Theme 1. Migration and circulation

In the previous five-year period, Urmis researchers addressed the mobility of people and scientific, cultural and technical circulations in two different areas. The approaches to the mobility of people (theme 1) were rather influenced by a transnational perspective (or that of the ‘new migrations’) which, since the 1990s, seemed to allow us to go beyond the framework of nation-states to address an increasingly assertive interconnection between places and individuals that had long been kept at a distance from one another. For its part (theme 4), the analysis of the various material and immaterial circulations (cultural, technical, academic knowledge) addressed the phenomena of diffusion and connections throughout the world, by focusing on the process of adjustments, adaptations, negotiations, reinterpretations and appropriations, without really asking the question of the actors, whether they are smugglers or mediators or simply practitioners, and without dwelling on the role of nation-states in these circulations. If circulations can be studied independently from migrations, it seems relevant, in certain contexts, to link them analytically, if only because both are inserted in evolving systems of constraints or opportunities and resources. Our work thus leads us to re-interrogate the perspective of fluidity of circulations/mobilities in the light of the social, spatial and political dynamics that are emerging today, and in connection with the internal debates in the social sciences.

New social, spatial and political dynamics to analyse

What the media in Europe call “the migrant crisis”, which refers to a crisis of reception, is in our eyes the revelation of a trend that research on migration cannot ignore. However, rather than a “return of the State”, which has never disappeared, especially when it comes to migration, the trend is rather the definition and implementation of a form of international governance of mobility that concerns the States of the North as much as those of the South. This international governance is part of neo-liberal policies, in which migration has an ambivalent status. Promoted as a distinctive value, a paradigm of globalisation, on the one hand, it is controlled or prevented depending on the situation, the population and the type of border, on the other. Similarly, if the circulation of material or immaterial goods, signs and symbolic forms is driven by the logic of openness and globalisation, it cannot escape from the relationships of domination, imbalances and market inequalities produced by this same economic liberalism. This international governance of mobility is based on systems, forms of discourse, political practices and norms produced and disseminated at different levels, from the State to international bodies. One hypothesis, concerning migration and circulation, is that the diffusion/imposition of these norms and political practices participates in both a standardization of policies (in the North as well as in the South), while reproducing/pursuing the logics of dominations inherited from imperialism.

In the field of migration, restrictive policies, which have been the subject of numerous works at the URMIS, have not undergone substantial inflexions in recent years, but their repressive component tends to assert itself and engenders other social configurations: the confinement of migrants, the appearance of informal camps at the borders, and within the States, the construction of walls, illegal refoulements, etc. This model of blockage and refoulement extends beyond the European and American borders. Other states (Mexico, Kenya, Ethiopia, Niger, South Africa, Angola, etc.), in which we work, adopt this same model, producing political and social configurations comparable to those found in Europe or the United States. Reverse migration, on the other hand, opens up a questioning of the redefinition of North-South power relations.

Although the circulation of tangible and intangible goods is less affected by these control logics, it remains true that market imbalances also produce control, or at least limits to circulation. How do these limitations influence all forms of mobility? In what way do they reproduce old relationships of domination or do they participate in the reconfiguration of these relationships? The analysis of these reconfigurations, of both migration and circulation, seems to us to be a particularly fertile reading grid for understanding both how unequal relations persist and are transformed within the framework of this “model” of international governance.
The articulation of migration and the material and immaterial dimensions of circulation constitutes another key to entry, in the sense that it allows us to question the arrangements and adjustments between mobility and immobility, the possibility of migrating or not, in these contexts of limitation. The use of new communication tools, for example, modifies both the relationship to mobility and the effects and conditions of mobility on different temporal scales (from the exchange of information on routes and migration conditions, sometimes updated in real time thanks to Smartphone applications, to possible modifications in the perception of distance). Technological circulations, for their part, propose new combinations of high and low tech, old and new, which result from collaborative productions involving diverse and unevenly distributed mobilities of actors. The question of the autonomy of those who circulate or not must be reexamined. How can we think of autonomy in these contexts, not as a form of individualism, but rather as a set of adjustments, individual and collective arrangements in the face of these same contexts?

