Nina Glick Schiller, University of Manchester and Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology
I woke up in early March to find that I was now a global talent— but only if I had enough ‘points’ to keep my job and life as I was building it in the UK. Unfortunately, I could not readily ascertain whether I was now a valuable asset to Great Britain or whether I was consigned to the category of faceless undesirable labourers, who apparently were destroying British society. The government website that promised to add up my points and indicate my fate kept crashing. The change in British immigration regulations came in the wake of a debate that built public opinion for the latest exclusionary policies. British politicians, demagogic leaders, and media personalities joined their mates in a host of other countries in blaming migrants for national economic problems such as the growing disparity between rich and poor, the reduced quality and availability of public services and education, and the rising costs of health care and housing. Calls for tightening borders and ending immigration are widespread, while countries around the world increasing deny asylum to people desperately seeking refuge from war, rape, and pillage. Rates of expulsion are rising dramatically. Yet the immigration policies of countries in many places in the world have been rewritten to facilitate the migration of ‘highly skilled professionals’ and various forms of short term ‘low skilled’ contract labour.
Meanwhile, public polemics denounce the remittances that migrants send to sustain family as evidence that migrants drain money from the national economy and are disloyal to their newly embraced nation-states. Rarely noted in public discourse but apparent in the new economics of restrictive labour contracting is the fact that family members who are not living in Britain do not benefit from services that are provided by migrant labour and paid for by migrants’ taxes. As if oblivious to the growing exclusionary policies and efforts to denounce and stem the flow of remittances, a host of global actors —the World Bank, the ‘global lending community’, central and private banks, government policy makers, multilateral and bilateral donors, NGOs, and various academics– have begun to celebrate migrant remittances as a new path of development for the ailing economies of the global south, as well as Eastern Europe.
The question I wish to raise here, is how we can anthropologist make sense of these apparently contradictory trends and respond to them? Migration scholars generally have put little effort into developing a framework that speaks simultaneously to the denigration of migrants and asylum seekers, the worldwide search for highly skilled talent, and the celebration of migrant remittances. How for example, should we approach the assertions of Lord Wakeham, who chaired the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee’s inquiry on immigration? Defending his report, Wakeham (2008) argues that it is a ‘£6bn fallacy’ that immigrants contribute to the British economy because
once migrants fill some vacancies they spend some of their earnings. This increases demand for goods and services, which leads companies to produce more. But to increase production, companies need more staff, creating more vacancies and so defeating the objective of reducing vacancies. The total number of vacancies has remained at about 600,000 since 2001 despite high net immigration.
Now there are two possible genres of response to this kind of statement. One is to indicate that it is only by the most distorted of logics and a basic anti-immigrant bias that one can read evidence that the presence of immigrants contributes to economic growth and job production as proof that claims that immigrants contribute national economy of their country of settlement are a massive fallacy. However, if we take that route and confine our response to arguments that the data demonstrate that migrants do make contributions or do not threaten social cohesion, we accept the assumptions that: (1) there are currently discrete national economies and policies regulated by central governments; and (2) the nation-state should be our unit of analysis in discussing migration issues. Neither of these assumptions is sustainable.
The second route of response to narratives such as Lord Wakeham’s is to place migration and the restructuring of local and national economies and policies within global efforts to reconstitute capital and facilitate its flexible accumulation. However, it is difficult to pursue this perspective because of the conceptual constraints currently being imposed on public debate and scholarship. At the heart of these constraints is the use of the nation-state as a unit of analysis and identification. Often mainstream migration scholars, especially those concerned with public policy, respond to the contemporary attacks on migrants and migration by adopting the perspective of their respective nation-states. They rarely confront the conceptual underpinnings of the native-foreigner divide that has remained so fundamental to the entire enterprise of migration research.
Politicians and journalists, on the other hand, are increasingly directly confronting and defending the nation-state building that lies underneath migration policy and discourses about social cohesion and ‘earned citizenship’. We have witnessed an increasingly intensive campaign to insure that public opinion as well as scholarly debate is confined within the logic of the nation-state. Some of this campaign is being waged in terms of national security issues, which makes any criticism of irrational and unjust immigration policies akin to treason. Other aspects are more subtle, falling back on the apparent necessity and sanctity of states organized around national cultures and identities. For example, David Goodhart, a former Financial Times journalist and founder of Prospect magazine, a current affairs monthly, argues
The justification for giving priority to the interests of fellow citizens boils down to a pragmatic claim about the value of the nation-state. Without fellow-citizen favouritism, the nation-state ceases to have much meaning. And most of the things that liberals desire – democracy, redistribution, welfare states, human rights – only work when one can assume the shared norms and solidarities of national communities.
