Migrant Knowledge

Not a Given Object: What Historians Can Learn from the Reflexive Turn in Migration Studies

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, those adept in science and technology studies are either having a field day, or they are annoyingly unsurprised by the course of events. This is not so much because they saw the crisis coming (they probably didn’t), but because so much of contemporary politic-making can be explained by the mechanics of truth-making and the production of expertise. The present situation offers many insights into the globalized world of today, and it is particularly revealing when it comes to the remarkable influence of scientific data and their translation into different fields. The controversial character of the translation process derives from the very fact that knowledge, even scientific knowledge, is context-dependent. It is a distinctly volatile good that is constantly transformed by its use in different public spheres, epistemic fields, and political realms.

In the last two decades, sociologists, anthropologists, and historians alike have increasingly made the sciences into their own field of research. They have entered laboratories and observatories, operating theaters and experimental chambers in order to learn more about the production of knowledge and its effects. They have come to unravel the various ways that bodies and the physical world are defined, and more recently they have also begun to study knowledge about the social world. By now, there are numerous studies that scrutinize archival practices and explore the categorizing and datafication of societies, both in the past and in the present. Historians have investigated the production of census data and shed light on the “trust in numbers” that came to characterize the practice of experts, politicians, and administrators in different national and imperial settings. And they have altered our understanding of modernization and technocracy by pointing to the role of (social scientific) knowledge and expertise. However, even though constructivist perspectives on categories such as race or class are hardly new, the production and circulation of knowledge about migration and migrants have been explored but little.

At the same time, the very way in which governmental and nongovernmental actors deal with migration has always depended on specific categories, data, and narratives. In short, it depends on the knowledge they use to order and make sense of different mobilities. And even though we, as social scientists, cannot enter “migration laboratories” in order to understand how the specific setup of a policy influenced the knowledge produced (and vice versa), we can enter border stations, “alien” offices, and the like to ask how, when, and where contemporary and historical actors have produced the categories, terms, and data used to classify and describe migrants and migratory practices and how these categories, terms, and data have changed while circulating transnationally.

There is fertile ground for this approach in the interdisciplinary field of migration studies, where more and more scholars are currently calling for a more self-conscious, perspective on the production of knowledge about migration. Migration scholars are increasingly directing their attention to the discourses and practices that constitute migration as a “social fact.” They perceive migration not as a self-evident, given object of analysis but as a product of changing constellations and categorizations that are themselves used to allocate resources and reorder socio-political hierarchies. In the name of a more reflexive perspective, scholars are thus investigating the categories used to make sense of and deal with migration and different mobilities.

Pointing to the often close relationship between (restrictive) migration regimes, a nationalist framing of society, and knowledge about migration, they suggest critically reevaluating (and partly doing away with) central categories of migration research (see our reading suggestions below). For example, in Western European countries like Germany, migration researchers have shown a remarkable interest in the “integration” of different ethnic groups for several decades. In contrast, more recent analyses have criticized this integrationist focus, arguing that it has often contributed not only to a specific image of society as a seemingly homogenous, stable entity but also to an essentialist understanding of ethnic and cultural differences, with certain groups assumed to be in particular need of integration. In the name of a more reflexive perspective, more recent analyses have also pointed to the incoherencies and the (at times racialized) hierarchies inherent in the categorizing of certain ethnic and social groups, as, for example, “expatriates” on the one hand and “immigrants” on the other hand.

Migration researchers also analyze how discourses on migration are linked to the worldviews, intentions, and interests of specific historical actors. A self-reflexive perspective on migration research thus entails asking the very basic question of how migration research and other forms of knowledge production contribute to a particular image of society and mobile people. How does the production of academic and other formalized knowledge about migration help draw the lines between “inside” and “outside,” belonging and non-belonging, inclusion and exclusion?

Asking these questions is particularly important when it comes to the representation of migration as seemingly external to modern societies. Viewing migration as a problem for social cohesion and the governance of societies has become a constitutive epistemic frame that continues to constrain large parts of applied migration research. The knowledge thus produced helps to maintain often restrictive migration regimes. It helps to establish the otherness of “migrants” and their cultural difference to “locals” as purported givens. Though migration researchers are advancing differing approaches to tackle these analytical problems, they agree on the need for a critical re-evaluation and de-essentialization of central categories of migration research.

