Migration as a category of analysis, and key arguments shaping migration research today

By Ricard Zapata-Barrero, Full Professor, GRITIM-UPF, Department of Social and Political Sciences, Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain)

In migration studies, it is often assumed, and therefore not discussed, that “migration” is a category of analysis in itself, with social, political, cultural, and ideological meanings that need to be taken into account.

The social dimension helps us to focus social change looking at inequalities and to examine how migration today is one of the factors explaining social differences. These inequalities work structurally, since the same concept of migration categorises people according to a status that justifies inequalities of rights and opportunities, but also socially, since being a migrant is always a situation with fewer advantages, with fewer resources and legal capacities to look for work and housing, and it is a clear factor of discrimination. Inequality was the main theme of the last IMISCOE conference in Warsaw, the world’s largest network of migration research centers and institutes, where we had the opportunity to see its multidimensionality and its stark reality: migration remains a factor of poverty and exploitation, a factor of social exclusion in our societies.

The political dimension allows us to interpret migration issues in terms of power relations.  This means directly that power relations in our societies today have a clear migration component.  This is obvious, for example, when we deal with racism, which is a direct expression of power relations and a tool for maintaining them. Through this political dimension we must also challenge xenophobic narratives and constructions of an imagined former homogeneous society. Here we discover that our collective memories are at odds, and can be politically constructed to justify any ideological position. Any society, and with more evidence, Mediterranean and Maritime societies, are a mixture of many waves of civilisations and cultures. There is no pure racial culture, it is an imaginary construction that is employed to legitimise power relations and the use of an unequal distribution of power. Like inequalities before, power relations often become explanatory variables for understanding certain immoral situations, tensions and conflicts, and even what Bauman rightly calls the “adiaphorisation” of migrants. It is a way of describing the process of dehumanising migrants, a way of placing certain categories of human beings outside the moral-immoral axis, outside the “universe of moral obligations”. It is a way of banalising, in Hanna Arend’s terms, certain expressions of power towards those who are considered outside the realm of our human rights.

It is often assumed, and I agree with this statement, that power relations and situations of domination are often structural. Because the same category of migration legitimises a state distribution of power that is often at the root of many social behaviours and political narratives. How can I claim power-sharing if the same migrant status limits this possibility?

The cultural dimension is probably much more polymorphic (i.e. it takes many forms). It is also more deeply rooted in our viewpoints. Let me simplify this category by focusing on the traditions, heritage, norms and conventions that frame and legitimise our societies. At this point we enter the realm of rumours, stereotypes, discriminations that have always and historically existed. We are also entering the realm of Western-centrism, Eurocentrism and other forms of ethnocentrism that frame the ways in which we construct problems. I use to call them “cultural solipsism”, since it expresses the fact that our Culture, in the broadest and national sense, is like a cloak that allows us to perceive only the reality that affects us from our point of view, without perspectivism. From our culture we construct problems as far as they concern us, as far as they affect our interests. We often construct a “security problem” when we think that a dynamic will affect our current wellbeing and our quality of life.

Traditions can also mean Religious traditions. In this case the plurality of religions in our society claim already for a post-secular age, where religion become a public good that need to be treated and distributed as whatever public good, following principles of human rights and equality. 

Traditions can also be understood as cultural festivals that are expressions of our national identity, monuments in our urban environment that relate to our colonial past. Within this cultural dimension, I also include collective memory, which can shape how we represent otherness and migrants. The institution of slavery, for example, is part of the “hidden” national culture that has defined most European Countries, and recent studies insist that this was possible because religion sometimes legitimised this practice, since slaves were not part of our Christian tradition and race. The slavery of other religions and races was considered unproblematic for at least three centuries. And these representations are still present in most of our treatment of non-Christian/white migrants today.

Migration as a category of analysis is also an expression of the existing ideology behind migration policies and politics. From this point of view, we also enter the real world. The fact is that migration is probably one of the last factors explaining the current political cleavages, social fragmentation and divisions. Today there are probably other emerging factors, such as climate change, but migration is not only always at the top of the political agenda in any electoral campaign, but it is also used as a weapon to increase divisions and fragment intentionally our society in identity terms. As I noted in some of my early research some decades ago, the narrative and discourse of migration is itself a politics. It is therefore much more appropriate to speak of the ‘politics of discourse’ than of ‘political discourse’. This means that the same discourse becomes a political weapon and a tool for constructing an often-imagined reality. As I often point out to my students, political parties are much more interested in answering the question of ‘what to say’ than ‘what to do’ when migration is on their agenda. Discourse and narrative as a way of influencing opinions, representations and provoking behaviours is a common practice of all political parties.

