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 prevent the perspectives of scholars with their own ‘migranticization’ experiences to be adequately represented in knowledge production. Particularly for reflexive migration studies, questioning and overcoming these mechanisms should be a key concern.

What does it imply that those who study ‘migrants’ and racialized individuals are usually ‘non-migrant,’  ‘white’ scholars? Migration scholars increasingly reflect on this question in terms of their positionality toward their research objects. Yet, the field that creates this profile of researchers, especially in the more advanced and secure positions is less problematized. Certainly, there is a growing awareness of the underrepresentation of scholars with their own experiences of ‘migranticization’ or racialization in academic conferences and journals, which has led for instance to initiatives to diversify conference panels. But the mechanisms (re-)producing differential opportunities to access positions within the field in the first place are still surprisingly little questioned.

Unequal Geographies of Knowledge Production

An approach that incorporates different scales should be considered when trying to understand these mechanisms producing differential opportunities. On the one hand, power structures on the global scale create unequal geographies of knowledge production. In particular, decolonial perspectives have contributed to highlighting how academic institutions in the Global North dominate the production of scientific knowledge on migration (e.g. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2020; Khan, 2020; Mayblin & Turner 2021; Vanyoro et al., 2019). This includes the power to distribute the capital needed to contribute to this knowledge – economic resources, access to networks, recognized degrees and journals – and above all, the symbolic power to define what is ‘recognized’ and ‘scientifically relevant’ knowledge or ‘excellent research’ deemed worthy to be funded. Research on migration conducted in the academic periphery (the Global South or Eastern Europe) thus remains largely invisible – unless it is led by scholars based in institutions in the Global North.

Barriers in the Academic Field

On the other hand, mechanisms within academic systems in the Global North may create particular barriers for students and scholars ‘of color,’ from migrant families or who migrated from countries ranked lower in the global academic hierarchy (see e.g. Gutiérrez Rodríguez et al., 2016; Kosnick, 2021; Thompson & Zablotsky, 2016). In this context, ‘migration background’ and racialized difference closely intersect with other categories of difference, particularly social class and gender.

The production of structural inequalities starts in education systems disadvantaging children from immigrant, working-class families. As many studies show, their likelihood of achieving a higher education degree, or a degree from a prestigious institution opening career prospects, is much lower than for the offspring of the non-migrant middle-class. Inequalities continue to be created through presumably ‘color-blind’ academic routines of distributing positions and resources that may institutionally discriminate against subjects, who are not part of the non-migrant, ‘white’ and middle-class norm. This includes the importance of disposing of the right networks in the academic field and discipline, international experiences in ‘recognized’ institutions (i.e. in the Global North), easiness in academic English, fast and linear academic trajectories, or simply the habitual similarity to the members of selection committees, i.e. the established scholars in the field.

Furthermore, the precarious working conditions in academia – such as temporary contracts, insecure career prospects, high pressure to publish and secure third-party funds – may push especially those,  who lack a secure legal status, or the financial resources and self-confidence ‘inherited’ from a middle-class family background to leave. Yet, all this is needed to survive in a highly competitive system until finally obtaining the unlikely permanent position. Experiences with everyday othering, racism or subtle exclusion may additionally exacerbate the feeling of being ‘out of place’ for the ‘migranticized’ students and scholars.

Implications for Knowledge Production

The mechanisms producing in/exclusion within the academic field have a crucial impact on the knowledge production on migration. Knowledge is co-produced by the subjects doing the research. Their experiences, perspectives, (ascribed) identities and interests shape research topics, questions, approaches, and findings. As I experienced in a research project on social mobility among descendants of migrants from Turkey in Germany, it can already considerably change the narratives generated in biographical interviews whether the interview is conducted by someone with a German name and ‘white’ appearance, or by a colleague with a Turkish name. Often, such influence on the data collected is hardly reflected.

Moreover, the impact of the research subject on knowledge production goes far beyond. One may assume for instance that the long, ongoing predominance of the ‘integration paradigm’ and only marginal attention to issues of discrimination and racism in migration studies relate to the dominance of ‘majority society’ perspectives among researchers who, at least unconsciously, have reproduced the widespread othering of migrants. Furthermore, it is obvious that the diffusion of more critical perspectives is strongly supported by researchers with their own experiences with ‘migranticization’ and racialization.

What Does This Mean for (Reflexive) Migration Studies?

Especially for reflexive migration studies, it should thus be a key concern to reflect on, criticize and work against exclusionary mechanisms in academia that prevent the perspectives, expertise, and experiences of ‘migranticized’ and racialized scholars to be adequately represented in the knowledge production. This not only requires reflecting on one’s own (privileged) position in the academic field. It also means questioning established, and possibly cherished routines in our own institutions as well as the ‘rules’ of the ‘academic game’ more profoundly.

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

Christine Lang is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies (IMIS) at Osnabrueck University, Germany. Her research interests include diversity and discrimination in organizations, educational and professional careers in immigration contexts, local governance of migration and diversity, and the international recruitment and mobility of health professionals.


– Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2020). Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration. Migration and Society, 3(1), 1–18.
– Gutiérrez Rodríguez, E., Ha, K. N., Hutta, J. S., Kessé, E. N., Laufenberg, M., & Schmitt, L. (2016). Rassismus, Klassenverhältnisse und Geschlecht an deutschen Hochschulen. Ein runder Tisch, der aneckt. sub\urban. zeitschrift für kritische stadtforschung, 4(2/3), 161–190.
– Khan, T. (2020). Research by the developed on the developing – View from the “researched”. The Sociological Review Magazine.
– Kosnick, K. (2021). Decolonizing Migration Studies? Thinking about Migration Studies from the Margins. Zeitschrift Für Migrationsforschung / Journal of Migration Studies, 1(2), 73–95.
– Mayblin, L., & Turner, J. (2021). Migration studies and colonialism. Cambridge: Polity.
– Thompson, V. E., & Zablotsky, V. (2016). Rethinking diversity in academic institutions. For a repoliticization of difference as a matter of social justice. Wagadu: A Journal of Transnational Women’s and Gender Studies, 16, 77–95.
– Vanyoro, K. P., Hadj-Abdou, L., & Dempster, H. (2019, July 19). Migration studies: From dehumanising to decolonising. LSE Higher Education Blog.

Experts mentioned

Christine Lang

Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Studies | Osnabrueck University, Germany

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