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Who is a Migrant? Abandoning the Nation-state Point of View in the Study of Migration

by Stephan Scheel; Martina Tazzioli

Submission summary

As Contributors: Stephan Scheel
Preprint link: scipost_202109_00005v1
Date submitted: 2021-09-05 22:11
Submitted by: Scheel, Stephan
Submitted to: Migration Politics
Academic field: Political Science
  • Migration Politics


This article develops an alternative definition of a migrant that embraces the perspective of mobility. Starting from the observation that the term ‘migrant’ has become a stigmatizing label that problematizes the mobility or the residency of people designated as such, we in-vestigate the implications of nation-state centered conceptions of migration which define migration as movement from nation-state A to nation-state B. By asking ‘Who is a migrant in Europe today?’ we show that nation-state centered understandings of migration rest on a deeply entrenched methodological nationalism and implicate three epistemological traps that continue to shape much of the research on migration: first, the naturalization of the in-ternational nation-state order that results, secondly, in the ontologisation of ‘migrants’ as ready-available objects of research, while facilitating, thirdly, the framing of migration as problem of government. To overcome these epistemological traps, we develop an alternative conception of migration that, inspired by the autonomy of migration approach, adopts the perspective of mobility while highlighting the constitutive role that nation-states’ bordering practices play in the enactment of some people as migrants. Importantly, this definition al-lows to turn the study of instances of migrantisation into an analytical lens for investigating transformations in contemporary border and citizenship regimes.

Current status:
Editor-in-charge assigned

Reports on this Submission

Anonymous Report 3 on 2021-10-27 (Invited Report)


1. It puts forward a novel and interesting conceptualisation of a migrant.
2. It engages well with critical migration studies and the AoM literature.
2. It selects three very relevant empirical cases to highlight the practices of migrantisation in place.


1. It does not interact enough with more mainstream literature that addresses bordering and migrantisation practices (see more details in the report below).
2. The definition of migrant could lead to a more fine-grained operationalization, distinguishing the multifaceted results of bordering practices (different types of migrants).
3. The selected cases are relevant and their choice seems to be based on a most similar cases method. They are not, however, particularly puzzling. Are there cases in which contradicting practices emerge? What happens to the conceptualization if a most different cases method is used?


I have read "Who is a Migrant? Abandoning the Nation-state Point of View in
the Study of Migration" with great interest. The topic is highly relevant for Migration Politics, the acceptance criteria are met and, if published, it will contribute to a high degree to debates on migration policies, practices and processes. The proposed conceptualisation of who is a migrant is novel and could lead to interesting follow-up work. I suggest minor revisions, hoping that the comments will be as constructive as possible and they will strengthen the paper even further. I will summarise my decision further below.

While a literature review cannot cover the totality of migration research, and while section 2 is very well written, the authors could acknowledge the fact that also some more mainstream research (literature on the external dimension of EU migration policy, debates on practices in migration studies, in EU studies and in IR research, as well as the decentring debate in IR and migration studies), focuses on borderwork and highlights a whole range of practices, rules and acts that “create the migrant” or, as the authors name it, “the making of migration”. Briefly interacting with this literature is particularly important if, as the authors argue, the paper aims at contributing both to the literature on Autonomy of Migration but also to mainstream literature. I agree that this literature is partly covered in the empirical section, yet a quick remainder could be included in section 2 as well.

The conceptualisation of "a migrant" is interesting and valuable. This, however, does not help distinguishing the multifaceted results of border practices which create many migrants, create hierarchies of deservedness and can be associated to the evolution of the definition of nation-state. Bordering practices produce, indeed, many types of migrants, not only one.

The selected cases are relevant and their choice seems to be based on a most similar cases method. They are not, however, particularly puzzling. Are there cases in which contradicting practices emerge? What happens to the conceptualization if a most different cases method is used? While the paper is theoretical, a quick reflection on this point could strengthen the validity and applicability of the conceptualization put forward in the contribution.

Finally, a number of typos should be corrected, although this will be done at a later stage during the production process.

