Prof Louise Ryan organises a panel on theory at recent international migration conference

At the recent IMISCOE conference held at Malmö University, Sweden, June 2019, Prof Louise Ryan, University of Sheffield, and Dr Aleksandra Grzymala-Kazlowska, University of Warsaw & University of Birmingham organised a session entitled:  Developing theories to understand mobilities and settling strategies in uncertain and insecure contexts.

Louise and Aleksandra were joined by a third speaker Prof Janine Dahinden, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

The chair of the session was Prof Izabela Grabowska from SWPS University, Warsaw and the discussant was Professor Eleonore Kofman, Middlesex University, London. Despite taking place on a Friday afternoon just before the closing of the conference, the panel drew a packed audience and sparked much interest and discussion.

Prof Eleonore Kofman, Prof Janine Dahinden, Dr Aleksandra Kazlowska, Prof Louise Ryan and Prof Izabela Grabowska

The panel aimed to present new concepts to offer deeper insights into migration and settling processes. There have been growing calls for new ways of understanding processes of belonging and attachment that go beyond simplistic assumptions of migrants and refugees integrating into a nominal notion of ‘mainstream’ or ‘majority’ society (Wessendorf and Phillimore 2018). The concept of integration has been heavily criticised (Grzymala-Kazlowska and Phillimore, 2017; Dahinden, 2016; 2013) and, as Adrian Favell has noted, ‘scientifically speaking, there are no satisfactory core definitions, despite the growing number of national and crossnational projects’ (Favell 2014).  Furthermore, it has been proposed that ‘integration’ is a discursive practice that produces non-belonging in the first place (Korteweg 2017).

This panel proposed ways to ‘de-center’ this field of research by proposing new concepts, theoretical lens and methodologies.

Aleksandra opened the session, drawing on her long-term research with Polish migrants in West Midlands of England, to discuss new ways of capturing dynamics and complexity of belonging and settling processes. She discussed how the emergent concept of anchoring (Grzymala-Kazlowska 2016; 2018) inspired by the work of Bauman (1997) and Little et al (2002) can offer a processual and multi-dimensional understanding of migrant attachments and psychological feelings of security. The proposed approach may be useful to theorise the flexibility of migrants’ adaptation and ‘settlement’ in the context of new mobilities where settlement becomes better understood in terms of making life relatively stable and reaching a state of stability than putting down roots in a certain country. Anchoring emphasizes, on the one hand, human agency and the cognitive and emotional aspects of establishing footholds and, on the other hand, inequalities and structural constraints in recovering a sense of stability and security. Its value lies in the fact that it acknowledges simultaneity (Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004), multidimensionality (including social, cultural, cognitive, emotional, material, spiritual, institutional anchors) and dynamics of anchoring, re-anchoring and the reverse processes of un-anchoring to be linked which is particularly relevant in the context of Brexit uncertainties.

Louise then drew on her concept of differentiated embedding (Ryan, 2018) to analyse longitudinal data collected with Polish participants in London before and after the Brexit referendum. Louise proposes the concept of ‘differentiated embedding’ to explore how migrants negotiate attachment and belonging as dynamic temporal, spatial and relational processes.  While Granovetter’s famous concept of embeddedness has be particularly influential among migration scholars, nonetheless, embeddedness has been described as a vague and ‘fuzzy’ concept, lacking in precision and clarity (Hess, 2004). There have been calls for a clearer understanding of the qualities of embeddedness and the multidimensional nature of ties, as well as more research on the dynamism of this process over time (Hite, 2003; 2005).  Rather than a static notion of embeddedness, Louise and her colleague Jon Mulholland have suggested the more active notion of embedding as a verb, requiring continued effort (Ryan and Mulholland, 2015). Using a visual tool (sociogram) and in-depth interviews, Louise collected data on how migrants navigate specific domains including employment, neighbourhood, familial and friendships ties both locally and transnationally.  In this way, her findings show that rather than a simple, one-dimensional form of embeddedness, migrants are negotiating embedding in differentiated ways, to different degrees across various domains.  This conceptual framework reveals a dynamic approach and may be especially important in exploring the likely reactions to Brexit.

It is noteworthy that Louise and Aleksandra are now working on ways to bring their concepts of anchoring and differentiated embedding into conversation to examine how these two concepts may work together in order to offer deeper understandings of migrants’ dynamic processes of belonging and attachments.

The third speaker, Janine Dahinden, argued that much research on migrant integration, the transnationalization of social realities and the ensuing diversification of populations has mainly focused on global cities.  Hence, these studies have (at least) three limitations. First, they ignore the transformation engaged outside urban centres, in places shaped by different scales of local and transnational economic, political, and cultural dynamics. Second, the size and complexity of large urban cities obscure the dynamics by which diverse forms of migration and mobility generate social diversity, and how, in turn, these participate to social dynamics. And finally, most of these studies are impregnated by an ethno-national epistemology and hence reproduce the categories of the nation state. Consequently, she argued that a ‘de-centering’ of this field of research is timely, in theoretical but also methodologically view. Hence, her new research project, with colleagues, studies questions of settlement, mobilities and diversification at the scale of small localities villages, conglomerations of villages, or valleys. As “micro-laboratories” of human experience, small localities have a limited spatial extension and population that allows for studying in-depth mobility configurations and the ensuing diversification, boundary- and place-making. Small scale case studies also allow to include all populations, migrants and non-migrants, mobile as well as non-mobile ones.

The section ended with reflective comments from Prof Eleonore Kofman.