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Strategic Non-Regulation as Migration Governance

by Katharina Natter, Kelsey Norman, Nora Stel

This Submission thread is now published as

Submission summary

Authors (as registered SciPost users): Kelsey Norman
Submission information
Preprint Link: scipost_202302_00041v2  (pdf)
Date accepted: 2023-10-19
Date submitted: 2023-10-10 20:54
Submitted by: Norman, Kelsey
Submitted to: Migration Politics
Ontological classification
Academic field: Political Science
  • Migration Politics
Approach: Theoretical


Over the last decade, critical migration scholarship has been increasingly concerned with how state actors in both the Global South and Global North deploy forms of inaction and ambivalent action to govern migrants. Scholars have mobilized and developed concepts to capture such strategic non-regulation, ranging from notions of standoffishness, ignorance, indifference, ambiguity, adhocracy, and informality in political science, IR and sociology, to necropolitics, ignorance, opacity, obfuscation, non-recording and liminality in anthropology, socio-legal studies and political geography. Scholars thus seem to agree that the strategic use of non-regulation by state actors is a significant aspect of migration governance. Yet, conceptual and methodological advances remain fragmented and scattered across geographical regions and disciplines. This paper argues that much can be gained by putting the different conceptual and methodological innovations on strategic non-regulation into dialogue. First, consolidating insights from different bodies of scholarly work moves analyses of strategic non-regulation from the fringes of migration scholarship to its center and demonstrates that strategic non-regulation is a core feature of migration governance. Second, bringing these different works together enables us to synthesize the variety of methodological strategies that scholars have devised to empirically locate the elusive phenomenon of strategic non-regulation. Overcoming disciplinary and geographical divides in the study of strategic non-regulation will also be key to advance broader social science debates on the political functionality of policy failure and on the interplay between state capacity and political will - in migration governance but also beyond.

Author comments upon resubmission

Thank you to the reviewers and editors for their helpful and thorough set of comments and suggested revisions. We discuss them in the next section ('List of Changes') according to comment and/or category. We truly appreciate the willingness of the reviewers to so thoughtfully engage with our paper. It is now stronger thanks to their attentiveness and consideration and we hope it will provide a valuable conceptual contribution for, as well as stimulate discussions amongst the readership of Migration Politics.

List of changes

Eliminating Section 2

Per the response of both the reviewers and editor, we choose to delete Section 2. We retained some of the vignettes and reflections in a new opening paragraph but deleted the separate section as suggested. We agree that this helps with the flow of the paper and focuses the attention on introducing and conceptualizing strategic non-regulation (SNR), rather than focusing on our previous collective work.

State Centrism

Both the editor and Reviewer 2 expressed concern about the paper being too state-centric. Although we fully acknowledge the relevance of SNR beyond the state (which is why we discuss migration governance and not government, as we explain in the respectively titled section), the choice to focus on state actors has been consciously made and explicitly argued in the article in a full paragraph on pgs. 5-6. It relates to both scope and demarcation (as the editor recognizes the extended state and non-state version of SNR would demand an additional paper) as well as content-related relevance: as we write, we are convinced that because “the very phenomenon of migration only exists due to the prevalence of an international nation-state system and its bordering practices,” an emphasis on state actors is merited. In response to the reviewer and editor observations, however, we have now put extra stress on the relevance of SNR for non-state actors and included this more explicitly in our future research agenda. We have also added some core references to this end.

Reviewer 2 also suggested including additional literature on actors within local governance. However, many of the concepts we discuss in the paper (especially those concerned with policy implementation) do engage with local authorities. These include: stand-offish policy-making, non-recording, the politics of non-knowledge, strategic ignorance, and disorientation. We therefore feel that our paper did already reference key works on local governance and have thus not included additional literature (also considering the already considerable length of the current bibliography).

The Global South/Global North Binary

Reviewer 1 was unsure why elucidating SNR would help to dismantle the epistemic divide between migration governance literature on the Global North and South. We partly argued that this divide is epistemic because its maps onto a disciplinary divide (Political Science, Public Administration and Sociology focus more on the Global North, while Geography and Anthropology are more likely to focus on the Global South), but we changed this in view of the reviewer’s comment as it raised questions. We have now elaborated throughout but specifically in the concluding section on how studying SNR impacts the divide, as far as we deemed appropriate within the scope of the current article (because this could indeed be a new paper too, as the editor remarks). In particular, we brought in the observation of how SNR allows us to de-exoticize the South and de-idealize the North, as suggested by a reviewer and the editor.

Removing Demarcating Examples

Reviewer 1 felt that including an example (previously on p. 10, the case of Colombian migrants (mostly refugees) in Ecuador) to show how not all cases of non-regulation fall under SNR as an umbrella term undermines the aim of the article. We have had a lot of internal discussion while writing the article on the helpfulness of introducing such ‘boundary’ cases, and the observation by the reviewer helped us to decide that such examples add rather than alleviate confusion. We therefore decided to eliminate the paragraph in question.


Reviewer 1 suggested adding comments about our positionality as researchers (white, female, western, university educated scholars). Since the paper is fundamentally a theoretical rather than an empirical one (and especially since we chose to remove the original section 2, as per other reviewer comments), we opted not to devote precious space to our own positionality. We did, however, add more general reflections on the role of positionality in encountering, experiencing and understanding SNR in our section on synthesizing empirical strategies to study non-regulation. We thank the reviewer for having raised the issue of positionality, as we did not ultimately plan to address it but in fact consider it to be a crucial element for our methodological discussion towards the end of the paper.

Bureaucracies and ‘Muddling Through’

Reviewer 1 advocated for including a discussion of how bureaucracies work everywhere and the concept of ‘muddling through.’ We very much agree that this is a crucial element of migration governance worldwide. However, for us, the notion of muddling through adds to explanations for inaction and ambivalence that are not strategic (such as compromise, capacity, and complexity) and that – while relevant – do not add to the focus of our paper that sets out to explore elements of non-regulation that are strategic. To clarify this, we have now included a discussion of this concept and the relevant reference in the paper at two instances (in the introduction paragraph and in the section reflecting on ‘strategy’).

Normative Implications of SNR

Reviewer 1 asked whether explicating SNR could play into the hands of policymakers that want to further exclude or repress migrants. We very much welcome this reflection, which indeed could be a complete political reflexivity paper in its own right. We have added further reflection to this end in a new paragraph in the concluding section.

Analytical Implications

Reviewer 2 proposed emphasizing the analytical conclusions earlier on in the paper. We have rephrased the paragraph outlining contributions in the abstract to be both more extensive and more assertive. Also, we feel that by doing away with section 2, the paper moves towards core debates and conclusions earlier on.

Published as Mig. Pol. 2, 004 (2023)

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