Parallel to (and in part linked to) this interdisciplinary, strongly sociological discussion, historians have also become increasingly interested in knowledge about migration in recent years. So far, however, they have largely focused on the role of knowledge in the cultural transfers carried out by migrants themselves. They have started to make sense of the knowledge that migrants bring with them and to ask to what extent migrants have served as the source of cultural transformation in their host societies. This approach differs from how the migration–knowledge nexus is discussed in the social sciences. While the former approach particularly emphasizes cultural transfers and the knowledge attached to particular groups and networks, the latter tends to focus on the circulation of data and concepts, and their interconnection with changing migration regimes.1 At the same time, the social sciences’ efforts to “go reflexive” have so far neglected historical perspectives (for example, on the transnational dimension of the modern nation-state).

It is our contention that historians of migration can both contribute to and profit from analyzing the production and circulation of knowledge about migration and diversity. They can contribute to a more self-reflexive perspective on nationalized notions of society, especially because they have rich experience in setting up transnational research designs. Historical analyses inspired by the reflexive turn in current migration research can also help us to understand different mobilities not as a given object, but as manufactured. They can help us make sense of the hierarchies inherent in mobilities, including the ways in which they are shaped by state policies and different ways of categorizing mobility.

To illustrate this point, let us delve into an example from the history of the early twentieth century. In July 1928, the international press was reeling from the shocking news that one of the richest men in the world, Alfred Loewenstein, had disappeared from his private airplane over the channel between England and France. In fact, the story of Loewenstein’s death had the makings of a first-rate murder mystery. The Belgian financier, who had flown with his entire entourage from Croydon, London’s only airport, to Brussels, had inexplicably disappeared during the flight. His body was found two weeks later. What followed were weeks of public speculation about the financier’s death. Those contemporary reports are quite riveting, given the sensational criminal case they detail. Yet, they are also important for what we are discussing here, as they meticulously recount the mobility habits of a multimillionaire in the early twentieth century. They allow us to grasp the impact of the different categories and infrastructures of control that regulated the movement of people at the time.

Before his death, Alfred Lowenstein, who had made most of his money in international finance, was a man constantly on the move: He owned several airplanes, had his own fleet of cars, and employed his own pilot. In addition to his house in Brussels, he owned a palace in the exclusive French seaside resort of Biarritz, and he repeatedly spent winter holidays in the Swiss ski resort of St. Moritz. All this at a time when the international airline industry transported no more than 640,000 people worldwide each year. His high degree of transnational mobility testifies to a privileged position in the contemporary border and migration regime. For although the Belgian banker lived at his horse ranch in Northern England for large parts of the year (and had done so for several years), when he entered Britain, he was not considered an “alien” or an “alien immigrant” but rather a “business traveller.” Nor was he subject to any controls.

Like all first-class passengers arriving in English ports by ship, air travelers like Loewenstein were not required to have an entry permit, nor were they checked by immigration officials. Second-class passengers, on the other hand, were checked, as were all others who could not afford first-class tickets. The British border regime of the time attempted to distinguish between the desired mobility of well-off Western and white people and the undesired mobility of mainly Jewish, Eastern European, or nonwhite travelers. Whereas those latter travelers embodied the figure of the “alien immigrant” subject to control and deportation, the border and migration regime of the day neither labelled nor registered someone like Loewenstein as part of the immigrant population, nor did it treat him as such.

Generally speaking, in the 1920s, the borders in the transatlantic area became increasingly tight, and the figure of the “alien immigrant” was in many respects the product of these increased border and mobility controls. What at first glance seems to be a rather familiar observation, well established in research on border and migration regimes in the long twentieth century, reveals its problematic impetus when connected to the history of migration studies. Over the course of the twentieth century, this field of research grew in its influence on the ways in which societies dealt with migration, developing hand in hand with state categorizations of transnationally mobile groups and the privileging of some of those groups over others. In order to categorize and privilege, earlier migration regimes had already come to depend on specific forms of data about populations, nations, and empires, such as censuses. These were then interwoven with changing understandings of race, class, ethnicity, sex and gender and came to categorize people along the lines of an ethnonationalist understanding of belonging (or non-belonging).

While it has become the norm in historical migration research and in the social sciences to critically reflect upon the state-centered framework of analysis and to favor an analytical approach that pays tribute to the social and transnational mobility of historical actors, the same does not apply to the categories, data, and terms used. There is still a tendency in historical migration research to operate with state-produced categories, data sets, and epistemic frameworks that perceive “migrants” as society’s other, “migration” as the mobile exception to the sedentary rule. Consequently, extremely mobile individuals, privileged and wealthy like Loewenstein, do not surface in historical research on migration because they were not included in political considerations of what constituted an “immigrant” at the time.

