Migration, activist research, and the politics of location: An interview with Nicholas De Genova

Via Focaal Blog – Cemile Gizem Dinçer and Eda Sevinin interviewed Nicholas De Genova in Istanbul when they attended the conference “Migration, Social Transformation and Differential Inclusion in Turkey”.

“In Turkey, especially after the Syrians’ arrival following 2011, the field of migration studies has more or less confined itself to mainstream discussions such as integration, social cohesion, data collection, and so on. At this point, the work of Nicholas De Genova and the wider literature on the autonomy of migration open up a new horizon for discussing migration. De Genova has had a decisive influence in shaping our approach to migration and borders. We hope that this interview will be read across Turkey and make his work accessible to students, activists, and everyone interested in migration. We had a long conversation on topics ranging from the recent “refugee crisis” and alternative ways to think about migration and politics, activism, and academia in general.”

“The first part of this interview traces De Genova’s intellectual trajectory, his work on migration in the US and European contexts, his methodological approach, and his intellectual collaborations with the school of autonomy of migration. The second part moves into an analysis of the so-called refugee crisis since 2015 and possibilities for militant academic research that challenges the increasingly hard-right consensus in Europe and beyond.”

In the following we will publish parts of the interview

CGD & ES: How do you link your activism with academia?

NDG: Well, for me the choice to be an academic was a way to continue to be engaged as an intellectual with a certain kind of radical political commitment. And my choice to become an academic, in many ways, might have been relatively naive—because you sort of imagine that you have more freedom as an academic than you do. But nonetheless it was the decision to pursue a career that would allow me to continue to pursue these questions and concerns as the centerpiece of what I would spend most of my time doing. And in that way I would say it was always the commitments of my radical politics that guided many choices I made as an intellectual, which therefore guided many choices that I made as an academic. But, of course, as I say, I discovered in the course of making an academic career that there are many ways in which that is a process of professionalization—a process of becoming subjected to various kinds of institutions—and you are presented with all kind of conflicts and contradictions arising from being materially and practically implicated in the university system and making a career there. So, of course it’s not simple, it’s not straightforward, it’s not easy to balance those kinds of political commitments; it’s only to say that for me the choice to be an academic was always one that came about through commitments that had to do with being an intellectual engaged in radical politics.

It is pretty much what we have been discussing when we try to negotiate our own places in academia as well. We think that militant research or activist research, as we call it, is sort of a way in which you can negotiate your place in academia, or with academia in its most institutionalized form. Maybe you call tell us about what kind of methodology you are suggesting for activist or militant research, and what are the implications?

I feel that it’s not so much a question of embracing some kind of concept of “militant research” or some kind of methodology that we might give a special name; rather it’s about choosing to be a militant and then choosing to do research.

That is to say, you make choices about your political commitments independently of the question of doing research. It might be possible in certain kinds of activist contexts and campaigns that one formulates a research project that is driven by the preoccupations of that activism. But in a more general sense, if we are in academia and we are doing research, then it seems to me that’s always political—and then the question is: what politics do you defend, what politics do you stand by? I think the deeper question is that we have to account for the politics of our work, regardless of whether or not we want to fashion it as specifically activist or specifically militant. In other words, I think that so-called mainstream research is as political as anything that I would do. Part of the problem is that certain kinds of research are branded as “political,” “militant,” or “activist” in a way that serves to marginalize them or stigmatize them or insinuate that they somehow are less legitimate because they are somehow less objective. But I think that this myth of objectivity is actually a deep and central problem for social science in general. The commitment to some kind of abstract notion of objectivity is actually a commitment to objectification. And the deeper question is: where do we stand as subjects in relationship to other subjects, and how do we understand the research endeavor as one which is an intersubjective kind of engagement and encounter that could be a collaboration? And in that sense, you could say that this is a formulation of a kind of “militant” or “activist” research, but for me that’s a kind of unnecessary way of qualifying our research, because it should be an elementary way to understand how we do any legitimate research: that its objectivity actually is achieved by producing a forthright and honest account of its own material and practical conditions of possibility, which includes, of course, an honest account of how the researcher is positioned socially and politically in relationship to it.


The so-called refugee or migrant crisis of 2015 in Europe, which was also a crisis of Europe—do you think this whole process was effective in making Europe reflect anew on the questions that you just posed?

NDG: Well, in the most immediate sense, we can say that the autonomy of various migrant and refugee mobilities that came together in a particularly forceful way starting in 2015 instigated a crisis for the European border regime, which is to say, it was a crisis of control, a crisis of sovereignty. And insofar as that’s the case, then, it means that the very project of European unification and integration, the very project of the EU, was sent into its own kind of crisis precisely because what was bluntly exposed in the course of these events were the inequalities among different European member states—the variety of ways in which some European states were being made serve as the border patrol guards to insulate the wealthiest European countries from the migrant and refugee arrivals, and so on. So, you have a whole series of institutional arrangements that have been put in place over the bigger part of 10 or 15 or 20 years that solidified certain hierarchies within the European context and compelled the complicity and compliance of the less powerful and less wealthy European countries, now confronted with something that none of them could control or manage, which was this incredible demonstration of sheer force of human mobility and the disruptive power that came with the autonomy of migration. The internal relations among different member states of the EU—as well as the relationship of the EU to its so-called neighborhood, the surrounding countries—meant that the “crisis” of Europe’s borders really was experienced in an intense way for the people who authorized themselves to speak as Europe and for Europe: it really presented them with a real crisis of their own identity and their own sense of what their project is.