Let me now go one step further and tell you what I often say to my students.

From a generational point of view, what will be your agenda and probably your headache, what will be the key arguments and the fundamental questions that will shape the future of society and politics.

We enter directly in what we call ‘grey areas’ in public policy because they are full of dilemmas, contradictions and uncertainties that make our society unstable. Migration research today is at the crossroads of several what we call in public policy ‘wicked problems’ involving a wide range of actors, sectors and levels of governance, and their complexity is a source of tensions. The most problematic aspect of a wicked problem is that it can only be solved partially and temporarily, never satisfying all sectors of the society.

Allow me from now on, to sketch out what I envisage will be the the future of the migration agenda that is already here and that our parents and grandparents probably could not even imagine. These are the characteristics that are already shaping our present and will undoubtedly determine the future of societies.

I propose to think of them in the form of main frameworks that can be analysed in terms of the production of new inequalities, power relations, cultural and ideological fragmentations.

In the rest of my keynote, I am going to talk very briefly about 8 basic themes- I will be happy to elaborate on some of them in the Q&A session following my presentation. These basic themes are: human mobility, methodological nationalism, epistemic arguments, climate justice, diversity governance, local turn, demographic and historical arguments.

Theme 1: The Mobility Argument: How is mobility shaping the present and future of our societies?

The present situation includes the consequence that economic globalisation, climate change, war and political instability in most of the world’s countries have increased cross-state movements of people between the Global South and Global East, and the Global North, and also within the Global South and Global East. We are already immersed in what has been termed a ‘mobility turn’ that is shaping the present and the future of societies, and this is especially visible in most urban systems. No study currently exists to predict that this process may slow down. On the contrary, this pattern of human mobility between states is seen as one of the most complex challenges, and is a permanent, growing feature of the 21st century that governments face today.

The duration and the intensity of current human mobility, the frequency of contacts, the variety of cultures, religions, languages, and traditions shape policies and relationships within and among countries, and reflect the uniqueness of human mobility today.

There is almost no government in the world that is not affected nowadays, either as destination, origin or transit of migration and refugee movements. States and Cities are becoming both sites of residence and hubs of human mobility. This places all domains (society, politics, economy and culture) in a situation of unprecedented instability, full of inconsistencies between values, such as security and human rights, solidarity and equality. International human mobility forces social and political scientists to question the extent to which the normative foundations underpinning current forms of governance based on substantive values of human rights, equality, freedom and democracy continue to work. The need to rethink existing democratic structures in light of permanent human mobility needs to be discussed in length.

Theme 2 The methodological nationalism argument: Breaking epistemological national barriers in migration studies 

In migration studies, methodological nationalism refers to the tendency of scholars, politicians and policy-makers to assume that ‘the nation-state is the natural social and political form of the modern world’. This is a critical view of the way migration issues are always problematized in terms of states and nations. It is closely related to liberalism, insofar as liberalism is a theory of the state.

This move invites us to take a critical look at how the key concepts that shape the main policies of migration are constructed, used with determinate state-based meanings. This is a direct invitation to practice what in qualitative methodology we call ‘reflexivity’ as a way of strengthening our critical thinking and the perspectivism of certain values, such as solidarity, often criminalized as “crime of solidarity” by states and never used in the same way for certain categories of refugees, if we compare Ukrainian and Syrian/Afghan refugees. Key concepts that shape our societies, such as citizenship, cohesion, solidarity and security, are contaminated by this methodological nationalism.

Theme 3. Knowledge production: post-truth, fake news and evidence-based approaches on migration studies

The production of knowledge has always been a concern in migration studies, especially who produces it, how it is distributed and who benefits from it. The relationship between knowledge and power, knowledge and inequality, culture and ideology is more than obvious. This needs to be articulated. Knowledge and reality, knowledge and policy/politics, and also with society is now a key area of research in migration studies. It addresses power relations, equity concerns and ideology in the co-production of knowledge in different domains.  The monopoly of knowledge in the hands of states is being problematized.

Today, with the digital age, the knowledge crisis is accentuated. There is real debate on information disorder, of post-truth, and we are entering an era where the line between truth and falsehood has become the basis of interpretation; where prejudices, stereotypes and misinformation are gaining ground and directly affecting political discourse, individual behaviour and perceptions towards migrants.

Today, there is even an evidence-based movement challenging the way migration studies produces knowledge. The strengths and limitations of the evidence-based policy movement need to be examined, especially after the covid period, when we have seen that science and politics do not guarantee objective knowledge and are often filled with ideology and vested interests.