Another example might help to illustrate the problems of reusing the politicized mobility categories of past migration regimes in current historical research. The history of Chinese migration to the United States in the decades before and after the turn of the nineteenth century is well researched. We know a lot about how restrictive and racialized migration regimes contributed to constructing the figure of the illegal Chinese immigrant. Historians have elaborated on how the border regions of the United States transformed into sites of contestation over illegal migration; immigration and labor policies; bilateral relations; and the framing of race, citizenship, class, and gender. However, less well-known is the travel of Chinese students to the United States from 1908 onwards in the context of the so-called Boxer Indemnity Scholarships. This scholarship program was set up in 1908 in a bilateral treaty between the Chinese empire and the United States and was intended to discharge some of the compensatory payments imposed on China by an international military alliance in 1900, in the aftermath of the violent repression of the Boxer Rebellion. The idea behind the scholarships developed in the context of a severe crisis in Chinese society that followed the military intervention and the stark competition between the Chinese empire and an increasingly powerful Japan for hegemony in East Asia. The outstanding reparations were converted into scholarships with the aim of attracting the future Chinese elite to take up their studies in the United States. In that way, the U.S. government hoped for a dual benefit for its own global position. On the one hand, it wished to extend its sphere of influence in East Asia by influencing the far-reaching reform policies the Chinese government was introducing. On the other hand, it sought to enhance its own claim to ascendancy in the Pacific by supplanting the imperial capital of Japan as the main destination for Chinese students abroad with its own rising system of higher education. For this purpose, the restrictive immigration rules and quotas were rescinded for Chinese students while they were upheld for Chinese migrants.

This example illustrates again that the mobility options of historical actors have always depended on how they were categorized, including whether and how they were made into “migrants.” Interesting for us, however, is the very fact that this twofold strategy towards Chinese migration, which paved the way to the United States for one Chinese group while the other remained illegalized, is rarely perceived as two sides of the same coin. This circumstance arises from an analytical operation that replicates contemporary practices of categorization by splitting the issue between two poorly connected fields of research: The exclusion of Chinese laborers is the subject matter of migration research focused on racialized migration and border regimes, whereas the case of Chinese students in the United States is classified, if at all, along the lines of research into the history of higher education, which orbits around key words like university relations, educational internationalism, or educational mobility.

Returning to the idea that self-reflexive migration research must ask how it contributes to the construction of a particular image of groups and society and how it supports or questions predominant epistemic framing of migration as a given, we see that distinctions made between migration, travel, and other forms of mobility must not be taken for granted. Rather, a self-reflexive perspective in migration research should relate different mobilities to each other and ask how, why, when, and by whom different forms of mobility have been framed as legal or illegal migration; as immigration, emigration, or exile; as educational mobility, business travel, tourism, or retirement mobility. Doing so would help to shed light on the persistence of such epistemic distinctions and on how they have manifested themselves in the development of the discipline itself.

Historical research can contribute to such a reflexive understanding of the ways in which different mobilities have been cast as “immigration,” “emigration,” or “migration,” while others have not. In that way, it can contribute not just to examining the history of migrations and mobilities, but also to developing a more nuanced understanding of the “invention” of societies, nation-states, and empires, as well as national or international orders. These have not only been shaped by mobile people but also by the concrete ways in which those in power have decided to regulate and categorize different mobilities, externalizing and internalizing them in the process. Scrutinizing the knowledge used to do so—and the knowledge produced in the process—may thus help us make sense of both past and present statehoods and societies.

Isabella Löhr is a historian of global and international history, focusing on European history in global contexts, including Western and Eastern European perspectives. With Christiane Reinecke, she heads a research group called “The Production of Knowledge on Migration” at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS), Osnabrück University, Germany.
Christiane Reinecke is a historian of Modern Europe, specializing in migration history, urban history and the history of the social sciences. With Isabella Löhr, she heads “The Production of Knowledge on Migration” research group at IMIS, Osnabrück University, Germany.


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Featured image: “Exterior view of Immigration Center in Manhattan,” ca. 1908–21, with signs for the U.S. Department of Labor Immigration Service, the Office of the Committee on Community Relations of the Foreign Born, and the People’s Institute. New York Public Library Digital Collections, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8c11dff1-5bae-881a-e040-e00a18062636.

  1. Though the (transnational) circulation of knowledge plays a crucial role here too, when it comes to understanding how certain concepts, methodologies, and bodies of knowledge about migration have taken shape, the circulation of knowledge is not attached to specific groups a priori. ↩︎

Suggested citation: Isabella Löhr and Christiane Reinecke, "Not a Given Object: What Historians Can Learn from the Reflexive Turn in Migration Studies," Migrant Knowledge, October 27, 2020, https://migrantknowledge.org/2020/10/27/not-a-given-object/.