The psychosocial dimension of human rights

15th February 2015.

I am currently pursuing a PhD with the Human Rights Consortium at the University of London, in collaboration with the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Uganda.

Broadly, my research examines the role of emotion and affect in politics and human rights.  Specifically, it explores how the emotions play a role as a factor in causing forced migration, how they impact upon refugees and forced migrants whilst they are in exile from their home countries, and how they might affect attempts to resolve exile situations.  For instance, the research will explore the nature of collective experiences of emotional suffering (e.g. trauma, grief and pain) among forced migrants and refugees, particularly in relation to their sense of identity, security, resilience and vulnerability.  Depending on the direction the research takes, it may also be relevant to examine other emotional and affective experiences, such as empathy and solidarity.  I hope to draw out the implications of any empirical findings, for social and political theory, for human rights and social justice, and for policy-makers and practitioners.

As Hutchinson (2016, p.1) has stated, “few phenomena in world politics are as central yet as under-explored as are trauma and emotions”.  My own work aspires to contribute towards filling this gap in the literature, as part of a wider shift within the social sciences towards the emotional and affective realm – sometimes called the ‘affective turn’ (Clough, 2007).  Indeed, emotion and affect have become vital objects of study within many disciplines over recent decades, drawing partly on findings emerging from psychology and neuroscience, but also from a growing recognition that our understandings of human beings in society are, at best, incomplete if we ignore feeling in all its manifestations.  I hope to engage with and contribute to this growing literature, in relation to the ethical and human rights issues arising from forced migration.

Using quasi-ethnographic fieldwork, I intend to explore the emotional and affective experiences of forced migrants and refugees, in relation to their political situation, and to develop a rich, engaging and empirically-based, ‘thick description’ of the relevant aspects of their lives.  Moreover, my research will seek to situate these ethnographic findings within a theoretical framework, and to tease out policy-relevant conclusions of value to those implementing humanitarian, mental health and social justice interventions in similar contexts.   Geographically, I hope to focus primarily on East Africa, the Horn of Africa, the Gulf of Aden and Yemen – the region covered by the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, a unit established in 2011 in recognition of the complex migration context here.

Empirically, my research can be described as political science, since it will use an empirical methodology, ethnography, to gather qualitative data about political perceptions, views, behaviours and feelings among a particular demographic.  Theoretically, the work might be labelled political theory, demanding a close engagement with contemporary social and political theory and ethics.  However you describe it, the fields of human rights and forced migration are necessarily highly interdisciplinary, and I am also engaging with political psychology, anthropology and human geography.

My doctorate is being supervised by Dr. Damien Short, Director of the Human Rights Consortium, a leading multidisciplinary centre of expertise and research on human rights, environmental justice and international refugee law, hosted by the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.


Photo credit: author’s own, taken at Ghoubbet-el-Kharab, Djibouti, February 2018.


CLOUGH, P. T. 2007.  The Affective Turn: Theorising the Social.  Durham: Duke University Press.

HUTCHINSON, E. 2016.  Affective Communities in World Politics: Collective Emotions after Trauma. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.