In Conversation with Biao Xiang

Published 17 December 2018 / By Anne Schnitzer & Emrah Celik

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MSc students Anne Schnitzer and Emrah Celik recently interviewed Professor Xiang Biao who is the convener of the 2018-19 MSc in Migration Studies.

Can you tell us about one of your current studies or research areas?

I am doing multiple projects at the moment, one of which deals with unskilled labour migration from northeast China to other Asian countries. My focus is on commercial intermediaries, who facilitate the processes of migration as well as how labour relation and governance models have changed.

What prompted you to study migration?

Many people don’t begin their careers thinking specifically about migration studies but are drawn in by other problems and interests. I began in the early 1990s with a project on a migrant community in Beijing, who had formed a very vibrant garment production industry. Under such strict controls of the capital city and thousands of miles away from their homes, I wanted to understand the process of social formation in this particular context. I was curious about the relationship between the individuals and the Chinese state. At the time, I was not thinking about migration studies as a field but saw important key connections across disciplinary boundaries. I find it a productive lens through which we can see many other things. Migration itself is just a phenomenon - people think migration is a large problem now but the topic can be quite banal. However, you can use it as a lens to examine other pressing issues. Migration only appears to be a problem because of particular policies, the declining social welfare, or increasing social anxiety rather than migration itself. Migration makes these problems more visible and serves as an analytical lens to examine such pressing issues in a sharper way.

Why should new students study migration?

No one is obliged to study migration, but I think the study of migration is fascinating and is important precisely because it provides us with a sharp point of entry for us to think about many issues. This degree is not meant to solely contribute to the academic field of migration studies. Instead the main purpose is to enable students to think broadly and to observe connections between many apparently different social developments. Migration allows you to see human connection as well as develop analytical skills with which you can assess and analyse social phenomena that are dynamic, elusive, and complex. Many of the problems that occur around us are indeed complicated and difficult to pinpoint. The way the problem manifests itself can be very multifaceted and may be clarified through a migration lens. Therefore, studying migration will help us to develop the kind of skills that are needed to approach such a problem. Today, the topic is emotionally charged and creates lots of public debates, but we must learn how to take an analytical position before a political one to come up with an informed, but always provisional, position on any issue.

What do you personally find exciting in teaching the MSc?

I enjoy teaching tremendously and find the interaction with students incredibly exciting. The cohort is very diverse, and each come with a strong commitment to particular issues related to migration as well as beyond. The students are very enthusiastic and engaged and have real issues that they want to confront every day. This energises me as I am constantly challenged by students to question my own views and hypotheses.

What are the most important goals and aims of the Migration Studies programme?

As we are teaching institution, the most important goal for me is to cultivate a particular type of mind. This mind must be very committed to the pressing issues of the world, it must be analytical but also analytically flexible – ready to change its own assumptions with an informed position.

How might a Masters in Migration Studies fit into students’ career goals?

This degree is not a professional training degree like a business or law one. The MSc. should not be considered a straightforward career path but it provides a space for students to reflect on themselves, to figure out where their passions and talents really lie, to think about the world. We don’t aim to produce particular types of employees for specific job positions but rather provide a transitional space. This is where a university student can become a fully-fledged citizen of the world. During the one year, we will provide you with information, knowledge, intensive interactions, and debates, which enable you to discover yourself and your surroundings.

What do you look for first when evaluating an application?

For prospective students, we don’t want you to not apply for fear of being rejected. Of course, we have standard criteria— an excellent academic record, examples of good writing skills, and evidence of the ability to analyse a problem—but one of the most important things we look for is “informed passion”. You need to demonstrate why you are passionate about the particular issues that you want to study. This passion needs to be informed – it’s based on an understanding of history, the contemporary context, and about possible implications of policies or phenomena. Simply being concerned about an issue because it is “ugly” or “morally disturbing” is not enough. Being passionate about it will drive you to study hard and push deeper. You may even find that your assumptions were wrong in the first place!

What backgrounds or experiences put forward some applications over the others?

There really are no specific experiences we seek. We look for diversities. What is important for applicants is to demonstrate who they are honestly and clearly. Don’t worry if you think your background is too “common,” in fact if you analyse it deeply, any “boring” or “banal” background can be interesting. For instance, if you think your background is too mainstream, consider what it was 50 years ago and why it might have become mainstream today. Always analyse and problematise your own surroundings. We want to build a diverse cohort in which students can learn from each other. Everyone brings in their different opinions, creating a harmonious friction. Socially, we all want to get along, but intellectually, we want to engage with positions that challenge our own. Without friction there are no sparks or movement.

Do you have any other advice for incoming students?

My advice is to be confident about who you are, confident enough to be ready to turn your own life experiences into a subject of analysis. Most of the students in this programme are in their early 20s. Each has their own background – given to them by their parents, society, and education system. You should not be judged by your background, but you should know why you are who you are today, and how you are going to move forward with your background. This goes back to what we said earlier: this degree is a space to think about and analyse who we are. In order to do this we will need to know more about world and its history – the languages, discourses, and categories which shape how we think. This is what we will investigate in this degree.