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The Migrant Other: Exclusion without Nationalism?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 February 2021

Caress Schenk
Nazarbayev University, Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan; Tomsk State University, Laboratory for Social and Anthropological Research, Tomsk, Russia
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Migrants are an easy, visible Other, seeming to fall neatly into the us-versus-them framework of nationalism. Nevertheless, much of the scholarly approach to migrant identity, with the partial exception of a largely separate literature on citizenship, has eschewed overt ties to nationalism studies. When us-versus-them language is used in relation to nationalism, the focus or nodal point is the identity of the seemingly homogenous “us” of the nation. However, when migrants are othered, the focus is not always the nation, and while othering migrants always creates exclusion, it is not always exclusion from a nation or identity group. This state of the field article analyzes the literature on populism, securitization, biopolitics, and other critical scholarship related to the issue of othering migrants. In each of these bodies of work, different sets of “us” are set against migrants, some of which evoke identity and others of which do not, elucidating the links (or the lack thereof) of each approach to the study of nationalism. In each of these frameworks, the migrant Other comes up against a different frame of reference, leaving migrants themselves (or any sense of migrant identity) somewhat lost amid the analytical frameworks, at continual risk of being re-othered as victims of circumstance without agency.

State of the Field
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The literature on migration takes many diverse paths to incorporating identity into its analysis, though studies of migration and nationalism have not often converged in a theoretically synergistic way. It is curious that the migrants that have become an almost singular object of political scorn, resulting in immigrant bans and refugee blockades, have such a fraught relationship with the national identity to which politicians seem to be appealing. Migrants are an easy, visible Other, seeming to fall neatly into the us-versus-them framework of nationalism. Nevertheless, much of the scholarly approach to migrant identity, with the partial exception of a largely separate literature on citizenship, has eschewed overt ties to nationalism studies. Why is this the case?

This state of the field analysis surveys both analytical and normative scholarships to suggest that creating the migrant Other, through political, legal, or discursive practices, does not always contribute to an understanding of national identity. When us-versus-them language is used in relation to nationalism, the focus or nodal point is the identity of the seemingly homogenous “us” of the nation (De Cleen and Stavrakakis Reference De Cleen and Stavrakakis2017). However, when migrants are othered, the focus is not always nation, which is why we can observe antimigrant or xenophobic rhetoric that is not nationalist (Schenk Reference Schenk and Blakkisrud2018). In other words, while othering migrants always creates exclusion, it is not always exclusion from a nation or identity group. As such, this article probes the limits of nationalism concepts for the analysis of various types of identity, in this case migrant otherness, with broader applications to studies of structural racism, gender, and efforts to decolonize scholarship that engage us-versus-them categorization and exclusionary power dynamics. In the following pages, I analyze how the literatures on populism, securitization, biopolitics, and other critical scholarship approach the issue of othering migrants, considering both the relevant technologies of governance and the concepts scholars have developed to encapsulate ideas and practices related to how migrants are constructed as Others. These literatures do not represent the full scope of approaches to migrant identity and engage only peripherally with the large migration literature that focuses on migration policymaking, migrants’ access to rights, and identities across borders. Mainstream approaches to migration are not concerned with othering, per say, which is pursued more directly in the critical and normative literatures that incorporate discursive practices to a much greater extent than traditional analysis. These four literatures present an opportunity to explore how migrants are constructed as Other through different mechanisms that elucidate by whom, for whom, and through what process migrants are othered. Presented from most mainstream to most critical, each of these bodies of work analyze different sets of “us” that are set against migrants, some of which evoke identity and others of which do not, elucidating the links (or the lack thereof) of each approach to the study of nationalism.

Populism and Party Politics: Democratic Othering

In the rise of European and US populism since the 2010s, anti-immigrant rhetoric has become a key strategy for mobilizing votes. Since populism as an ideology or technology of governance has become a vehicle for othering migrants through scapegoating rhetoric (Wodak Reference Wodak2015), its analysis seems a promising avenue for reconciling the place of migrants in the nationalism literature. Indeed, identity has become increasingly central to party politics and voting behavior, leading to the rise of support for populist parties (Stroschein Reference Stroschein2019). The identity in question in most studies, however, is that of voters. In other words, the “us” under analysis in the populism literature is the people, or a nation-like identity group constructed by the political discourse for the purpose of electoral gains. The Other in this case need not necessarily be homogenous, and therefore even a diverse group like migrants can offer a convenient target for othering. The literature on discourses of populism has shifted focus from the identity of the voters to how migrants are portrayed, yet attention remains on the role of migrants as infiltrators rather than a sense that migrants have any common identity.