Anthropologists need to query such assumptions and ask whether the native/ foreign divide is the best way to understand issues of distributive justice or social cohesion. Building on several decades of scholarship on the construction of and naturalization of ‘national communities,’ we need to identify the methodological nationalism that pervades migration scholarship. Methodological nationalism is an ideological orientation that approaches the study of social and historical processes as if they were contained within the borders of individual nation-states. Nation-states are conflated with societies and the members of those states are assumed to share a common history and set of values, norms, social customs, and institutions.
I suggest that a more adequate response to contemporary migration processes and discourses requires abandoning methodological nationalism and adopting a global power perspective on migration and the nation-state. Only such a perspective can place within the same analytical framework migration and development debates, national anti-immigrant rhetoric, migration and refugee policies, and the celebration of global talent. By a global power perspective, I mean an analytical framework rather than a systems theory. This analytical framework must facilitate a theorization of the reproduction, movement, and destruction of various kinds of capital and human populations across national borders. It also must enable scholars to examine the construction of social relations, institutions, systems of governance, legitimating cultural norms of consumption, and modes of identification in particular localities and across space, national borders, and time. Such a framework will allow migration researchers to identify AND empower forms, spaces, ideologies, and identities of resistance to oppressive and globe spanning relations of unequal power.
A global perspective on migration and nation-state building can begin to make sense of the contradictory narratives around immigration, global talent, and remittances. Anti-immigrant polemics, it turns out, cannot be simply countered with data because they have very little to do with the actual economic or social impact of immigrants. Instead, they constitute everyday forms of nation-state formation within a neo-liberalizing, crisis ridden, globally structured economy. A global power perspective on migration facilitates the description of social processes by introducing units of analysis and research paradigms that are not built on the essentialism of much of migration discourse. Instead it builds on the current scholarship on the neo-liberal restructuring of locality to offer fresh perspectives to the contemporary migration debates.
I want to be clear that by eschewing methodological nationalism and establishing a global framework for the study of migrant settlement and transnational connection, I am not saying that the nation-state is withering away. I am also not saying that we currently can dispense with states as instruments of creating and protecting rights and public goods and services. I am saying that both migration scholarship and debates about citizenship and immigrants routinely ignore the obvious fact that the human, cultural, and natural resources that constitute wealth deemed as “national” are produced within transnational processes that extend across states borders. This means that the constitution of social cohesion, rather than a process situated within national communities and threatened by foreigners, is also a transnational process.
My particular interest is the contemporary restructuring of capital, which is repositioning the specific localities within which migrants and natives build their lives.. To understand the restructuring of globe spanning structures of power, including the changing role and continuing significance of states, migration scholars need a perspective that is not constrained by the borders of the nation-state but directs our attention to the reconstitution of place. Migration and native experiences and relationships are simultaneously transnational, globally reconfigured, and place-based.
The methodological nationalism of many migration scholars precludes them from accurately describing the transnational social fields of unequal power that are integral to the migrant experience. Because their scholarship is built on units of analysis that developed within nation-state building projects, few migration scholars situate national terrains and discourses within an analysis of the neo-liberal restructuring of the global economy and the rescaling of cities. The irony, of course, is that in a period during which many areas of scholarship have developed an analysis of uneven and unequal globalization, migration scholars who study globe spanning flows of people remained inured within concepts of society and culture that reflect essentialist and racialized concepts of nation.
Much of the European and US scholarship on migration confines itself to the questions ‘how well do they fit into our society’, ‘what are the barriers that keep them from fully joining us,’ or ‘which cultures or religions don’t fit in.’ In these analyses, migrants’ tendencies to cultural persistence and ethnic organization, attributed either to their identity politics or to a reactive ethnic response to discrimination, become the independent variable that determines the degree of fit for migrants within the context of a specific nation-state. Most scholars of migration reflect and contribute to an approach to the nation-state that poses a nation and its migrants as fundamentally and essentially socially and culturally distinct.
