Why Migrant Knowledge?

In a world characterized by migration, we need a fuller picture of the many logics behind how people, states, and NGOs deal with migration, flight, and heterogenous mobility and dwelling patterns within and beyond nation-states. Our focus is on how actors involved in migration processes—whether or not they are on the move themselves—understand and shape the world. We explore the rationalities and types of knowledge with which migrants and other relevant actors underpin their arguments and everyday decision-making. What conceptions of society or community do they embrace? What economic images or understandings of nature orient their actions? Our vantage point is decidedly historical, but the topic demands interdisciplinary perspectives.

Like many actor-centered approaches to social and cultural history, many of those employed in the history of knowledge seek to understand all social actors, not just those of a particular elite. Viewed this way, the history of knowledge aspires to understand what a child, a parent at home, an artisan, or a farmer knows just as much as what a scientist, a government leader, an intellectual, or a statistician does. It endeavors to do so in equal measure and with similar methods. The goal of parity or symmetry, however, does not mean we can ignore asymmetrical power effects. Specific types of knowledge are backed by specific sources of authority and enjoy unequal social and cultural currency. Thus, some bodies of knowledge can be intentionally ignored or inadvertently lost in translation with the passage of time or through the crossing of social, cultural, and geographical boundaries.

Histories of migrant knowledge can entail classic migration-related topics such as citizenship, xenophobia, or hybrid identities, but they do not have to end there. Scholars working 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. In applying history of knowledge perspectives to migration, we can bring together phenomena whose interrelations might otherwise remain unnoticed. History of knowledge approaches might also offer a key to grasping the temporal aspects of migrations, especially over the long term. Knowledge requires time. It is neither made nor do its effects play out in the blink of an eye.

This is not to say that the short and medium terms do not matter. Far from it. Research conducted by individual members of the Migrant Knowledge Network and contributions by authors to the Migrant Knowledge Blog demonstrate the value of spacial, temporal, and methodological openness.

Learn more about this website and its institutional home, the GHI Pacific Regional Office at Berkeley.

Header Image: “Newsstand with Foreign Language Newspapers,” Fall 1941. Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2017759469/.