The Migrant in a House of Mirrors: Some Reflections on the Reflexive Turn in Migration Studies
Recent years have brought a surge in calls for reflexivity in migration studies. These calls are, to a significant extent, a reaction to the increasing prominence of migration and, closely related, of migration research in public and political debate, especially in societies and among political actors on both sides of the North Atlantic. Accordingly, much of the agenda of what is referred to as the reflexive turn in migration studies (Amelina 2021; Nieswand and Drotbohm 2014) is centred on revealing and critiquing the political, historical and epistemological forces that condition scholarship about migration produced in North Atlantic societies. Recalling the efforts to critically reflect upon the disciplinary practices that stirred up anthropology some three decades ago, the strategies of reflexive (self-)evaluation in migration studies similarly aim to challenge the primacy of Euro-American perspectives, revaluate migration scholars’ positionality and reassess the categories and concepts on which migration research is based.
The migrant category in reflexive perspective
A foundational category used in migration studies, and one that comes with substantial conceptual baggage, is the ‘migrant’. Designated ‘the political figure of our time’ (Nail 2015), the migrant figures prominently, if often unflatteringly, in the vocabularies of political leaders across North Atlantic regions. Here the migrant – as a politicized, yet mostly voiceless, figure – stands at the heart of manifold dramas of sovereignty, as played out in narratives that portray the mobility of people categorized as migrants as a threat to national security and cultural identity, whatever that means. And examples of the defence mechanism put into place to repel that threat are rampant.
It is these uses of the migrant category in political discourse and practice, inflated with nation-state conceptions of territory, identity and belonging, that the reflexive approach seeks to create distance from, and rightly so. If, as Bridget Anderson (2019: 2) remarks, ‘a “migrant” is a person whose movement, or whose presence, is considered a problem’, then the uncritical embracing of the term as a category and concept in migration scholarship is problematic. Rehearsing a similar argument with regard to debates surrounding ‘migration integration’ in Western Europe, Marie Tuley (2021) states that the ‘label of “(im)migrant” is stigmatising’. This being the case, she continues to ask, ‘don’t we need to radically re-think the epistemic and ontological foundations of migration research?’
These efforts at reflexivity in migration scholarship are doubtlessly timely and fertile. Like the (self-)reflexive critiques of anthropological knowledge production and the intellectually kindred project to provincialize Western historiography (Chakrabarty 2000), the reflexive stance in migration studies helps disclosing migration scholars’ complicit, if often unintentional, involvement with structures of power and inequality. By raising and combining each other epistemological and political charges, reflexivity helps to unsettle theoretical, methodological and terminological certainties and, in so doing, opens up new perspectives on old problematics, such as the convergence of political and methodological nationalism or the questions of who is and is not considered a migrant and how the migrant/non-migrant distinction is constructed in social, political and legal practice, as well as in research.
However, the perspective from which this unsettling of categories and concepts and their epistemic and ontological foundations is approached, as articulated in much of the reflexive writing, runs the risk of reproducing the very Eurocentric parochialism that it set out to challenge in the first place. The critical-cum-reflexive re-analyses of the category of the migrant are a case in point. By framing the critique in terms of the ways in which the migrant category has been co-opted for political ends in the North Atlantic context, they seem to assume that the category, along with the meanings it releases and the conceptual possibilities it affords, possesses a definitional constancy that transcend its time- and context-specific use.
Yet the migrant, as category and concept, is charged with different meanings and glossed differently by different people and groups, political and otherwise. And this diversity of significances and uses, as wedded to different social, political and historical contexts as well as to different ways of knowing and being, opens up different registers for its deployment as an empirical and analytical term.
The migrant as a category of distance
Let me exemplify these diverse significances and uses of the migrant category with an example from my research in West Africa. In my study, I attend to the practices of transnational movement and association of West Africans coming to Ghana, focusing particularly on the mobility of people who move outside established cross-border networks of kin and ethnic ties. According to this empirical focus, my study group comprises people from more than a dozen countries in West and Central Africa. Corresponding, in turn, to this large number of nationalities, my research participants are very differently situated with regard to cultural, linguistic and educational background, prior migration experiences and legal status, among other things.
