, points of connection, and shared ethical dilemmas, among the ethnographer and the migration workers, both products of the phenomenon of forced migration, both responding to the normalization of an ongoing tragedy?74


I am at the 13.5 bar, and it is 23.00. I sit on the usual Vienna straw chairs, giving my back to the dj station, where Tunisian cultural mediator Salem plays with the music, while Eritrean cultural mediator Robin, together with Fred, infectious disease doctor Fiona, and Centro di Primo Soccorso ed Accoglienza (cpsa) director Sonia, dance together and have a great time. Paediatrician Selene, a tiny woman in her forties, sits next to me. As the others dance, we engage in serious conversation. With her big bright eyes, she tells me that she has recently talked to her friend. The friend told her that she feels as if Selene’s skin has been fully removed. As she utters such words, Selene touches herself and rubs her arms, as if she is stripping her clothes away. She hugs herself, and as she smiles, she says that her friend is right. It is as if she has lost her skin, but now it is the time to regrow it, with patience, so that it will be stronger and more resistant. She says it with an optimistic smile. Positivity gives way to the more bitter feeling of someone who has to leave a dear place. Her departure from Lampedusa is next to come.

Selene tries to put her feelings in words. “It is not malaise as such, it is… I can’t explain it well. It is like a mother whom, after giving birth, must leave her baby; she must let him [/her] grow alone… it is a bit like that feeling, I am not sure if you get it. Have you ever been jealous of the island itself, of all this place is?” My negative answer makes her blush. “Sometimes I see the boys around, interacting with people, and I am jealous of them. It is as if you feel them as yours… as if that is your world, something which only belongs to you. You feel like saying: ‘What can you possibly know about what they had to go through, what do you know?’” As she asks the rhetorical question, she looks up, then lowers her gaze to the floor, and remains in silence. Like a mother who leaves her baby, workers developed an intimate attachment with both their life on the island and the people they worked with (migrants).

In Spaces of Aid, Lisa Smirl75 revises the notion of “liminality” from the perspective of aid workers in humanitarian settings across “Third World” countries, to demonstrate how the experience of migration workers falls under a predictable and well-established set of processes. Building on the memories of a disparate range of aid workers in different settings and operating for diverse organizations across Eastern Europe and Africa, she points out how migration workers often enter the field with superficial knowledge of the context and the job they will be practically doing. The shock of experiencing the field is both traumatic and destabilizing because it radically undermines one’s expectations and substantially changes one’s way of living. Aid workers report being so close to one another, sharing spaces both at work and in intimate settings, that time seemed to go much faster, and bonds to be formed with unprecedented speed. In Lampedusa, migration workers experienced a very similar liminal situation, as they moved from the cpsa to the karaoke bars and back home to take a nap, sharing rooms and apartments. Such personal unbalance is the outcome of the textures of the borderland itself; a third country, a space of transit, suspension, and re-negotiation of taken for granted assumptions. The frontier of Lampedusa produced a contextual reality where the boundaries between aid workers and border agents were often erased. While at the migrant landing their uniforms clearly distinguished their roles and positions in the theatre of the border spectacle, everyday life revealed their shared fragilities. During nights out at the 13.5 club or staring at the horizon beyond which lay Libya and Tunisia, cultural mediators who worked for easo, and police commandants operating for Frontex, revealed their breakdowns, and confessed how difficult it was for them to make sense of their presence on the island; to negotiate their jobs with their moral worlds. A police commandant in charge during the rescue and security operations off the shores of Lampedusa, told me about his sense of powerlessness when confronted with the excruciating reality of mothers, babies, and young men, reaching the European coasts of Lampedusa in terrible conditions. His children were back home, safe, and with a great future ahead of them. His wife had a great job and was happy with her lot. How on Earth, he asked himself, could that happen? “I feel like a microbe, you know?”

The Police Commandant also said that all things considered, he at least felt himself to be a positive microbe. “At least, I do my best to help.” When I confronted him with the question of how his work could really be considered as helping, if we looked at the broader context of an ongoing system of failures in declared scopes of migration management, and the ongoing suffering and death it generates, he said that if we had to look at things from that perspective, there was nothing to do about it. “The system is fucked up, we know that. But we need to do something within our limits.”

