UK Fieldwork Blog

Jonathan Craig, Social Anthropology, University of Manchester (2021 Cohort)

Since February of this year, I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork on the UK’s Kent coast, primarily in the town of Dover. At a national level, the town’s ongoing symbolic and historical significance is embodied by its famous Castle, White Cliffs, and other prominent military fortifications. Since the UK left the EU in 2020, meanwhile, bank holiday backlogs of frustrated travellers and commercial cargo have drawn the eyes of British and European media. Perhaps most significantly, however, Dover has recently become a landing point for a sharply increasing number of irregular ‘small boat’ migrants.

Over 45,000 people are known to have crossed the Channel via this route in 2022, and many expect the number to top 60,000 this year. While some in the UK seek to welcome these arrivals, many others among the British public have reacted with consternation, raising concerns related to security, cultural incompatibility, and the state’s capacity to accommodate and assist these individuals during a cost-of living crisis. Febrility surrounding the crossings is reflected and arguably exacerbated by hostile coverage in the national media, while government ministers have recently referred to an ‘invasion’ that could ‘cannibalise the compassion’ of the British public.  

With this charged point of political focus as its contextual backdrop, my project focuses on competing forms of local migrant reception, rather than the migration route itself, or migration per se. I ask how ‘small boat’ migration on the Kent coast is encountered by activists and local residents as an issue around which broader questions of national belonging and identity are contested. This involves ongoing participant observation and semi-structured interviews with a range of grassroots activists, local political representatives, and local residents. From a local ‘drop-in’ support centre for asylum claimants to amateur hilltop ‘patrols’ at Dover’s Western Heights, I am interested in how individuals variously frame their activity or analysis in terms of ‘social justice’, keeping an attentive eye on the social fields in which competing ethical dispositions and political subjectivities have arisen and take form in different activities.

The concentrated arrival into Dover’s western docks of many thousands of mostly male migrants is a spectacle that will continue to draw significant interest. While the processing centre that migrants are brought into after being picked up by Border Force or RLNI vessels has been blocked from public view at sea level, a popular viewing point on the Western Heights affords those interested – and equipped with a decent pair of binoculars – the continued opportunity to witness and record this spectacle. Alongside accredited press photographers, a host of independent ‘video activists’ frequent this vantage point on days when crossings occur, live-streaming arrivals to their various social media channels. While these individuals are, objectively, looking at the same events unfold, using many of the same techniques and technologies, their worldviews and institutional commitments (or lack of) lead them to attach differing qualities and intensities of significance to the rescue drop-offs.

While this is a multi-sited project, the Western Heights viewing point is an especially significant fieldwork location, both practically and symbolically. To reach the viewing point on foot from Dover town centre, one passes up a steep set of steps and into a well-preserved Napoleonic-era fort, while a Second World War gun battery stands resplendently at its edge, overlooking the port. As a humanitarian charity organiser put it recently, ‘the psychogeography of Dover is one of defence’, and perhaps no location better symbolises this than the viewing point. Indeed, this is not lost on the leader of National Front offshoot Britain First, who visits on a regular basis to stage promotional content for the party’s social media channels.

A former garrison town, Dover is home to a large number of ex-military personnel and has an active branch of the British Legion. After the summer months, my research focus will turn to this population, as well as the town’s heritage and historical preservation societies, as I seek to assess the extent to which longer histories of coastal defence and military involvement impact present-day attitudes to irregular migration in England’s ‘frontline county’, and how this structures social relations between residents and migrants. Paul Gilroy has claimed that warfare is the “master analogy of immigration” in the UK, a proposition that I will be addressing empirically, with Dover as a case-study. Is the ‘psychogeography’ of Dover really one of defence, and if so, how is this expressed by local residents in relation to small boat arrivals? Or are residents in fact more ambivalent, or simply indifferent, to those picked up at sea and brought into its port? And beyond how residents ‘think’ or ‘feel’ about small boat arrivals — to adapt a question from the work of James Meek — what is the “fabric of past, present and future within which, as they represent to themselves, events occur”?

I am both blessed and burdened to be conducting research around a topic that is a focus of virtually constant media speculation and political contestation. As the British state attempts to manage competing obligations under international law with popular demands to reassert border security, my project explores how Dover residents and other local activists situate themselves in relation to the town’s spotlighted media presence and ongoing historical legacy. The upcoming summer months promise abundant ethnographic intrigue.

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