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Catrin Lundström on ‘the migrant’

In this article Catrin Lundström, author of White Migrations: Gender, Whiteness and Privilege in Transnational Migration asks why some individuals not regarded as migrants despite their migrant status, while other individuals are seen as migrants and thus denied their national belonging despite their formal status as national citizens.

As the number of people living outside their country of birth passed 250 million, it seems relevant to ask who counts as a migrant. In Western media, literature and research, 'the migrant’ is often imagined as a non-privileged, non-white, non-Western subject in search of a better future in Europe or North America and as such, a pre-constituted subject shaped by notions of marginalization and poverty. Yet, the migrant, as a concept and an experience, carries multiple meanings.

During my ethnographic work with young Latinas in Sweden, they often referred to themselves as ‘immigrants’, even though they were born and bred in Sweden. Despite their (Swedish) mother tongue, citizenship and birth country, they experienced a feeling of not belonging, common to other young people in Sweden, and instead described themselves as belonging to the blurred category of immigrants.

When I shifted my research to include people who had indeed migrated, yet from Sweden to other countries, the category of the migrant seemed unfamiliar and out of place. White upper-middle class women who had ‘moved’ from Sweden for longer or shorter periods did not seem to fit the idea of the migrant subject. Rather, they saw themselves and were seen by others as expatriates or mobile professionals.

These different ethnographic studies made me ponder over the conceptual boundaries of the migrant subject. Why are some individuals not regarded as migrants despite their migrant status? Why are other individuals seen as migrants and thus denied their national belonging despite their formal status as national citizens? What kinds of stories are obscured by this recurrent image of ‘the migrant’ and how do such categorizations hamper the analysis of privilege, belonging and white normativity within studies of migration?

These questions raise both empirical and theoretical challenges. Who is a migrant? Do different migrant groups share experiences as migrants? Why? Why not?

In  White migrations: gender, whiteness and privilege in transnational migration, I propose four analytical dimensions to the study of migration and migration processes. First, I suggest that we need to take into consideration the numerous ways in which race and whiteness move ‘behind’ stories of migration and shape the very same stories. While some migrants can blend into Western societies, others continue to be identified and (mis)read as migrants across generations. A second question concerns what migrations stories are expected to explain. What are the effects of migration when separated from local social and racial processes? Many of the Swedish migrant women I interviewed had experienced upward class mobility through migration. Yet, this is not the most common migration story. Thirdly, it is pertinent to look at the social relationship and interconnected histories between different groups of migrants, such as between expatriates and domestic workers. In Singapore, for example, these migrant groups are separated through visa policies, yet often share the same household. The fourth dimension concerns how race, gender and citizenship are intertwined through transnational migration. For Swedish migrants, Swedish (and EU) citizenship is a premium ‘knapsack’ when moving across borders throughout the world. Others, like domestic workers in Singapore are excluded from the right to apply for citizenship, and expected to go back to their home countries after a couple of years.

By integrating different groups in the analysis of contemporary migration processes, new dimensions open to challenge the migrant as a monolithic figure or as ‘a problem’. It is clear that migration processes involve more experiences, positions and relations than those accounted for in the paradigm of the low-skilled economic migrant moving from a non-Western country in search of a better future in Europe or North America. Certainly, many migrants do need to improve their prospects and should have the right to do so. The question is why some migrants are welcome while others are not?


Catrin Lundström is Associate Professor in Sociology and Future Research Leader at the Department of Studies of Social Change and Culture, Linköping University, Sweden.

  • White Migrations

    Lundström, C. (2014)

    Format: eBook, Hardcover, Softcover

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