While we all have the capacity and at times the necessity to attend to others’ needs, we also live through negotiations; ways of finding a sense of restoration, balance, and well-being in the world.76 The recognition of such a paradox requires a confrontation with oneself, an inner dialogue.77 If loneliness may not be the answer to a politically and philosophically ethical engagement with borderland situations, solitude is. Solitude is for Hannah Arendt78 that space of conversation which takes place between oneself; a dialogue with the self, which is the pre-requisite for thoughtful action in states of exception;79 in borderlands or situations of limit.80

The turn from outward to inward must take place at multiple levels. It requires ethnographers to engage with their own fallacious judgments, to learn how to value them and make them matter in how we tell others’ stories – which are inevitably also our stories. The ability to engage in self-dialogue allows the ethnographer to relate to multiple actors, and comprehend the world from different perspectives. If the first reaction to experiencing how migration workers normalize their job may resemble the inexperienced observer – a citizen or a non-expert – the eventual conversation with migration workers who themselves question their own roles and position, allows us to contextualize ethics, and write ourselves in the conversation. Otherwise put, to be able to use judgment as a productive process, a required step to move forward in comprehension. Comprehending the other calls for a dialogue with the self.

As experts in ethics suggest, the fact of looking inside, of keeping alive the conversation within oneself, is the precondition for the engagement with others.81 It is because of one’s ability to look into the mirror provided by the fieldwork, to look at oneself, that we begin to look at others with different eyes, with a renewed awareness. Judgment (of others) thus shifts towards a more reflective state of judgment (of oneself), and it is precisely because of that change of perspective that one becomes able to re-consider reality with a fresh pair of eyes. By confronting my fragilities as they emerged in spontaneous writing, I could now feel closer to the ethical field force which migration workers and I were both living through as witnesses and actors of the tragedy which the migrants who landed in Lampedusa embodied most dramatically.

Doubting myself and more abstractly, doubting the moral coherence of the ethnographer, was a crucial first step in shifting perspective and learning to listen more accurately to what migration workers had to teach me about their rich experiences at the frontier of Lampedusa. As Heath Cabot82 argues in her critique of the business of anthropology in migration contexts, the “ways forward” for anthropologists are multiple, but they primarily consist in being able to be reflexive, morally sensitive, and able to shift the attention across multiple actors who inhabit the borderland. Together with the migrants – the protagonists and victims of a necropolitics which condemns them to forced movement, hard work, imprisonment, torture, deadly border crossings, and detention in Lampedusa – humanitarian agents, border guards, volunteers, and the local communities, are fundamental actors in the “game.” Engaged ethnography is responsible and thus acquires political strength and rigour when it tries to be aware of the moral and intimate worlds of all actors involved in the conversation, including that of the anthropologist themself. As I doubted myself, I learned that the experience of the migration worker is one which entails emotional distress and a sense of belonging to ethically dismantling experiences that transform one’s life. The experience of being a migration worker at the borderlands of Europe – whether doctors, cultural mediators, or border agents – can change one’s skin, and produce bonds which are powerfully intimate, like those of a mother with her baby, as Selene put it.

Doubt: A Way Forward?

It was Spring 2017 when Selene left the island of Lampedusa. Everyone cried that night. Migration workers celebrated with finocchietto, the dark green alcoholic drink made from fennel, which is the iconic flora of Lampedusa. Many of the workers loved it and had multiple shots of finocchietto after they returned from a migrant landing, or as they waited for the next to come. Shot after shot, happiness and sadness merged into an unforgettable evening which marked a rite of passage for Selene. The paediatrician of the National Institute for Health, Migration and Poverty (inmp) was leaving. Would someone soon come to replace her? As we wondered when we would see Selene again, promising that we would all be in touch and that she would come to visit us in Lampedusa soon, she worried about the group of teenage migrants and children she was following at the cpsa. She was not sure when they would be authorized to be transferred to mainland Italy, and worried for their future.

As Selene wondered about the destiny of the young migrants she worked with/for, I did not know whether Mohammed or Jidi (two of the migrants I was closest to at that time) would be leaving soon or stay in Lampedusa for much longer. The dozens of migrants I had spent a good amount of time with between 2016 and 2017 were uncertain presences on the island of Lampedusa. I thought that they would eventually leave, but I did not know when for certain. Most of the time, migrants received news about their departure the evening before they left. Cultural mediators would inform them, mediating for the Police. We were often unable to say good-bye. One day we would be chatting, and the next day, they would be gone. Many times, we would lose contact. Most of them did not have a sim card. Some had Facebook, but often their profile would have been blocked, for they forgot their details and password after months or years of illegalized travelling. Access to the internet was not always easy; it depended on where they would be transferred, and whether they would be granted permission to stay in Italy, move elsewhere in Europe, or be returned to their home countries.

