Twenty Years of ‘Reflexive’ Migration Studies: Introduction to the Blog Series


by Janine Dahinden, Aldina Camenisch and Robin Stünzi

Research about migration has arguably been dominated by a western-, and nation-state-centered perspective. In response, reflexive debates on knowledge production have addressed methodological nationalism and colonial legacies, but also androcentrism, heteronormativity and other problematic features in scientific approaches to human mobility. This blog series aims to take stock of the varied challenges to traditional migration research and their implications for knowledge production about human mobility.

Migration Studies have historically been – and arguably still are – largely shaped by eurocentric approaches and an emphasis on immigration to western nation-states, which raises important questions in view of academic knowledge production and power. Yet, this has not gone unchallenged.

One of the early interventions in this regard was Andreas Wimmer’s and Nina Glick Schiller’s seminal article ‘Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Science,’ published twenty years ago in 2002. Their plea to overcome “the assumption that the nation/state/society is the natural social and political form of the modern world” (2002: 302) stands for the advent of what is now generally framed as ‘critical’ or ‘reflexive’ Migration Studies, at least in the Global North.

This field comprises an increasingly diverse debate: Critical voices shed light, from different positions, on how knowledge production within migration studies is entangled with dominant power structures, and partially, reproduces them. For the sake of this introductory blog post, we distinguish between three lines of critics, which are, of course, often entangled.

Scrutinizing the Nation-State Logic and Categorizations

Scholars, particularly in Europe, have – building on the seminal article of Wimmer and Glick Schiller – critically scrutinized (normative and political) categories used in migration research and investigated the effect of nation-state-based categorizations. The ‘ethnic lens’ has been criticized by Nina Glick Schiller and her co-authors (2006) for permeating research with ethnicized categorizations and assumptions, oftentimes disregarding crucial structural factors informing the positioning and perception of ‘migrants.’

A growing number of authors have alerted us about the non-reflexive academic use of terms that perpetuate a nation-state logic, reproducing its exclusionary mechanisms, and frame ’migrants’ as a racialized, poor and subordinated persons, whose movements or presence threaten allegedly sedentary and superior national communities (Anderson 2019, Raghuram 2021).

Including Critical Race Theory and Post-Colonial Approaches

A second, more recent critic, particularly vivid in Anglo-Saxon scholarship, targets the ahistorical theory-building of migration studies, and particularly many scholars’ amnesia regarding colonial legacies and racisms of current migration regimes. Such interventions argue that current migration movements, as much as nation-state regimes, are at least partially built on historical connections and racialized representations generated by colonialisms, dispossessions and appropriations. These connections are often dismissed by migration scholars, similarly to those who study social theory more globally (Bhambra 2014).

Scholars such as Fatima El-Tayeb (2011) criticize the geopolitics of knowledge production in migration studies, for example by examining the researchers’ positionalities or exposing the ‘colorblindness’ of migration research in Europe. Similar interventions such as the contributions by Lucy Mayblin and Joe Turner (2021) or Adrian Favell (2022) address the lack of awareness of racist and postcolonial continuities that shape the regimes of mobility globally, inform the perception of social minority groups in western societies and reproduce global inequalities.

Interventions from Feminist and Queer Perspectives

A third line of scholarship draws on gender studies to focus attention on the reproduction of patriarchal forms of knowledge production within migration studies (Mora and Piper 2021; Kofman 1999). More recently, queer theorists demonstrated how the sexuality regime is organized around the heterosexual self and how this contributes to structuring the work of migration scholars (Manalansan 2006; Fassin and Salcedo 2015).

By analyzing institutional practices and discourses producing sexual knowledge, bodies, desires, sexualities, scholars showed how this knowledge and social practices not only organize social life but are embedded in power relations and also (partially) structure migration studies.

Changing Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives

Yet, reflexive migration studies are not limited to the sole critique of traditional migration studies, they also offer alternative ways of doing research without reproducing essentialist views and reinforcing dominant power relations.

