The unfinished politics of race and the uncertain status of migration studies in the UK

Published 6 November 2020 / By Michael Keith

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Recent events such as the Windrush scandal, Black Lives Matter movement and the Rhodes Must Fall initiative have sparked a global conversation on racial inequality and systemic violence. As an interdisciplinary research centre, COMPAS recognizes the urgent need to build upon this momentum by critically reflecting on issues of race, racialization and ethnicity as embedded in, shaping and transforming diverse contexts of migration and mobility across the world. Professor Michael Keith recently led a panel discussion as part of the COMPAS seminar series Race, Ethnicity and Migration. This blog reflects his contribution.

Mutabilities of race and migration

Race normally starts with a moment of stigma. It is reproduced through routines of association. The former sets up regimes of racialisation, rooted in global histories of slavery, colonialism and faux science and local processes of racism and discrimination. These regimes of stigma are in turn countered through associational forms in the name of race aimed at their elimination. So, paradoxically, in this sense, race can become a meaningful demographic by being against race. Being against something creates a racial logic and lends a normative but ethically straightforward dimension to racial taxonomies of populations. But being for something is more challenging over time and less straightforward normatively. Social movements in the name of race are normally much clearer about what they are against than what they are for.

Racism can be measured, at least in part. Through audits of racial difference and inequality, mystery shopping, blind test comparison and randomised control tests. Attitudinal tests may be less reliable, asking hypothetical questions about context free future marriages, neighbours or grandchildren. But stigma is about power as much as about attitude. And so it is the normative dimensions of the racial that make race so difficult to measure, racial science a deeply problematic oxymoron.

Migration may appear in contrast more objectively defined. But as migration studies, not least in the work of scholars such as Bridget Anderson have long argued, this is perhaps not the case. The question ‘Who is a migrant?’ has many answers depending on who is asking and who is answering. Distinctions of time between what is permanent and what is temporary, Distinctions of law that may evolve through time. Distinctions of motive between who is forced and who is free. Distinctions of borders that may echo colonial histories and methodological nationalism. Methodological nationalisms that may taxonomise arbitrary postcolonial or postsocialist partition as migrating without moving. Continental scale movements that may label Chinas urban billion and India’s mass movements as internal rather than international. I move from Jamaica to London and I am a migrant, from Martinique to Paris and I am not.

All create grey areas in answering the question 'who is a migrant?' as you can find in the COMPAS Anthology. But whilst the mobile migrant body is stigmatised at some times and not others the category of the migrant appears at least susceptible more easily to scientific measurement when the parameters are defined free of moral judgement.

When migration becomes race: institutional histories in the UK and the production of racial knowledges

Moral judgements are often translated into law. And for the UK the post 1945 legislative process deliberately inscribed into law a racial hierarchy. Historians such as Clive Harris have examined in detail the governmental archives that demonstrate how legislation tried to taxonomise and distinguish racially between white European voluntary workers dislocated by the war and ‘coloured’ colonial migrants. Such taxonomies of race, ethnicity and migration then translated uncertainly through subsequent case law aimed at preventing ‘racial discrimination’ which is founded on migrant histories. So, for example, a landmark House of Lords judgement determined that Sikhs in the UK were protected from discrimination under the 1976 Race Relations Act because, as Lord Fraser of Tullybelton put it, paradoxically, in his final opinion; “My Lords, the main question in this appeal is whether Sikhs are a 'racial group' for the purposes of the Race Relations Act 1976. For reasons that will appear, the answer to this question depends on whether they are a group defined by reference to 'ethnic origins'". However, for another sitting Law Lord, Lord Templeman, Sikhs were “almost a race and almost a nation”. Almost but not quite. But they could be considered one for the purposes of the 1976 act. The law cuts through and defines a legal subject, a ‘manipulable object’ that can then be studied.

Research disciplines, research focus and research funding have all been highly contested in scholarship of both race and migration. The canon of academic scholarship on both race and migration reveals global parochialisms that reflect the local realisations of both terms, nuanced by the objectively different ways in which the migrant is defined and race making is realised in different parts of the globe.

And so the study of race and ethnicity on one hand and migration on the other have evolved in the UK academy relationally. In relation to imperial pasts and postcolonial presents. In relation to Anglophone American scholarship. And in the last four decades in relation to a European continent whose framing of citizenship, identity, Fordist growth and post-Fordist economic restructuring created a comparative framing fuelled by shared logics and new streams of research funding.