But this does not negate the need for more evidence-based policies, since migration policies are often decided and implemented without too much evidence.

In migration studies we enter what Foucault called the epistemology of power. The premise is that knowledge is never neutral, but deeply implicated in power dynamics. We do not know for sure how many people are dying in the Mediterranean because it is not in the interest of states to know it. How many irregulars there are in a city and country is always a source of methodological adventure.

Theme 4. Climate Justice Argument: green migration governance

We are still in the process of realizing that climate change requires climate justice, not only because environmental degradation is becoming an indirect cause of migration, but also because the ways in which we address the impacts of climate change in our societies have a clear social class component, and migrants often belong to the sector of society that also has fewer resources to address climate change.

The governance of climate justice is probably one of the most important challenges for all governments today. There is an emerging term, ‘green migration governance’, which refers to policies and practices that consider the impacts of climate change and the need for environmental sustainability. This includes addressing the drivers of environmentally-induced migration, protecting the rights of migrants, and building the adaptation and resilience of both migrants and communities in climate-affected areas. The need for climate shelters in our cities is still an unresolved issue, and migrants are probably the sector most in need of them.

Our societies and authorities are still struggling to recognise that migration will be an increasingly important adaptation strategy for people forced to leave their homes due to the impacts of climate change.

There is a need to build a social campaign to socialise the link between climate change and migration, and this is certainly not an easy task, because if the campaign is done only in terms of emergency, it can produce more negative effects. In other words, a poorly focused campaign can generate more rejection and further fuel xenophobia if it is framed, for example, in terms of an avalanche of climate migrants or a tendency in the narrative to over-victimize migrants. Given that we are in the context of a climate emergency debate, framing migration within this narrative can generate panic, fear and, as a result, a greater tendency to demand protection and security and to perceive migrants as an additional problem.

Theme 5. The diversity governance argument: multiculturalism, civic-nationalism and interculturalism

We are still in a paradoxical situation, because even if globalization is widely accepted, one of its effects, diversity, is still resisted. The recognition of diversity as a normal way of life for our societies is still an open question. There are still political and social forces that are against diversity and that see “diversity” as the main evil that needs to be stopped.

Today there are several pro-active diversity proposals. There are at least three mainstream policy paradigms today: multicultural, civic-national (a new version of assimilation) and intercultural citizenship. Certainly, all of them recognise diversity and build their proposals on the regulatory challenges posed by these policies in the context of citizenship theories.

There is a need to look at the complementarities between these policy paradigms, rather than seeing them as in conflict, this needs to be discussed in a pragmatic way, since not all multicultural devices are acceptable, does not follow that we need to leave multiculturalism aside, since the search for compensation can be justified for those that race and religion represents a deep inconvenience to benefit from the opportunities that our society offers. A relativization of these policies is therefore necessary, together with complementarities.  Interculturalism is a strategy to focus on positive contact between people from different background. This interaction is key for ensuring socialization of all, included nationals, in diversity.

Theme 6. The local turn argument: urban migration governance, urban justice, and urban resilience

Today, cities are under multiple pressures. They must respond to new global challenges but have limited governance capacity. This places chronic stress on physical infrastructure, basic resources and urban planning, which most often cities must face alone. In such a broad scenario, migration studies need to focus on the crucial tension between what cities might do (sovereignty) and what they can do (constraints) to develop their migration governance capacity.

The process of recognition of cities as agents of migration governance has been consolidated during the early part of the 21st century.

The basic rationale is both epistemological and political.

Epistemologically, the local turn implies the need to resize the production of knowledge on migration from the city scale, and with a critical mentality that overcomes the State-centric approach that has monopolized the migration political agenda. Politically, this scale shift means that cities are now seen not as a simple unit of States, but as actors that can autonomously elaborate their own migration agenda and use state as infrastructure.

The new pattern is that, in the legally and politically constrained environment in which they normally operate, most cities are increasing their governance capacities through multi-scale relationships with other cities and civil society organizations (CSOs).

For most cities, there is a growing awareness that doing nothing may increase instability and social conflict, leading to more spatial slums, insecurity, segregation, and racism. To ensure their urban system, cities are innovating in terms of public policy and creating new spaces for cooperation and coordination beyond the reach of states. This new pattern is putting traditional hierarchical paradigms of city-state relations in check, claiming to reconfigure them. Today there is a pressing need to theorize these new city agency trends (welcoming cities, solidarity cities, sanctuary cities, refugee cities, etc.). The purpose is to bring new ways of conceptualising following at least substantial approaches: pro-active cities,  urban innovative governance, urban justice and urban resilience are at the top of migration research today

Theme 7. Demographic argument: Normative implications of the Majority Minority debate and “Great Replacement” conspiracy theories

How do societies respond to major demographic changes? This question dominates today’ migration studies, in the United States and Europe and elsewhere, where sustained immigration has transformed populations and may soon produce a minority majority milestone. So far, most of what we know about large-scale responses to demographic change tends to be instinctively defensive and intolerant.

