Migrant Knowledge

The Politics of Knowledge Production in Migration Studies

Over the last 30 years, Migration Studies has become increasingly institutionalized in Europe, with the number of migration-related chairs, degree programs, institutes, networks, and journals growing steadily. In the course of the 2015 crisis of the European border regime, political institutions significantly increased their demand for knowledge on migration. This is reflected in a boost of third-party funding, the establishment of new institutes providing policy advice, and in the launch of migration-related data centers by international organizations.1 This “coming of age”2 of Migration Studies, along with the augmentation of the field’s political influence, especially in Europe, make it necessary to critically examine the politics of knowledge production within it and the knowledge it produces. I argue that three distinct politics of knowledge production can currently be distinguished in Migration Studies. By politics of knowledge production, I mean specific ways of reflecting on and engaging in knowledge production that include both certain methodological and theoretical preferences and normative attitudes concerning which actors – individual and collective – as well as which political goals and social values should benefit from the knowledge produced. First, application-oriented migration research aims to produce knowledge that responds to calls for evidence-based migration policy; second, critical migration research analyzes and critiques migration-related knowledge production by states and international organizations and tries to produce counter-knowledge; and, third, reflexive migration studies scrutinize the assumptions migration researchers themselves make, along with the conditions under which they operate and the consequences of the knowledge they produce. The boundaries between these three politics of knowledge production are fluid. They react to each other and are interrelated.

Application-oriented Migration Research: Producing Knowledge for Migration Policy

Although the trend towards evidence-based policy intensified when the New Labour government came to power in the UK in the late 1990s and early 2000s,3 it began in the 1960s – also in the field of migration4 – and has links to debates on policy evaluation, evidence-based medicine, and management research. The key idea behind it is that political programs and practices should be based on empirical evidence. In the 2000s, ministries and international organizations increasingly drew on the expertise of migration researchers.5 In the course of the crisis of the European border regime in 2015, however, calls for an evidence-based migration policy became even louder, with better data on migration comprising the core of these demands. The first goal of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, an intergovernmental agreement on international migration, formally endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2018, also includes the collection and use of better data for evidence-based policies and calls for the use of alternative data sources – in particular, big data.6 Shortly before, in the context of the adoption of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, a similar debate emerged about the lack of comprehensive, reliable, and up-to-date national and international migration statistics. Without such statistics, it is often impossible to measure progress towards the achievement of migration-related development goals. The guiding principle of the sustainable development agenda “Leaving no one behind” calls for disadvantaged groups to be made more visible in statistics, which also increases the demand for migration-related data.7 This development is also reflected in the establishment of migration-related data centers by international organizations, e.g., the Global Migration Data Analysis Centre (GMDAC) of the International Organisation for Migration in 2015, the Knowledge Centre on Migration and Demography (KCMD) of the European Commission in 2016, the Joint Data Centre on Forced Displacement (JDC) of the UNHCR and the World Bank in 2018, and the IOM Global Data Institute (GDI) in 2022.

Graffiti of the phrase Migration is beautiful with butterflies in the ruin of a building likely used as shelter for migrants.
"Migration is Beautiful. #Graffiti" by spinneyhead is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

This “migration knowledge hype”8 among states and international organizations is based on the assumption that migration can be managed more effectively if governments possess more detailed and precise knowledge and more accurate data. The aim of application-oriented migration research is the production of knowledge for evidence-based migration policy. I argue elsewhere that the discourse on evidence-based migration policy is based on the assumption that “lack of ‘evidence’ is the central challenge for migration governance”; accordingly, “the ways in which societies should best deal with migration [become framed] as a technical instead of a political question.” Moreover, this framing “ignor[es] that the often conflicting relationship between migratory practices and the attempts to govern them is a highly political question.”9 This technical framing has three implications: 1) Knowledge is seen as neutral and comprehensive instead of situated and partial; 2) processes of knowledge production are considered to be value-free and smooth instead of value-laden and messy; 3) evidence-based migration policy is assumed to be the result of a direct translation from knowledge into policy instead of the outcome of a contested process of co-production and negotiation.

