Migration and Methodological Amnesia


by Ipek Demir

The seminal article by Wimmer and Glick Schiller laid the foundations of what came to be known as critical and reflexive migration studies scholarship. The article rightfully challenged methodological nationalism. I argue, however, that without overcoming what I call ‘methodological amnesia,’ migration studies will not be able to challenge methodological nationalism effectively.

Wimmer and Glick Schiller defined methodological nationalism as ‘the naturalization of the nation-state by the social sciences.’ They challenged how the nation-state was taken as the natural unit of analysis in social sciences in general, but also unpacked its consequences for migration studies. In the twenty years since its publication, we had the development of a field that promised explanatory categories, priorities and explanations striving to go beyond methodological nationalism.

Despite its transnational promise, and the warnings of critical migration scholars such as Wimmer and Glick Schiller, however, it is difficult to say that the field of migration studies has sufficiently moved away from methodologically nationalist perspectives and frameworks. Nor have we been able to shift the ‘public understanding of migration,’ as the wider public, political and media debates on migration are still very much couched in the language, boundaries and imaginaries of the nation-state and its history.

Expanding the Spatial and Temporal Axes of Migration

This is partly, I argue, due to the field ignoring the temporal dimensions, namely the colonial and imperial axes of movements of people. It is difficult to go beyond methodological nationalism without also going beyond this ‘methodological amnesia.’ Spatial and temporal limitations are inextricably intertwined.

In their article, Wimmer and Glick Schiller carefully trace how the naturalization of the nation-state has ‘become part of the everyday routine of postwar social sciences, in international relations as much as in economics, history or anthropology.’ Yet we know that not only has the nation-state become naturalized, imperialism and colonialism have been erased from our vocabularies and conceptualizations of migration. The recent decolonial turn in migration studies seeks to challenge this (e.g., Demir 2022; Favell 2022; Mayblin 2017; Mayblin and Turner 2021).

In my specific field of diaspora studies, for example, diaspora is typically seen as emerging out of ‘ethno-political’ struggles within nation-states. However, as I argued in Demir 2022, through plantations, expansion, settlements, slavery, indenture and other forms of movements and domination of people, imperialism and colonialism have been instigators of diasporas. They have governed, dominated, exiled and moved populations. Much of today’s diasporas were made in and by colonialism and recent empires, including of course their expansion and collapse, and the nationalist projects that followed.

It is no coincidence that we have South Asian and Afro-Caribbean diasporas in the UK, Arab and North African diasporas in France, Slavic and Jewish diasporas following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Kurdish and Armenian diasporas where the Ottoman Empire once reigned. Even the recent case of Ukrainian refugees and diasporas have been couched evoking the Russian empire.

Yet diaspora research has often remained limited to a nation-state ontology. Instead of an antidote to nationalism, diaspora has become a conveyor of methodological nationalism. The never-ending study of single case studies through nation-centric perspectives and vocabularies is far too common.

The Consequences of Methodological Amnesia in Migration Studies

Leaving the relationship between migration, colonialism and empires has real consequences. It confines migrants to ‘their’ nation-state and places boundaries on their citizenship in the new home. As in the case of the Windrush Scandal in the UK, even when there are centuries of linkages created through the (British) empire (Hall 1990), their citizenship can be seen as contingent and revokable, turning them from citizens into migrants.

Criticisms of methodological nationalism have revealed the spatial limitations of nation-states, and highlighted the need to consider transnational and global processes. Whilst this is welcome and necessary, it is not sufficient. Renewed understandings of migration need to also consider the legacies of empires and colonialism on migration, and question the forced conceptual and temporal separation between the past (European empires and colonies) and today (modern European states), including the prevailing amnesia, which dominates much of our conceptualizations today.

Approaches that take empires and colonialism seriously, for example, need to challenge the recent so-called ‘unprecedented migrations to Europe’ as we know full well that ‘in the course of colonial history, European populations moved in greater numbers and with greater effect on the populations they encountered than is the case in the course of migration to Europe’ (Bhambra and Holmwood 2021: ix).

These approaches also need to steer clear of another type of methodological nationalism, that is reducing European colonialism and its impact on a few empires (usually French and British) and instead recognize colonialism as the enterprise of many other European entities, individuals and populations including, for example, Danes, Germans, Hungarians, Poles, Swiss.

As such we need to recognize that diversity and migration are not ‘recent’ but woven into the fabric and history of Europe due to colonialism and empires. We need to question the problematic but common construction of ‘White history’ with our ‘diverse and migration rich today.’ We need to also recognize the role of diasporas in shaping and decolonizing the metropole.

If we wish to continue to challenge methodological nationalism in migration studies, then, expanding the spatial imaginaries, questioning borders and promoting transnationalism and solidarities are not enough. We need to develop perspectives in migration studies, which excavate longer colonial histories, their legacies, patterns of power, movements and displacements and thus ongoing coloniality (Quijano 2000). We need to thus question methodological amnesia alongside methodological nationalism.

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

Ipek Demir is Professor of Sociology, and Director of the Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Studies (CERS), University of Leeds (UK). Demir’s research and publications sit at the intersections of the fields of race, diaspora studies, ethno-politics, nationalism, decoloniality, indigeneity, global politics as well as epistemology and interdisciplinarity. Her new book Diaspora as Translation and Decolonisation (2022, Manchester University Press) introduces a new theoretical framework for understanding diaspora.


– Bhambra, Gurminder K. and John Holmwood (2021) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory, Cambridge: Polity.
– Demir, Ipek (2022) Diaspora as Translation and Decolonisation, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
– Favell, Adrian (2022) The Integration Nation: Immigration and Colonial Power in Liberal Democracies, Cambridge: Polity Press.
– Hall, Stuart (1990) ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ in Jonathan Rutherford (ed) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, London: Lawrence and Wishart, pp. 222-237
– Mayblin, Lucy (2017) Asylum after Empire: Colonial Legacies in the Politics of Asylum Seeking, London: Rowman & Littlefield.
– Mayblin, Lucy and Joe Turner (2020) Migration Studies and Colonialism, Cambridge: Polity.
– Quijano, Anibal (2000) ‘Coloniality of Power and Eurocentrism in Latin America’ International Sociology, 15(2): 215-232.
– Wimmer, Andreas & 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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