Situating in the debates of the social sciences

From an epistemological point of view, while since the 1990s the transnational paradigm has dominated research on migration and circulation, the presuppositions conveyed by this perspective are now being questioned. This approach emphasises the capacities of actors (the know-how and know-how of mobility), objects, knowledge and practices to move in spaces that go beyond the limits of States, playing with borders. It has contributed to shaping an image of the migrant, like objects, in connection with the process of globalisation, gaining an autonomy that is illustrated by increased mobility. This increased mobility may have made us forget the reproduction of the relations of domination that it potentially carries, and the hierarchies in the forms and networks of dissemination. It has also made us forget that mobilities and circulations remain marked by the paradigms of constraint, uncertainty and risk, which can introduce elements of distinction/differentiation within those who move, and between what is mobile and what is not. How can we think today about this balancing/articulation between the dimensions of autonomy (which have built transnationalism), the consideration of control which is becoming more and more important, and the modes of hierarchisation which run through these ensembles?

Research carried out at the URMIS and elsewhere now emphasises the constrained dimension of part of mobility: moving around does not necessarily reflect freedom, but can be the result of an injunction not to settle, to settle elsewhere, or the result of a succession of stages without any possible settlement. Thus, while mobility may have seemed to be free of the constraints of migration (settlement/integration), it now refers to practices that reflect the logics of domination and hierarchies at different social and political levels. However, the circulation of ideas, knowledge, practices and cultural signs continues to unfold according to circuits and configurations that do not intersect with state borders. Circumvention, avoidance and disguise are some of the devices adopted to allow or facilitate the circulation of ideas and practices, particularly cultural, religious or commercial. The techniques used to support these circulations are constantly being renewed and diversified. The internet and its new practices (the hashtag, the dark web, etc.) have taken the place that the press, the record or the radio held a century ago, with new risks and new challenges associated with them.

Moreover, our work explores the way in which actors organise themselves into networks and reconfigure relations to space, and even to the Nation-State, through the mobilisation of cultural symbols and identities at a distance. They seek to problematise the link between the migration of people and the circulation of cultural practices, moving from an analysis centred on the capacity of actors to maintain, transmit, develop and reinvent elements of ‘their culture’ in a migratory situation to the study of the circulation of cultural practices through which new modes of expression of identities and alterities are produced and disseminated. From this point of view, the question is not to know how practices circulate with migrants, but to understand first how people, ideas, technologies, goods and cultural practices are involved in the spatial mobilities that cross the world.

By developing an in-depth reflection on the circulation of knowledge, in parallel with these more global reflections on mobilities and circulations, the aim is to adopt a dual perspective on contemporary reconfigurations. The epistemologies of mobility and circulations that are being constructed cross spaces – in the concrete sense – and academic spaces. Interrogating the circulation of knowledge allows us to deepen our reflection on the logics of circulation, but also to adopt a reflexive look at the epistemologies that we mobilise. In what way do these epistemologies reflect hierarchies that are deployed at different scales and according to different regimes of historicity? And how, conversely, do they make it possible to decipher forms of circulation and mobility that take place on the margins, i.e. without taking into account centralities and places of power?

Linking the study of migrations to that of circulations thus allows us to extend our reflections on old and new forms of human or non-human mobilities, while taking into account in a central way the role played – or not – by States, in order to appreciate simultaneously the power relationships as well as the capacities and strategies of resistance of individuals and groups. The attention paid to migratory reconfigurations (North-South, South-South) should also lead us to study, in the long term, the status of individuals and groups and their redefinition through mobility, from a perspective that is attentive to temporalities (life stages, generations) and contexts. The aim is to approach the actors’ universes of meaning and reference by seeking to understand how they orient themselves in the different situations they encounter in connection with present, past or future mobility.
These aspects mobilise different scales and contexts of observation, linking individual practices, collective deployments within social microcosms, and the more global scale, in order to understand how multiple dynamics are articulated in migrations and circulations, at the confluence of new constraints and opportunities. Taking note of the intensification of exchanges at the global level, this project seeks to address them in all their complexity, at the different levels where they are played out. This perspective requires a dynamic reading of historical, anthropological, sociological and geographical phenomena.