Anthropological Discussion on Human Migration and Globalization

Globalization is typically met with images of opportunity and freedom. Anthropology is increasingly promoting the notion migration should be focused on the journey undertaken by people for thousands of years. This exists in opposition to the formerly practiced and now almost entirely rejected idea of methodological nationalism, defined by Chernilo (2006) as “the all-pervasive assumption that the nation-state is the natural and necessary form of society in modernity; the nation-state is taken as the organizing principle of modernity” (pp.6).

Chernilo (2006) points out, however, that while this is a fruitful shift, the way this would occur remains obscure since the notion of methodological nationalism remains widely misunderstood. In his paper, he laments that until the social sciences begin to grasp the significance that literature has placed on the notion and the role nation-states exhibit in this modern era, the disciplines may be able to reject methodological nationalism but  would remain unable to move past the nation-state’s historical, sociological and normative implications (Chernilo, 2006).

Flexible Citizenship

Employing the term “flexible citizenship”, coined by Ong (2002) may enable us to discuss the interactions and boundaries involved in negotiating one’s belonging in nation-states in the information age, which according to her thesis, is largely dictated by the global market.

In her ethnography on Chinese cosmopolitans, she conveys that the term can be used to touch on two players in the market – the mobile people and “the different modalities of governmentality” (pp. 340) that may be instrumental in dictating mobility (Ong, 2002).

On one side of the coin we have the mobile entrepreneurs, high-skilled and low-skilled labourers, as well as, those individuals seeking to improve their position in life by employing the most advantageous re-location tactics – mainly through the crossing of borders.

The other side of the coin, exhibits the constraints, such as immigration laws, kinship values, human desires, economic situations that individually and collectively may dictate the boundaries in which one may migrate (Ong, 2002). Thus, in a sense, it discusses the movement of human capital and its adjacent baggage.

A reading of Sontag’s (2018) ethnography gives us the sense that her subjects exercise “flexible citizenship” successfully as it helps them achieve their economic ambitions. During the initial stages of her ethnographic research, Sontag (2018) relates that she was recruiting informants under the label of highly-skilled ‘migrants’ working in start-up businesses and based in Switzerland.

This, however, was later edited, transforming her work to one which was sympathetic to the ‘mobilities paradigm’, a shift that has she discusses and has become popular in anthropology, when she was met with the response, “there are no migrants here – only global people” (pp. 111, Sontag, 2018). It should be noted that the recruitment of informants was done without any criteria with regards to country of origin in order to decrease the problems created by methodological nationalism.

The Meaning of the Word ‘Migrant’

Sontag (2018) relates that she found that the term ‘migrant’, in and of itself, conjures ideas that associate it with many preconceived notions relating to the nation-state rules and imposing ideologies which her ‘mobile entrepreneurs’, did not relate to. The ethnography, at times conveys an idyllic reality experienced by these entrepreneurs, where Switzerland is a liminal space and the boundaries of the state are unrecognisable.

Through her informants’ biographies, it is relayed that integrating with the local people or culture is not a priority for them, with some hoping to move on to another, more advantageous area or eventually emigrating back to their home country (Sontag, 2018).

Having interacted with individuals whose journey was not final, but an active process, Sontag (2018) further strengthens her argument to move towards an ‘anthropology of mobilities’ as this would be more appropriate in referring to those who are moving around,  actively seeking and looking for more opportunities.

Further to this, the ethnography also delves into social topics that may be associated with migration.

One of Sontag’s (2018) informants, Deborah, a middle-aged business woman from West Africa, shares how she was initially looking to relocate to another country but ended up moving to Switzerland when she met her Swiss husband, alluding to a form of love migration. Unfortunately, the marriage was unsuccessful but she did manage to obtain Swiss citizenship.

Deborah laments that whilst she is happy that she did obtain citizenship, she is lonely living in Switzerland, away from her familial connections, acknowledging that she would need to apply for a visa to visit her own home (Sontag, 2018).   

In response to this Ong’s (2002: 352) words ring true:

“the politics of imagining a transnational identity dependent on global market mobility should not disabuse us of the fact that there are structural limits, and personal costs to such flexible citizenship.”

