Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Beyond the Bounds of the Ethnic: For Postmigrant Cultural and Social Research

Academic journal article Journal of Aesthetics and Culture

Beyond the Bounds of the Ethnic: For Postmigrant Cultural and Social Research

Article excerpt

Migration moves and shapes societies to a much greater extent than politicians and researchers concerned with those societies would like to believe. Social realities have long outstripped attempts to order and control them by means of internal national and external European borders. European societies have become postmigrant societies that are characterised through and through by the experiences and effects of coming, going and staying. However, in the established discourses, which revolve around "immigration" and "integration", migration is still treated as a separate problem as if the "majority society" (conceived as its opposite and automatically assumed to be national and white) had nothing to do with it.

"Culture" is a key term constituting this contradiction, and plays an important role in the politics governing migration. As a culturalising attribution and justification of "otherness" it functions to make migrants, their children and even their grandchildren into the problematic "ethnic others" of "our" society; a culturalised concept of otherness then serves as the basis for national "integration" of migrants as "minorities" that must fit in or be tolerated, and for the distinction between "failure" and "success" of migrant projects. The culturalised concept of otherness also plays a role in deciding who may legally cross national borders, as well as the European Union's new frontiers.

Critical migration research emerged in opposition to this politics of ethnicisation, which places migration in a set of cultural containers along the margins of the "majority society". Its aim is not just to study migration as a part of society, but conversely-and even more so-to observe society from the perspective of migration, in the sense of examining it from the margins it has itself created.1 Here we can build on the theoretical advances of a transnational social and cultural anthropology that makes migration the starting point for new concepts: from the transnationalised understanding of mobile culture in the works of Ulf Hannerz2 through the transnational social spaces introduced to the international discussion by Nina Glick Schiller et al.,3 to the expansion of the diaspora concept elaborated by James Clifford4 and Avtar Brah5, and the links between migration, media communication, imagination and cultural globalisation advocated above all by Arjun Appadurai.6

Nonetheless, in its own dealings with the concept of culture, empirical migration research often lags behind such critical theoretical revisions, and not only because many studies actually transpire on closer examination to remain within the familiar narrow confines of ethnically or religiously defined communities, even if today they do so more or less automatically in the transnational dimensions of social networks and with reference to their cultural diversity and hybridity. Nina Glick Schiller criticises this pertinently as "methodological ethnicity":7 Here the ethnic group is unquestioningly assumed to represent a natural category of analysis and non-ethnic categories of belonging and distinction are ignored. For the culture it describes, ethnicity thus remains the same "straitjacket" Ayşe Çaglar criticised more than 20 years ago.8 Finally, even where it focuses on interethnic interfacing and multiethnic constellations, migration research all too often restricts itself to relations between individual migrant nationality groups- transcending the monoethnic perspective of classical community studies but still failing to move beyond the bounds of migrant worlds. Thus, its perspective still comprehends and reflects only the ethnically demarcated zone of minorities at the margins of society.

In the Migration Lab at the Institut für Europäische Ethnologie in Berlin9 we have explored this as a fundamental dilemma: on the one side the very point of critical migration research is to read migration against the grain of the dominant discourse and identify it as a productive societal and cultural force; on the other the strategy of endlessly repeating this narrative of alternative, transnational, hybrid migrant worlds leads inadvertently into a dead end. …

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