Critical Migration Research: Analyzing Hegemonic Knowledge Production and Counter-Knowledge

In the mid-2000s, academic discussions and publications emerged, mostly in German-speaking countries, that analyzed the Europeanization of migration policy as a “response and reaction to the turbulent dynamics of migration in Europe” and criticized the “integration imperative” reproduced in previous migration research.10 In its proximity to political activism and demands for open borders and a right to mobility, the emerging field of “critical migration and border regime research” follows in the tradition of the Forschungsgesellschaft Flucht und Migration, which was founded in Berlin in 1994. It also ties in with the Italian-French Marxist current of Postoperaism,11 Postcolonial Studies, and anti-racist struggles. Meanwhile, a large number of theoretical approaches and empirical studies can be subsumed under the label “critical migration research.” The Transit Migration Research Group outlined the central theoretical reference points of this new politics of knowledge production on migration.12 On the one hand, an “autonomy of migration”13 is assumed. The aim here is not to think “solely in terms of institutions and structures” but to start from the movements of migration and to examine “how migration policy represents a response to the practices of migration.”14 Secondly, the concept of the migration and border regime, coined by Giuseppe Sciortino15 and based on regime theory in international relations, is taken up. Instead of assuming that “migration systems [are] predominantly determined by state policy,” the regime perspective makes it possible “to include a large number of actors in the analysis whose practices are related to each other, but not in the form of a central (systemic) logic.”16 A regime is understood as an “ensemble of social practices and structures – discourses, subjects, state practices – whose arrangement is not given from the outset, but which consists precisely in generating answers to the questions and problems raised by the dynamic elements and processes.”17

Recently, critical migration scholars have focused especially on the practices of migration-related knowledge production by states and international organizations and examined their powerful impact on the consolidation, expansion, and externalization of European migration and border control.18 In this context, they have also started to analyze the production of counter-knowledge like that generated through alternative cartographic practices,19 for example, or have even produced counter-knowledge themselves, for instance, by forensically analyzing surveillance images to collect evidence of human rights violations against migrants in the Mediterranean.20

Reflexive Migration Studies: Scrutinizing the Knowledge Production by Migration Researchers

The emerging field of reflexive migration studies analyzes the practices, conditions, and consequences of migration researchers’ own knowledge production. Building on Michel Foucault’s work on power, knowledge, and governmentality, scholars argue that the social reality of migration is produced by a “migration dispositif”21 that consists as much of (state) infrastructures of mobility control such as borders, passports, and national identity discourses as of migration research itself. Accordingly, the key concern of reflexive migration studies is to self-reflexively examine the positionalities of migration-related knowledge producers, the categories and terminologies they use, and their entanglements with policymaking and postcolonial power relations.

While some scholars focus on how “reflexivity” can be used as a methodological strategy for migration researchers to possibly escape the “migration dispositif,”22 others analyze how the concept of “migration” emerged historically in close interaction between academia and politics.23 Still others examine the everyday “doing” of migration and migrants through institutional, organizational, and interactional routines24 or the “enactment” of migration through data practices.25 So far, only a few studies have focused on the material conditions of academic labor among migration scholars and the impact these conditions have on the knowledge they produce, as well as its political implications. In light of the strong need to acquire third-party funding and with reference to Marcel Mauss’s work on gift economies, Joshua Hatton analyzes the reciprocal relationship between the UK New Labour government (1997–2010) and migration researchers as a “gift exchange.”26 He describes the preparation of scientific reports and participation in government advisory committees as key ways for migration researchers to cultivate relationships with state authorities with the promise of further research contracts and third-party funding. However, Hatton argues that, by getting involved in this “gift exchange,” migration researchers provided technical and symbolic support for a tightening of migration and asylum policy and thus ultimately harmed their own research subjects. Possible negative consequences of knowledge production by migration researchers are also at the heart of Maurice Stierl’s contribution to the debate on (self-)reflexivity, as well as possible counter-strategies. Following the work of Oliver Bakewell,27 Stierl criticizes the fact that migration scholars take up concepts, categories, and questions from migration policy in order to make their own research politically relevant. Instead, Stierl proposes three alternative ways of producing knowledge to achieve impact and relevance: “epistemic interventions,” such as denaturalizing certain truths about migration through the analysis of widespread migration-related concepts and categories; “counter-empirics,” such as the forensic methods mentioned above; and activist engagement, such as the “Watch the Med Alarm Phone,” a volunteer-based initiative that operates a hotline for people in distress in the Mediterranean Sea and puts pressure on rescue services to prevent non-assistance, pushbacks, or other human rights violations to migrants at sea. Stierl argues that the “do no harm” principle used in research to prevent harming research subjects ought to be both expanded to include the involvement of migration researchers with policymaking and reversed: “Do harm” could be the motto for a critical and impactful scholarship of migration that locates, and expands, ruptures in the EUropean border regime.”28

