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Racialised Researchers Excluded in Academia


Researchers with migrant backgrounds have greater difficulties finding a job after finishing their PhDs and also experience slower career development compared with their counterparts who were born in Sweden. It is time to address the exclusionary mechanisms in academia, says Alireza Behtoui, professor of sociology at Södertörn University.

Professor Behtoui has compiled data on academics of various ethnic origins who work at Swedish universities, and the pattern is clear. In particular researchers from the global South (Africa, Asia and South America) experience a lot of friction in their academic careers.

‘Consequently, they never reach the same positions and influence as people in other groups,’ he says.

In addition to the statistical compilation, Behtoui and Hege Høyer Leivestad, researcher at Stockholm University, have interviewed researchers with migration backgrounds. For the purpose of their study, they included people who have migrated to Sweden and children of such individuals in this group. The informants talked about great difficulties accessing resource-rich social networks, which is a necessity in order to be recommended for prestigious assignments. For example, an interviewed medical researcher said:

‘I don’t want to generalise, but what I see around me and when I look at my own situation is that you do alright until you get to a certain level. Then you hit a glass ceiling and need to be content with where you are.’

Easier Access at Small Institutions

Behtoui and Leivestad found that their informants are being marginalised both geographically and subject-wise. Subject-wise by being recommended by for example supervisors to focus on research areas generally considered to be of low status. One informant described being recommended to change focus from international relations to immigration issues, an area considered less prestigious. Geographically, the informants are marginalised by being denied access to the major universities. Previous studies show that it is easier for academics with migrant backgrounds to get a job at smaller colleges, and the study by Behtoui and Leivestad confirms this finding.


My informants express a deep frustration over the lack of access to the major research environments.


‘My informants express a deep frustration over the lack of access to the major research environments,’ says Behtoui.

The situation seems to be particularly difficult in the humanities and social sciences. According to Behtoui, this could be because the competition is not as fierce in the natural sciences. Research in the natural sciences benefits from more financial resources, and well-educated people in fields such as engineering, medicine and mathematics are more likely to find high-paid employment and good job security outside academia.

Do Not Want to Be Seen as Troublemakers

Behtoui and Leivestad’s informants shared many examples of subtle marginalisation, but there were also accounts of plain discrimination. One person told them about a vacancy that was suddenly withdrawn when it became clear that this person was the best qualified applicant. The withdrawal of the vacancy was never explained, and the person chose to forget about the whole thing instead of digging deeper into it.

‘I asked why and was told that it is too risky to complain. If you become known as a troublemaker in the academic environment, where everyone knows everyone, you’ll keep that label for the rest of your career,’ says Behtoui.

His study is one of the first in Sweden to explore the issue of racism in academia and the marginalisation of researchers who are racialised.

‘When it comes to crime, welfare dependency, poor grades and unemployment, there is a huge amount of statistics for this group of people, but not when it comes to opportunities in academia,’ he says.

According to Paula Mählck, education researcher at Stockholm University and the University of Gävle, the issue of racism in academia is receiving far too little attention.

‘The Swedish government’s most recent research bill has a section on gender equality but not a single word about racism and eurocentrism. Swedish research policy simply lacks an intersectional approach to gender equality in academia, despite the fact that 40 per cent of all PhD students and 30 per cent of the research community are international people. A great deal of work remains in this area, both politically and at the universities,’ she says.

Interviewing SIDA-Funded PhD Students

In her research, Paula Mählck studies PhD students funded through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and their experiences of transnational mobility. The research is based on surveys and interviews with PhD students from some of SIDA’s biggest and oldest programmes in African countries. Half of the PhD students in the study reported that they have experienced discrimination in Sweden, and skin colour was the most common factor that the discrimination had been related to.

‘They feel that colleagues have low expectations of them because they are funded through development assistance and come from Africa. People talk over their heads and they can’t participate in department meetings since they are held in Swedish,’ she says.

The women and men in Mählck’s study report partly different experiences of their time in Sweden. The women feel a bit more discriminated, which supports previous research on gender relations in academia. There were also differences in the way men and women handle experiences of isolation. The women say that they could see that their stay in Sweden gave them more time to focus on their research.

‘Women describe that the isolation enabled them to focus on their research without having to take the main responsibility for social relations within and outside the academic environment.’

Although the PhD students in Mählck’s study share some experiences of negative racialisation with Behtoui’s informants, it is important to distinguish between international researchers – such as SIDA researchers – and researchers with a migrant background, says Mählck. International researchers and PhD students spend a limited time in Sweden and are really based somewhere else. In their home countries, SIDA PhD students often belong to the cultural elite. Some work as advisers to their country’s ministers and might be one of three individuals with PhD education in a certain field.

‘I don’t want to reproduce a view of African researchers or development assistance-funded researchers as victims, because they really aren’t. At the same time, however, the quantitative and qualitative results of my study show that the stay at Swedish universities is conditioned, as white bodies and knowledge produced in the global North are valued higher than black bodies and knowledge produced in the global South,’ says Mählck.

‘White Researchers Are the Norm’

SIDA PhD students make up a special group of researchers as they are in Sweden under special conditions, Mählck emphasises, but she still believes that her informants’ experiences of isolation say something about the prevailing culture in Swedish academia.

‘Academia is not just an environment that is gendered and needs to be gender mainstreamed, but also a place that is racialised and needs to be de-colonised. The norm for what constitutes a good researcher and good research is largely white,’ she says.

The exclusion of racialised researchers in the sense that they are denied the same opportunities their white colleagues enjoy is wrong from a fairness perspective, but it also affects the quality of the research, she believes.


We can’t have an academic system that awards Swedishness and whiteness.


‘We can’t have an academic system that awards Swedishness and whiteness. Many of the greatest challenges of our time are global in nature, so of course we need to acknowledge knowledge claims from all parts of the world. What it comes down to is the quality of the research produced,’ she says.

Despite the negative experiences, the PhD students in Mählck’s study generally have positive thoughts about their time in Sweden.

‘Most of them are very, very pleased. Many institutions have a long tradition of hosting international PhD students and have a well-established structure in place for it, but there are also institutions that are weaker in this respect,’ she says.

She is calling for an intersectional gender perspective in the national research policy, along with anti-racist, de-colonial training for PhD supervisors.

Professor Behtoui mentions more formalised processes around for example hiring of staff and allocation of research funding as key to preventing marginalisation of certain groups in academia. He would also like to see more studies on the situation of racialised researchers.

‘Knowledge is the first step to change. We can learn a lot from the women’s movement in this regard. We need to highlight the marginalisation of racialised researchers in the same way as we have done with the marginalisation of women,’ he says.

Text by Charlie Olofsson, translated by Debbie Axlid
Photo Sofia Änghede