The study of refugees has shifted from maintaining the customary homogenization of refugees, including the equation of flight with helplessness, to recognizing their agency. Yet relapses still occur, which perhaps indicates the challenge of balancing the necessarily humanitarian aspect of flight with the intrinsic human qualities of agency and resilience. In this article, I frame agency for refugees as the capacity to produce and share knowledge, exploring this concept through the lens of ethical questioning.

Gayatri C. Spivak’s[1] work on epistemic violence and harmful ignorance is relevant to research with refugees, who are often denied the capacity to analyze their own experiences. Drawing from Spivak’s concept of epistemic violence,[2] I use the term intellectual harm, which I align with the more generic forms of harm in research ethics. The “do no harm” principle in research ethics must go beyond the more obvious physical, emotional, and psychological harms. It must explicitly include the intellectual harm that derives from the constant treatment of refugees as the objects —instead of the producers—of knowledge.

Historical Muting of “Othered” Peoples and Refugees

Historically, “othered” peoples have not been included in the readership for writings about them. Explorers and classical anthropologists who set out to study “natives” appear to have been interested in regaling people of their own society with tales of “strange” and “primitive” others instead of attempting to understand how these people made sense of their world. They spoke to the “natives” but went on to discredit and overwrite their knowledge. As contemporary anthropology critiques its classical precursor, the intellectual harm done over the centuries is highlighted in the persistent incredulity towards “othered” peoples’ worldviews and rationality.

Texts on refugees generally reflect the same pattern. The subordination of refugees’ knowledge to researchers’ ways of knowing has ethical implications of intellectual harm, which endures more than two decades after Liisa Malkki rebuked the depiction of refugees as “speechless emissaries.”[3] Excluding refugees from the intended readership perpetuates intellectual harm, which renders them the objects of knowledge presumably incapable of understanding “scientific” texts about them.

Research Method as an Arena for Intellectual Harm

Intellectual harm in research with refugees starts with the assumptions that researchers make before they set out for the research field. I recall my experience in Nairobi, Kenya. The sustained depiction of African refugee women as hapless victims who barely understood the conflicts that had forced them to leave their countries, had resulted in my including a translator in my research budget. It had not occurred to me that I would meet refugee women who spoke English well. Some were well-educated professionals.

Accepting this reality meant dispensing with having to translate into English. This was not only a budgetary advantage but also, more importantly, a moment for methodological introspection as I spoke with the women directly. I had chosen to avoid any gender jargon in my interviews and conversations with them, but they introduced it into the research interface nevertheless. Since any effort on my part to eschew this jargon seemed contrived, I stopped resisting and reveled in my recognition that I had just crossed a boundary. This enabled me to traverse the researcher-researched binary and mitigate the intellectual harm that it has inflicted on refugee women in particular.

The refugee women in Nairobi were not the embodiment of what I have termed elsewhere as “multiple victimhoods” and “desperate motherhood.”[4] Instead, they were resilient and thoughtful women with whom I engaged in insightful conversations on gender, ethnic politics, and governance issues, among other challenges bedeviling Africa. Works such as those produced by Tekalign Ayalew, Fekadu Adugna, and Priya Deshingkar,[5] as well as Katharina Inhetveen,[6] demonstrate refugees’ and migrants’ intellectual competence in producing their own vocabulary for their worldviews and self-definition.

I was left pondering over conventional methodological approaches based on a division of academic labor, which designates refugees as providers of raw material to be transformed into knowledge through the musings of “experts.” How much of the refugees’ knowledge has been lost because the design of the methodology is the preserve of the researcher, who does not allow for refugees’ preferred ways of communicating that knowledge? What are the ethical implications of incredulity regarding their intellectual competence: the ability to shape the methodology and to communicate knowledge beyond mere raw material?

Once the refugees agree to participate in the research, the power to decide how the information is communicated reverts to the researcher. The researcher informs the refugees of their right to withdraw from the study if the methodology causes physical, emotional, or psychological distress. But what if the methodology causes them intellectual harm? Does the researcher ask the refugees how they would prefer to talk about their experiences and share their knowledge? While research design is sensitive to physical and emotional harm, it is oblivious to intellectual harm. The refugees’ competence in contributing to the design of the study is entirely discounted in the researcher’s rationalization of the chosen methodology.

Disaggregated Visibility and Ethics

Social research generally seeks to make people visible. But some forms of visibility are intellectually harmful to those subject to the researcher’s gaze. In some cases, disaggregation of the refugee category into components has not highlighted the various manifestations of agency. Instead, it perpetuated a version of visibility without agency, which Georgio Agamben captures as “bare life.”[7] Disaggregation based on gender and race are two examples of increased visibility that may negatively impact refugees through intellectual harm. Gendered disaggregation portrays refugee women as desperate victims: the quintessential image of visibility without agency. The predominant impression is that femininity and motherhood are burdens to be endured and never blessings to be enjoyed. In contrast, refugee men are often understood on the basis of assumptions about men’s experiences in contexts of violent conflicts. These assumptions accordingly link their visibility to criminalized agency, dubious vulnerability, or subjugated masculinity.

Racialized disaggregation bestows visibility with agency on some refugees and visibility without agency on others. The perceived social status of race explains the portrayal of African refugees as helpless victims in contrast to refugee “entrepreneurs” from elsewhere as Lewis Turner points out.[8]


The “do no harm” principle in research should include intellectual harm alongside physical and psychological harm. Agency is deeply rooted in intellectual competence. To acknowledge refugees’ agency is to combat intellectual harm and restore refugees’ dignity. Victimhood and agency are not opposites: loss is intertwined with survival, restoration, and even triumph. This truth calls for avoiding the two extremes of cynicism and romanticization.

Addressing intellectual harm in research with refugees calls for reflexivity. Researchers must constantly ponders the ethical implications of how they position themselves within the research interface. This reflexivity is critical for the inclusion of refugees in the readership, as it asks the fundamental question of whether researchers are speaking to, about or with refugees. Combating intellectual harm requires research that addresses self-representation beyond the legal category of refugees, providing visibility to refugees’ various forms of agency.


[1] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271–313.

[2] Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?,” 271–313.

[3] Liisa H. Malkki, “Speechless Emissaries: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization,” in Siting Culture: The Shifting Anthropological Object, ed. Karen Fog Olwig and Kirsten Hastrup (London: Routledge, 1997), 223–54.

[4] Rose Jaji, “Essentialism and the Making of African Refugees,” Africa Is a Country, April 1, 2021,

[5] Tekalign Ayalew, Fekadu Adugna, and Priya Deshingkar, “Social Embeddedness of Human Smuggling in East Africa: Brokering Ethiopian Migration to Sudan,” African Human Mobility Review 4, no. 3 (2018): 1333–58,

[6] Katharina Inhetveen, “‘Because We Are Refugees’—Utilizing a Legal Label,” Zeitschrift für Rechtssoziologie 27 (2006): 109–32,

[7] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).

[8] Lewis Turner, “‘#Refugees Can Be Entrepreneurs Too!’: Humanitarianism, Race, and the Marketing of Syrian Refugees,” Review of International Studies 46, no. 1 (2020): 137–55,