My colleague Nicholas Van Hear and I have developed a ‘solution’ (an inflated word, but we wanted to think big) to the rise in mass displacement across the world. We have called this solution ‘Refugia’, the title of a new book published in the Routledge ‘Key Ideas’ series. Both of us are migration studies scholars, Nicholas more on refugee issues, me on general patterns of migration, and both of us on diasporas. Around 2015/6 we were in despair. The appalling sight of refugee deaths in the Mediterranean and our awareness of other places of human degradation contrasted with the seemingly endless conferences and seminars we attended where the same old nostrums (integration, recognition and return) were hauled out as if nothing much had happened.
We concluded that the gap between the numbers of displacees and the numbers offered a secure future could be represented as a gap in our imagination. We and our colleagues were not thinking hard enough, deeply enough, or far-sightedly enough. In response, we developed a vision of an imaginary polity, set in 2030. This was not a state, not an international organization, not an NGO, but a transnational archipelago of several hundred sites linked by digital means. As we developed the idea, we realised we had to challenge conventional thinking in a number of areas. Like others, we were against methodological nationalism, but we took the logic of this much further, elaborating how a fully networked transnational polity might develop. We invented a ‘Sesame pass/app/chip’ which provided an ID, linked the components of Refugia and opened (as in ‘open Sesame’) access and mobility. We borrowed and developed general ideas of utopianism and more particular notions of ‘social ecotones’, a ‘mobile commons’, gendered versions of home, Baumann’s liquid identities, Glissant’s archipelagic thinking, and the use of distributed ledger technology.
I’m not proposing to expound on all of this here. Rather, I want to emphasise what a difficult time we had explaining ourselves to our students and to those questioning us at presentations – until we hit on the obvious. We needed to offer our core idea as social science fiction. At the time, we were not particularly aware of the genre or that it had gained such a high level of categorical recognition in the form of Goodreads (which offers 340 examples), with substantive entries on Wikipedia and Encyclopedia.com. The entry on Encyclopedia.com (derived from a 1968 entry in the International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences by Yole G. Sills) has attracted nearly 4 million hits and includes this revealing comment: ‘Social science fiction is noteworthy on several levels: first, as a cultural phenomenon; second, as a medium of social commentary and criticism; and third (perhaps parenthetically) as a pleasant counterpoint to some of the more pedantic complacencies of the social scientists’. The expression ‘pedantic complacencies’ seemed to hit the spot.
Let’s see if you think Nicolas and I have done any better? The following extract is one of the six vignettes punctuating the chapters of Refugia. I need first to decode – ‘a refugium’ is the smallest unit of Refugia, a ‘Fugian’ is a Refugian, ‘Solidarians’ lend their support to Refugia, an ‘agora’ is an ancient Greek meeting place, while I’ve already indicated some of the functions of a Sesame chip.
The gong sounds at the Janat Refugium (Registered No. 920/2022), Somewhereland in North Africa
The gong sounded.
‘I declare the weekly agora of Janat open’, said the new presiding officer. ‘As we have decided in earlier meetings the agora will finish when the gong sounds in one and half hours, with all unfinished business to go to the next meeting.’
The agora was held in the old market square still filled with the impressive cut stones of the Cyrene period. Along the edge, xeric pines had doggedly survived with one tall specimen dominating the centre, where most of the discussion took place.
The agora had adapted an old Swahili proverb to describe their vibrant democracy: ‘Fugians sit under the tree and talk until they agree’.
At first, it was routine business. The wells were fine, but the desalination filters were again clogging up with salt. It was agreed to ask the Janat science cluster to investigate using the older, but more reliable, ceramic models. Meanwhile two more volunteers for filter cleaning were needed – 20 labour points (creds) per day would be added to each worker’s Sesame account.
Two young members shyly put their hands up. ‘We will offer,’ they said. Everyone could see they were in love and no doubt they thought they could find a little privacy at the desalination plant. They’d soon find out it isn’t such great fun – the salt is corrosive and sometimes a flake would get in their eyes.
The next business was more controversial. The refugium’s Capacity Rating (CR) was 1,400 people, including all children. The attendees decided to confirm the CR until such time as fresh water supplies could be significantly boosted.
This left places for just 25 people and suddenly the meeting became heated. Ten places were quickly assigned to pregnant women already in Janat, but ‘sponsors’ then passionately argued for their nominees.
Patrice spoke first: ‘My cousin has been tortured in her country.’ He tapped the Sesame chip in his arm and the gruesome photos appeared as holograms. Five more, with her family. Other deserving cases followed and some in the agora had tears in their eyes, remembering the sufferings they had endured.
Finally, they considered the cases of two solidarians, Ebba and Lars. They had been there in the bad old days pulling displaced people from the sea when the people smugglers had cut them adrift. Now they offered legal and social work services in Arabic and English. Their applications to join Janat as full members were greeted enthusiastically. This was both a popular and well-timed decision, as a few seconds later the gong sounded.
Everyone dispersed, talking softly, the turpentine smell of the pine lingering.
In the end, we compromised. Some of the book was set in 2030, while the vignettes were interspersed between more conventional sociological analysis and theory-building. Perhaps this hybridity will turn out to be a mistake. However, what we did establish is that social science fiction allowed us to reach a digital generation of students more effectively. Once they realised that they did not have to conform to a normal sociological discourse, the conversations grew animated and even passionate. Merely as pedagogy, social science fiction has much to commend it.
Robin Cohen is Professor Emeritus, Department of International Development, University of Oxford, and was Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick for over 25 years. His co-author of Refugia, Nicholas Van Hear, is Deputy Director of Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, University of Oxford.