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Frictions in an increasingly uneven mobile world

Date of news: 24 November 2021

Lothar Smith and Joris Schapendonk, June 2017

“In speaking of how we grieve for lives lost because of certain processes or events, how is it that we seem to value some more than others?”

“How can academia take to the streets, become part of these. Indeed, do essentially academic conferences like this one need a make-over to become truly engaged with the society they discuss?”

“Is the continued division between host and origin country in discussions about migrants and belonging tenable when the lives of these same people are so enmeshed in processes of globalisation that do not get conceptualised in terms of a link to the state?”

“How can governmentality be used to tackle a situation in which people are simply looking for safety, fleeing from the fear of losing their lives?”

“Explorations of the value of resources like land, may help to reconceptualise notions like rural and urban, also as this is connected to mobility.”

These are but a handful of the many insightful comments made during two intensive days of discussion at the conference: Friction in a mobile world: Transmigrants, contested citizenship and human in/security”, organized by the Transmobilities and Development group, and held in Ravenstein, on 8 and 9 June 2017. Friction, as a concept, may refer to the processes or factors that hamper and oppose mobilities (such as border controls, distances, surveillance) as well as the moment of encounters in our mobile world that may have profound effects in creating new societal directions. In both instances, the work of the anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is of vital importance, as she notes:

“As a methaphorical image, friction reminds us that heterogeneous and unequal encounters can lead to new arrangements of culture and power“

(Tsing 2005, p. 19)

Processes of mobility

The actual diversity of debate held true to the promise of the programme of the conference, which sought to ensure further insight into a spectrum of issues linked to processes of mobility, and therein particularly in the frictions arising in these. Thus we discussed mobility as a scalar concept: i.e. which flows of migrants and refugees evoke responses, and at what levels, by other actors involved? Is therein the localities along a movement of people, or rather the potential direction of these flows considered as problematic, and within what context?

We also explored various manifestations of temporality associated with mobility, harking back to refugees escaping the French Revolution to Great Britain and the evacuation of wounded soldiers in the First World War to understand that some issues have a long history, but also how governments in particular have developed their relation to this. Consider the increasing cracks in the Geneva Convention protecting refugees, for instance as regards the Rohingya, a so-called stateless people.

A third process related to the so-called impact of migration and mobility. Moving well beyond the realm of the migration-development debate, and its focus on remittances in social and financial forms, attention was given the pre-occupation of states with the sphere of influence of their so-called ‘diasporas’, for instance that of Sri Lanka, but also how this had an unruly nature, sometimes being unruly, transient, even mixing in personal goals with those of larger communities. This calls for a re-appraisal of governance, and even for a review of funding principles related to such matters as representativity, good governance, etc.

Significance of the field

From the above examples it becomes clear that the significance of migration is manifold, yet it cannot be bound within a limited set of dimensions, as its impact is not only economic or financial, nor can it always be pinpointed to particular localities or geographical scales, as sometimes their impact is much more ‘social’ in nature, as gender relations become unbounded, households reconstituted, and the urban and rural increasingly intertwined through social spaces continuously linking them. This does not render locality studies invalid, declare class redundant, or argue that rural and urban no longer exist. Rather the point is that places and spaces may interlock in the personal significance given to their symbiosis. And indeed, this may well produce new frictions, if this leads to conflict over resources, over meaning, etc.

In the same vein this conference has helped to critically assess the value of prevailing concepts such as diaspora, refugee, citizen, development, community, etc. if these are continuations of too often reductionist governance attempts at defining constant and singular identities, to delineate people into predictive and governable units. The world, however, is just a little more complex.

Positionality of academia

And, speaking of governance, where do researchers come in? What is their positionality? We live in a world in which the independence of researchers being clamped down by states in radical, sudden interventions (Turkey, Bulgaria, United States) as well as more subtle ones (EU funding to particular conceptualisations of an issue – e.g. framing migration as an outcome of poverty, and thus looking so-called root causes to keep people in their place). At the same time we speak of valorisation of research, of ensuring a continued and open line with society. Yet openly activist research is still often frowned upon, as it is considered to produce a loss of autonomy of the researcher. Yet, migration, if conceived as a constant flow of people, goods, money and ideas, cannot be studied (well) without being drawn, at least to some extent, into these flows. Hence the need to follow migrants in their trajectories, to be part of the debates in which they consider what intervention to organise in a community of origin, to talk to refugees in detention centres. Researchers do not only study networks, they are part of it.. Yet the friction to their role, notably in their allegiance to those they study, but also to their academic superiors, as well as the governments paying their salaries, makes for sometimes unclear own positions, in which to safeguard own research associations and involvement with is sometimes best kept deliberately general, and vague.

Ravenstein

This conference was held in Ravenstein. a little town on the river Maas. Ravenstein is, of course also the name of one of the founding fathers of migration theory, Ernst George Ravenstein. A demographer more than a traveller, as the saying goes, he nonetheless came up with hypotheses around the end of the 19th Century to explain migration, e.g.: ‘economic factors being the main reason why people move’, and ‘most migrants move short distances’, and ‘flows of migration will produce counterbalancing flows’. These notions have managed to remain influential to date, as they may indeed have some explanatory powers still. But in the case of each hypothesis, a more careful analysis, notably when their peripheries are sought out, as our ‘frictions’ angle in this conference tried to evoke, reveals their very limitation. To that end we might take this moment, at this place, to declare the need for a Ravenstein 2.0. We do not render existing approaches to migration from scientific, government and societal angles as invalid, but need to take it to task that such conventional approaches never become taken as granted, optimal or permanent.

Acknowledgements

We are grateful for the financial support provided to this conference by the GLOCAL research group, Nijmegen School of Management, Radboud University; the International Office of the Radboud University; the Department of Human Geography and Planning, Utrecht University, and The Netherlands Organisation of Scientific Research (VENI project Schapendonk: NWO – reference number: 451-14-011).