Annual Conference 2018 Panel: “Migration and Mobility”

A report from the panel “Migration and Mobility” at the Annual Conference of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung: “Knowledge and Society in Times of Upheaval”, Berlin, November 20-21st, 2018.

By Levke Harders

“Migration and Mobility” – this session title immediately caught my attention. And here I was at the Berlin Social Science Center (WZB) for the conference “Knowledge and Society in Times of Upheaval”. The Forum Transregionale Studien, the German Historical Institute in Washington DC (GHI), and the German Institute for Japanese Studies in Tokyo presented a packed and inspiring program for their annual conference. Spanning a time period from the American Revolution to current politics, the panel on migration combined historical and sociological reflections on migration and mobility as important aspects of upheaval. (Pictures and videos of the conference can be found here.)

(From left to right) Jan C. Jansen, Simone Lässig (chair), Leo Lucassen and Xóchitl Bada at the Annual Conference 2018 in Berlin,
Photo: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz

Migration, as an aspect of, and as a reaction to times of upheaval was discussed along three lines: with historical perspective on the early 1800s, through sociological analysis of recent migrant workers’ rights, and in the form of recommendations for scholarly participation in public debates. The broad range of topics notwithstanding, all speakers tackled critical questions of migration regimes and of the ways migrants themselves deal with migration control and the violation of their rights.


Jan C. Jansen  at the Annual Conference 2018 in Berlin, 
Photo: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz

Historian Jan C. Jansen (GHI), who works on colonial empires, opened the panel with his talk on “Papers and Trails: Migration Control and Agency during the Atlantic Age of Revolutions (1770s-1820s)”. These revolutions are often seen as a glorious beginning of modernity, but they were also accompanied by large refugee movements. Colonial and other state authorities developed comprehensive legal frameworks to define citizenship rights and to exert migration control, necessitating new techniques to document the status of mobile people. One of these instruments was the passport. Based on letters of introduction, commonly used as quasi-official documents, the passport was linked to the aristocratic background of many émigrés. Next to class, identity papers were also closely connected to race and the racist system of enslavement. After a third of the slaves in the Caribbean were set free in 1790, many of them allied with the monarchists and subsequently turned into refugees. However, the boundaries of freedom and slavery were often redrawn upon their arrival in the country of exile, where manumission documents became a means to restrict the movement of Black people. Presenting masonic certificates, Jansen also analyzed a third category of identity papers in this era. Since freemasons often moved along a system of lodges, they were able to establish wide-ranging networks, making masonic membership valuable not only in times of upheaval, but also during peace. Jansen argued that all three types of documents were reinvented from earlier forms of documentation. They were all ambiguous too, being intended to control movement, but at the same time, provided migrants with protections.

Xóchitl Bada at the Annual Conference 2018 in Berlin,
Photo: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz.

Jumping from 1800 to the 2010s, the panel continued with a talk by sociologist, Xóchitl Bada (University of Illinois, Chicago). She specializes in studies of migrant access to political and social rights and transnational labor advocacy mobilization in Mexico and the United States. Presenting the results of her research project on “Portable Labor Rights for Migrant Workers in North America”, Bada analyzed how national and international jurisdictions deal with the rights of migrant workers. Free trade politics affect migrants and workers on both sides of the border so that a more active labor politics is needed. Most Mexican immigrants are employed in low-wage or temporary occupations, many of which are undocumented. Various diaspora organizations in the United Stated (e.g. Justice in Motion, Contratados) try to improve migrants’ labor rights, because these rights are often violated. As a newly developed framework, the portability of rights is one answer to the pressing problems of cross-border-work, like wage theft. Interviews with NGOs in Mexico and the United States show how and why cross-border strategies are more successful in enforcing labor rights, e.g. by labor side accords to trade agreements or by reaching tripartite agreements (i.e. pressure put on state A will have consequences for state B). Bada explained the recent shift in Mexican policy towards emigrants and the newly established cooperation between different government agencies across the US-Mexican border.

Leo Lucassen at the Annual Conference 2018 in Berlin,
Photo: Maurice Weiss / Ostkreuz.

Reflecting on his experiences as a migration historian, Leo Lucassen (University of Leiden) then debated the role of academics in the public sphere in recent times of upheaval. Working on European and global migration history, Lucassen addressed questions of acting in and reacting to public debates. How can experts make their knowledge seen and heard in heated media debates, and how can they avoid further polarization? On the one hand, it is crucial to avoid counterproductive media frames; on the other hand, they are necessary to strengthen research. During the last few years, migration has been first and foremost described as a threat, suggesting that borders need to be closed. Secondly, migration is framed as a humanitarian problem. Here, the solution is mostly seen as putting a stop to the driving forces of migration (poverty, natural disasters and overpopulation). Lucassen encouraged research and science to change these framings. Migration history, for example, can demonstrate that mobility is a systemic part of human society, and the social sciences can define migration as a positive (instead of a negative) phenomenon. Therefore, academics have to take an active role in public debates by ‘feeding facts’, offering different frames, and revealing the stereotypes. Discussing research graphs on migration which stimulate ideas of ‘flooding’, Lucassen also emphasized that scholars must reflect on how to visualize and communicate their findings. It is important to create a common ground without accusing or adopting the prevailing frames.

The following discussion made various connections between the three papers. Did the unprecedented numbers of refugees around 1800 cause anxiety as it does today? The dynamics in this era were new, given that it was not religion (as a century earlier) but politics that caused flight. Conference participants also placed Jansen’s historical study within the context of the emerging territorial- or nation-state and its need for documentation, a need that can also be discerned in recent policies. Replying to comments of the audience, Bada described the changing role of trade unions in the United States and in Mexico for migration politics. Moreover, she explained the current discourse in Southern Mexico concerning the ‘migrant caravan.’ The power to frame debates can also be seen in relation to the high numbers of refugees within the African continent, a fact mostly ignored in Europe. Whether in history or in the present day, refugees are just one group of people on the move. The panel reminds us that research has to discuss the normality of migration. Migration scholars should not shy away from taking a stand in political debates, because, on the contrary, our findings are crucial to shaping the discourse.


Dr. Levke Harders is assistant professor in modern history and gender history at Bielefeld University. She is currently working on a book project called “Narratives of Foreignness and Belonging: Migration as a Discursive Process in Western European Border Regions (1815-1871)”, funded by the German Research Foundation. In 2011, she received her doctoral degree for her dissertation on American Studies, a study in the fields of history of knowledge and education. Dr. Harders is blogging on her migration project and her other fields of research in her weblog “Migration and Belonging” (https://belonging.hypotheses.org).


Citation: Levke Harders, Annual Conference 2018 Panel: “Migration and Mobility’. A report from the Annual Conference ‘Knowledge and Society in Times of Upheaval”, Berlin, 20-21 November 2018, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.01.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/16823.


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1 Antwort

  1. 20. März 2019

    […] Response to “Migration and Mobility” at the Annual Conference 2018 of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung, […]

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