The diverse make up of my study group is reflected in the variety of terms my interlocutors use to refer to their status and situation of living away from home. The most common terms they use in self-reference are ‘foreigner’ and ‘stranger’, which fold together in the French ‘étranger’, the most widely shared language among my predominantly Francophone research participants. Other expressions, used in both English and their French equivalent, are ‘traveler’, ‘visitor’, ‘guest’, ‘outsider’, ‘adventurer’ and ‘hustler’.
The point is that the term ‘migrant’ is not among the words they usually choose to describe their own and comparable ventures across West African borders, neither in French nor English. Likewise, most of their Ghanaian hosts rarely speak of ‘migrants’ when referring to non-citizens coming to Ghana. While the most common generic category used by Ghanaians are also ‘foreigner’ and ‘stranger’, more specific categorical designations are preferred in ordinary language use; above all, ethnonyms drawn from ethnic, linguistic, regional, national or religious distinctions.
This omission of calling others and oneself a migrant is not for a lack of knowledge about the legal implications of the term. Like all non-citizens entering the country, the West Africans I work with encounter the term in a variety of official settings, and many of them are involved in protracted exchanges with the Ghana Immigration Service, especially when applying for a work permit or an extended residence permit.
Neither is this avoidance, as some might assume, motivated by the desire to evade some form of negative connotation associated with the term. Unlike in many societies in other world regions, and those on both sides of the North Atlantic, in particular, in Ghana and across much of West Africa the term migrant is not tainted with notions of exclusion, discrimination or insult. Nor does its invocation in public discourse relate the kinds of exclusionary rhetoric driven by nationalist sentiments that came to infest the vocabularies of political actors in North Atlantic contexts.
This is not to suggest that xenophobic attitudes and anti-immigrant policies are unknown to the societies in the region. West African nations, including Ghana, have had their share in the history of state-endorsed, often violent deportations of foreign nationals; and acts of verbal and physical hostility towards foreigners are occurring in many parts of the region, on a regular basis and especially in relation to struggles over economic prerogatives. Yet these hostilities and the attitudes that feed them have not filled the term ‘migrant’ with the pejorative, often derogatory and stigmatizing connotation that it holds in many other parts of the world.
Rather, the reason the West Africans I work with in Ghana avoid using the migrant label in self-reference is that they consider the process of actual migration and of becoming an actual migrant to be relatively removed from their own position, in geographical as much as in social and experiential terms. The migrant is thought of to be someone who travels distances greater than those between West and Central African countries. To become a ‘migrant proper’, one has traveled to Europe, the Americas, the MENA region, and perhaps South Africa, but not Ghana.
This becomes especially clear in how my interlocutors speak about possible onward destinations they consider travelling to in the future. Many of my research participants engage in what in the migration literature is called ‘step’ or ‘stepping stone’ migration, which describes a gradual process of moving from one destination to another, usually working the way up an imagined hierarchy of destination countries. In this hierarchy, as prefigured by many of the West Africans of my study, Ghana is considered to be but a stepping stone to other, more preferred destinations, often in the Global North. It is through the outward movement to destinations placed further up the global hierarchy and located further outside the West African subregion, that a foreigner/stranger changes status to, or rather ascends to the category of, a migrant. In this way of thinking, the migrant denotes nothing short of an aspirational figure.
Of course, there are nuances and ambivalences in how this figure is imagined. For example, the geographical boundaries underlying the distinction between the foreigner/stranger and the ‘migrant proper’ are not clearly drawn but open to renegotiation and imaginative rescaling. Likewise, there is a widely-shared knowledge about the legal precarity and social marginality that being a migrant in these more preferred destinations potentially entails, especially for Africans, which lends the designation a more complex conceptual texture than it might seem at first glance. Notwithstanding these ambivalences, the distinction is central to how the migrant and migration are conceptualized in emic perspectives, and this conceptualization is saliently reflected in the use of language. Someone who comes to Ghana from, say, Burkina Faso or Cameroon is called a stranger/foreigner, and his or her journey is termed travel. But when the person moves on and out from West Africa to, say, Europe or Asia, he or she turns into a migrant, while his or her journey converts into migration.
