Migrant Knowledge

Telling History from a Migration Perspective is Not an Add-On

History can change common knowledge about a society’s self-perceptions if it is systematically told from a migration perspective. Any intention to do so, however, remains all too easily an empty assertion if the constitutive dimension of migration is not shown in concrete terms. I am not talking about adding a history of migration to so-called general history. In fact, migration should not only be brought to the fore where its influence is obvious. On the contrary, all fields of society have to be looked at differently, including democracy, agriculture, or, as is the case in my recently published open access book Gender Innovation and Migration in Switzerland, the history of gender equality.1 What we need is not primarily a history of migration, which can be found in books that specifically address this topic, but a “migrantization” of our understanding of the past. In short, we need a different viewpoint.

Sedentary Bias

The fact that migration often takes place under very problematic conditions should of course not be negated. Very often, however, dominant discourses suffer from a sedentary bias and produce an unquestioned assumption that migration per se is a problem. If migration is apprehended from a sedentary viewpoint, it inevitably becomes something that “needs to be fixed” by a certain set of policies. This happens on both ends of the political spectrum. “The repressive variant is tight border control,” observes Stephen Castle, the more liberal one addresses “the ‘root causes’ of migration—especially poverty and violence in origin countries—so that people do not have to migrate. Either way, migration is seen as harmful and dysfunctional.”2

A sedentary bias can also be found in academic approaches to migration. In recent essays I have shown how Swiss history has often been written in such a way as to frame migration as, above all, a problem in need of a solution.3 As a result, the fundamental way in which migration has shaped contemporary society is overlooked. For instance, the relationship between migration and what I call gender innovation often goes unrecognized. In an otherwise very valuable recent book on the women’s movement in Switzerland since 1968, groups formed by women from the country’s migrant communities are, for example, completely ignored. It is as if they were not part of the women’s movement.4 As a consequence, the fact that migration has given important impulses for gender equality in Switzerland also escapes attention.

This example shows that if we do not start to look at the past from a different perspective, omissions that are unjustifiable when migration is taken into account will occur again and again. The Swiss case is not isolated. Christiane Harzig observed in 2001 that “US women’s history … still has not completely succeeded in conceptualizing “‘the immigrant woman’ into its analysis of the women’s movement.”5 In addition, the present struggle for gender equality has so far also mostly been written in a way that casts migration as a problem. Specifically, “migrant” men are seen as causing problems and “migrant” women as having them. The men are described as a risk and the women as being at risk, as Marlou Schrover aptly puts it.6 The significance of migration as a possible motor for equal rights is thus erased both from the past and the present.

Social Innovation

In Gender Innovation and Migration in Switzerland, I present a different picture of the role of migration in Swiss society, suggesting a way in which migration has contributed to shifting gender roles, which themselves reflect and shape how a society understands and organizes itself. Specifically, I analyze distinct but interrelated fields: access to higher education and political rights, the changing gendered division of work, and the establishment of daycare infrastructure. I have selected these examples in order to show that migration generated gender innovation in various constellations. They allow us to reflect on how, precisely, such processes of migration and change occur and how they can be explained.

For instance, the “contribution of migration to the creation of new ideas (not just their spread) has been underemphasized in previous analyses.”7 Patrick Manning sees especially cross-community migration—the migration of humans across the boundaries of language and culture—as driving development. However, by characterizing this form of migration as male, he marginalizes females as historical agents, as Donna Gabaccia points out.8 Moreover, “moving from the countryside to the nearest town or city can be just as much an occasion of knowledge creation as relocation from one continent to another,” as Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg argue.9

Once we attend to such historical processes, important aspects of the past appear in a new light. For instance, when certain privileges of a group intersect with specific forms of discrimination against the same group, the resulting situations offer the potential for new social and political configurations. Let me offer a concrete example.

In various countries today, there are attempts to encourage more men to work in daycare facilities because, as social institutions, they should reflect the diversity of society.10 In 2015, two thousand people started apprenticeships as specialists in nursery childcare in Switzerland, of whom 284 were men.11 With respect to the background of male apprentices in nurseries, it would be very interesting to obtain accurate statistics, but at least at the moment they are not available. It might very well be that among these male apprentices, the ratio of young men with a so-called migrant background is above average because of the implications of their societal position.12 Occupations considered typically female, as care work is, are generally remunerated at lower rates in Switzerland (and elsewhere), compared to other professions.13 Young people who are perceived as “foreigners” (because they have a name that “does not sound Swiss,” for example) are discriminated against when trying to find an apprenticeship.14 Young people of first-generation immigrant families who have comparable formal qualifications to their Swiss peers are about four times less likely to find an apprenticeship.15 This structural inequality, in turn, increases the probability that they will end up choosing a training position in fields such as child care. In this job, these youth become important role models and, at the same time, renegotiate and redefine what masculinity means to them, as they find ways to manage “legitimate subject positions as both childcare workers and as men.”16

It still is an open question whether such a tendency can be proven statistically, although I would certainly like to investigate the issue in a future project. At any rate, it seems to be the case that “gender norms can be shifted and the gendered division of work altered … through the combined impact of international migration and of men’s employment in feminised paid work.”17 Here, certain privileges—being male—intersect with specific forms of discrimination to produce an ambiguous potential for new social and political configurations.