  • validity: good
  • significance: good
  • originality: good
  • clarity: top
  • formatting: good
  • grammar: excellent

Report 2 by Ayse Dursun on 2021-10-12 (Invited Report)


1. Seeking to overcome the state-centered approach to "the migrant" and migration by shifting the focus to migrants' struggles to move to or stay in a place
2. While doing so, it does not lose sight of political institutions and norms, most importantly the nation state
3. The selected empirical cases are well-fitting and support the authors' arguments/theses


1. The authors need to revise their introduction which can be shortened and condensed so that their own position (e.g., their own definition of a migrant and that they in fact do not suggest to think away the state from migration studies) becomes clear much earlier in the article (in parts, it became clear to me only on page 7-8 -9)
2. The article should be proofread (language check, harmonization of citation style)
3. There is generally potential for streamlining the article to represent the theoretical considerations in a more neat and tidy fashion and avoid repetitions


Generally, I believe that article entails valuable considerations which would make an important contribution to the field. I would recommend this article for publication after some revisions have been made; please find the requested changes below.

Requested changes

P. 1 - - > (Bridget Anderson, 2017: 1532) - - > remove „Bridget“ from the citation
P. 2 - - > „a tool for inquiry’ (1535)“ - - > (ibid., 1535)? Depending on the style of citation
P. 2 - - > „expose and challenge the ‘the nation-state point of view“  remove the second „the“ (in bold)
P 2 - - > „We engage with this question to expose and challenge the ‘the nation-state point of view of spatial mobility’(Favell, 2007: 271) which underpins the framing of migration as a problem requiring constant monitoring as well as governmental interventions of regulation and control.“ - - > This is also the EU point of view judging by restrictive migration policies on the supranational level of governance; could be briefly mentioned.
P. 2 - - > “because they are rest“ - - > remove „are“
P. 2 - - > „suggestions of how“ - - > suggestions on how (?) The language of the article is very good, but should still be proofread
P. 3 - - > “they do have very real consequences“ - - > they have real consequences (?) (see my suggestion above re. proofreading)
P. 3 - - > “analytical and political surplus value“ - - > contribution? or added value?
My impression is that the introduction could be much shorter; especially the paragraph starting with “The three examples we chose relate…“ (p. 3) go into detail about the three empirical examples. I think it would suffice if the authors briefly introduced/mentioned the three empirical examples they wish to elaborate on but save the discussion/findings for later on.
P. 4  „is that it did not did not distinguish“ --> delete „did not“
Citation style must be harmonized  e.g., (Chernilo, 2011: 99); (Brubaker, 2002, p. 164)
P. 5 - - > „statist conception of migration“ - - > does it mean state-centered or imposed by the state?
I agree with the authors on their observations on ontologization of “the migrant”, naturalization of the nation-state and securitization which results from the first two; however, this does not change the fact that nation-state play a crucial role in constructing migrants as migrants through their border and migration policies - - >  leaving the nation-state out of the equation would relativize this fact - - > for example if we get rid of the “container-thinking” in research, how can we assess the nation state’s role in constructing certain subjects as “migrants” and “third-country nationals” and others as “nationals” or “EU citizens”? - - >  *** This is a note added later, after reading the article up to p. 9; it becomes clear that the authors do not suggest to think away the state but to shift the focus to migrants’ struggles which are still embedded in the broader context of “national order of things” - - > I think this is a very valuable suggestion and should be made explicit earlier in the article
The concept of “security” is introduced on p. 5 which should be introduced earlier if it is a key concept for the current paper as it seems to be
P. 6 - - > “The critical security studies scholar Didier Bigo underlines this effect of methodological nationalism, arguing that ‘the securitization of the immigrant as a risk is based on our conception of the state as a body or a container of the polity’ (2002: 65).“ - - > But is there not a difference between: (1) nation states considering themselves a marker (or container) of a national territory, polity and population vs. social scientists saying that nations states consider themselves a marker (or container) of a national territory, polity and population - - > would the social scientist be reproducing the container logic when she notes that nation states function as containers? - - > To me it seems a more convenient way forward to suggest that we should problematize methodological nationalisms without downplaying the nation state’s historical and structural importance in constructing migrants; I think the authors are not really suggesting to think away the state (if I am not mistaken), this maybe made more clear (authors explain it convincingly on p. 7, paragraph 2 starting with ‘While we share Dahinden’s…“ or when they write on p. 8 “What distinguishes migration from other forms of mobility is that it is the fabrication of clashes with practices of statecraft“; they can make this point more explicit already earlier in the text as these assumptions seem to distinguish the authors from others and capture the quintessence of the article).
P. 6 - - > “There is Since the…“ - - > delete „There is“
P. 8 “stasis“ - - > states?
P. 8 „as a intelligible reality“ - - >  as an…
P. 9 „from the literatures discussed above“ - - > from the works?
P. 9 „we therefore understand a migrant as a person who, in order to move to or stay in a desired place, has to struggle against bordering practices that are implicated by the national order of things“ - - > I think this can be disclosed much earlier in the article (in the intorduction?) to facilitate a better understanding of their authors‘ undertaking
P. 9. „has to struggle against bordering practices that are implicated by the national order of things“ - - > against state-imposed bordering practices?
P. 9 “First,, our…“ - - > double commas
p. 10 „rely on, the processes“ - - > without comma
P. 11 “If the visa application of a young man seeking to visit his brother in Europe is rejected because his intention to ‘leave the territory of the Member States before the expiry of the visa applied for’ could not ‘be ascertained’ (EP and Council, 2009: 12; emphasis added).“ - - >  sentence incomplete and no emphasis added
P. 11 „it are“ - - >  I am not familiar with this use, the authors may be correct but should still check
Do the authors need „part I“, „part II“, „part III“? - - >  these are rather selected cases or examples rather than the parts of a whole (even if, the authors do not intend to exhaust all parts)
The three examples are carefully selected and the authors are very convincing in their elaborations of each case
P. 14 “narrow focus on international migration“ - - >  internal?