After Migration Studies? A Field under (Re)Construction

Recently, scholars have called for the decolonization, demigraticization, or even the dismantling of Migration Studies.29 Migration Studies have been criticized for being intricately entangled with racist and colonial rationalities and for ultimately conferring “scientific” legitimacy to violent border and integration practices. While “migration” has become one of the most polarizing political issues worldwide, critical currents within Migration Studies have started to question it as an observable fact and, instead, to see “migration” as something that is socially constructed, produced, enacted, or performed.30 What do these simultaneous developments mean for the future of Migration Studies? Is it time to move beyond Migration Studies and focus more broadly on (global) inequalities, power relations, and practices of exploitation? Does the focus on “migration” and “migrants” prevent a broader analysis of global injustice? In times when states, international organizations, NGOs, data scientists, journalists, social movements, and social media users all produce knowledge on migration, what is (still) the raison d’être of Migration Studies? Current and future politics of knowledge production within and beyond Migration Studies will need to engage in this conversation.

Laura Stielike is a postdoc in the research group “The Production of Knowledge on Migration” at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies, Osnabrück University. In her current work, she explores the digital transformation of migration-related knowledge production. Previously, she investigated the ‘migration&development dispositif’ with a focus on Cameroonian migration to Germany.

  1. This contribution is based on a longer piece on the politics of knowledge production in Migration Studies written in German: Laura Stielike, “Politiken der Wissensproduktion: Das Beispiel der Migrationsforschung,” in Herrschaft und Wissen, ed. Peter Weingart, Gunnar Folke Schuppert, and Roland Röhmhildt, 219–40 (Baden-Baden, 2022). All translations are by the author. ↩︎
  2. Asya Pisarevskaya et al., “Mapping Migration Studies: An Empirical Analysis of the Coming of Age of a Research Field,” Migration Studies 8, no. 3 (1 September 2020): 455–81. ↩︎
  3. Wayne Parsons, “From Muddling Through to Muddling Up – Evidence Based Policy Making and the Modernisation of British Government,” Public Policy and Administration 17, no. 3 (July 2002): 43–60. ↩︎
  4. Christiane Reinecke, Die Ungleichheit der Städte: Urbane Problemzonen im Postkolonialen Frankreich und der Bundesrepublik (Göttingen, 2021), 122ff. ↩︎
  5. Christina Boswell, The Political Uses of Expert Knowledge: Immigration Policy and Social Research (Cambridge, 2009). ↩︎
  6. United Nations, “Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration: Resolution Adopted by the General Assembly on 19 December 2018,” 2018, 8. ↩︎
  7. UN Statistics Division, “Improving Migration Data in the Context of the 2030 Agenda,” 2017. ↩︎
  8. Maribel Casas-Cortes et al., “New Keywords: Migration and Borders,” Cultural Studies 29, no. 1 (2 January 2015): 3. ↩︎
  9. Laura Stielike, “Producing Migration Knowledge: From Big Data to Evidence-Based Policy?,” in Evidence in Action between Science and Society, ed. Sarah Ehlers and Stefan Esselborn, 1st ed., 186–202 (New York, 2022). ↩︎
  10. Serhat Karakayalı and Vassilis Tsianos, “Movements that Matter: Eine Einleitung,” in Turbulente Ränder (see note 12), 11 and 8. ↩︎
  11. Sandro Mezzadra, “Operaism and Post-Operaism,” IMEDIATA (ret. 16 Apr 2024). ↩︎
  12. Transit Migration Forschungsgruppe, ed., Turbulente Ränder: Neue Perspektiven auf Migration an den Grenzen Europas (Bielefeld, 2007). ↩︎
  13. Yann Moulier Boutang, “Nicht länger Reservearmee,” Jungle World, 3 April 2002, 15th ed. ↩︎
  14. Manuela Bojadžijev and Serhat Karakayalı, “Autonomie der Migration: 10 Thesen zu einer Methode,” in Turbulente Ränder, 204. ↩︎
