Rikard Engblom is a doctoral student in Ethnology at the Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Uppsala university, and is also part of a decade long research program called Engaging Vulnerability. In his doctoral project, Engblom study people who sought asylum in Sweden after the so called refugee crisis of 2015. His research is based in an ethnographic field work in a small Swedish industrial town whose population has grown by more than 10% since 2015 (as a result of the reception of many migrants). The research has a certain focus on the situation of the newly arrived – a situation much characterized by different forms of waiting and socio-legal liminalities. 


In this presentation the point of departure is what happens when a person in a precarious situation denies the help offered by an ethnographer. Having involved myself in the situation of Amid, an Afghan young man who sought asylum in Sweden 2015, I helped Amid planning his travel to France, which he wanted to go to as a last resort to obtain the legal right to stay in Europe. Anette, a retired teacher helped me raising the money for his ticket. On the day of the departure, however, Amid declined to get on the train.

Amid’s decision to not travel to France can be analysed as a ‘moment of refusal’: as a way to problematize the power asymmetry implied in relationships based on the giving and receiving of help as well as to contribute to the wider critique of humanitarianism as an ethical system grounded on empathy and compassion. This is done by providing ethnographic examples that illuminates some of the ambiguous moralities, contradictory interests and ambivalent emotions embedded in the civic engagement I have been both studying and been part of. What kind of civic engagement has emerged in Bergsala, as a consequence of the so-called refugee crisis of 2015? How can aid, as a relation between a giver and a receiver, be analyzed as part of this civic engagement? How should the example of Amid’s ‘moment of refusal’ be understood?

These questions, furthermore, helps us problematize the (sometimes questionable) incentives and moralities governing engaged ethnology and anthropology. As part of building transparent and trustful engagements with interlocutors and other persons in field, I’ll argue that Iris Marion Young’s model of ‘asymmetrical reciprocity’ provides us with basic ethical tools that can help us to both reveal and diminish some power asymmetries involved in the ethnographical enterprise.

For a preliminary version of the full article, please contact the author Rikard Engblom: