A migration-mobility nexus

Recently I realized that colleagues of mine working in projects of the NCCR on the move keep referring to a migration-mobility nexus as if it was an established term in the literature (e.g. in their draft papers). So I figured it would be useful to have a bit more about this term on the web than the two brief descriptions by the NCCR itself.

You can blame me for this awkward term I came up with when preparing the second stage of the original grant proposal. We were looking for a clearer description what unites the diverse projects of the NCCR. It’s an analytical framework that helps make sense of immigration-related phenomena.

At its core, the migration-mobility nexus consists of three components:

– migration
– mobility
– nexus

By referring to migration and mobility, we acknowledge that in the literature understandings of migration and mobility as concepts are multiple (thus some see migration as a form of mobility, and others see mobility as a form of migration). In the migration-mobility nexus, the terms are two poles of a continuum that is closely related to a narrative of social change.

Migration is one pole of the migration-mobility nexus. It refers to an ‘old school’ understanding of patterns of movement, movement that is typically across national borders. It is a static perspective, with a one-off, long-term or permanent movement from a place of origin to a place of destination where the person settles. This is what Economiesuisse refers to as ‘old’ migration, and implies low-skilled immigrants. If this perspective ever was adequate, it is clear that ‘migration’ is wholly inadequate a description of contemporary social phenomena related to movements across and within borders.

Mobility is the second pole of the migration-mobility nexus. It refers to ‘new’ patterns of movement(s), typically across national borders. It is a fluid perspective, with multiple, temporary movements between places. Notions of place of origin and destination are completely meaningless, and people live in multiple places at the same time. The pole is exemplified by writings by John Urry or by Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of a liquid world, the fleeting and forever temporary. This goes well beyond what Economiesuisse refers to as ‘new’ migration, the highly-skilled immigrants from Western Europe. It also goes and well beyond focusing on knowledge workers from the European Union. While this perspective helps us understand that ‘migration’ is inadequate, ‘mobility’ in its pure form is equally inadequate a description of contemporary social phenomena related to movements across and within national borders.

Nexus refers to the juxtaposition of migration and mobility. It is a shortcut to describe the continuum between the two poles, neither of which on its own provides a satisfactory description of the social world, and thus hinders a deep understanding of relevant social phenomena.

In the migration-mobility nexus, the description of the two poles is closely related to a narrative of social change. We can readily identify three aspects of globalization that are relevant to immigration that have been suggested to coincide with or drive a change from ‘migration’ to ‘mobility’. With that, new conflict lines emerge.

First, according to this narrative, legal orders have changed from a dominant nation state to one where the supranational plays an increasing role in regulating movements across national borders. Second, market forces play an increasing role in organizing and regulating movements — an increasing role of the economy. Third, societal dynamics describe how social cohesion is threatened through new exclusions that coincide with the changes described. The migration-mobility nexus is embedded in this narrative of social change.

Commentators and politicians often imply that these changes have led to a (one-way) change from migration to mobility — hence the idea of a shift from ‘old’ to ‘new’ migration. A more careful examination reveals changes, of course, but not a complete shift from one kind to another kind. Instead, we can observe a tension between the two poles of the migration-mobility nexus: Sometimes the migration part is stronger; sometimes the mobility part is stronger. It depends on the context, or the group of people examined. By referring to a migration-mobility nexus, we openly say that things are more complex than a simple shift, that there are no universal narratives that apply to everyone, there are no one-way streets, no adequate one-fits-all perspective, and the three structural shifts outlined are countered by agency. It is the recognition of this tension between the two poles that continues to be productive and provide new answers.

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