Skip to content

Toggle service links

Methods in Motion 33: Marie Gillespie - Mobile Methods

20 October 2017
Methods in Motion logo image
The ubiquity of smartphones has made them a vital resource for today’s refugees – and a game-changer for researchers, says Professor Marie Gillespie.

Since 2015 I have been directing research into how refugees use smartphones during their journeys to and on arrival in Europe. Our research team[i] has worked closely with mainly Syrian and Iraqi refugees in France, UK, Greece and Turkey on a number of projects. At the height of the refugee crisis, our research highlighted a dire lack of relevant, reliable, and timely news and information for refugees, as well as their exposure to misinformation and false rumours via social media networks, making their journeys even more precarious.

Seeking greater insight into refugees’ news and information needs, we set out to understand how smartphones are changing experiences of migration, and to contest widespread media assumptions that a ‘genuine refugee’ could not possibly own a smartphone.

Our project Mapping Refugee Media Journeys: Smartphones and Social Networks was published as an open source online report on the CCIG website, and provoked an international response. It contributed to the European Commission’s funding, a new mobile-first, web-based digital platform in Arabic, English and French created for, with and by refugees on social media. We are now carrying out evaluation research on this platform.

The project demonstrated how academics can work with a range of partners to make a difference; but there are significant ethical and practical difficulties in researching refugees on the move, not least in terms of their mobility and vulnerability.

Refugees' 'guide to Europe' , widely shared on smartphones

As a multi-disciplinary team, we used a range of methods. These included media content and discourse analysis, multi-sited ethnographic interviews with refugees, policy document analysis, and assessment of best practice in apps for refugees. We also conducted computational social network analysis. Employing these various methodologies enabled us to triangulate diverse data sets in order to understand, and recommend effective solutions to, the specific vulnerabilities that refugees face in their digital passages to Europe – in particular ‘information precarity’.

Refugees are not a homogenous group. The experiences of men, women and children, families, and individuals, are very different. Not all Syrian and Iraqi refugees and asylum-seekers own a smartphone, but most have access to one and can benefit from shared, collective use during their journeys.  

It was not easy to find refugees willing to be interviewed. Most of those still making the journey wanted to remain under the radar of the authorities as there are so few legal ways to enter Europe: many fear and experience harassment, exploitation, surveillance, arrest, detention, deportation, and destitution. Protecting privacy and security, informed consent, trust and reciprocity remain persistent ethical concerns.

Gender proved to be a stumbling block. Our male interviewer was unable to speak to female refugees without the presence of a male relative and, even then, some remained silent. Women were more comfortable being interviewed on WhatsApp by female researchers. Language barriers could usually be overcome by pairing researchers with interpreters or by using Google Translate – sometimes with hilarious consequences.

The multimedia affordances of smartphones provided rich, often dramatic, shocking, poignant, and occasionally joyful (‘we have arrived’) documentary evidence about refugee journeys. In combination with ethnographic-style interviews, this can create new kinds of engagements with refugees as they take control over representing their lives, and open up possibilities for challenging and decentring the orientalist gaze.

We were constantly being invited to co-watch videos, and listen to commentaries and interpretations of them. We looked at photographs of sea-crossings and treks across tough terrain on the Balkans route, encounters with smugglers, verbal and physical abuse at the hands of border guards and police. We were shown first-hand, eyewitness accounts of killings, death, and destruction in Syria and Iraq. We now stay in touch, having forged ‘digital solidarities’.

In the diminutive but powerful smartphone device refugees carry their lives and memories with particular emotional intensity due to the pain of loss and separation from family. The smartphone means staying in touch and in this way ‘digital intimacies’ can be maintained and recreated. It is an ever-expanding photo album of family and loved ones and as such, losing one’s phone was in the words of one refugee ‘like losing my life’.

Smartphones allow for the development of ‘mobile methods’, which can capture the profound affective, imaginative, and symbolic, as well as the material, nature of refugee journeys and the regimes of mobility and immobility, visibility and invisibility through which the passage to Europe is experienced. We are only just beginning to realise and understand the difference that smartphones will make to our knowledge of these phenomena.


Marie Gillespie is Professor of Sociology at The Open University. She was academic consultant, along with CCIG’s Dr Umut Erel and Dr Victoria Canning, on Exodus: Our Journeys to Europe, an Open University–BBC documentary series filmed by refugees using smartphones.


[i] The research team consists of: Marie Gillespie, Claire Marous-Guivarch (France Médias Monde), Lawrence Ampofo (Semantica Research), Margaret Cheesman (Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University), Becky Faith (Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University), Evgenia Iliadou (Open University), Ali Issa (Sciences Po, Paris), Souad Osseiran (Istanbul Policy Centre, Sabanci University, Turkey), Dimitris Skleparis (Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy and University of Glasgow).