Self-Reflecting on ‘Categorical Fetishism’ as a Migration PhD Researcher

30 November 2018

Let me start this post by considering the experiences and trajectories of Afghan children depicted in country reports prepared by Newsdeeply in ‘The Vulnerability Contest’ (2018), and by Save the Children in ‘From Europe to Afghanistan – Experiences of Child returnees’ (2018). In those reports, many of the young Afghan people were born and raised in Iran, where they have no legal status.

Based on a variety of circumstances, some of them leave their families behind in order to undertake treacherous journeys to Europe, seeking international protection. A few will get positive recommendations, being granted different types of legal statuses in the country they flew to. Others will not, and in some cases may end up being “returned” to Afghanistan, a country they have never been before.

The categories ‘refugee’ and ‘migrant’ apply to these young people at different times, based on varying circumstances. In Iran, they are considered undocumented migrants. In Europe, after a positive recommendation, some of these children are considered refugees. Both of these categories are treated by policy-makers as being fixed. The use of these categories does not take into account whether they might change with time, and whether this fixed label (migrant or refugee) can affect these young people’s migration trajectories.

A recent article by Professor Heaven Crawley and Dr. Dimitris Skleparis explores the use of these categories (‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’). They highlight how these categories were utilized during the 2015-16 crisis to provide a rationale for deterrence and exclusion policies (Crawley and Skleparis, 2018). The authors state that the dominant categories employed by policy-makers during the crisis fail to acknowledge the compounded drivers of migration, and call it ‘categorical fetishism’. With this term, they refer to treating categories such as ‘migrants’ and ‘refugees’ as if they simply exist and always have existed, as if they cannot change with time, as if they do not interact with each other.

Self-Reflecting on ‘Categorical Fetishism’ as a Migration PhD Researcher
UNHCR / Categories on the move

Subsequently, I believe we need to have discussions around what categorical fetishism means in our own work, as researchers. As mentioned by Crawley and Skleparis (2018, p.52), there is nothing ‘natural’ about fixed categories associated with international migration: rather, these are in a constant state of change and renegotiation.  In this post, I broadly extend their concern by means of self-reflection, acknowledging that categorical fetishism is also present in the development of my identity as a migration researcher. It is present when I constantly remind others (and myself) of the consequences of using the wrong category, and of the dangers involved in using erroneous labels. This means that, even though I am aware of the existence of categorical fetishism, that I continue to obsess over these labels, and over the differences between categories. The result is that I persist in falling victim of categorical fetishism, facing barriers in how I deal with it in my research methods, and in fully exploring the rich interdisciplinarity of our area of study. Some of the scholarship has explored my sentiments in relation to this, highlighting how a more ‘convincing’ behavioral framework of migration could benefit researchers (De Haas, 2011, p.16).

But it is not only the semantics that make me fall victim of categorical fetishism. For instance, I think of the way in which I present my work to other PhD students working in migration and integration. As a PhD in law candidate, my research is concerned primarily with unaccompanied children seeking international protection. Field-work is involved. While this description may function as an initial ‘elevator pitch’, that is, a concise way of introducing my focus area and some of my methods, it can also narrowly define the ways in which I am able to approach this group. For instance, it places unaccompanied children seeking international protection in a fixed category, one which dictates the scholars I cite, and even the disciplines I source from. This is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that it establishes an approachable narrative, one that makes it easier to understand what my research is about, and to engage in discussion. However, it is bad in the sense that it establishes a fixed narrative, one which neglects fully considering the way in which different categories (for instance, asylum-seeking unaccompanied children and undocumented unaccompanied children) may interact with each other at different points in time. I believe that we should try to recognize the full reality of our topics, in order to understand our research subjects and possibly develop solutions. Neglecting how these categories may change and interact with each other affects our chances of doing so.

It would be great to see an awareness of categorical fetishism mainstreamed into our discussions as students involved in the IMISCOE PhD network.  Our identities as migration researchers are also ever-changing, and tensions may continue to arise in how we challenge categorical fetishism. It would be great to help each other, to be more conscious of the categories we use and to be aware of the way they shape how we think about them, all the while taking full advantage of the interdisciplinarity of our field.


Crawley, C. & Skleparis, D. (2018) Refugees, migrants, neither, both: categorical fetishism and the politics of bounding in Europe’s ‘migration crisis’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies,44(1), 48-64.

De Haas, H. (2011) The Determinants of International Migration. Conceptualizing Policy, Origin and Destination Effects. Oxford University – International Migration Institute working papers, no 32.

From Europe to Afghanistan: Experiences of Child returnees. (2018). [online] Save the Children. Available at: [Accessed 21 Nov. 2018].

Howden, D. & Kodalak, M. (2018). The Vulnerability Context. [online] Refugees Deeply. Available at: [Accessed 22 Nov. 2018].

Diego Castillo Goncalves is a doctoral researcher in the School of Law at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, Ireland

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