by Professor Louise Ryan, Department of Sociological Studies and Co-Director of the Migration Research Group
On 23rd January, the Migration Research Group (MRG), the ‘Hub’ Migration of the Department of History (History Migration Hub) and the Medieval and Ancient Research Centre of the University of Sheffield (MARCUS) hosted a workshop on ‘Conceptions of migration’.
This event, which is expected to be the first of a series of such cross-faculty initiatives on migration research, provided an exciting opportunity to discuss migration across disciplinary boundaries.
In particular, delegates explored how migration can be understood through both historical and social sciences lens. What can we learn by bringing historical and social science perspectives into conversation?
This cross disciplinary approach is especially important in the current context of Brexit and the construction of a ‘migration crisis’. Too often public commentaries on migration, whether by media pundits or politicians tend to present migration as something new and unprecedented. However, adopting an historical lens can reveal a very different picture.
In his opening presentation, entitled ‘Does imaginary migration matter?’, Professor Martial Staub, Department of History, examined how migration had made Europe through the long middle ages. He showed that, though it is often down-played, rejected or even denied, migration has been a common, on-going feature of societies. Hence, it is neither new nor unprecedented. From the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, and so on through the centuries, Britain is a country formed by waves of migrants.
My own paper, ‘The Irish Question: learning lessons from historical waves of migration‘ focused on how Irish migrants to Britain have been demonised and racialised over many centuries, while also at the same time being a much needed ‘reserve army of labour’ to cite Fredrick Engels. For example, in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, there were calls from British politicians, some church leaders and other public figures to actually ban the free movement of the Irish migrants. It is not difficult to hear echoes of this scape-goating of migrants in today’s Brexit Britain.
Dr Ryan Powell, Reader in Urban Studies, spoke about ‘Europe’s perennial outsiders: Roma migration and stigmatisation in long-term view’. Ryan argued that an ahistorical approach to Roma is not only misleading but actually pernicious. Roma have been de-historicised, decontextualized and presented as a people without any history. In so doing, the persistent persecution of Roma over centuries and across many countries has been rendered invisible. Using both an historical and a geographical lens reveals consistent patterns of spatial segregation over time.
From the Department of Languages and Cultures, Dr Kristine Horner, Director of the Centre for Luxembourg Studies, brought a socio-linguistic approach to the study of migration. In her paper, ‘Language as Site of Struggle: Exploring the Interface between Migration Policies and Migration Experiences‘, she used the case study of Luxembourg to explore language tests. Luxembourg, although small, is a country where a very large proportion of the population are migrants and which has three official languages. As Kristine showed, changing policies over time have meant that language proficiency and testing have increasingly been used as a proxy for exclusion.
This event was very well attended by colleagues from many different departments across two faculties and shows an appetite for further cross-faculty initiatives around the theme of migration. The University of Sheffield is clearly a place where excellent research on migration is going on and there is a great opportunity for innovative work by bringing scholars together across disciplines. It is also apparent that there are many PhD students working on migration across the different faculties. Hence, one of our next initiatives will be a PhD-led, cross faculty symposium on migration