  15. Guiseppe Sciortino, “Between Phantoms and Necessary Evils: Some Critical Points in the Study of Irregular Migration to Western Europe,” in “Migration and the Regulation of Social Integration,” ed. Vorstand des Instituts für Migrationsforschung und Interkulturelle Studien (IMIS) der Universität Osnabrück, special issue, IMIS Beiträge 24 (2004): 17–43. ↩︎
  16. Sabine Hess and Serhat Karakayalı, “New Governance oder Die imperiale Kunst des Regierens: Asyldiskurs und Menschenrechtsdispositiv im neuen EU-Migrationsmanagement,” in Turbulente Ränder, 48 (see note 12). ↩︎
  17. Ibid., 14. ↩︎
  18. E.g., Sabine Hess, “Das Regieren der Migration als wissensbasierte Netzwerkpolitik: Eine ethnografische Policy-Analyse des International Centre for Migration Policy Development,” in Formationen des Politischen, ed. Jens Adam and Asta Vonderau, 241–74 (Bielefeld, 2014); Inken Bartels, “Practices and Power of Knowledge Dissemination: International Organizations in the Externalization of Migration Management in Morocco and Tunisia,” and Katherine Braun et al., “Umkämpfte Wissensproduktionen der Migration: Editorial,” both in Movements: Journal for Critical Migration and Border Regime Studies 4, no. 1 (2018): 47–66 and 9–27, resp. ↩︎
  19. Maribel Casas-Cortes and Sebastian Cobarrubias, “It Is Obvious from the Map! Disobeying the Production of Illegality beyond Borderlines,” Movement: Journal for Critical Migration and Border Regime Studies 4, no. 1 (2018): 29–44. ↩︎
  20. Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller, “A Disobedient Gaze: Strategic Interventions in the Knowledge(s) of Maritime Borders,” Postcolonial Studies 16, no. 3 (2013): 289–98. ↩︎
  21. Boris Nieswand and Heike Drotbohm, “Einleitung: Die reflexive Wende in der Migrationsforschung,” in Kultur, Gesellschaft, Migration: Die reflexive Wende in der Migrationsforschung, ed. Boris Nieswand and Heike Drotbohm (Wiesbaden, 2014), 4. ↩︎
  22. Janine Dahinden, “A Plea for the ‘De-migranticization’ of Research on Migration and Integration,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 39, no. 13 (20 October 2016): 2207–25. ↩︎
  23. Kijan Espahangizi, “‘Migration’: Ein neues Konzept zwischen Politik und Wissenschaft in der Schweiz, 1987–1995,Zeitschrift für Migrationsforschung 1, no. 2 (2021): 5–38. ↩︎
  24. Anna Amelina, “After the Reflexive Turn in Migration Studies: Towards the Doing Migration Approach,” Population, Space and Place 27, no. 1 (January 2021): 1–11. ↩︎
  25. Stephan Scheel, Evelyn Ruppert, and Funda Ustek-Spilda, “Enacting Migration through Data Practices,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 37, no. 4 (August 2019): 579–88. ↩︎
  26. Joshua Hatton, “MARS Attacks! A Cautionary Tale from the UK on the Relation between Migration and Refugee Studies (MARS) and Migration Control,” Movement: Journal for Critical Migration and Border Regime Studies 4, no. 1 (2018): 103–29. ↩︎
  27. Oliver Bakewell, “Research Beyond the Categories: The Importance of Policy Irrelevant Research into Forced Migration,” Journal of Refugee Studies 21, no. 4 (1 December 2008): 432–53. ↩︎
  28. Maurice Stierl, “Do No Harm? The Impact of Policy on Migration Scholarship,” Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space (23 October 2020): 1098. ↩︎
  29. E.g., Willem Schinkel, “To Decolonize Migration Studies Means to Dismantle It: On Adrian Favell’s The Integration Nation and Question-Ability,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 46, no. 8 (11 June 2023): 1600–1608. ↩︎
  30. Nina Amelung, Stephan Scheel, and Rogier van Reekum, “Reinventing the Politics of Knowledge Production in Migration Studies: Introduction to the Special Issue,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 50, no. 9 (2024): 2163–87; Inken Bartels et al., “Umkämpfte Begriffe: Reflexive Perspektiven auf Migration und Sprache,” in Umkämpfte Begriffe der Migration: Ein Inventar, ed. Inken Bartels et al., 7–29 (Bielefeld, 2022). ↩︎

Suggested citation: Laura Stielike, "The Politics of Knowledge Production in Migration Studies," Migrant Knowledge, June 18, 2024, https://migrantknowledge.org/2024/06/18/politics-of-knowledge-production/.