Symposium: Walking with Migrants: Ethnography as Method in International Relations

The ‘international’ is an abstract—and thus in one sense fictional—object of study, as are the other objects of social science disciplines such as ‘the economy’ or ‘society’. As scholars, part of our job is to conjure these abstract objects, and one of the ways in which we do this is through our choice of methods. Different methods therefore do not just give us a menu of choices through which to study a single, given ‘international’ object; instead, they are significant in part because they generate different incarnations of ‘the international’ as an object. 

 

This symposium on Noelle Brigden’s (2016) recent International Studies Quarterly article—"Improvised Transnationalism: Clandestine Migration at the Border of Anthropology and International Relations"—explores the generative power of ethnography as method for studying the international, particularly as concerns mobility. Brigden’s article offers a close study of the pathways and lifeworlds of illegal transnational migrants in Mexico. Through this work, the article explores questions of identity across the migratory routes, highlighting their unstable, improvised and makeshift character. It also evokes the ways in which the presence of state and non-state violence conditions the production of identity, sovereignty and borders ‘from below’. 

The contributors to our symposium both applaud and press Bridgen on the contributions and possibilities of a more ‘anthropological’ International Relations. Stephan Scheel’s response lays out the possibilities for reading the international through migration as a constituent force, and through social camouflage as a specific form of destabilising sovereignty. Nora el Qadim searches for the author within the ethnographic method, probes the theme of ‘performance’ within Bridgen’s narrative and reminds us of the salience of state power. Philippe M. Frowd’s contribution peers around the edges of Brigden’s piece, inviting her to engage with the limits of mobility, camouflage and ethnography itself as means of comprehending the transnational politics of migration. Finally, Bridgen responds to our contributors, clarifying aspects of the argument and engaging their critiques.

Editor's note: we have changed our approach to symposium. All new symposium are available as single-download PDFs from our dataverse site, including this one. We are also in the process of converting old ones to single-download PDFs. To see what's currently available, follow this link.

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