Is there such a thing as migration?

By: Biao Xiang

Imagine: two pieces of pine are coming from Poland by air, fifteen oak trees travel from China by boat, by air, and finally by truck, eleven maples arrive from Argentina (three of them claim to be apples from Chile)… They cannot be more different from each other, except for the fact that they have all left their forests of origin and have yet to settle in the new land.

What about seeing all these disparate timbers as one forest, with its own rules, patterns, structures, ecosystem, and life cycle?

Sounds crazy? Many people are doing just that. Among them are bureaucrats, migration researchers, journalists, international organization officers. The UK government declared that it was “Making migration work for Britain. The assumption here is that the Pakistani student, the Iranian asylum seeker, the Canadian accountant, the Chinese chef … are all inherently related to each other, that they can be managed through standardized policies, and will somehow be made to act together collectively in ways dictated by the state.

The imagined migration
It is a cliché that migration is as old as human beings (or even older—animals move around a lot more). And the truth is actually that the English word “migration”, that refers to an aggregate action (instead of individual behavior of movement and resettlement), came into being only quite recently, perhaps as late as the 19th century. In Chinese, the words yimin and qianyi, now translated as migrants and migration, have existed for much longer, but they originally meant state-organized population resettlement. Previously, the mobility of students, pilgrims, diplomats, soldiers, wondering intellectuals, beggars, etc.…were treated as qualitatively different matters.

It is the birth of modern demography and, more importantly, the entrenchment of national borders (with the introduction of passports and visas) that gave us a new consciousness about what we call “migration”. We then learned to lump together all crossing-borders activities into this new mega basket. Modern states, for the purposes of exercising political control, monitoring labor market, and protecting migrants’ rights, strive to turn migration from amorphous, constantly changing, unstable flows into a measurable statistical artifact. Following Foucault’s argument that the “discovery of population” was crucial for modern states, it seems only natural for the states to attempt to project migration as such an aggregate phenomenon. Only by doing so does “managing” migration becomes possible.

“It is by mistake, or unfairness,” Bruno Latour writes, “that our headlines read ‘Man flies,’ […] Flying is a property of the whole association of entities that includes airports and planes, launch pads and ticket counters. B-525 do not fly, the U.S. Air Force flies”. Migration by definition results from much more complex associations of people, things, rules and ideas than the flights do. It is for migration officers’ convenience, it seems, that migration is reduced to a behaviour that is carried out by an identifiable individual at a definite moment of time between two dots on the map. It then becomes a subject for measuring and intervening.

Where is the forest?
The creation of migration as a subject of inquiry and regulation is not a simple political act. It is also a seriously intellectual and rigorous epistemological endeavor. Our imagination about migration is very much shaped by modern sociology and demography. The old fashioned metaphor that likens society to a forest tells us something important about this approach.

Walking into a forest, all that we can really see and touch are particular trees, grass, birds—i.e., the individuals—and there is no such a thing as “forest” when you are in the midst of it. But it is undeniable that there is such a thing as forest. The forest is a resulting fact based on a large number of tree standing together throughout their lives. The longer the trees have lived together, the more “real” the forest is. All the trees affect each other, and the lives of the birds and grass are likewise determined by both the forest ecosystem and by their own biological attributes.

A population in a particular locality is a forest of people. We can establish its collective characteristics and we can talk about the average, the rate, the ratio, and subsequently the trend and the structure.

The question is, is migration suitable for statistical measuring and abstraction? Are there inherent rules and patterns in migration to be discovered and modified?

Migration studies are caught up in a deep dilemma between the political and the scientific. On one hand, international migration is itself an administrative category, but at the very same time, states create this category precisely in order to measure and regulate migration “scientifically.” This dilemma between the political and the scientific explains much of the policy anxiety about migration and the increasing attention to migration research.

To solve this dilemma looks like ‘mission impossible’, but an impossibility with a life of its own. That is, the anxieties, the attempts to address these anxieties, and the more anxieties generated by these attempts…will live on for quite a while.

Does this mean that all our anxieties and curiosities about migration are mere illusions? Have we wasted our lives studying migration?

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