The mechanism used by populism to other migrants is electoral rhetoric, which offers the public a choice they innately desire (the demand side of populism) or are easily convinced by (the supply side). This is a democratic othering because it relies on the institutions and processes that enable the choice of the demos. Electoral discourses make their appeals through policy promises and party platforms (Eger and Valdez Reference Eger and Valdez2019), campaign visuals (Matthes and Schmuck Reference Matthes and Schmuck2017), and media coverage (Bos and Brants Reference Bos and Brants2014; Wiggen Reference Wiggen2012). However, many studies that utilize mainstream social science methods, such as public opinion surveys or large election datasets focus on relationships between predetermined variables and as a result fall short of an explanation for why this othering of migrants is effective for electoral purposes. They do not elaborate the interlinkages between supply-side factors, e.g. opportunity structures or party development (Rydgren Reference Rydgren2007; Muis and Immerzeel Reference Muis and Immerzeel2017), and demand-side factors, e.g. triggers for anti-immigrant attitudes including increased migration, economic crisis, or unexpected refugee flows (Kuntz, Davidov, and Semyonov Reference Kuntz, Davidov and Semyonov2017; Billiet, Meuleman, and Witte Reference Billiet, Meuleman and De Witte2014; Gorodzeisky and Semyonov Reference Gorodzeisky and Semyonov2020; Stockemer et al. Reference Stockemer, Niemann, Unger and Speyer2020). It is precisely at this nexus between supply and demand that the relationship between the “us” of the voters and the Other of migrants remains underspecified in traditional approaches to the study of populism.

Discursive approaches to the study of populism offer some clues to how the mechanism of antimigrant rhetoric connects with the public to produce electoral outcomes. Though less specifically focused on migration-related factors, discursive studies of populism elaborate how the creation of scapegoats and symbols evoke fear among the population (Wodak Reference Wodak2015). The mechanisms of othering used in political campaigns and increasingly in social media (Salgado Reference Salgado2019; Sakki and Pettersson Reference Sakki and Pettersson2016) are activated through the creation of crisis and the image of enemies responsible for society’s ills, which draw more on fear than on fact, and are used to justify policy responses that exclude and eliminate these Others (Wodak and Krzyżanowski Reference Wodak and Krzyżanowski2017; Krzyżanowski and Ledin Reference Krzyżanowski and Ledin2017; Moffitt Reference Moffitt2016). Though the language of identity is utilized, populism remains a political technology, even a performance (Moffitt Reference Moffitt2015; Stavrakakis et al. Reference Stavrakakis, Katsambekis, Kioupkiolis, Nikisianis and Siomos2018), that is focused on the relationship between voters and elites. Ultimately the migration issue is mobilized by populists to highlight the failures of the political establishment (Salgado Reference Salgado2019; De Cleen and Stavrakakis Reference De Cleen and Stavrakakis2017).Footnote 1 In this sense populism can replace the Other of migrants with any number of alternative targets, since it is not the identity of migrants that is important but merely the role they play in the political process.

Discursive analyses of populism begin to uncover why and how electoral politics can effectively produce a democratic Other through scapegoating migrants. However, in the process of shifting focus from the identity of voters to the ways in which migrants are framed, the possibility of the nation serving as a focal point in these discursive approaches dissipates. Instead, the focus is on how migrants and minorities are racialized and demonized, and the links between the identity of the “us” and the identity of the Other remain unexplored. As a result, the literature shifts away from concrete linkages to national identity, a trend that is continued in the approaches discussed in the following sections.

