Taking an Alternative Approach to Doing EU Studies: Using Foucault’s Thinking to Better Understand the EU and Migration

Crossroads Europe |

Publication resulting from the UACES 2017 PhD and ECR Conference

The journey of connecting your research interests and questions as a PhD student with an effective means of exploring them can sometimes be challenging, writes Rachael Dickson Hillyard. Reflecting on her research critically analysing EU narratives on good governance and rights-based policies, she argues that it is important to recognise the different ways of studying the EU and to embrace more reflexive approaches.

Typically, for me anyhow, I submitted an abstract to the call for papers for the UACES Student Forum conference and, by the time I came to writing the contribution, I kind of changed my mind about what I wanted to talk about. Apologies. When it came to writing this article, I thought the topic actually has a lot to say to EU studies in general and those who research it, try to understand it and, for their sins, attempt to explain it to others.

The European Union is without doubt a complex, diverse, and vast entity. It can be frustrating, dense and is always changing. During undergraduate politics studies, it certainly piqued my attention and I became curious to know more about how it operates, how it uses its powers and how it affects the lives of those who come into contact with it.

When it came to designing my PhD research, I became somewhat frustrated by the ‘ready-made’ frameworks for researching, and thus understanding, the EU. In the early days, I received comments that EU studies was at best ‘a bit passé’ and, at worst, ‘over’. I couldn’t accept this to be true, particularly as the migrant crisis was surging, and the international media were looking to the EU for answers and solutions. And in the midst of other discussions on the future of the Eurozone, possible (now inevitable) Brexit, among many others.

I was grateful to find UACES and meet a bunch of like-minded people who not only continue to understand diverse and different aspects of EU law, politics, sociology, history, etc but fiercely defend and promote the discipline. At the 2013 UACES Student Forum conference, I listened eagerly to Nathaniel Copsey argue the need for a loyal opposition in the EU, to critique the institution from within.

I returned to my research plan having read Richard Whitman’s call for more dissenting voices in EU studies, and enthused to contribute to its reinvigoration. Essentially, I began searching for ways to research that would address the underperformance of critical reflexivity identified by Lucie Chamlian and Dirk Nabers. The drive to produce relevant research is a pressure for any PhD student, but it seemed even more pertinent in EU studies.

To help action this desire, my supervisor kept probing me to rework and narrow my research questions so as to specify what exactly it was I wanted to find out. Through this process I came to realise that my interest was not so much in what the EU was doing to tackle the migrant crisis or why the EU has developed an identity as an international human rights actor. Instead, I was interested in the how questions. How was the EU going about managing the crisis? How did this affect the practice of rights? How was solidarity defined in relation to this? And, most importantly, how could we better understand the EU’s actions?

Tazzioli’s view that EU studies is too EU-centric, and our understanding of it relies too heavily on the narratives and truths it creates for itself, resonated with my avenues of inquiry. My interest, therefore, became in questioning the knowledge these narratives establish and the assumed truths that underpin understandings of how the EU operates. Foucault saw this type of critique akin to curiosity; it is:

[…] a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental (Foucault, p 325).

In using his ideas to frame my research, I did not adopt a theory or methodology but instead used his ideas as a tool.

This tool has allowed me to do a number of things. Firstly, to offer a critique of the EU’s narrative of good governance and rights-based policies by questioning the relationship between knowledge, power and government. Secondly, using governmentality, to expose the tactics and technologies the EU has pursued. These seemingly mundane and often administrative practices expose subtle power relationships between the EU as a rights-actor and the migrants who are subjected to them. Thirdly, to be creative in cultivating lenses for analysis which offer nuanced and deeper contextualisation of the values underpinning EU policy.

There have been some challenges along the way. Both the ideas of Foucault and the literature on the EU can be difficult subject matter, so synthesis has involved in-depth, lateral thinking, often to the limits of my capabilities. In addition, studies based on Foucault also have their critics. His work might not provide an approach for everyone. He himself did not profess to provide all the answers, but rather shifted how we approach inquiry from restrictive theories to adaptable and flexible tool kits. However, there are a plethora of other critical scholars and lens worth considering. Critical studies based on the work of Jacques Derrida, Gilles Delueze, Wendy Brown and Judith Butler, among others, have provided different perspectives on law, politics and society.

To draw these thoughts together: my experience of devising and using a critical approach to understanding a particular aspect of EU governance shows there is more than one way to look at the EU. It emancipates the debate from dogmatic approaches about who is right and challenges to narratives propagated by the EU. The lessons of self-reflexivity and questions of how will, I understand, become more pertinent as we, the field of EU studies, navigate Brexit and a post-Leave research field.

Please note that this article represents the views of the author(s) and not those of the UACES Student Forum or UACES.

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Rachael Dickson Hillyard @rdickoRachael Dickson Hillyard
Queen’s University Belfast

Rachael Dickson Hillyard is PhD Candidate in Law at Queen’s University Belfast. Her research focuses on the European Union’s response to the migrant crisis from legal and political perspectives. She was previously a Committee Member of the UACES Student Forum.