2. De-migrantizing Migration Studies: Towards the Reflexive Study of Migration Phenomena

Convenors: Peter Holley, University of Helsinki; Saara Koikkalainen, University of Eastern Finland; Mari Toivanen, University of Helsinki

Contact: peter.holley (at) helsinki.fi

Thursday 2.12.2021 at 13.00-15.30

From the so-called migration crisis of 2015 to Brexit and beyond, we see that migration is deemed to be the problem of our times. The category of the (im)migrant – who is or is not deemed to be a migrant –, however, isn’t as self-evident as things may appear. In recent years a body of research has highlighted the contested nature of migrancy and questioned the often uncritical use of this concept in academic debate and everyday life. Beyond this some scholars have begun to argue for the “de-migrantizing” research in migration and integration studies (Anderson, 2019; Dahinden, 2016). Drawing upon the wider critique of the social sciences’ methodological nationalism (Chernilo, 2006; Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002), this call to de-migrantize the field envisions a post-migration social science. Such a reimagining of migrations studies presents the opportunity for unique perspectives that move beyond a native-immigrant dichotomy (Näre and Holley, 2016) interrogating both common-sense and analytic categories alike.

In this session we seek unique contributions that question the status quo in the fields of migration and integration studies. We are open to methodological interventions alongside theoretically driven and empirically grounded works that are ambitious in the scope. Through this session we hope to open up new vistas for researching and theorizing contemporary migration-related phenomena.


Anderson B (2019) New Directions in Migration Studies: Towards Methodological Denationalism. Comparative Migration Studies 7.

Chernilo D (2006) Social Theory’s Methodological Nationalism: Myth and Reality. European Journal of Social Theory 9(1): 5-22.

Dahinden J (2016) A plea for the ‘de-migranticization' of research on migration and integration. Ethnic and Racial Studies 39(13): 2207-2225.

Näre L and Holley P (2016) Rethinking Methodological Nationalism in Migration Research: Towards Participant Learning in Ethnography. In: Bhopal K and Deuchar R (eds) Researching Marginalized Groups. London & New York, NY: Routledge, pp.239-251.

Wimmer A and Glick Schiller N (2002) Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences. Global Networks 2(4): 301-334.

Back to the workshops

Presentation order and abstracts:

  1. Setting migration law in motion: on the relationship between law and human mobility

Magdalena Kmak Åbo Akademi (University; University of Helsinki)

The talk contributes to the theme of the workshop by outlining a broader perspective on the relationship between law and human mobility and shifting the focus from the narrow subject of migration law towards the concept of mobility and its constitutive role for law. Following Thomas Nail I understand the movement and notion as primary ontological condition and constructive force of the political and social systems and I propose a shift in perspective on law, from the static to mobile. As Nail writes “[e]ither we begin with discrete and static being and have to say that real motion is an illusion, or we begin with flow and are able to explain stasis as relative or folded forms of movement” (2019). In other words, such approach implies tracing the processes of construction of static forms – such as state, citizenship or border – as truths and, in consequence, not only revealing their unstable nature but also allowing to understand their purpose and effect of their operation in particular point of time.

In concrete terms I outline the need to 1) studying not only the movement but also corresponding (im)mobilities that are generated by law; 2) studying the law as known or experienced by the mobile persons themselves; and 3) studying legal regulations and legal institutions as fundamentally unstable and in constant process of construction and deconstruction with particular attention on existing power-relations between different laws and regulations. Such theoretical and methodological approach generates three (interrelated) implications that help to overcome methodological nationalism in studying migration: a) approaching legal institutions as constructing desired and undesired mobilities and contributing to production of immobilities; b) shifting the focus from legal institutions to mobile subjects and treating mobility as a form of resistance on the one hand and the way of the production of embodied legal knowledge on the other; and c) approaching mobility as a quality of law, where law is seen as a mobile entity both in single jurisdictions (the instability of legal regulations and institutions) and throughout jurisdictions (mobility of legal concepts and the meetings of laws).

  1. Exploring the gap between legal category of ‘citizenship’ and policy category of ‘migration’

Reiko Shindo (Faculty of Management and Business, Tampere University)

This paper discusses the way in which the category of ‘migrant’ is used to recruit people into the care industry in Finland. In particular, it focuses on those identified as ‘immigrant youth’, that is, young people born in Finland with one or both of their parents coming from elsewhere, or people who are born elsewhere but grew up in Finland for most of their lives. Despite their citizenship status in Finland, these young people are categorized as ‘migrant other’ and encouraged to work in the care industry because of racialized and gendered perceptions attached to them (e.g. Brunila et al, 2011). Although the Finnish government specifically avoided pushing ‘immigrants’ to certain labour sectors in the 1980s, this policy stance was scrapped in the 2000s, resulting in the immigrant education guideline where ‘immigrant youth’ are encouraged to choose a career path in industries with labour shortages such as elderly care (e.g. Kurki, 2019). Drawing on this empirical example from Finland, the paper critically examines a disjuncture between the legal category – of citizenship status – and policy category – of who is deemed as a ‘migrant’. The paper argues that citizenship needs to be understood not only as a legal status (e.g. Marshall, 1964) or a social act (e.g. Isin, 2002), but also a policy practice where the category of ‘migrant’ is used to realize a specific vision of integration and divide people based on who needs to ‘serve’ the nationhood. While the existing studies tend to problematize the politics of categories with regards to people on the move such as ‘refugees’ (e.g. Crawley and Skleparis, 2018), they tend to overlook the way in which the ‘native-immigrant’ dichotomy (Näre and Holley, 2016) continues to function even when people are born as ‘native citizens’. By looking at the latter, the paper highlights the way in which citizenship studies and ‘de-migratizing’ research intersect with each another and calls for a new research field that bridges the both.

  1. “I don’t like to be called an immigrant anymore”- Migrancy and the Narrative Construction of the Self

Peter Holley (University of Helsinki)

In recent years there have been calls to “demigrantize” migration studies. This critique has much in common with wider critical assessments of the social sciences as based on a methodological nationalist foundation (see, e.g., Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002; Chernilo, 2011) and a groupist social ontology (see, e.g., Brubaker and Cooper, 2000; Brubaker, 2003). Together these critiques present a damning assessment of social sciences in the first decades of the 21st century, as academic discipline that has seemingly painted itself into a corner.

How, then, might we study the phenomenon of international migration without, as Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992: 228) would have it, thinking of “the social world in a substantialist manner”? Here, I develop a perspective that focuses on the ways in which migrancy – along with the concomitant categories of nation and ethnic group – is produced and resisted by actors engaged in discourse. Drawing on biographic narrative interviews with people with “migrant backgrounds” living in Finland and the UK, I explore the various ways in which those for whom international migration is an ongoing lived reality draw upon discursive resources to actively and creatively construct multiple (often competing) self-narratives that based on a sense of group belonging, be it national, ethnic, racial, or indeed something else.

Key words: Migration studies, demigrantization, methodological nationalism, groupism, the self, narrative, social theory

  1. The trauma of Brexit as a lived crisis. EU nationals as witnesses to political turmoil in the UK.

Saara Koikkalainen (Karelian Institute, University of Eastern Finland)

In June 2016, a slight majority of the British voters who took part in the Brexit referendum supported the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (EU). The following five years have signified a turbulent time in British politics as the future relationship with the EU was negotiated after nearly 50 years of close political, economic, and social ties across the Channel. For EU nationals living in the UK, the Brexit process represents a rupture in time during which they must reconsider their personal lives, identities, feelings of belonging as well as careers and future mobility options. The situation has attracted a lot of attention in migration studies and the shock and trauma experienced by these intra-European migrants has been well documented. In this presentation, I will focus on how the EU nationals living in the UK experienced the situation not as “migrants”, but as ordinary residents of the country that was going through one of the biggest transformations since WWII. The presentation is based on 12 interviews and the Nordic Nationals in Post-Brexit London -survey (2018-9, n= 164), which had questions e.g. on the respondents’ work and family situation, reasons for migration, transnational ties, life in the UK and thoughts about Brexit. The participants of the study live in a country where they were not born. However, they do not primarily identify as “immigrants”, so researchers should not treat them only as such. I, therefore, argue that a more nuanced reading of the Brexit trauma is called for.