Adam McKeown

Associate Professor of History, Columbia University
 
Rituals of Global Migration

"The smaller you go in scale, to national flows of a few million down to scales of particular individuals, the less the patterns correlate. You are getting impacted first, by national laws, local occupational structures, kinships and relatives, and ultimately down to personality issues. 'I migrated and my brother didn't migrate.' How do you explain that?"

Interview transcript: Adam McKeown

We always have these obsessions; globalization is always new, it is happening now, it is happening here first and what that does is that it erases the fact that the whole world over the past 200 years has been connected. By the 1890s, as you start to converge, migration around the world is responding to global economic processes. The smaller you go in scale, to national flows of a few million down to scales of particular individuals, the less the patterns correlate. You are getting impacted first, by national laws, local occupational structures, kinships and relatives, and ultimately down to personality issues. 'I migrated and my brother didn't migrate.' How do you explain that?

I would not distinguish Asian migration from European migration as somehow being different in character, but every single flow has its own context, down to really successful migrants who called for more migrants, the commercialization or the opportunities to spend money, family structure, opportunities abroad, legal controls, transportation opportunities; each narrative has its own unique mix of possible factors.

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The late 19th century is just an era of people getting disturbed at the high mobility, social transformation, the rise of new working classes, and new clinical movements in thinking that somehow seem to require more control, more order, more stability to solve things, including migration. Passports are so fascinating because we think of them as controlling movement, yet they facilitate movement. They standardize identities and documents around the world. Everybody recognizes it easily. They are all about movement, yet they anchor us to nation states; they anchor us to territories. They are key to making international borders the main stopping point of movement, which was not true at all 150 years ago. In terms of all migration controls, there's a constant interplay between policy, the enforceability of it, lawyers and migrants who resist it, international negotiations about movement, interests of transportation companies, employers; all of these factors come together to shape the specifics of who can move, how you move, and when you move.

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The immigration process is a performance, almost a bodily performance to some extent -- the theater of an investigator in uniform sitting behind a desk enacting a role within a very formal situation. These kinds of scripted interactions establish power relations and identity and factor into the narratives about what it means to be a citizen. You are not allowed to enter because your friend or this elite banker recommended you and not because of your social relationships, but because you have presented yourself as somebody with so much money and with this individual name and these family members and with this kind of occupation. This is the way you present yourself and the ritual allows you to learn how to perform this new identity that you are being called upon to perform. Many discussions of ritual say that it is not the content the matters but rather that the performance is done properly and scripted properly and that the whole thing unfolds as it is supposed to unfold, whatever it means. The relationships are in place in with each other.

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