From the Great Wall to maze pipelines

Published 2 October 2012 / By Biao Xiang

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Bridget is absolutely right that population mobility was a concern for rulers of various kinds well before the era of nation-states.  The Great Wall of China was originally built for the purpose of stopping northern nomads’ invasion in the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC), but the project was continued in Western Han (206 BC-24 AD) partly in order to prevent Han Chinese from out-migrating.

Similarly, walls of cities that were built as defense device quickly became a means of mobility control (protection against external threats was conveniently turned to measures for internal control). In some periods of the Tang dynasty (618-907), households needed written approvals from local magistrates in order to exit the gate of the city with livestock and servants. As people were the main source of taxation and wealth in the old times, emigration was generally discouraged in many parts of the world. The Chinese Ming court (1368-1644) persecuted local officials on the coast line for failing in stopping people’s outmigration. Large-scale migration resulting from natural disasters were even more alarming. They often led to major social upheavals that toppled the rulers.

What is migration?

I have been thinking hard what exactly was in my mind when I said “migration was hardly a concern for anybody before the times of nation-states”. I guess what I meant by “migration” is migration as we understand it today - a generic type of behaviour of moving from one place to another especially crossing certain borders by any individual. My hypothesis is that migration as a behaviour per se was probably not a concern, and certainly not a subject of knowledge, until the modern times. Migration was previously perceived according to the specific outcomes of the specific flows of a specific population. There was probably no such a generic notion of “migration” or “migrant” (though “foreigner” does seem to be a common generic figure throughout history and across societies). State responses also appeared to be highly specific. They sought to either initiate desirable migration or block undesirable flows though the attempts often failed. Few seem to have thought of how to intervene, facilitate, channel migration.

Modern solutions

Modern nation-states obviously shared with the older regimes the worries about the implications of migration. But they seek new solutions. The new solutions are based on the perception that, in order to achieve desirable outcomes and avoid the undesirable, one has to understand and subsequently interfere in the individual behaviour of migration. As such the questions about decision-making, means of movement, precise ways of measuring mobility become significant. As a result of this behavioural approach, the individual is taken as the primary unit of inquiry.

Yet this doesn’t mean that the states are really interested in individual experiences. A major invention in modern regulation of migration is the increasingly minute classification of migrants, primarily through inventing numerous visa statuses. But it is critical to stress that classification was not meant to capture idiosyncratic individual experiences, rather it was aimed at devising a complete and exhaustive system in which every migrant can be located. It was thus an effort of totalization. It is compatible to taxonomy that formed the basis of the modern universal botany. This is part of the “totalizing classificatory grid” of modern states, “which could be applied with endless flexibility to anything under the state’s real or contemplated control” (Anderson 1991: 184). It is only through differentiation that a unified imagination of migration is established, and that widely different migrants can be regulated by a singular policy matrix.

Thus, what is new about modern states is not their concerns about migration, but their ways of addressing the concerns. The new approach may be described as epistemological double movements. First, migrations perceived as collective problems on a macro level (e.g. the loss of manpower or increasing pressure on the welfare system) is reduced to questions about individual behavior (e.g. how individuals make decisions to migrate). Second, multiple individuals’ heterogeneous migratory activities are lumped together (“migration”) as a general subject of knowledge and intervention.

Simultaneous individualization and totalization

Why did the simultaneous individualization and totalization take place in the times of nation-states?

The trend of individualization may have been caused by:

(1) the liberal ideology that foregrounds individuals as the main social actors and its associated assumption that effective policy interventions must enhance individual interest (migration cannot be simply stopped as a collective phenomenon, it instead must be managed by affecting individual desires and calculations)

(2) modern positivist scienticism is largely methodologically individualistic

(3) nation-states are supposed to be responsible for all individual citizens directly (as opposed to be mediated by nobles, gentries, or manors), and therefore policies should address individual needs.

The trend of totalization may be attributed to the following:

(1) The development of welfare states and democracy in receiving countries in the modern times rendered it necessary to turn migration from amorphous, constantly changing, unstable flows into a measurable and transparent statistical artefact in order to calculate costs and benefits and to make policies accountable to the public.

(2) The entrenchment of citizenship and nationalism made debates on immigration a favourite topic of national debates, which by definition presents migration as an aggregate phenomenon.

(3) The establishment of specialized state apparatus for migration management brings about a conceptual boundary that marks out migration as a distinct subject for regulation.

Demography and development studies, the two possibly most influential and rapidly growing sub-disciplines after WWII, both have significant influence on migration studies and both tend to reify migration as a generic phenomenon in itself.

Overlap and confusion

Obviously the causes of individualization and totalization overlap to a great extent. This makes things really complex. I have the impression that much confusion in policy debates and academic research result from unconscious scale-jumping in our thinking. At one moment we may be talking about migration as an individual behavior, while at the next moment as a collective phenomenon. Both perspectival scales are constructed as effects of the modern political practices, and jumping up and down between the two unconsciously is even more problematic.

The simultaneous individualization and totalization create a range of contradictions that I have not been able to think through. For instance, on one hand, voluntary migration is imaged to be a spontaneous behavior driven by individuals will (it is based on this assumption and against such an imagined individual migrant as a reference point that the historical, structural, and institutional factors are measured); on the other hand, the government management of migration has become so sophisticated and deeply penetrating into migrants’ life that “spontaneous migratory behavior” may no longer exist. For example, in the case of cross-border movements of unskilled and semi-skilled labor in East Asia, I observed “labour transplant” instead of “migration”. Migrants are extracted from their hometowns and inserted in a foreign workplace; the journey between and the space beyond the two points are minimized in migrants’ experience. Migration in this case is not about how migrants move and explore, but is about how they are moved with great precision. Yet unlike transplanting plants or organs, which ultimately aim at integration, labor transplant encapsulates the migrants in tightly guarded spaces to ensure that they can be transplanted back anytime (Xiang 2012). The Great Wall is replaced by highly elaborate pipelines.

Wind through the woods
Many thanks to the responses by Bridget and Parvati, I see how unclear my thinking was. Thinking harder leads me to more questions. What does appear clear however is the need of developing analytical devices that are capable of examining migration processes and the socio-political construction of migration simultaneously.

Returning to the metaphor that I used in the piece “Is there such a thing as migration”, perhaps we can envision an analytical framework that looks like wind through the woods. Instead of imagining migration as a forest of population on the move, it may be more accurate to liken it to gusts of wind. The society is the woods where a full range of species interact with each other in patterned manners. Wind is an inherent part of the life of the woods. Wind is generated by numerous factors that are so complicatedly intertwined that they defy analysis in isolation. We may have general ideas about the movement of wind, but it is nearly impossible to identify the causes, let alone to predict the trajectories, in every circumstance. The wind is as complex as the woods. But when we examine the wind and the woods together, the difficulties for research may be turned into sources of new insights. The wind may render the internal life of the woods more visible. How different parts of the woods react to the wind may provide us with rare clues into some important features of the larger structure of the woods: where the birds had rested, how the veins had grown beneath the bush, and how layers of leaves overlapped with each other. The wind brings them into sharp release. Better appreciation about the interplay will also yield deeper understanding about the wind itself.

Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined Communities – Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso.

Xiang Biao. forthcoming (2012). Labor transplant: “Point-to-point” regionalization and the reconfiguration of nation-states in East Asia. The South Atlantic Quarterly 111:4.