Securitization: Strategic Discursive Othering

Whereas populism others migrants as enemies of the public good, securitization, as a technology of governance, goes further to present migrants and migration as an existential threat in need of an urgent solution (Buzan and Waever Reference Buzan and Waever2003). The focus is on migrants as the bearers of concrete threats, while the nation (including threats that may come from within the nation) lingers as abstract in the background. In fact, neither the identity of society (whether a national idea or a more general concept of a political community) nor the identity of migrants is particularly important for securitization. Rather, as with populism, the othering of migrants centers around their functional role. In securitization, the othering mechanism is strategic, using discourses of threat to justify policy change that may occur by extraordinary means, or outside regular policymaking channels. Two recent developments in the securitization literature demonstrate an expanding focus on who is involved in this strategic othering. First, a shift to analyze how discourses become embedded in everyday practices shows that othering is done not only by top policy makers but is increasingly actualized through the implementation of policy by lower-level state actors. Second, an increased focus on refugees or humanitarian migrants shifts the target of the othering to a specific type of threat (Watson Reference Watson2009; Hammerstad Reference Hammerstad, Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Loescher, Long and Sigona2014).

The contributions of the Paris school of securitization studies has moved analysis beyond an original focus on speech acts (rhetoric) to incorporate the everyday routines and practices of state actors that interact with migrants, from military and police to bureaucrats who use an intuitive sense of which migrants are legal or illegal to justify their processes of sorting and selecting people at the borders (Bigo Reference Bigo2014; Bigo and McCluskey Reference Bigo, McCluskey, Gheciu and Wohlforth2018). This bottom-up approach shifts from analysis of episodic or exceptional statements by elites to the ways in which elite rhetoric justifies and becomes embodied in everyday practices (Yuval-Davis, Wemyss, and Cassidy Reference Yuval-Davis, Wemyss and Cassidy2018).

Other recent contributions to securitization studies have focused on how refugees are framed as a security risk in the context of the 2015 European refugee crisis, an othering that highlights the danger of mobile people and eschews differentiation of migrants with different identities, experiences, and ambitions. These analyses start with the use of emergency measures and securitized discourses central to early definitions of securitization (Ferreira Reference Ferreira, Southgate and Steiner2018), then show how the language of crisis is not only to justify policy choices but also to flatten distinctions between migrants that might be hardworking, those that seek the social services of European states, and terrorists or criminals. Some findings suggest these securitized frames are additionally cast in gendered and racialized terms (Gray and Franck Reference Gray and Franck2019; Stachowitsch and Sachseder Reference Stachowitsch and Sachseder2019).

An important insight of recent work is that the securitization strategies used by elites do not always work (Hintjens Reference Hintjens2019). They sometimes fail to convince the public because of competing humanitarian framings of refugees. This finding highlights the importance of the audience (i.e., the public) for the success of the strategic othering of securitization. In the case of humanitarian migrants, the public may not accept the othering of securitizing discourses but instead choose an alternative framing. As with the analysis of populism, where establishing the linkages between supply and demand is persistently difficult, the current moment in securitization studies suggests that capturing public perceptions of elite discourse similarly eludes scholars.

Despite recent critique that securitization studies, and international relations more broadly (Zvobgo and Loken Reference Zvobgo and Loken2020), are embedded in racial (Howell and Richter-Montpetit Reference Howell and Richter-Montpetit2020) and colonial (Bertrand Reference Bertrand2018) power structures, securitization studies remains a useful departure point for identifying mechanisms of producing migrant otherness through elite discourses beyond populism. Racially and colonially oriented frameworks remain essential for understanding the various ways in which migrants are othered, but they are better addressed in relation to the critical literature of this review’s final section, perhaps because of the limitations of securitization studies in these areas. Nevertheless, securitization approaches usefully extend the framework for understanding how elite-driven discourses produce othering of migrants in a way that can be applied outside of Western contexts, as migrant-receiving countries throughout the world have been shown to utilize securitization practices (Arcarazo and Freier Reference Arcarazo and Freier2015; Arifianto Reference Arifianto2009; Bashirov Reference Bashirov, Laruelle and Schenk2018). Yet without a mechanism like the electoral politics central to the analysis of populism, state-society linkages in the process of securitization are even more difficult to establish as there is not a ready-made feedback mechanism for assessing popular perceptions of securitization strategies. Assessing the degree to which securitized rhetoric speaks for large swaths of society would be especially problematic in cases where the “us” of society (given that there is no national identity frame in securitization studies) does not speak as a singular voice against the migrant Other. Instead of the seemingly homogenous identity of the nation, migrants are set against an idea of security, once again othered by a role they are cast in rather than an identity they embody.