There are more reasons for thinking that migration and gender innovation can be related. Knowledge and the motivation needed to push for change can circulate through various manifestations of migration, and new networks and alliances of resistance can thereby be forged.18 Also, those who happen to not comply with a norm because they are used to different standards of behavior may even unintentionally call these very norms into question. Last but not least, relationships of power can sometimes be more easily perceived by newcomers because these relationships tend to become naturalized by their everyday presence. The newcomers’ gaze has the power to defamiliarize the familiar19 and in this way produce an “awareness of alternatives,” as Peter Burke points out.20


To understand processes of socio-political innovation, the concept of intersectionality is highly important. This term was first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in a seminal paper in which she analyzed the “particular manner in which Black women are subordinated.”21 At “the intersection of race and sex,” different kinds of discrimination meet. The resulting oppressive effect follows a logic of its own and is not limited to the simple addition of the various forms of discrimination in play.22 An intersectional approach thus studies how specific discriminatory effects result from the connection of various kinds of oppression. Crenshaw developed her approach as a critique of how the U.S. legal system reacted to lawsuits where both race and gender discrimination were involved. Accordingly, she focused on the specific effects of multiple forms of discrimination. The concept of intersectionality—or interdependence—can be used in a broader sense though.

Besides examining the interdependence of two forms of oppression, it is also possible to analyze the effects arising from the coming together of certain kinds of privilege and discrimination. Such situations produce the potential for new social and political configurations. Indeed, it is precisely the coexistence of privileging and discrimination that can generate change. Interdependence therefore not only allows actors in different social movements to acknowledge the “interconnectedness of the issues that concern them” and in so doing strengthen their struggle.23 Even without such an awareness of the actors involved, the interdependence of privileges and discrimination can produce a situation that fosters social change.

The clash of privileges with specific forms of discrimination has been addressed by different scholars. For instance, Floya Anthias calls this “contradictory locations.”24 At the end of her article, Anthias briefly indicates that such situations have a potential for transformation, but she does not provide any empirical material to demonstrate this. By analyzing such processes very concretely, I hope to take the theory of interdependence a step further.

The Migrantization of Historiography

At this point, I would like to come back to the migrantization of history. The concept of migrantization is not without problems. People who question the belonging of other people in their society because of the latter’s so-called migration backgrounds are migrantizing their fellow human beings. Migrantization is also present when a perceived cultural affiliation is used as the explanatory approach for certain actions, while other factors fall by the wayside. For example, causes for the behavior of the population perceived as migrants are often sought in the “culture” where they or their parents came from (for example, in the use of violence), whereas for “natives” other explanatory approaches are used in the same context, such as by reference to mental illness. In other words, the behavior of “foreigners” is often traced back to the corresponding “foreign” collective, whereas in the case of “natives” individual factors provide the justification. At the same time, the constitutive dimension of migration is erased from history.

In light of these circumstances, we need a demigrantization of people and at the same time a migrantization of historiography.25 I am not talking about adding migration history to so-called general history but rather viewing the general through the lens of one of its core constitutive elements, in this case migration.26 In future we need not only a migration historiography that addresses this topic as such but also a migrantization, so to speak, of historiography as a whole. Analogous to how women’s history led to gender history and the recognition that gender is a constitutive element of society in ways that go beyond differences of sex, we need to move from an exclusive focus on migration as a specific experience of many people and instead explore the deeper ways in which it shapes society and its socio-cultural mores and knowledge orders.

To take the analogy still further, gender history has not made women’s history superfluous; a backlog of hidden knowledge about “female” human life contexts remains to this day. For this reason, women’s history and gender history must be seen as complementary approaches requiring interdependent approaches. The same applies to the relationship between migration history and what I am advocating. To migrantize historiography means to continue research inspired by interest in the agency and circumstances of people with migration experience, but it also means recognizing that the effects of migration extend well beyond more conventional focuses of investigation. Migration should not be seen as a separate social, political, and economic sphere but as societally formative instead.


FRANCESCA FALK is senior lecturer in the Department of Contemporary History, University of Fribourg, Switzerland.