Today, the majority of demographers subscribe to Kauffman’s thesis in his book The White Shift.  Kaufmann argues that the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and the populist right in Europe is a reaction to radical demographic change rather than “economic anxiety”.

Kaufmann’s predictions is that in the West, we are entering an era of cultural instability that is merely a transition between two globally stable equilibria. We are in a chaotic interregnum, with mixed/blended populations, where ethnicity will no longer be a population criterion as we know it today. We are at the beginning of this demographic revolution, which will take several decades and will certainly last about 100 years. During this period, we will go through turbulent political and cultural processes.

For Kaufmann, one of the great divisions in the political landscape of the West is between those who want to accelerate this process and those who want to slow it down. The rise of nationalism and populism in many Western countries is due to the latter group.

Politicians claim that diversity is a challenge for all nations, but the problem is especially for the white and Christian ethnic majority. Kaufman is not talking about nativists or neo-nationalists, but about white tribalism.

We are in an ontological period where this white tribalism is considering its future, a period very similar to that of men’s power over women.

80% of the world’s 156 countries have an ethnic majority, half of which represent 70% of the population.

This demographic argument has sparked major debates in the United States, Europe and other regions.

In this demographic debate, Taguieff rightly speaks of the “politics of myth” in migration studies when examining the newly emerging theories of the “Great Replacement” in France, but also used as an argument in Italy, in the United States under the Trump administration.  Taguieff speaks of our period of creolization of society as an era of increasing mixophobia, or the phobia of mixity. This feeds conspiracy theories that use arguments from critical race theory and other relevant perspectives to construct an imagined past of homogeneity that never existed.  There are demographic falsehoods, as many political geographers point out. Even demographically, it would take centuries for migrants to replace the so-called homogeneous society.  But these narratives have very easily penetrated public opinion and the social imagination, with unjustified fears of invasion. 

There is also a need here to look at the lack of empirical evidence for these narratives and how emotions penetrate politics and public opinion.

Finally, Theme 8 Historical argument: the role of memory and historical narrative in migration studies

Temporality is an important but under-discussed issue in migration studies, which has been more concerned with promoting the development of scholarship that focuses on space, comparing cities, states, regions, for example. Time and history are often overlooked in all aspects of migration studies. There is a research framework called Chronotope that attempts to link and argue for the interdependence of space and time.

Understanding the role of history and memory is essential for comprehending the new critical trends in migration studies. An epistemological shift, rooted in historicism and post-colonial thought, is necessary to address questions concerning the epistemology of ignorance reframing migration research, particularly in the Mediterranean geopolitical context. In migration studies we need to overview the main interpretive frameworks influenced by the historical argument. Furthermore, there is a need to “decolonize our system of political, social, and cultural representations.” As an illustrative example, How can an understanding of history better inform research on migration? How does history can shed lights on our current and future agenda on migration research?

The fact is that behind most misunderstandings and debates about migration today, there is a clash of collective memories. This probably explains why, surprisingly, it is still difficult to build museums with migration narratives. In the United States, there is still no museum on slavery. In Spain and Portugal there is still no slavery museum. The fact that there is still no consensus on what part of a collective memory should remain visible or hidden is evidence of the need to talk about it.

I conclude now, these 4 dimensions and 8 pathways help us to frame today’s challenging governance and public policies, really hard challenges that shape the present but also the future of our societies, these are probably tasks that we as the older generation can only frame and leave to the new generations the task of addressing them. What is certain is that the way these issues are addressed will shape the future of our societies and governments. Perhaps it is because we are aware of this fact that it raises so many doubts, more questions than answers.

The fact that we are entering either an era of dystopia or an era of utopia is undoubtedly obvious, and I would also like to believe that it is still in our hands to decide what kind of screen we want for our future generations.

Thank you!

*This is the reproduction of:

Opening Lecture, Key arguments shaping migration studies today: conceptual, theoretical and methodological challenges.  First Summer School on Immigration and Asylum in Portugal: Policies and Practices, University Lisbon, Portugal, 17th July 2023 


Closing Conference  Mapping the research agenda of Migration Studies Migration, Diversity and Governance (MiDiGo),  Baumus University, Istanbul, Türkiye, 3rd October 2023:: Youtube:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMfcivMcin4