“Migration studies – you mean like birds and stuff?” – is a surprisingly common reaction when I mention my MSc subject. This includes old friends who know I did a politics degree. Clearly the movement of people from place to place has a way to go in establishing itself as a thing people study. In the last year since graduating in 2015 I’ve found that reactions to my MSc subject give interesting insight into common imaginaries surrounding migration.
Once established that we’re talking about people and not birds etcetera, the next common jump will be to a macro numbers view of things. “So you look at how many people were in Turkey and are now in Germany?” “You must have done some really interesting data analysis on population movements.” “Do you know how many people will move from Africa to Europe in the next decade?” Not birds but maybe still the bird’s-eye view.
This tendency towards the macro reveals a few things about how migration is imagined as a phenomenon. First, it shows to what extent “population” is embedded in the contemporary imagination as something we can see, measure and know facts about. Census data and even the DEMIG databases have for sure helped us closer towards that point, but we also know that long-term estimates of migration fail to capture short-term movements. This concentration that I’ve encountered on capturing population movements also betrays the underlying belief that the most important questions and answers surrounding migration are about absolute numbers and cross-border flows. The third and related implication is that we can study population flows in order to better control them. The impression I get is that Migration Studies is at first encounter assumed to be a technical exercise to get a handle on where all these people are going so we can be prepared for whatever might happen when they get there. Certainly this common imaginary sits squarely within the migration-as-emergency way of looking at it.
What has shaped this common imaginary? Surely in the UK it is all the talk on net migration targets. Headlines quantifying the numbers arriving and the numbers drowning at sea will also play a part. In the longer term I would also look to the rise of smart managerial government, a focus on evidence-based policymaking and ongoing efforts to make the population ever more legible.
Migration Studies in Europe was itself initially shaped by policy concerns throughout its development since the end of WWII. Ironically migration’s rise up the policy agenda has enabled Migration Studies in recent decades to be relatively less guided by policy concerns as more fragmented and critical voices have entered the debates.
But it is clear that common imaginaries surrounding migration, and by extension common reactions to the notion of Migration Studies remain very much shaped by policy and the media. The responses from my friends and colleagues provide a snapshot into how debates framed by policy – and news-makers filter out to the capillary edge – which is where I conduct all my social encounters.
About the author
Bobbie Mills works in impact evaluation for a UK-based education charity. Since graduating she has also worked for a media start-up and for a Newcastle Labour MP.
IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.
This post was first published by COMPAS as part of the MSc in Migration Studies guest blog series: Viewing Life Through the Migration Lens: experiences and thoughts post-MSc.