Migrant Knowledge

Migrant Knowledge: An Entangled Object of Research

What is migrant knowledge? So far, two branches of history have addressed the topic, if not by name. Intellectual historians have focused on the works of émigré scholars such as Hannah Arendt in philosophy, Michel-Rolph Trouillot in historical anthropology, and Edward Said in cultural studies. Such professors can be said to have produced migrant knowledge because their thinking was shaped by their experiences as exiles. Moreover, they chose to conduct research on the inclusion or exclusion of people according to societal hierarchies that were themselves entangled with forced and voluntary migration.

A second group, social historians and social scientists, have found the writings of such authors to contain valuable tools for studying the processes and rationalities at work in the administrative making of migrants. With their case studies, they show how migrants were subject to bureaucratic and academic routines of classification, racialization, and the definition—even elimination—of their legal status, personhood, and cultural output.1 Social history and neighboring disciplines such as ethnic studies have not stopped at the office desks of state officials and scientific experts, however. Historians and other scholars are studying the everyday consequences that bureaucratic definitional work held for the people it sought to characterize. Immigrants, refugees, “illegal aliens,” and other subaltern subjects inhabited and often actively interrogated the contradictory categories and conflicting goals confronting them.2 Consequently, researchers are coming to understand migrant responses as knowledge in its own right, even though it does not manifest itself in the learned books of émigré scholarship. Moreover, as with any type of knowledge, scholars are finding that such migrant knowledge is not self-contained. It remains tied to state-produced and other bodies of knowledge.3

While we embrace these perspectives, we are launching Migrant Knowledge to foster discussions and collaborations in ways that incorporate much more than the administrative logics of inclusion and exclusion, their everyday discriminatory effects, and subsequent efforts to counter such repercussions. There are more social actors and phenomena that could and should occupy center stage in histories about migrant knowledge. What follows is a loose list that could be easily extended.

Migrant knowledge is at stake when we consider the calculations and planning of workers about to move to a new country. There are the travel information brokers for those willing to migrate, and there are people smugglers to be studied. Many types of knowledge manifest in or attach to the inflatable dinghies marketed as refugee boats for the Mediterranean. High tech material testing of synthetic rubber or vinyl, makeshift bricolage, nautical expertise, political calculations, sales estimates, individual bets on the future, legal and illegal monetary flows, group sociologies, and more could be unpacked. The knowledge infrastructure of solidarity among and with migrants is equally sophisticated and worth analyzing. Migrants have been involved in unionized labor relations, schools, and memory politics. All of these constellations lend themselves to examination from a history of knowledge perspective. So do the alternative geographies that emerge from tracing the paths that migrants follow. Borderlines become borderscapes. Migrants aim to evade ever expanding, even deterritorialized border control techniques. At the same time, migrants and border enforcement personnel count on the physiographic advantages and disadvantages of the landscapes that people on the move need to traverse.4 And what could we learn about the environment, global markets, sexual relations, or violence in a given time and place, if we also factored in what migrant workers, their families, or political refugees had to say about these phenomena?

Studying migrant knowledge leads to the question of what it can offer historians. Is the research focus something new for the sake of being different? I do not think so. To conclude this introduction, I would like to point to three historiographical reasons for the topic’s value.

More Actors and Interactions

As far as the history of migration more narrowly is concerned, we need to bring together as many voices as possible in order to gain a fuller picture of the many logics behind how people and states deal with work, migration, flight, and heterogenous mobility and dwelling patterns within and beyond nation states. Approaches in the history of knowledge call for studying all actors and bodies of knowledge in equal measure and with similar methods. This is the difference to more conventional works in the history of science and the history of ideas. At the same time, the premise of studying different knowledges and actors symmetrically (community, religious, professional, academic, political, and economic) does not mean ignoring asymmetrical power effects. Different types of knowledge are backed by very specific sources of authority and enjoy unequal social currency.

Aquí y Allá mural by Michelle Angela Ortiz; used by courtesy of the artist. This mural is a form of materialized migrant knowledge captured in the course of the transnational public art project Aquí y Allá (Here and There). In the summer of 2012, Philadelphia artist Michelle Angela Ortiz connected Mexican immigrant youth in South Philadelphia with youth in Chihuahua, Mexico, to create a permanent mural in South Philadelphia. In the process of making the mural under the artist’s direction, the group of youth explored the effects of immigration on their lives and developed ways to communicate their insights.

