Conference ‘A Critical Turn of Migration Studies’



Convened by Thomas Lacroix (MFO), Camille Schmoll (Géographie-cité/IUF, Paris, Sorbonne), Swanie Potot (URMIS, Nice)

2nd seminar: 27th of March 2020, Maison Française of Oxford, Oxford

Download the programme


The aim of this seminar series is to address the change of tone, over the past decade or so, of critical approaches to international migration studies. As a counterpoint to past structuralist approaches, research in the 1990s and 2000s focused on agency, circulation and transnational relations. Even though those researches were partly underpinned by a postcolonial focus, they were characterised by their overall positive coloration, a celebration of migrants' abilities to bypass social and political determinisms. The form and focus of researchers’ critical stance seem to have shifted. A new generation of works is emerging, in the wake of a tightening of migration policies, the growing precariousness of actors’ legal status, or increasingly difficult conditions of migration routes. This change of focus has brought under closer scrutiny the dimensions of constrain and control present in the migratory process, i.e. the role of politics and power, economics and social structures in the shaping of practices and trajectories. At the same time, it makes it possible to question the notion of migrant agency under a new light, whether through the prism of transnationalism or the thought of autonomy. Admittedly, this paradigm shift is not specific to migration studies and regards social sciences as a whole. But, taking stock of past academic trends, this move is both more cautious and more reflexive. The reformulation of a critical perspective must take into account one major pitfall: remaining stuck on a “pendulum of critique” oscillating between determinism and fascination for agency.


These seminars explore the ins and outs of the latest critical developments in migration studies. They will unfold along two main axes, which will be treated in a transversal way: 1 / exploring and characterising current critical trends in migration studies: what are the main themes and areas of study concerned (e.g. border studies, migration autonomy, intersectional approaches, critical analyses of neoliberalism)? What is the specificity of these recent critical approaches with regard to previous theories, be it the structuralism and materialism of the 1960s and 1970s or those dwelt upon methodological individualism? Who are the authors and theoretical influences underpinning these approaches (neo-Marxist, postcolonial, Foucaldian or Habermassian approaches for example)? One can also question the temporalities of these critical shifts depending on whether we are in Europe or across the Atlantic.

2 / Contributing to this critical shift: this axis aims to revisit and reflect on a number of concepts and approaches that have fed into the shaping of migration studies of the last 20 years, including those of transnationalism, mobility and autonomy of migration, migration and development, and for which we continue to appreciate their heuristic value. How do these current critical approaches revisit these concepts? And what are the main loopholes they have contributed to addressing (role of the state, rationality of the subject, weight of class and social structures, role of spatial or temporal dynamics)?


A first seminar was held in Paris in April 2019, during which were addressed three different forms of critique: transnationalism, border studies and the feminist critique (see programme below). The second event will take place at the Maison Française of Oxford in March 2020, with a view to examine three other strands of critical research trends focusing on migration autonomy, methodological nationalism and the relationship between migration and development. Each panel will address in particular, but not exclusively the following issues:


Autonomy of migration vs autonomy of migrants

Drawing on the post-marxist “autonomist” theory, the autonomy of migrations approach argues that migration dynamics rest upon political change and social movements rather than on economic disparities and state policies. But what room is left for migrants to exert their own agency in this migratory configuration? Can reformulate a politically-driven rationality of actors and to what extent this differs from economically-driven rationality of homo economicus? How does it apply to (seemingly) apolitical forms of migration such as North to North migration?


Nations and control beyond borders

Current critical research on states is marked by a shift from a focus on the deterritorialization of states in globalization flows to an epistemological critique of the way states frame our perception of social dynamics. At the same time, various research strands examine the transformation of states as they become transnational (Robinson) or glocal (Brenner). Migration scholars have, on their side, more specifically focused their attention on the way states transform while they engage with migration-induced flows: migration states (Hollifield) are built upon the conundrums of economic and human flows management, while emigration states (Gamlen) strive to engage with their expatriate. In this process new institutions and new border assemblages, be they networked or externalized, have taken shape. How can we account for these new state architectures? Have they given birth to new imaginaries of the Nation? Are they the symptom of a deterritorialization of the State and the Nation? Or do they herald the expansion of sovereignty reshaped to tackle global migration?


Re-politicising the ‘Migration/Development’ Nexus

Research on the migration and development nexus has oscillated on a pendulum between those who see the relation as virtuous while the others argue that migration leads to more under-development and conversely. Recent discourses conveyed by researchers, international organisations and NGOs endorse a positive vision of this relation. But they have paid little attention to the way stricter migration policies transform the very nature of the relation. The “sedentary bias” of development policies turn international cooperation into an instrument for migration control. At the same time, supporters of the “triple win” approach turn a blind eye over the dire conditions in which migrants are compelled. How can migration and development studies give a better account of the implication of control policies? And conversely, how is this “migration policy blindness” is made possible among stakeholders?




26 March (17:00-20:00) and 27 March (9:00-17:00)


Maison Française d’Oxford

2-10 Norham Road 
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX2 6SE
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(+44)(0)1865 2 74222