This is a history in which the University of Oxford has played a not insignificant role. The first (and perhaps only) chair of its kind is the unfortunately named University of Oxford Rhodes Chair in Race Relations, first occupied by Kenneth Kirkwood from 1956 to the mid 1980s. Funders and recipients from the get go did not see quite eye to eye about the focus of race relations’ According to the history of St Anthony’s College:

"The scope of race relations was broadly defined by Oxford as the impact of western jurisdiction upon non-western peoples. The donors requested that special attention be paid to Africa and to the relations between indigenous and immigrant peoples ... The post was managed by the university’s Commonwealth Studies Committee, a successor to the Colonial Studies Committee" (my emphasis).

Kirkwood himself used the chair to address both the contemporary UK and its colonial legacies with specific reference to Africa, writing that both the former colonies and the contemporary UK alike were faced with problems of the ‘plural society’(Kirkwood, 1975, 107). His festschrift, edited by John Stone in Ethnic and Racial Studies in 1986 addresses ‘race relations’ in both the UK and in Africa alike.

David Theo Goldberg in his historical critique of the production of research and knowledge about race argues specifically in the context of the Oxford chair that “Racial knowledge is not just information about the racial Other, but its very creation its fabrication”. The production of racial knowledges has in this sense rarely been innocent. Mahmood Mamdani has famously argued that the cultural difference of racial knowledges structured the DNA of colonial governance; the medium through which the urban civilized is distinguished from the vernacular (and putatively backward) indigenous cultures that almost crosses Anglophone, Lusophone and Francophone Africa and defines a cosmopolitan metropolis contrasted to racially backward rurality. Not without internal dispute and minor international controversy the Oxford chair has now become defined as part of the project of African area studies.

The notion of the plural society also has a particular rooting in the study and governance of colonial subjects of the British Empire which in turn informed many of the more formal definitions of British multiculturalism, from the publication of ‘Colour and Citizenship: A Report on British Race Relations’ by Jim Rose in 1969 onwards. But how the demographics of this plurality should be defined was at the time and has since then remained problematic. Taxonomies of race, ethnicity and migration compete. The multiplication of identity politics and the geometries of intersectionality that couple race and ethnicity with identifications of class, gender, sexuality and faith has troubled both academic debate and the frames through which a politics of race has been defined in the last half century (Crenshaw, 1993; Keith and Pile, 1993). The 1969 report consisted of an aggregation of a large number of academic research projects published by the Institute of Race Relations (IRR), itself set up in 1958, first funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, as the Empire decolonised and race was increasingly seen as a major social division both domestically and in the emerging Commonwealth. Rose’s report documented in empirical detail the scale and range of racial discrimination against migrants in the UK. The focus of the work was almost entirely on minority migrant communities themselves and the forms of racism they endured. The everyday lives of rich and poor that were not migrants barely featured. While the report was influential this focus, along with the funding of the work led in time to the contest through which the Institute of Relations fractured, its members supporting the foundation of the first ‘anti racist think tank’. The empirical focus of the Institute’s early work was denounced as ‘spying on behalf of capitalism’ by one of its senior researchers (Jenkins, 1971). And later, in the late 1970s, the emerging sub discipline of race relations sociology was at times critiqued by the Institute as the product of colonial administrators coming home when ‘the focus of interest in the former colonial subjects shifted to the dock areas of Great Britain, where the first black settlements had become established’ (Bourne, 1980, 331).

This genre of criticism of certain forms of social science also shaped the emergence of the new discipline of cultural studies and in particular the collective that emerged in the 1980s under the leadership of Stuart Hall in Birmingham involving authors such as Paul Gilroy, Hazel Carby, Prathiba Parmar and John Solomos in their collection The Empire Strikes Back published in 1982.

A condensed version of Rose’s report under the authorship of the academic Nicholas Deakin was published in 1970 (Deakin, 1970), while Rose and Anthony (later Lord) Lester were inspired to found the Runnymede Trust on the back of this work. Runnymede Trust’s history has subsequently run in parallel to the IRR, serving as a more mainstream independent 'race equality think tank’ for multi ethnic Britain. But the uncertainty about the demographics of plural Britain remained and were influential in prompting a number of liberal organisations to set up the Commission on Multi Ethnic Britain in 1997, launched by Jack Straw as Home Secretary, and driven significantly by an attempt to re-contextualise Rose’s report for the 21st century.

The Economic and Social Research Council funded a research centre on ethnicity and race continuously from 1970 to 2008, firstly through the Research Unit on Ethnic Relations at the University of Bristol (1970-74), moving to Aston University (in 1978), and to the University of Warwick (in 1984) and where it was fully funded until 1998 before eventually closing in 2011. Institutionally, two figures who worked at CRER - Stephen Vertovec and Robin Cohen - were instrumental in setting up first the ESRC Transnational Communities programme from 1997-2003 and then COMPAS in 2003, funded for five years in the first instance by the ESRC. So in a sense, to some in the outside world, there was a movement of funding and implicitly research priorities away from ‘race and ethnicity’ towards ‘migration’, although from 2013 to 2017 the ESRC also funded the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity in Manchester.

