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Caught in the middle? Beer and policy in a Leiden neighbourhood

For my Policy in Practice research project, Elise van Dansik engaged with a problem that Leiden ‘Social Domain’ policy officers saw themselves confronted with, which was why migrant organizations of Slaaghwijk (a socio-economically disadvantaged neighborhood in Leiden’s north) do not cooperate with one another. Rather, each of them more or less exclusively relates to a distinct cultural or ethnic group. In this article she shares her experiences.

Relationships between municipality and organizations

As an independent researcher, I did not only intend to research the questions formulated by the municipal officers, but also the premises these were based on. My research question became: “In what ways are relationships between the municipality, migrant organizations and local residents shaped?” This question created my field of enquiry, as a student, a policy researcher, a participant in cooking classes (and other activities of the migrant organisations) and later even as an intern of Leiden municipality. How did I combine these roles? How did my interlocutors see me, what expectations did I create and manage to meet in this way?

Elise van Dansik

Mapping 'polyphony'

From the start, I made it clear to both the municipality and the migrant organisations that my research only focused on mapping 'polyphony', and that I did not intend to advocate the interests of any one of the stakeholders. This proved to be much more tricky than expected. I soon became familiar with many people in the Slaaghwijk, was invited to parties, and made friends. Towards the end of my research, I was hired as a trainee by Leiden municipality, and some of the policymakers who gave direction to my research project became colleagues and friends as well. For me, this created a difficult situation: previously I could have stated that, being a student, I was not ‘of’ the municipality, but I now suddenly felt that I might have some influence on the policies it enacted. Yet I was adamant: I told my respondents that my research aimed at creating new insights and that I could not favour specific organizations.

Newly formulated policy

Months later, at the municipality, a colleague and I were identifying organizations that might fit the newly formulated policy objectives for the Slaaghwijk. I wondered out loud if we should not include one of the groups not usually shortlisted, since I was convinced that it had the right competencies for the purpose. Had my familiarity with the people who were in the group contributed to them being shortlisted?

Impact on me and the organisations

The informal relationships that had emerged during my research had had an impact on me, professionally, and I had—perhaps subconsciously—made a note of the organisation which I had drawn attention to in the conversation with my colleague from the municipality. Perhaps it is almost unavoidable for formal relationships to engage with informal expectations and preferences. This may not be surprising, yet it emphasizes the importance to reflect on relationships that emerge in the context of policy research. We live by the sake of networks that we create with other people, and the relationships these include are necessarily also personal and informal.

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