Biopolitical Approaches: Othering through State Power

Some scholars of securitization have turned to biopolitical approaches to explain policies that simultaneously other and humanize migrants (Mavelli Reference Mavelli2017; Fassin Reference Fassin2011; Davitti Reference Davitti2018), such as the parallel efforts of governments in Europe to militarize borders and expand search and rescue type operations in the Mediterranean (Van Reekum Reference Van Reekum2016).Footnote 2 The biopolitical state, based on wide-ranging applications of Michel Foucault’s concepts of biopolitics and biopower, is a concept developed in the literature to denote an activist array of agents and institutions of power that holds human lives as the object of political exercise. Biopolitics are the techniques of governing a collective of biosubjects that render otherness by shifting migrants outside of the legal order of the state. As a result, biopolitical approaches take a step further away from identity politics and nationalism studies because the type of belonging that migrants are excluded from is legal, or even from humanity itself, rather than from any particular identity group.

Many biopolitical approaches to migrant othering begin with Giorgio Agamben’s (Reference Agamben1998) Schmittian concept of sovereignty and the state of exception, which allows a sovereign to suspend the juridical order under certain conditions (Schmitt Reference Schmitt2005).Footnote 3 Running through many biopolitical treatments of migration is Agamben’s idea of bare life, or a life that is excluded by the sovereign from all social and political community. Estrangement is the central condition for othering, and the primary consequence is the potential for violence and death without legal repercussions. Recent work on bordering, deportability, and detainability explore how traditional concepts of spatially delineated states with legal systems that operate in straightforward ways must be adjusted to understand the ways in which migrants are othered by the biopolitical state’s exercise of power.

Borders in the biopolitical view are not a concept of the Weberian territorial reach of the state but are rather a Foucauldian assertion of the state’s reach over the body politic to control and mold the population into a productive entity (Fassin Reference Fassin2011). Biopolitical borders “can happen anywhere” (Van Reekum and Schinkel Reference Van Reekum and Schinkel2017): they are liquid and nonlinear (Davitti Reference Davitti2018), flexible and itinerant (Casas-Cortes, Cobarrubias and Pickles Reference Casas-Cortes, Cobarrubias and Pickles2015), and contingent (Walters Reference Walters2015). They may involve temporary camps and other detention zones in informal spaces or outside the traditional spaces of the state (Davies and Isakjee Reference Davies and Isakjee2015; Davies, Isakjee, and Dhesi Reference Davies, Isakjee and Dhesi2017; Rygiel Reference Rygiel2011; Deleixhe Reference Deleixhe2019), creating a zone of indistinction where migrants can be killed or harmed with impunity. For example, increasingly militarized border control makes migrant passage and entry ever more dangerous, exposing migrants to the bare life as they regularly encounter violence and death (Kynsilehto Reference Kynsilehto2017; Gilmartin and Kuusisto-Arponen Reference Gilmartin, Kuusisto-Arponen, Mitchell, Jones and Fluri2019; Jones and Johnson Reference Jones and Johnson2016; Squire Reference Squire2017; Davitti Reference Davitti2018; Cuttitta and Last Reference Cuttitta and Last2019; Rygiel Reference Rygiel2016). In the biopolitical sense, border control allows the sovereign ultimate control over death through systematic neglect or “violent inaction” by the state (Doty Reference Doty2011; Davies, Isakjee and Dhesi Reference Davies, Isakjee and Dhesi2017).Footnote 4

Similarly, traditional notions of deportation denote the movement of migrants across borders, evoking clearly delineated spatial and legal borders that are complicated by biopolitical approaches (Dines, Montagna, and Ruggiero Reference Dines, Montagna and Ruggiero2015; Rygiel Reference Rygiel2016). Deportability is a concept used to elaborate how individual migrants are rendered Other even if they are not discovered or physically removed from a state, simply because there is the possibility that they could be (De Genova Reference De Genova, De Genova and Peutz2010). Whereas deportability engages the notion of othering in terms of borders, citizenship, and physical location, the concept of detainability (De Genova Reference De Genova2019) allows for the possibility that the migrant Other may remain physically inside the state even if they are “legally absent,” whether or not they are physically confined (Sampson Reference Sampson, Jones, Fluri and Mitchell2019). The concepts of deportability and detainability engage the biopolitical state of exception and the idea of spectacle, which renders migrant illegality visible through performative acts by states (Van Reekum Reference Van Reekum2016; De Genova Reference De Genova2013, 255; Reference De Genova2015; Dines, Montagna, and Ruggiero Reference Dines, Montagna and Ruggiero2015; Mainwaring and Silverman Reference Mainwaring and Silverman2017; Tazzioli and Walters Reference Tazzioli and Walters2016). These performances convey to the public (through media images) the idea that borders are a concrete reality (Van Reekum and Schinkel Reference Van Reekum and Schinkel2017), that law has clear boundaries, and that a state’s subjects are easily categorized.