So, there is no question in my mind that the so-called migrant crisis, or refugee crisis, was, above all, a crisis of European identity and of European political and economic power. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that anyone has been prepared to engage that question in a self-reflexive and critical way. So, we see all varieties of ways in which there are competing claims on the part of the various contenders for power and influence within dominant European politics, competing claims with respect to the best strategy and tactics for bordering Europe—or rather, rebordering Europe—insulating Europe from these global crises in which Europe itself has been a very central player. But unfortunately, I don’t think that the kind of critical questions that I am asking about the identity of “Europe” and “Europeanness” have been very widely engaged.

As a result of the events that are called the “migrant crisis” or the “refugee crisis,” we instead have seen a kind of reactionary re-entrenchment—in the sense that the most important, the most urgent task for European authorities is to figure out how to expel as many people as possible or to kind of recalibrate and reconfigure the mechanisms for various sorts of exclusion and insulation. Consequently, we’ve had all sorts of new innovations with respect to the ways that the borders could be re-externalized, whereby border policing could be outsourced again to junior partners, to countries such as Turkey. On the other hand, we have also seen the internalization of bordering—the proliferation and the rebordering of Europe in a way that really made many commentators start calling into question whether the Schengen arrangement—and specifically, the notion of free mobility within Europe—was itself at an end, and revisiting whether the ideal of a Europe without internal borders is at all viable given that all these different European nation-states were reinstituting borders and border controls. I think, inevitably, the events that are associated with the so-called migrant and refugee crisis have created a whole series of ramifications that constantly instigate and provoke a certain set of anxious preoccupations about the question of Europe. But that’s a different thing than asking the critical question about “Europe” as such, which, I think, is at stake in finally reckoning with the harvest of empire.

We can continue with the idea of “crisis” that has swept the debates on migration. Can you explain how you conceptualize the notion of crisis? Has anything changed in your conceptualization of “the crisis” or “the multiplicity of crises” over the past three years? What has happened in these three years, and, in the end, is this idea of crisis either normalized or just put aside altogether?

One of the things that clearly did change is that the sheer momentum or volume of the numbers of people who were crossing at the height of those events in 2015 presented European authorities and various formations of border policing with an urgent set of circumstances. And one form that that took was, for various countries, to deliberately disregard their own obligations to be the border police of Europe in favor of effectively looking the other way and allowing people to transit through their countries. So, one of the interesting things that happened was that the larger constellation of Europe became an uneven continuum of transit zones and transit countries. And that eventually meant there was also the installation of the hotspot regime and a whole variety of other sorts of mechanisms that were really about producing new kinds of blockages and new kinds of obstacles for those formations of human mobility.

The EU-Turkey deal was a monumental moment in that progression of events, because it began to reestablish an externalized regime whereby a whole series of countries would serve as de facto detention camps in the exterior of the EU. That would allow for the wider mobilities to be blocked or contained or at least decelerated. And, you know, the arrival of thousands of people at one time in various European train stations began to recede, and it no longer looked like quite the “crisis” that it had been. That of course doesn’t mean that migratory movements have subsided or stopped, but it does mean that—as bordering always is a reaction formation—there was a massive reaction that required a whole series of new ways to try, if not to completely block and impede, then at least to decelerate these mobilities. One of the most pernicious forms is the reliance on detention in Libya. So, you have detention camps in Libya that the apprehension of people there as so-called illegal migrants to Europe who have never set foot on European soil. This is really the continuation of a regime of border externalization that began quite a long time ago—long before the events of 2015—but which has been reestablished and reinforced.

So, in a sense, what you had was the declaration of “crisis”: the discursive production of crisis as the authorization of a certain kind of state of exception and state of emergency that, at that moment, served the ends of foreclosing various kinds of debates that might have arguably been about questions of social justice in relationship to migration, in favor of a completely unilateral, authoritarian sequence of bordering events that were meant to clamp down on that particular situation. But in that sense, what we have seen is a kind of renovation or revision of a regime that was already in place, and much as migrant and refugee mobilities were already there, much as the escalation in migrant and refugee deaths was already there as an established fact of the way that Europe produces its borders long before 2015, so also does all of this continue to be the case now. But from the standpoint of the power of the EU to enforce its borders, you needed a certain set of emergency measures that could address the particular sort of momentum in that moment.

One way to understand it is that moments of crisis are produced precisely in order to routinize and normalize emergency measures that then become the new normal, so to speak, the new way of functioning. I think that is largely what we have seen: the scaling down of the rhetoric of crisis in favor of a return to a sense of relative normalcy, where normalcy is itself a kind of convulsive reaction formation always trying to contend with the disruptions that are produced by precisely the things that state power can’t control, such as the manifestation and exercise of an elementary form of freedom that people engage in when they choose to cross borders, making a priority of their needs and disregarding the law. The state and the authorities have this continuous problem whereby state power has to restabilize itself; sovereignty has to be restabilized in this permanent convulsive reaction formation.


Nicholas De Genova is a scholar of migration, borders, race, citizenship, and labor. He is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at the University of Houston. In addition to his influential books—Latino Crossings: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and the Politics of Race and Citizenship (2003), Working the Boundaries: Race, Space and “Illegality” in Mexican Chicago (2005), Racial Transformations: Latinos and Asians Remaking the United States (2006), The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement (2010), and The Borders of “Europe”:Autonomy of Migration, Tactics of Bordering (2017)—he has published several dozens of articles and book chapters. His works have also found a wide readership among nonacademic audiences and activists.

Cemile Gizem Dinçer is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Middle East Technical University, where she completed her master’s in Women and Gender Studies and studied the migrant domestic workers from Georgia in Turkey. Her research interests include gender, asylum, borders, migration, and domestic labor. She has worked in various projects on migration and has been a member of various activist groups.

Eda Sevinin is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at Central European University. Her PhD project focuses on the Islamic humanitarian networks working with refugees in Turkey and their role in the reproduction of the category of “refugee” in Turkey’s migration regime.

The full version of the interview was originally published at Focaal Blog