On the other hand, two other informants in Sontag (2018)’s study relate how immigration has allowed them to obtain freedoms and escaping a certain type of life.

The Romanticization of Migration

As Salazar (2011) relates, individuals first migrate through their imagination which is romanticized by ideas of newness and positive narratives promising to relieve them of their current situations. In his article, Salazar (2011) explains that this desire to adopt a transnational identity is seldom accompanied with the realistic thought process of what it would mean to actually migrate and how it would be feasible for potential individuals.

In order to investigate this further he interviews Tanzanians who migrated and subsequently returned home. Whilst informants consistently maintained that immobility was ingrained in their culture, some mentioned the media, that painted a highly desirable picture for them to aspire to (Salazar, 2018).

One of his informants, who was serving as a judge in Tanzania saw his dreams combust when his move to the United Kingdom put him in a less than desirable situation where he ended up economically disadvantaged.

Another individual had dreams of studying in the United States but soon enough he was met with the harsh reality of high cost education and he too, had to return. In view of Salazar’s (2011) findings, it would seem naïve to refrain from highlighting the disillusioning elements that occur when crossing such nation-state borders.

Sontag (2018) adds another element to her research where she ponders whether her informants belong to an exclusive field of professional individuals who “are not a group in the classical sense of people of a similar occupation, trade or expertise” (pp.20) but hold a similar business objective which may be part of an emerging reality.

The obscure boundary in her group of study is mirrored in the way the informants speak of physical localities. One of her interlocutors mentioned that while people like them can be found in an array of areas, they always tend to place themselves in bigger cities and areas with a big airport facilitating travel choices (Sontag, 2018).

This is also mentioned in Ong’s (2002: 352) ethnography where a Chinese male financier, placed in California “explains that he can live in Asia, Canada or Europe:

‘I can live anywhere in the world, but it must be near an airport.’

Logically, the second part of this sentence debunks the first, but it is clearly communicated that globalization has created new diasporas. In addition to this, now, more than ever, in a ‘post’ Covid world, individuals have recognised the importance and the high access offered by virtual migration. Even before the advent of the pandemic, Sontag’s (2018) informants recognised the potential of this tool to conduct business meetings.

Globalization and Neoliberalism

Twenty years prior to Sontag’s (2018) ethnography, Ong (2002) related that despite the emergent narrative of globalization, it “should not lead one to assume that the nation-state is losing control over its borders” (pp. 340).

The situation depicted in Ong’s (2002) ethnography on the migration of Chinese citizens to America delivers the idea that borders can be manipulated by nations to suit the needs of the market.

Ong (2002) discusses the changing situation of Chinese kinship relations and status values in the late 19th century, when the needs of one’s family and the generation of high wealth were given insurmountable importance.

Immigration to America, a land perceived to be full of opportunities, was seen as a desirable location to relocate to in-order to build wealth which could be beneficial for the family as a whole.  It is noted that while Chinese individuals experienced a lot of racial bias, American capitalists were eager to welcome them as a source of reliable but inexpensive labour during the Gilded Age (Ong, 2002).

By the second half of the twentieth century, a Chinese American middle-class had grown with the emergence of the educated, elite Asian-American. Immigrants were no-longer largely met with disdain since Asian-Americans had by now seemingly proved the ability to adopt American values.

Ong (2002) explains that during this time there was a restructuring of the American market, making these newcomers a valuable asset, re-affirming the idea that “neoliberalism plays a role of shaping our notion of the deserving citizen” (pp. 348). In light of this, it may be appropriate to speculate whether the recent pandemic and post-Trump administration has effected these attitudes due to the rise in anti-Chinese sentiments.

Ragni (2019) utilises Ong’s notion of “flexible citizenship” in her autobiography to come to term with the arduous journey her family faced as Iranian nationals re-locating to New Zealand in hopes of better economic opportunities.

Her parents, both highly-skilled migrants, were only granted citizenship after being on the brink of being kicked out of the country, as a last Hail Mary. Ragni’s (2019) disappointment is echoed in her words, citing that during relocation to a “developed democratic “first-world” country one does not expect to be subjected to measures that continue to reduce one’s sense of humanity and social belonging” (pp.227).