  • validity: high
  • significance: high
  • originality: top
  • clarity: good
  • formatting: excellent
  • grammar: excellent

Anonymous Report 1 on 2021-10-1 (Invited Report)


1. Conceptually advances autonomy of migration approach;
2. Combines insights from different literatures;
3. Makes a novel proposal for definition of 'migrant';
4. Innovative response to the problem of methodological nationalism.


1. Lack of explanation of why 'groupism' constitutes methodological nationalism;
2. Assumption of a singular 'migrants' perspective'.
3. Borders and boundary making, and, relatedly, the 'nation' element of nation state insufficiently explored.


The journal's acceptance criteria are met. This is potentially an important conceptual intervention. It is an ambitious and thoughtful article that attempts to move away from a nation state understanding of migration and towards a ‘migrant’ perspective. In so doing it takes a broader understanding of who is ‘migrantized’ i.e. made into a migrant, including people who find themselves unable to move and centralizing struggles: ‘a migrant as a person who, in order to move or to stay in a desired place, has to struggle against bordering practices that are implicated by the national order of things’.
This step is potentially a really important contribution, but the authors have not anticipated some of the obvious criticisms that could be made of this definition.
1. There is not a singular ‘migrants’ perspective’ – at the very least this should be recognised by using the plural. What does this multiplicity of perspectives entail – particularly given that people on the move have all sorts of reasons for having heightened national subjectivities;
2. IF struggle is centralised, then presumably not all those who are subject to immigration controls are migrants (unless having to apply for a visa counts as struggle). This is potentially an interesting analytic move that merits noting even if there is not the space to discuss it.
3. The terms ‘bordering’ and ‘boundary making’ are insufficiently distinguished from each other. I agree, boundary making is important, particularly with reference to race, but this is implicit rather than engaged with. If the definition of ‘migrant’ is to include racialized so-called ‘second generation’ who are citizens then boundary making becomes more important – and perhaps should be included in the definition (though mightn’t racialised citizens resist being labelled as ‘migrants’ however it is defined?).
Why is ‘groupism’ methodological nationalism? Surely it doesn’t have to be – one can be regarded as part of the Jewish diaspora without associating oneself with the state of Israel. This needs more explication.
Section 2 assigns the conflation of migration with international migration to history – but this isn’t actually the case (eds Ramirez et al. 2021 Precarity and Belonging: Labor Migration and Non-Citizenship) and there are clear comparisons to be made between the reluctance of British officials to designate intra Imperial mobility ‘migration’ and the European Commission’s vocabulary of ‘mobile citizens’.

Requested changes

1. Reflect on the suggestions re the definition and anticipate some of the criticisms that might be made;
2. Be clearer about who might, and who might not, count as a migrant under this definition;
3. Clarify the distinction between bordering and boundary making;
4. Give some thought to the consequences of multiplicity of perspectives, including those of people who might resist being migrantized;
5. Give an explanation of why groupism necessarily constitutes methodological nationalism

  • validity: good
  • significance: high
  • originality: top
  • clarity: good
  • formatting: excellent
  • grammar: excellent

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