In migration studies methodological nationalism facilitates: (1) the homogenization of national culture (2) the homogenization of migrants into ethnic groups – seen as bearers of discrete cultures – who arrive bearing cultural, class, and religious differences, and (3) the use of national statistics organized so that ethnic difference appears as an independent variable in the reporting of levels of education, health status, degrees of employment, and level of poverty. In other words, as they are currently constituted, migration studies and their ethnic studies counterparts contribute to the reinvigoration of contemporary nation-state building projects.
Most commonly, when research is based in a particular city, specific ethnic groups or communities are studied in particular cities and then the data is generalized to the level of the state and the processes of settlement are spoken of in terms of the nation-state. At the end of the day we hear about Mexicans in the US, Turks in Germany, or Pakistanis in Britain. If there is comparative research, nation-states are compared in terms of their migration policies. At best, the city is described as the context for a larger national process of migrant adaptation.
Even the scholars of transnational migration or diaspora bound their unit of study along the lines of national or ethnic identities. A literature of transnational community has developed without a theorization of place. The end result is that the unit of analysis becomes a migrating population defined and delimited by shared cultural identities. It is for this reason, I believe, that so much of the scholarship about transnational migration is about identity formation or persistence across borders. There has been little conceptual room in this scholarship for tracing and theorizing networks that extend into, are shaped by, and shape particular localities. Nor has there been sufficient conceptualization of the relationship between transnational social fields that extend between localities, the neoliberal restructuring of specific places, and the current restructuring of migration policy and rhetoric.
Scholars of urban restructuring and rescaling have documented that currently cities everywhere are participants in the same global trends that the global cities hypothesis maintained as the defining characteristics of a handful of global cities. Rather than just categorizing cities into a typology of ‘global’ or ‘non-global’, these scholars note that the implementation of neo-liberal agendas had disrupted fixed notions of nested territorially bounded units of city, region, state and globe. That is to say, the scholarship of the neoliberal reconstitution of cities documents the way in which all cities are global in that none are delimited only by the regulatory regime and economic processes of the state in which they are territorially based. The state itself is rescaled to play new roles by channelling flows of relatively unregulated capital and participating in the constitution of global regulatory regimes enforced by the World Trade Organization and international financial institutions. Cities do, however, differ in their positioning in terms of globe spanning hierarchies of economic and political power.
More specifically, this scholarship highlights the various mechanisms of neoliberal restructuring and privatization that require all cities to compete for investments in new economies. They compete in an effort to attract flows of capital and a mix of ‘new economy’ industries and their clients and customers. ‘New economy’ industries are ones that produce services demanded within the global economy including the very consumption of locality in the form of tourism. Central to this new economy are ‘knowledge’ industries, which produce the workers, skills, technologies, and consumptive patterns necessary to organize, agglutinate, and concentrate capital. Each city markets itself globally as a brand and produces its own image based on its mix of resources including cultural diversity.
However, discussions of migration policies have not been part of the study of neoliberal restructuring of locality. In fact, except for global cities theory, the insightful and powerful theorizing about the neo-liberal restructuring of locality and the scalar positioning of cities by urban geographers has barely entered into the study of migration. Nor have migration scholars, constantly pulled into discussions of national migration policies, paid sufficient attention to the way inn which the neo-liberal restructuring of specific localities shapes the way in which migrants live in a specific place. Neither urban geographers nor migration scholars have examined how migrants become active agents of rescaling policies as they settle in specific places. Drawing from the literature on urban restructuring and repositioning, Ayse Caglar and I (2006; forthcoming) argue that we can differentiate and understand the dynamics of migrant incorporation and transnational connection in different cities better if we relate them to the rescaling processes of political and economic space taking place within the context of the neo-liberal regulatory systems.