Relationships between Disparate Topics

Many authors in the history of ideas, the history of mentalities, and the archaeology of knowledge argue that the logics and epistemologies underpinning societal interactions are far-reaching and long-lasting. The example of the inflatable boat at the intersection of many knowledge-informed practices suggests just how far we might have to cast our empirical net to understand why collective routines, once established, are difficult to end. In applying a history of knowledge perspective to migration, we can bring together phenomena whose interrelations might otherwise remain unnoticed. We could, for instance, sort out the long-term effects that the agricultural protectionism of the European Union and its predecessors has had on today’s flight and economic migration patterns. Such an undertaking need not amount to an exercise in macroeconomics but could instead lead to empirically rich, actor-centered narratives about a myriad of factors that contribute to the decisions of people in rural Africa to leave their homes in order to survive or even prosper. Such factors might include the effects of industrial countries’ georgic nostalgia, inter-European developmental policies, the circulation of visions of consumer democracies, advances in agrochemistry and biotechnology, or competing models of economic growth in a decolonizing world.

In any case, histories of migrant knowledge will not necessarily end with classic migration-related topics such as citizenship, xenophobia, or hybrid identities. Instead, such studies might lead to research in many new directions. A similar idea is manifest in the concept “postmigration,” developed in German-speaking migrant activist circles and migration studies.5 The outward dynamic shared by some strands of migration studies and knowledge research could be mutually reinforcing and redirect future research to more contextualizing studies.

The Long View

As the example of agricultural policies hints at, knowledge might offer an important key to grasping the temporal aspects of migrations, especially over the long term. The history of knowledge, after all, tends to pay close attention to the longue durée. Knowledge requires time. It is neither made nor does it play out in the blink of an eye. Once established, it orients individual and collective action, and it might quietly do so long after any conscious understanding of its impact has faded from memory. Embracing a history of knowledge perspective will arguably encourage scholarly and political actors in the heatedly debated field of migration to attend to temporally remote trends in order to probe their modern-day significance, their long-term effects, or simply their suitability for comparative studies.

All three of these arguments for more histories of migrant knowledge speak to interests that most historians share: complex, actor-centered narratives; causal linkages between seemingly disparate elements of the same story; and the longue durée. Given these points and that we live in a world marked by the pervasive phenomenon and experience of migration, migrant knowledge and its underlying logics and epistemologies constitute worthy objects for historical inquiry. We look forward to contributions that seek to comprehend the past and its ramifications by putting questions of migration and knowledge center stage. We look forward to learning about and sharing the kinds of related methods and sources that junior, mid-career, and senior scholars find fruitful for their own work—work that is situated at the intersection of migration studies and the history of knowledge (two heterogenous fields of study in themselves). And we look forward to publishing short narratives stemming from this work, whether tentative or more settled.


Andrea Westermann is a research fellow and the head of office at the Pacific Regional Office of the GHI Washington, at Berkeley, and a co-editor of this blog.

  1. Liisa Malkki, “National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization of National Identity among Scholars and Refugees,” Cultural Anthropology  7, no. 1 (1992): 24–44; Philip Marfleet, “Refugees and History: Why We Must Address the Past,” Refugee Survey Quarterly  26, no. 3 (2007): 136–48; Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America  (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004); Julia Schulze Wessel, Grenzfiguren: Zur politischen Theorie des Flüchtlings  (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2017).  ↩︎
  2. Seth Holmes, Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies: Migrant Farmworkers in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).  ↩︎
  3. Michael Goebel, Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015);Nicholas De Genova (2016). “The ‘native’s point of view’ in the anthropology of migration,” Anthropological Theory 16, no. 2227–40; Risto Lenz, “Mediators of Knowledge: WPA Folklorists and 1930s Migrant Culture,” History of Knowledge, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/04/11/mediators-of-knowledge-wpa-folklorists-and-1930s-migrant-culture.  ↩︎
  4. Francisco Cantú, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (New York: Penguin, 2018).  ↩︎
  5. Erol Yildiz and Marc Hill, eds., Nach der Migration: Postmigrantische Perspektiven jenseits der Parallelgesellschaft (Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2014).  ↩︎

Suggested citation: Andrea Westermann, "Migrant Knowledge: An Entangled Object of Research," Migrant Knowledge, March 14, 2019, https://migrantknowledge.org/2019/03/14/migrant-knowledge/.