This, along with the tight travel restrictions causing separation between them and their family in Iran, had a detrimental effect on her mother’s health resulting in her parents relying on the state’s welfare (Ragni, 2019). In addition to this, Ragni (2019) seems to convey that their presence in New Zealand is under constant surveillance, seemingly disabling her parents from helping themselves and further making them more dependent on the state evoking a sense of control over their existence. She sums up that,

“Ong’s work assists in understanding how various state agencies, as domains of power, redefine modern subjects according to capitalist transnationalism, where citizen rights are only guaranteed to those who participate in the market in profitable ways defined by the neoliberal agenda.”

Ragni, 2019: 230

It can be argued that this auto-ethnography brings us come face-to-face with the idea of an ‘undesirable’ citizen and the existing constraints caused by rigid nation-state organisation. Whilst New Zealand is, as Ragni (2019) states, supposed to facilitate flexibility and opportunity for individuals, her family has met great hardship in the country as they are seemingly perceived as a high risk glitch in the system – a system that always prioritises its own needs.

Kalir’s (2013) research, similar to Sontag’s (2018) hopes to add credibility to the mobilities paradigm as opposed to methodological nationalism.

His ethnography feature’s the story of Tseng, a Chinese man who has been economically disadvantaged since childhood and used “flexible citizenship” to help increase his position in life. After travelling extensively within his home country and an unsuccessful business venture, Tseng was made aware of a financially beneficial opportunity in Israel as a construction worker (Kalir, 2013). The process included an initial informal deposit and a short course to obtain certification.

Kalir (2013) explains that these Chinese labourers were discouraged from putting down roots in Israel, which has a strong desire to reserve its resources for those of Jewish descent, by prohibiting these men from bringing their families to the country and discouraging a sense of belonging, only allowing their presence in the country on a contractual basis.

That being said, from what the reader can understand by Tseng’s demeanour, these Chinese had no intention of doing so. Kalir (2013) maintains that Tseng did not know much about Israel and approached the temporary migration as an economic opportunity to better his family’s life when he ultimately returned home.

Apart from the fact that Tseng had to endure a long five years away from home, working long hours and at times being exploited, Kalir (2013) relates that Tseng did finally return home with enough money to care for his family and cater to his new entrepreneurial ambitions.  Ultimately, however,  Kalir (2013: 325) ends his ethnography by stating,

“One of the risks in celebrating and embracing a mobilities paradigm that reinforces undesirable tendencies in migration and globalisation studies is that, while we might think that we engage in a critical analysis of the state and its changing control over populations and territory, we often, in fact, contribute to the reproduction of the state as a prime unit of analysis.”

Through the use of ethnographic examples, this essay was aimed at discussing the shifting paradigms associated with studying migration in a changing world. The literature here suggests that while the discipline must find a way to place the experience of human mobility at the centre of its narrative, it cannot escape the reality that in a highly connected and structured era, migration is seen as the movement of human capital.


Chernilo, D. (2006) ‘Social Theory’s Methodological Nationalism Myth and Reality’, European Journal of Social Theory, 9(1), pp. 5–22. doi: 10.1177/1368431006060460

Kalir, B. (2013) ‘Moving Subjects, Stagnant Paradigms: Can the ‘Mobilities Paradigm’ Transcend Methodological Nationalism?’, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 39(2), pp. 311-327. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2013.723260.

Ong, A. (2002) ‘Flexible Citizenship among Chinese Cosmopolitans’, in Vincent, J. (ed.) The Anthropology of Politics: A Reader in Ethnography, Theory, and Critique. Boston: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 338-355.

Ragni, M. (2019) ‘(In)Flexible Citizenship’, Women’s Studies Quarterly, 47(1&2), pp. 227-231.

Salazar, N.B. (2011) ‘The Power of Imagination in Transnational Mobilities’, Identities, 18(6), pp. 576-598. doi: 10.1080/1070289X.2011.672859.

Sontag, K. (2018) Mobile Entrepreneurs An Ethnographic Study of the Migration of the Highly Skilled. Opladen: Budrich UniPress, Ltd..

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