While there is an implicit public or society (though not something conceptualized as a nation) as the audience of migrant othering, they remain passive and peripheral. Biopolitical approaches are curiously silent on horizontal relations within society, focusing more on subjectivity vis-à-vis the state. Those that belong to the legal community remain in the background of analysis. Migrants are othered because they fall outside the law, outside the legal community of the state, and are beyond access to justice. Migrants are neither othered in terms of identity, nor because of the role they play in the political process as with populism and securitization. Instead, they are othered because the biopolitical exercise of state power extends its ethic of care for the population in ways that do not cleanly map onto traditional concepts of the rule of law, where legality is rendered in black-and-white terms. Nevertheless, because of the focus of biopolitical approaches on indeterminacy and expulsion from legal protection, migrants are continually presented as vulnerable and with limited agency. This is a primary issue taken up in the next section, which demonstrates that identifying and labeling injustice may in certain cases reinforce otherness.

Critical Approaches: Structural Discursive Othering

The critical approaches that make up the final section of this review take us even further afield from concepts of nation and nationalism because migrants are not set against any particular identity group but are rather othered vis-à-vis power holders and power structures. Beyond the exclusion wrought by the state as conceived in biopolitical approaches, these critical studies count academics, policy experts, and international organizations among power holders who further migrant othering. Continuing in a normative vein, critical approaches highlight how discursive structures perpetuate the inequality of the migrant Other.Footnote 5 They share an emancipatory tone or goal, either seeking to empower migrants themselves or to recast the ontological and epistemological frames scholars use to understand the migration process. Recent critiques of the labels used for migrants and the application of these insights to the literature on migrant brokerage demonstrate how framing migrants in crudely simplified ways can itself other migrants by reinforcing stereotypes.

A growing scholarshipFootnote 6 problematizes the inherent othering that occurs when migrants are given a particular label. Many scholars seek to complicate or nuance dichotomies such as migrant and refugee (Crawley and Skleparis Reference Crawley and Skleparis2018; Sajjad Reference Sajjad2018), migrant and expatriate (Kunz Reference Kunz2020), sham and real marriages in the context of family migration (Moret, Andrikopoulos, and Dahinden Reference Moret, Andrikopoulos and Dahinden2019), legal and illegal (Achilli and Samra Reference Achilli and Samra2019), high- and low-skilled workers (Baas Reference Baas2017), and internal and international migration (Xiang Reference Xiang2016). These dichotomies often set up a normative Other that centers around the idea that migrants lack agency unless they are engaging in dubious behavior. Some argue that simply using the word “migrant” at all others mobile people and reinforces methodological nationalism, or the idea that the current system of states and citizenship is a natural and objective reality (Iosifides Reference Iosifides2017). As a corrective, many critical scholars are interested in empowering local (or bottom-up) knowledge, “decolonizing” knowledge production (Mignolo Reference Mignolo2011; Bejarano et al. Reference Bejarano, Juárez, García and Goldstein2019), and “de-migrantizing” the literature (Iosifides Reference Iosifides2017; Tudor Reference Tudor2018; Talleraas Reference Talleraas2020).

The literature on migration brokerage, or the professional facilitation of mobility by different types of intermediaries, further illustrates the consequences of labeling and demonstrates the need to continually revisit the categories in use. In this case, the normative preference for “legal” or “regular” migrants is a stumbling block for creating categories that accurately reflect migrant experience. Balčaitė aptly states that “the prevailing image of a desirable migrant is that of a law-abiding independent individual traveling through the authorized channels after obtaining the required documentation” (Reference Balčaitė and Baas2020, 36). This image suggests that migrants lose agency if they are ushered through irregular migration channels by brokers, intermediaries, or smugglers.Footnote 7 Thus even in seeking to reenfranchize the illegal migrant Other as a person with rights to safe and legal access to migration, exploited and victimized migrants are re-othered vis-à-vis their free-agent counterparts (Deshingkar Reference Deshingkar2019).