Seen from the perspective of the West Africans I work with, then, which includes both the non-Ghanaian strangers/foreigners and their Ghanaian hosts, the migrant is a person whose movement, and whose past or prospective presence in distant places, is not considered a problem, at least not by itself. This understanding of the categories of the migrant and migration is at odds with their invocation in political debate in Europe and other parts of the world, notwithstanding that these debates tend to revolve much about the aspired and/or realized movement of ‘African migrants’. These divergent and diverse ways in which meaning is ascribed to the migrant category, which here become especially flagrant, bring me back to the above-outlined calls for a reflexive use of key migration categories and concepts as well as to my above-raised concern about the perspective from which this reflexivity of use is approached.
By raising this concern, I do not mean to question the relevance of efforts at reflexivity, which, regarding the use of categories and concepts, crucially implies paying heed to their historical specificity, their constructed nature and the political and ethical implications of their use in institutional settings. The often-vilifying ways in which the category of the migrant is conjured and reified in political discourse and practice in North Atlantic contexts certainly renders critical distance necessary. By singling out these context-specific uses of the migrant/migration categories, however, the critique runs the risk of tacitly reifying and universalizing the concepts of migrant/migration, separating them off from the social, political and historical particularities in which they are embedded.
This point becomes acutely visible when we shift attention towards contexts outside North Atlantic societies, as I here tried to demonstrate with regard to how people in West Africa, and specifically those on the move, differentiate the category of migrant from other designations and invest it with meaning. What this shifted perspective demonstrates is that, much like the empirical migrant, the conceptual migrant is a dynamic and versatile construct, one capable of shifting its semantic and conceptual content as it travels from one context to another.
While I endorse Tuley’s above-quoted call for the need to re-think the epistemic and ontological foundations of migration research, the risk is to take the critique of categories and concepts – as deployed in research concerned with the social and political realities in North Atlantic contexts – as both the starting and ending point of this rethinking. This raises the question about the conception and scope of reflexivity itself.
The conception that appears to underline much of the current reflexive strategies in migration scholarship understands reflexivity as a kind of critical look into the mirror, a self-referential examination of one’s own viewpoint and the terms and methods of analysis this viewpoint affords. This look into the mirror is certainly an important element of reflexive thinking and research, not least because, by reminding the onlooker of the existence of her or his own gaze, it helps dismantling objectivist illusions. But the scope of insights offered by this kind of self-focused reflexivity is limited, and the ‘turn’ performed when looking into the mirror is likely to be only a turn on one’s own axis.
A more generative conception of reflexivity is one akin to the diverse reflections produced in a house of mirrors, to stay with the metaphor. Here, it is not merely one dominant viewpoint that bends back onto itself by looking into one mirror. Rather, the onlooker is confronted with a multiplicity of mirrors that produce competing reflections of different sources and scales. Reflexivity, so conceived, not only offers more room for performing a (reflexive) turn but also opens up a broader spectrum of perspectives for rethinking the foundations of migration research. Ultimately, such more expansive reflexivity will facilitate methodological and analytical approaches that bring migration research closer to the perspectives and self-understandings of the very people who, at least in North Atlantic contexts, are as present in public and political debate as they are silenced.
Amelina, Anna. 2021. After the reflexive turn in migration studies: Towards the doing migration approach. Population, Space and Place 27(1).
Anderson, Bridget. 2019. New directions in migration studies: towards methodological de-nationalism. Comparative Migration Studies 7(1).
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. 2000. Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton UP.
Nieswand, Boris, and Heike Drotbohm (eds). 2014. Kultur, Gesellschaft, Migration: Die reflexive Wende in der Migrationsforschung. Springer.
Nail, Thomas. 2015. The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford UP.
Tuley, Marie. 2020. Taking decolonising seriously: the problem with migration studies. IMISCO PhD Blog <https://www.imiscoe.org/news-and-blog/phd-blog/1121-taking-decolonising-seriously-the-problem-with-migration-studies>.