By paying more attention to locality in migration studies we can also understand the seeming contradictory national anti-immigrant discourses, the celebration of migrant remittances by global financial institutions, the policies that divide global talent from the apparently unwashed and unwanted and the significant role played by immigrants in specific cities. The anti-immigrant rhetoric adopted by so many countries contains within it several different kinds of messages. On one level, anti-immigrant discourse remains a nation-state building process, a ritual of renewal that engages its participants in defining their loyalty to a country by differentiating them from stigmatized racialized others. At the same time, migration discourses and laws meet the needs of specific restructured localities by differentiating different streams of labour. Faceless migrating labour is portrayed as invading borders, potentially lawless, and so requiring restriction, regulation, and contractual constraints that limit the rights of workers to change employers or challenge working conditions. It is differentiated from highly skilled professionals recruited by cities that have become talent scouts within global circuits of educated labour.
Those localities that are successful global competitors are increasingly able to recruit and maintain the labour they need by using visa categories or a preference system for skilled professionals. The various national policies of labour differentiation that now exist in the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, and Singapore, among others, become understandable when situated within the restructuring and rescaling processes of specific localities. Migrants are not only part of the new just-in-time sweat shop industries or low wage service sectors that accompany the restructuring of various cities. They provide highly skilled labour that also contributes to the human capital profile of various cities. And they become marketable assets for the cultural industries of the cities in which they are settling. The place and role of migrants differs depending on the scalar positioning of each city
The actual incorporation of migrants into very different positions in the labour force varies with locality and must be addressed in terms of the restructuring and rescaling of locality. National discourses on migration cannot be assumed to describe local conditions. Localities and their specific iterations of neo-liberal agendas and governmentalities are situated at the intersection of national discourses and transnational fields of power. Unequal globalization rests on a framework of imperial states that serve as base areas for institutions that control capital, the productions of arms, and military power.
As Aihwa Ong (2006) has pointed out, it is essential that discussions of neoliberalism be grounded in the particularity of specific governance regimes. To adequately address this task, I suggest that migration scholars need an approach to neo-liberal projects that can theorize the insertion of differentiated streams of migrants into the restructuring of specific places. Migration scholars need to put aside all forms of methodological nationalism so that their units of analysis do not obscure the localized processes through which capitalism is continually restructured and reproduced. The current celebration of migrants as agents of development in their homelands, at the moment that migrants are being defined as foreign bodies who threaten the integrity of their new lands, contributes to the neo-liberal projects of reconfiguring states, localities, and subjectivities.
The projection of migrants as undesirable ‘others’ revitalizes national identities and loyalties of citizens whose relationship to the state as provider of services and social supports has been undermined by neo-liberal projects. At the same time, the dehumanization of migrating bodies allows for their insertion and control as various forms of unfree contracted labour. Meanwhile, migrant professional can be welcomed in specific places as contributors to the neoliberal restructuring and rescaling of various cities. And migrant remittances can be relied on to transmit foreign currency to families, localities, and regimes left behind enabling their inclusion, however unequally, in global patterns of consumption and desire. Neoliberalism is both embodied and contested as global processes of the reproduction of capital come to ground and are reconstituted by local populations—migrants and natives alike.
Anthropologists entering into debates about migration must examine our units of analysis and the politics embedded in them. We can either remain within national narratives of the defence of the borders of the sovereign state or acknowledge the globe-spanning forces that are reconfiguring governance, locality and opportunity for migrants and natives alike. Our challenge is to engage in research that contributes to the migration debate by placing it within an analysis of global processes and their underlying tension, contradictions, and possibilities.
Glick Schiller, Nina and Ayse Caglar 2007 ‘Migrant Incorporation and City Scale: Towards a Theory of Locality in Migration Studies’ http://dspace.mah.se:8080/handle/2043/5935
Glick Schiller, N., Çaglar, A. and Guldbrandsen, T.C. (2006) ‘Beyond The Ethnic Lens: Locality, Globality, and Born-Again Incorporation’, American Ethnologist, 33(4): 612-33. http://www.anthrosource.net/doi/abs/10.1525/ae.2006.33.4.612
Goodhart, David 2008 ‘The Baby-Boomers Finally See Sense On Immigration’, The Observer, Sunday February 24 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/feb/24/immigration.immigrationpolicy
Ong, Aihwa 2006 Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty. Durham NC: Duke University Press
Wakeham, John 2008 ‘The £6bn Fallacy’, The Guardian, Comment & debate, p21 April 1 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/apr/01/immigrationpolicy.immigrationandpublicservices