A Reflexive Perspective on Privileged Migration Studies. What’s the Point?


by and

In political and popular discourse, migration is alternately portrayed as a problem to be managed or a danger to be fought. Consequently, the term appears to carry with it a set of social and political issues. Drawing on reflexive migration studies, it seems therefore appropriate to question how some mobile people are seen as migrants and why others are not? Moreover, how can migration studies be more reflexive about the normative assumptions that still frame the knowledge production in the field?

Reflexive migration studies have sought to re-orient assumptions that normalize the difference between migrants. This involves questioning how mobile people become ordered and categorized as ‘migrants’ in a process of ‘migranticization’ (Amelina, 2021), and objects of knowledge production and policy-making. It questions assumptions about migrant differences and how migrants are oftentimes framed as a problem to be solved (Dahinden, 2016;  Schapendonk, 2021).

Yet, in exploring the practices and discourses of why people are migranticized, reflexive migration studies need to go further in exploring why others are exempted from such treatment. Analyzing the exemption of groups helps elucidate the everyday research in migration studies, which contributes to our understanding of migration itself.

A Focus on ‘Privileged’ Migrants

To explore why some mobile people are not migranticized we focus on ‘privileged migrants.’ Privilege is used by migration researchers to classify mobile people, who possess different forms of capital helping their mobility and settlement. This relates mostly to economic capital, but also cultural capital. In that respect, privileged migrants include, but are not exclusive to, international students, lifestyle migrants, expatriates, and more widely people involved in Global North to South mobilities.

Even though many forms of privileged mobility exist, with a few exceptions, they remain comparatively understudied in migration research. The most powerful mobile subjects are often exempted from mainstream academic discussions on migration, as is for example the case in the textbooks ‘the Age of Migration’ (2019) and ‘Global Migration: Patterns, Processes and Politics’ (2016).

Why (Not) Study Privileged Migration?

However, privileged migrants are not only missing from mainstream academic discourse. Researchers who look at privileged migration anecdotally report being asked what the point of their research is (Cranston and Lloyd, 2019). As a session organized by the authors at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of British Geographers shows, this is not an individual experience but is often highlighted by researchers of privileged mobility when discussing the everyday realities of their work.

Moreover, the mere act of being asked about the point of their research reveals a broader discourse in the everyday production of academic knowledge in migration studies. Using the perspective of policy and social justice, why is privileged migration often obfuscated?

Policy: Are Privileged Migrants ‘Unproblematic’?

Privileged migrants are construed as unproblematic in policy. Researchers of privileged mobilities have long explored the popular and academic use of the term ‘expatriate’ to denote —often white and western –  migrants as distinctively different (Duplan, 2022), whereas less privileged forms of immigration, are framed as a political issue. The use of different terminologies contributes to privileged mobile people not being migranticized.

With this in mind, academics may be complicit in this type of framing. How we name our respondents engages our responsibility as researchers, when producing knowledge on migration.

Policy Channels Research Funding

Privileged migrants are not only often construed as unproblematic. They are also rarely seen as objects of policy interventions but rather as people with an attractive potential to be captured.

The everyday production of academic knowledge on migration is directed by funding, often from competitive government streams. To gain funding, researchers must demonstrate the policy relevance of their proposed research. This is harder to express for privileged migration and related to why researchers interested in this area of migration are asked about the reason for their studies. With career progression in academia linked to funding, this becomes another reason why privileged mobile people are not often researched within migration studies.

Social Justice: Are Privileged Migrants a Less Worthwhile Research Topic?

Many academics in migration studies are motivated by a desire to make a difference—the everyday production of knowledge on migration is a step towards achieving this goal. Framed according to their social relevance, migration studies often carry an ethos of social justice with its focus on giving migrants a voice and exposing and challenging the inequalities they might face.

This attitude questions the relevance of studying privileged migrants, who have power and agency, and usually do not require our ‘help’ to speak up or gain more power. It again underlines the discursive framing of the migrant, as someone disadvantaged.

Yet, the very same structures which disadvantage some mobile people, advantage others—vulnerability and privilege are two sides of the same coin. Research on privileged migrants can work to expose both sides of the coin and the structures of power that shape them.

Researching the ‘Other’

Privileged migrants often occupy similar positionalities to academics in terms of the capital that enables them to travel. Academic mobility can even be thought of as privileged migration. Yet again, an impetus in Eurocentric academia has often been to separate ourselves and what we research.

This is another reason that privileged mobile people are seen as a less relevant research topic. Exposing structures of power can be uncomfortable when we acknowledge how we materially benefit from this in our own lives. Yet, this is not a reason why privileged mobile people should not be an object of mainstream research in migration.

Plea for a Wider Understanding of Migration

Referencing how privileged migration can be exempted from knowledge production about migration and exploring privileged forms of mobility themselves allow us to avoid reproducing normative categories of migration in research through reflexivity. Migration research demonstrates academia’s power in agenda setting, the decision as to what counts will also reflect on funding application successes, paper acceptances, and citations among others.

As opposed to exempting the more privileged, a wider scope of migrants in research may help promote an understanding that highlights how migration is normalized or problematized depending on who you are. Whilst highlighting how power operates in society, this will also help emphasize the similarities between migrants, as well as wider populations.

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

Sophie Cranston is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at Loughborough University (UK).

Karine Duplan is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Geneva (CH).


– Amelina, A. (2021) ‘After the reflexive turn in migration studies: Towards the doing migration approach’, Population, Space and Place, 27(1), pp. 1–35. doi: 10.1002/psp.2368.
– Cranston, S. and Lloyd, J. (2019) ‘Bursting the Bubble: Spatialising Safety for Privileged Migrant Women in Singapore’, Antipode, 51(2). doi: 10.1111/anti.12433.
– Dahinden, J. (2016) ‘A plea for the “de-migranticization’’ of research on migration and integration”’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 39(13), pp. 2207–2225. doi: 10.1080/01419870.2015.1124129.
– Duplan, K. (2022). Expatriate as hero of globalisation? Critical insights on privileged migration and neoliberal ideology. In S. Beck (ed), Expats/Migrants: the two faces of the same reality? Leiden/Boston: Brill Publishers (in press).
– de Haas, H., Castles, S., Millar, M., (2019) The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. 6th edition. Macmillian Education Press.
– Mavroudi, E., Nagel, C. (2016) Global Migration : Patterns, Processes, and Politics. Routledge.
– Schapendonk, J. (2021) ‘Counter moves. Destabilizing the grand narrative of onward migration and secondary movements in Europe’, International Migration, 59(6), pp. 45–58. doi: 10.1111/imig.12923.

Reflex_studies Blog

  • From Objects to Subjects: Expanding Reflexivity in Migration Studies

    by Christine Lang Reflexive approaches in migration studies have revealed the problems of traditional constructions of the objects of migration research. Much less attention has been paid to the subjects doing the research and the mechanisms that...

Reflex_studies News