  1. Francesca Falk, Gender Innovation and Migration in Switzerland  (Cham: Palgrave Pivot, 2019), open access. ↩︎
  2. Stephen Castles, “Understanding Global Migration: A Social Transformation Perspective,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies  36, no. 10 (2010): 1567. ↩︎
  3. See, for example, Francesca Falk, “Marignano da, Migration dort, Südafrika nirgends: Über eine gewollte Entkoppelung von Diskursen,” Traverse: Zeitschrift für Geschichte  3 (2015): 155–65. ↩︎
  4. Kristina Schulz, Sarah Kiani, and Leena Schmitter, Frauenbewegung: Die Schweiz seit 1968: Analysen, Dokumente, Archive  (Baden: Hier und Jetzt, 2014). ↩︎
  5. Christiane Harzig, “Women Migrants as Global and Local Agents: New Research Strategies on Gender and Migration,” in Women, Gender, and Labour Migration: Historical and Global Perspectives, ed. Pamela Sharpe (London: Routledge, 2001), 20. ↩︎
  6. Marlou Schrover, “Feminization and Problematization of Migration: Europe in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” in Proletarian and Gendered Mass Migrations: A Global Perspective on Continuities and Discontinuities from the 19th to the 21st Centuries, ed. Dirk Hoerder and Amarjit Kaur (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 103–31. ↩︎
  7. Patrick Manning, “Cross-Community Migration: A Distinctive Human Pattern,” Social Evolution and History  5, no. 2 (2006): 46. ↩︎
  8. Donna R. Gabaccia, “Gender and Migration,” in The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, ed. Immanuel Ness (Malden: Wiley, 2013), https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/book/10.1002/9781444351071. ↩︎
  9. Simone Lässig and Swen Steinberg, “Knowledge on the Move: New Approaches toward a History of Migrant Knowledge,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft  43, no. 3 (2017): 316. ↩︎
  10. See, for example, the Swiss project More Men in Childcare (MAKI). ↩︎
  11. Falk, Gender Innovation, 52–53. ↩︎
  12. Interview with a former manager of a nursery in Basel who was also responsible for coordinating different nurseries, July 25, 2016. ↩︎
  13. Philipp Mühlhauser, Das Lohnbuch 2016  (Zurich: Schulthess, 2016). ↩︎
  14. Christian Imdorf, “Die Diskriminierung ‘ausländischer’ Jugendlicher bei der Lehrlingsauswahl,” in Diskriminierung: Grundlagen und Forschungsergebnisse, ed. Ulrike Hormel and Albert Scherr (Wiesbaden 2010): 197–219. ↩︎
  15. Abteilung Gleichstellung von Frauen und Männern Basel-Stadt, Gleichgestellt? Facts and Figures  (Basel, November 2014), http://docplayer.org/74131920-Gleichgestellt-facts-figures.html. ↩︎
  16. Julia Nentwich et al., “The Same and the Other: Male Childcare Workers Managing Identity Dissonance,” International Review of Sociology  23, no. 2 (2013): 329. ↩︎
  17. Ester Gallo and Francesca Scrinzi, Migration, Masculinities and Reproductive Labour: Men of the Home  (Palgrave: Basingstoke, 2016), 30. ↩︎
  18. See, for example, my forthcoming “Deportations, the Spreading of Dissent and the Development of Democracy: The Confino  on Ponza and Ventotene during Italian Fascism and its Political Aftermath,” Journal of Migration History  5, no. 1 (2019). ↩︎
  19. Lloyd S. Kramer, Threshold of a New World: Intellectuals and the Exile Experience in Paris, 1830–1848  (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988), 2. ↩︎
  20. Peter Burke, Exiles and Expatriates in the History of Knowledge, 1500–2000  (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2017), 23. ↩︎
  21. Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” The University of Chicago Legal Forum  140 (1989): 140. Today, the metaphor of the intersection is criticized because it suggests that there are, as with streets, separate strands of discrimination, an image that can allow the mutual constitution of these strands to disappear from view. ↩︎
  22. Patricia Purtschert and Katrin Meyer, “Die Macht der Kategorien: Kritische Überlegungen zur Intersektionalität,” Feministische Studien: Zeitschrift für interdisziplinäre Frauen- und Geschlechterforschung  28, no. 1 (2010): 130–42. ↩︎
  23. Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality  (Cambridge: Polity, 2016). ↩︎
  24. Floya Anthias, “Transnational Mobilities, Migration Research and Intersectionality: Towards a Translocational Frame,” Nordic Journal of Migration Research  2, no. 2 (2012): 102–10. ↩︎
  25. In relation to the social sciences, similar demands have been articulated for some time, see for example, Regina Römhild, “Jenseits ethnischer Grenzen: Für eine postmigrantische Kultur- und Gesellschaftsforschung,” in Nach der Migration: Postmigrantische Perspektiven jenseits der Parallelgesellschaft, ed. Erol Yildiz and Marc Hill (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2015), 37–48; Janine Dahinden, “A Plea for the ‘De-Migranticization’ of Research on Migration and Integration,” in Ethnic and Racial Studies  39, no. 13 (2016): 2207–25. ↩︎
  26. See Gary Wilder, “From Optic to Topic: The Foreclosure Effect of Historiographic Turns,” The American Historical Review  117, no. 3 (2012): 723–45. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Francesca Falk, "Telling History from a Migration Perspective is Not an Add-On," Migrant Knowledge, March 15, 2019, https://migrantknowledge.org/2019/03/15/telling-history-from-a-migration-perspective-is-not-an-add-on/.