In many cases, the intermediaries and brokers that facilitate the migration process are cast as unscrupulous, exploitative, and even criminal (Landry Reference Landry2016), themselves othered, whether they are based in family and social networks (Ma Reference Ma2018) or organized crime (Baird and Van Liempt Reference Baird and Van Liempt2015). Recent studies show a range of motives among brokers, from profit to altruism to friendship to a type of political activism where intermediaries offer safe passage to refugees outside of laws they deem unjust (Achilli and Abu Samra Reference Achilli and Samra2019; Picherit Reference Picherit2019), or what Landry calls “humanitarian smuggling” (Reference Landry2016, 1). Several scholars have shown that informal networks and brokers tend to illicit greater trust than state-facilitated programs (Åkesson and Alpes Reference Åkesson and Alpes2019; Bylander Reference Bylander2019; Deshingkar et al. Reference Deshingkar, Abrar, Sultana, Haque and Reza2019) because norms of reciprocity and social and cultural embeddedness mark the intermediary sphere (Deshingkar Reference Deshingkar2019). Intermediaries can offer increased social mobility and status (Alpes Reference Alpes2013; Wee, Goh, and Yeoh Reference Wee, Goh and Yeoh2019; Tuckett Reference Tuckett2018), and help migrants appear desirable to employers and receiving states (Kim Reference Kim2018; Deshingkar Reference Deshingkar2019).

Critical approaches show how migrants often seek secure passage and improved life conditions more than “legality” (Åkesson and Alpes Reference Åkesson and Alpes2019; Deshingkar et al. Reference Deshingkar, Abrar, Sultana, Haque and Reza2019) and that engagement with intermediaries may in the end increase the agency of migrants (Deshingkar Reference Deshingkar2019). Recasting the services brokers offer, including document procurement, travel arrangements, translation, skills trainings, and insider knowledge, as market purchases or investments by migrants (Kim Reference Kim2018) and focusing on the bottom-up knowledge production arising from migrant experience (Baird and Van Liempt Reference Baird and Van Liempt2015) can therefore help to reenfranchise the victim-migrant Other.

In these critical perspectives, the migrant Other is not set against a nation or identity group of any sort. Instead the Other is set against an ideal of a legal migrant with agency and rights. These ideas of otherness are often politically constructed and top-down (Collyer and De Haas Reference Collyer and De Haas2012), used to simplify and quantify (Moncrieffe Reference Moncrieffe, Moncrieffe and Eyben2007), with the consequence of flattening and homogenizing human mobility experiences. Once created, academics and practitioners alike may have difficulty seeing beyond the artificial nature of categories (Bakewell Reference Bakewell2008) because they come to be seen as natural, objective, or value-free (Sajjad Reference Sajjad2018). Categories become embedded in policy (Dauvergne and Marsden Reference Dauvergne and Marsden2014) and are mapped onto different legal, political, and social statuses (Robertson Reference Robertson2019), each evoking different moral imperatives (Smith and Waite Reference Smith and Waite2019) and emotional reactions (Baas Reference Baas2017). Categorizations can further create a slippery slope of associations, blurring the boundaries between legal status, race, and religion (Tudor Reference Tudor2018; Robertson Reference Robertson2019), without offering insight into the authentic identities of migrants.


The recent developments of discursive approaches captured in this review suggest that moving beyond traditional positivist social science epistemologies with Western rule of law assumptions opens new analytical space for understanding the complicated position of migrants in societies. Frameworks are in continual need of revisiting, however, thus demonstrating the beauty and danger of critical perspectives for the social scientific process: while critical theories can breathe new life and perspective into concepts entrenched in power imbalances, they can themselves become hegemonic discourses. Securitization studies is a case in point of a framework that started as a critical scholarship but is now under fire for its (and even its critics) entrenchment in racial power dynamics (Hansen Reference Hansen2020), and the question of whether these critiques can or will serve to refine existing scholarship or chart a new course forward remains open (Wæver and Buzan Reference Wæver and Buzan2020). In relation to migrant othering, I have explored in this article how the lives of mobile people do not easily map onto legal, political, social, or even discursive categories, yet I suggest that even critical approaches can contribute to the process of othering, for example, by focusing on the state and society producing the othering (Makarychev Reference Makarychev2018), or even on subcategories within the migrant group, such as those involved in migration brokerage. In other words, the migrant “us” does not appear in these literatures. They are rather concerned with migrants only as Other.