This paper has deployed doubt as a tool for analysis and ethnography in the context of forced migration via the Mediterranean into Europe. As doubt pervades research on forced migration, ranging from the unknown numbers of dead people at sea and in the desert, to the unaccountability of suspensions and violations of human rights that are ongoing in Europe and external countries and actors,83 we, as scholars, need to step back in reflection, and question our own roles, positions, and the possible scope of our work. Such reflection leads to a dialogue with oneself, which is rich with uncertainties and calls for doubt. Nevertheless, it is a required process through which illuminating paths may come true. If the approach to migration studies and borders that looks at what is outside and explores the other – either by internalizing, or by looking at causes of its externalization – the attempt to revert the focus from the outside to the inside is a chance for developing debates which in the contemporary academic world often seem to have reached their limits. Interrogation of our ability and capability is not a self-destructive exercise, but rather a process of knowledge of the self, through which it will be possible to know others from a renewed perspective.

Doubt emerged from minor details, situations, and occasions. As the ethnographer learns about the procedures of the border regime, all that seemed clear on paper tends to crumble. This paper has interrogated how we (producers of academic knowledge and migration workers) respond to the uncertainties that emerge ethnographically as we attempt to make sense of the everyday life of migration workers; a life that is pervaded by a normalized encounter with illegalized migrants, and a co-existence with them throughout the processes of arrival and detention in Lampedusa. By focusing on how the ethnographer engages with doubt on an everyday basis, and how she/he makes sense of it and search for strategies to overcome it, the paper demonstrates the importance of engaging in self-dialogue in the production of accounts at the borders of Europe. It suggests that by exposing such intimate processes, we may be able to reveal the very fragilities that lie at the foundations of border regimes and their rhetorical strategies. Fragmented field-notes become useful tools to express a discomforting sense of fragility and powerlessness when we are confronted with the disturbing realities that emerge at the frontiers of Europe.84 Uncertainty in style may be followed by a profound sense of doubting one’s own integrity. What is the researcher’s position? What is their (our) role? How does the suspension of one’s certainty, and the admittance of one’s judgmental attitudes and doubts, help us to comprehend the strengths and fragilities of border regimes?

This paper cannot provide a definitive answer to these questions. Doubt remains for the researcher and the reader. Yet, if one embraces doubt, and attempts to bring doubting into self-dialogue, Arendtian “solitude,” there are possibilities for comprehension and ways forward. Ultimately, engagement with oneself is a first condition for being open to listening to the other.85 By being able to admit one’s limitations, and reveal the incompleteness of one’s knowledge, one’s ability to understand, and one’s certainty about one’s position, which is primarily ethical, one can succeed in two fundamentally important endeavours. The first is to display the violence which is inherent to border regimes by an act of revelation of one’s fragilities. The sovereign does not merely attack the marginalized other, but is pervasive, and concerns us all, albeit in different forms.86 The second is that, by being able to recognize how border regimes and sovereign power affect our sense of being in control, of having certainties about ourselves and the world we are attempting to make sense of, we are also making a case for our shared humanity. We are attending to Jackson’s87 principle according to which we are all necessarily embedded in the life-worlds that we share, and our responsibility is to actively engage in thinking about the world as one where judgment, doubt, and self-doubt must be at the basis of a dialogue with others, rather than fearful experiences that one ought to marginalize, silence, and keep at the edges of our academic conversations.


This article is the reworked version of a paper that I wrote during my esrc Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Oxford Department of International Development with the mentorship of Professor Ruben Andersson in 2021, whose support and stimulating conversations helped me to firmly believe in this project. The gentle presence of Professor Michael D. Jackson helped me to carry on working on this paper until the present version. I also thank all the speakers at the conference I mention in the introduction of this article, and the organizers, as well as Antonio De Lauri and the peer-reviewers, for their precious comments and insightful suggestions. I thank Dr Ben Kasstan and Margaret Nail for their help during the writing and final revision of this article. As always, nothing in this article would have been possible without the encounters with the migrants detained in Lampedusa during my fieldwork, the migration workers, and the many Lampedusans with whom I shared a crucial piece of my life.


Team Humanity is an ngo that provided rescuing activities at the Turkish-Greek border.


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