In this context late 20th century studies of race and ethnicity in the UK were concerned with migration but were traced mostly both to a postcolonial experience that was proximate and articulated through languages of the racial and literatures that often looked to the USA experience of race as paradigmatic. And so both the fragile rooting of the UK with the European Union legislatively, and networks of European Funding pragmatically, have undoubtedly been an influence in changing this emphasis. For example the Commission for Racial Equality’s Journal ‘New Community’ became first an independent journal and then was linked to the University of Sussex and renamed the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.

In contrast the funding of US/UK comparisons of the racial have diminished and in a comparative European context the language of ‘race’ has always been deeply problematic in exchanges with colleagues in Germany or France in particular where the very concept is at times unspeakable. So in at least some senses – rightly or wrongly - the growth in ‘migration studies’ has been seen as at the cost of funding on research on race and also in part a prompt to distance the interaction between the two domains.

A note on methodologies

As I suggested in my introduction the analytical building blocks of ‘race’, ‘migrant’ and ‘ethnicity’ are all fuzzy in some respects. But perhaps not equally so.

The highly normative register implicit in the notion of ‘race’ with its cognate dynamics of racism and the historical and geographical complexity of demarcations of ethnicity perhaps promotes some scholarly dispositions more than others. It makes migration at least ostensibly easier to demarcate in approaches to the social that trend more to the social scientific than to the humanities; more to the disciplines of the social that prefer to measure and to replicate than to describe and differentiate, more towards quantitative social science than qualitative social science. And I think it is perhaps the case that there is a more extensive quantitative literature in the social sciences around migration than around either race or ethnicity in subjects such as economics, political science and demography.

As an outcome of processes of racialisation, race is invariably what Stuart Hall used to describe as ‘conjunctural’, a consequence and a facet of history and geography, the universal and the particular realised in specific moments and places. But there is an understanding in many of the more interpretative social sciences that this is not an unusual phenomenon, not least in anthropology. Marilyn Strathern in the 1990s in critiquing the work of Bruno Latour famously argued that the combinations of material objects and cultural life that create new forms of the hybrid are the standard material of anthropology. By analysing the links between the hybrid forms of the material, social and cultural, the networks generated are neither simply human nor non-human; not modern, just unfinished. Or put more simply, they are always in the process of becoming. Strathern suggests that what might be of interest is as much how networks are cut as how they are held in place and stabilised in the short, medium or longer term. Interpretation ‘must hold objects of reflection stable long enough to be of use’ (Strathern, 1996: 522; see also Strathern, 2015), but it is in the cutting as much as the assemblage of the hybrid forms that novelty becomes, new parts of the systems emerge, ontology asserts itself.

In Strathern’s work she illustrates this principle by examining how law cut such networks of the material and the cultural in intellectual property. Patents that define an object owned as property rely partly on individual or corporate innovation but also partly on knowledge made by others as scientific advance stands on the shoulders of its predecessors. Intellectual labour becomes property when law cuts the network itself. For Strathern, law ‘cuts’ the normative domain – ‘the limitless expansion of justice’ – when it creates what she calls a ‘manipulable object of use’ in this case property itself. In this sense and in a likewise fashion when race is defined analytically as a manipulable object of use – at a moment, in a place - it too cuts the normative domain while not subsuming its significance procedurally, substantively or ethically.

So as we have already seen ‘the migrant’ as an analytical object of study becomes a subject of scholarship through different cuts to the network – through distinctions of temporality, geography, motivation and legal status that generate ‘manipulable objects’ of scholarship. And likewise with race. So perhaps the future research linkages between migration and race have implications that are matters epistemological, ethical and methodological as much as they are instrumental or substantive.


Bourne, J. 1980 ‘Cheerleaders and ombudsmen: the sociology of race relations in Britain’. Race and Class, XXI (4) 331-352

Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies 1981 The Empire Strikes Back: race and racism in 70s Britain London: Routledge

Crenshaw, K. 1993 ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color’ Stanford Law Review, Stanford Law Review 43, 1241-1299

Goldberg, D. T. 2002 The Racial State (Chapter 7 Racial Knowledge 148-184) Oxford: Blackwell

Jenkins, R. 1971 The Production of Knowledge at the Institute of Race Relations London: Independent Labour Party.

Keith, M. and Pile, S. 1993 Place and the Politics of Identity. London: Routledge

Rose, J. 1969 Colour and Citizenship : a Report on British Race Relations (Published For The Institute Of Race Relations) By Oxford University Press, 1969

Strathern, M. 1996 ‘Cutting the network’. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 2(3): 517–35.