Considering migrants’ continually disenfranchised state, it seems there should be a somewhat natural link between migrant othering and the study of national identity, which also centers on ideas of inclusion and exclusion. Yet this survey of recent literature suggests that whether or not othering contributes to a discussion of national identity depends to a large extent on the focal point of analysis. Each of the approaches to migrant othering addressed here, whether a technology of governance or a scholarly approach, has its own focal point: for populism, the people and the electoral process; for securitization, the population and its security; for biopolitics, the state and its productive population; and for critical scholarship, hegemonic discourses and the groups these disenfranchise. These focal points help to identify the mechanisms of migrant othering by the actors involved and the strategies they use. In none of these literatures is the focal point a nation or nation-like identity group, leaving any linkages between migrant othering and the nationalism literature untenable. Further, in each case the migrant Other comes up against a different frame of reference, leaving migrants themselves (or any sense of migrant identity) somewhat lost amid the analytical frameworks.

What is the utility, then, of discussing migrant othering in relation to the study of nationalism? This exercise has focused on identifying fault lines between the literatures addressing migrant othering and the concept of nationalism rather than building the bridges that are necessary to leverage accumulated wisdom across academic traditions. Nevertheless, an important outcome of assessing boundaries is that it lays bare the limits of the types of dichotomous thinking that are embedded in us-versus-them frameworks, whether in the study of nationalism, migration, race, or gender. These limits become clear even when migrant othering is rejected out of humanitarian impulse but migrants are recast as victims of circumstance, structure, policy, or exploitative forces, effectively re-othered vis-à-vis those with agency. Analytically, the category of Other is only potentially useful in juxtaposition to a category of something. Consequently, there is a danger of analytical imprecision if the Other becomes simply a residual category for all of the things that the focal point of analysis is not. The concept of the migrant Other suffers from exactly this lack of precision that comes with dichotomous thinking. Migrants, being an almost infinitely diverse category of mobile people, can be cast against myriad points of comparison. Without careful attention to frames and labels, analysis may quickly become a slippery slope of othering and re-othering that has normative implications for those excluded and in continual need of reenfranchisement.


The author thanks Irina Kuznetsova and Agnieszka Kubal for many conversations that sparked ideas elaborated in this article.


Author has nothing to disclose.

Financial Support

This research was supported by a Tomsk State University Competitiveness Improvement Programme grant.


1 In this sense, migration-related populism can also appear on the left, from those criticizing the political establishment’s exclusion of migrants (Arcarazo and Freier Reference Arcarazo and Freier2015).

2 In some sense, the biopolitics literature is most like the traditional migration politics literature, which focuses on state policies and the rights these policies afford (or do not afford) migrants. The liberal paradox (Hollifield Reference Hollifield2004) captures the idea that liberal (sometimes humanitarian) norms and policies advocated by democratic populations increasingly diverge. Though these literatures share a focus on legal mechanisms, the migration politics literature does not tend toward biopolitical framings, which are more common in anthropological approaches.

3 Not unlike securitization’s so-called extraordinary means.

4 A subset of the biopolitics literature refers to this control over death as necropolitics or thanatopolitics (Wright Reference Wright2011; Round and Kuznetsova Reference Round and Kuznetsova2016; Squire Reference Squire2017; Bird and Short Reference Bird and Short2017).

5 Other veins in the migration literature take a different trajectory to address issues of structural injustice, linking migration to the concept of precarity that comes from the literature on labor and class structures.

6 Scholars may frame their research in terms of critical realism (Iosifides Reference Iosifides2017), Orientalism (Amin-Khan Reference Amin-Khan2012), methodological nationalism (Çağlar Reference Çağlar2016; Xiang Reference Xiang2016), militant (or activist) research (Garelli and Tazzioli Reference Garelli and Tazzioli2013; De Genova Reference De Genova2013), localization (Kluczewska Reference Kluczewska2019), intersectional approaches (Grosfoguel, Oso, and Christou Reference Grosfoguel, Oso and Christou2015), or postcolonial/ decolonial analysis, namely, the idea that discourses have become hegemonic and must be decolonized in order to correct power imbalances (Adamson Reference Adamson2020).

7 These entrepreneurs are variously labeled (for example an employment agency versus a trafficker) often depending on assumptions of whether or not their activities are producing regular, legal, documented, and safe migrants and migration experiences.


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