Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Imaginaries of the Ideal Migrant Worker: A Lacanian Interpretation

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Imaginaries of the Ideal Migrant Worker: A Lacanian Interpretation

Article excerpt

Abstract. This paper explores the production of 'ideal' migrant workers by recruitment agencies in the context of Latvian labour migration to the UK. The fantasies of the 'ideal' worker created by recruiters have a particular hold on migrant subjectivity, but they often hide inconsistencies and slippages implicit within the fabric of recruitment discourse and practice. By drawing on the notions of fantasy and desire as developed by Jacques Lacan, this paper analyses the determination of subjectivity in a migration context and explores both unconscious and conscious processes of identification. On the basis of an analysis of drawings sketched by respondents during qualitative interviews conducted in Latvia, it challenges narrower assumptions about migrants' search behaviour and stable expectations of labour migration, and exposes the split and contested nature of migrant selfhood. It concludes with conceptual observations about the complex process of identification and the unachievable figure of the 'ideal' worker.

Keywords: migration, Lacan, subjectivity, recruitment, drawing Introduction


Over the last decade there has been a lot of interest in the processes regulating migration in Europe and the effects of migration management by different labour market actors (Anderson and Ruhs, 2010; Rodriguez, 2004). However, there is still limited understanding of the mechanisms through which particular forms of workers' identity arise in relation to recruitment practices and the migration realities that such processes create. Several scholars have called for further research on actions of employers and recruitment agencies in shaping identities of migrant workers (McGovern, 2007; Rodriguez, 2004). This paper answers this call by drawing on the work of Jacques Lacan to theorise how subjectivities of Latvian migrant workers are authored by recruitment organisations supplying workers for the UK labour market.

It has been argued that increasing marketisation of international recruitment involves growing reliance on stereotyping of particular skills of the migrant workforce, which link work performance and representations of the individual (MacKenzie and Forde, 2009). To this end, hiring practices aim to put forward a coherent image of the 'ideal' worker that is stable and effective, and therefore suitable for meeting the aims of organisational instrumentality (Hoedemaekers, 2009). These employment strategies use rational approaches to develop an image of a potential employee in relation to a specific system of competencies valued in the organisational context. Recruitment agencies draw socially constructed boundaries around migrant bodies--those that are deemed 'ideal' relative to images of the 'good worker' (Scott, 2013) and those that are not. However, these mechanisms rely heavily on the existence of a relatively coherent identity and the presence of semistable personhood. Such an account also assumes that the subject has a substantial amount of control over the process of identification and undertakes it in a conscious and intentional manner.

This sits somewhat uneasily within the context of recent developments in migration studies and cultural geography, which attempt to theorise more fluid and uncertain notions of subjectivity (Bailey, 2005; Shubin, 2011; 2012). As Smith (2003, page 307) suggests, sociopolitical landscapes produce "not universalizable 'subjects', but variable processes of subjectivation; not the 'whole', the 'one' or 'objects', but rather knots of totalization, focuses of unification, and processes of objectification." These recent developments in critical thought consider the subject as always emerging and stress the impossibility of its complete self-articulation and self-possession (Dewsbury, 2007). This paper seeks to follow this enquiry into the emergence of different migrant subjects by focusing on drawings and interviews with Latvian recruiters of labour migrants. …

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