Among others, recent calls for the ‘de-migranticization’ of migration research by Janine Dahinden (2016) and the “migranticization” of the citizen by Bridget Anderson (2019) invite researchers to reorient the focus of investigation away from ‘migrant populations’ and towards the ‘overall population’. This entails not assuming a difference a priori between migrants and non-migrants but investigating instances where people are ‘migranticized’ and analyzing the knowledge production and power at stake.

On a methodological level, some authors such as Halleh Ghorashi (2021), Leon Moosavi (2020) and Yvonne Riaño (2016) promote the use of participatory methods and engaged scholarship by producing knowledge with research subjects, rather than on research subjects. These approaches aim at reducing the complicity of academia in reproducing sources of exclusion. They furthermore scrutinize the academia’s well-established boundary between (western) researchers as theorizers and migrants as ‘data producers.’

The Series: Taking Stock and Looking Ahead

This blog series takes the twentieth anniversary of Wimmer’s and Glick Schiller’s article as an opportunity for an overview of these reflexive debates. The contributors discuss the insights and impact of varied, yet also related challenges to traditional migration research.  Some of them address also potential shortcomings or pitfalls of a ‘critical’ or ‘reflexive’ approach to migration and mobility – an issue, which would deserve yet another blog series. We hope you enjoy your reading!

This blog series is a collaboration between the IMISCOE Standing Committee ‘Reflexivities in Migration Studies’ and the nccr – on the move.

Janine Dahinden is a professor of Transnational Studies at the Maison d’analyse des processus sociaux (MAPS) of the University of Neuchâtel and a Project Leader of the nccr – on the move and Co-director of the Standing Committee ‘Reflexivities in Migration Studies’ of IMISCOE.

Aldina Camenisch is the Administrative Director and the Scientific Officer of the nccr – on the move.

Robin Stünzi is the Education, Careers and Equal Opportunities Officer of the nccr – on the move.


– Anderson, Bridget (2019): New directions in migration studies: towards methodological de-nationalism. Comparative Migration Studies 7:36. .
– Bhambra, Gurminder. K (2017). The current crisis of Europe: Refugees, colonialism, and the limits of cosmopolitanism. European Law Journal, 23:5, 395–405.
– Dahinden, Janine (2016). A Plea for the ‘De-Migranticization’ of Research on Migration and Integration. Ethnic and Racial Studies 39:13, 2207–2225.
– El-Tayeb, Fatima (2011). European Others. Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
– Fassin, Eric and Manuela Salcedo (2015). Immigration Policies and the Truth of Sexual Identity. Archives of Sexual Behaviour 44:5:1117-25.
– Favell, Adrian. (2022). The Integration Nation: Immigration and Colonial Power in Liberal Democracies. Hoboken: Wiley.
– Ghorashi, Halleh (2021) Normalizing power and engaged narrative methodology: Refugee women, the forgotten category in the public discourse. Feminist Review 129: 48-63.
– Glick Schiller, Nina, Ayse. Caglar and Thaddeus.C. Gulbrandsen (2006). Beyond the Ethnic Lens. Locality, Globality and Born-Again Incorporation.  American Ethnologist 33(4): 612-633.
– Kofman, Eleonor (1999). Female ‘Birds of Passage’ a Decade later: Gender and Immigration in the European Union. The International Migration Review 33:2, 269-299.
– Manalasan, Martin F. (2006). Queer Intersections: Sexuality and Gender in Migration Studies. International Migration Review 40:1, 224-249.
– Mayblin, Lucy and John Turner (2021). Migration Studies and Colonialism. Hoboken: Wiley.
– Moosavi, Leon. (2020). The decolonial bandwagon and the dangers of intellectual decolonization. International Review of Sociology 30:2, 332-354.
– Mora, Claudia and Nicola Piper (2021). The Palgrave Handbook of Gender and Migration. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
– Raghuram, Parvati ( 2021). Interjecting the geographies of skills into international skilled migration research: Political economy and ethics for a renewed research agenda. Population, Space and Place 27:5.
– Riaño, Yvonne (2016). Minga Biographic Workshops with Highly Skilled Migrant Women: Enhancing Spaces of Inclusion. Qualitative Research 16:3, 267-279.
– Wimmer, Andreas and Nina Glick Schiller (2002). Methodological Nationalism and beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences. Global Networks 2(4): 301-334.

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