The phenomenon of migration in international relations theory

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The phenomenon of migration in international relations theory 2
The phenomenon of migration in international relations theory
The phenomenon of migration in international relations theory
The phenomenon of migration in international relations theory 3

International migration is a complex phenomenon that fills library shelves in academia across disciplines, in which its nuance reflects a rich literature within various academic platforms. Such nuance starts in the employability and different definitions of the term Migration. Being an umbrella term, embracing sojourners, asylum seekers, refugees, and the like, Migration is largely and wrongly understood to be a static, as opposed to dynamic force phenomena (Cohen & Sirkeci, 2011, p. 7).

Other key nuances lie on the distinct theories (transnationalism, rationalist, et al.), in the approaches (multidisciplinary, instead of a homogenous subject), and on the level and unit of inquiry (macro/micro) used (Brettel & Hollifield, 2000, p. 3). Such key acknowledgments are a major step to understand, but not to draw universal conclusions. That said, a single explanation or model is not expected out of the debate on migration to an extent that a theoretical tradition is present, for instance, in the legal studies’ spheres (Brettel & Hollifield, 2000, p. 7). This critical reflection will employ the disciplines of international relations (IR) and theories as standpoints, assuming that migration is an overlooked theme within the IR community.

For a long time, the inquiry of migration in the field of international relations was absent, since the paramount subject of IR scholars is high politics – peace and conflict, national security, foreign policy, and the like – whereas social and economic concerns of a phenomenon is entitled to be low politics, because, to an extent, does not affect state sovereignty and the balance of power (Hollifield, 2012, pp. 5-6).

As opposed to Cultures of Migration that emphasizes on the migrants’ perspective by blending the concept of transnationalism with conflict trying to understand the reasons why migrants circularly move (Cohen & Sirkeci, 2011, pp. 10-11), James F. Hollifield, on Migration and International Relations, urges for the recognition that although the necessary conditions for migration is mostly social and economic (not in the case of refugees, international displaced persons (IDPs), and asylum seekers, which is mainly political), the sufficient conditions are political and legal. Interestingly, with the end of the Cold War, IR theorists began to recognize that international mobility can have an enormous impact on the sovereignty and security of states, which made the topic of migration to be categorized as high politics ever since (Hollifield, 2012, p. 6).

Broadly speaking there are four IR school of thought that tell us something about migration: (1) Transnational theory that is also exposed through anthropology lenses and downplays the role of the state and its institutions (Brettel & Hollifield, 2000, pp. 14-15) discussing epistemological questions (Battistella, 2012, p. 115); (2) Neorealism, a substantial theory that its point of convergence is exclusively on power and structure, bringing a rational discussion to the table; (3) Constructivism, arguing that ideas, cultures, and norms are as important as interests in shaping state actions; and (4) Liberal institutionalism focusing on liberal institutions from the Western world (Hollifield, 2012, pp. 6-7). The theories here exposed reflect the way IR, as a branch of study, stands besides other scholars of low politics concerned with a more transnational or idealistic view of international relations and migration (Hollifield, 2012, p. 5).

The body of work within IR that is in momentum is the liberal institutionalism that highlights the interplay of interest, ideas, and institutions to understand why states risk migration. Liberal institutionalism sees state actors as the core of the migration debate; it shares assumptions with neorealism (Realpolitik statesmanship), since both theories are heavily rationalistic and stress in the primacy of states’ interest (Hollifield, 2012, p. 12). Hence, currently, the most used IR theory to analyse the puzzle of international migration center almost exclusively on politics and policies of liberal world.

IR and its theories identify migration as crucial because it challenges the international system through the strong political-economic dimension, internationalizing domestic politics. Political science, in contrast, examines the outcomes within nation-state not always taking into consideration the international system. For instance, by debating the border control’s implication and consequently how international migration challenges the notion of sovereignty, IR scholars look at the geopolitical subjectivity.

The field of political sciences, albeit being a discipline that stands at the macro-level as well, can investigate concerns directly related to national interest, such as the limits of citizenship as an institution. Differently from Barbara Schmitter Heisler, American sociologist, that grounds the theoretical framework of migration on classic works of social theory (Brettel & Hollifield, 2000, p. 5) embracing structuralism – an approach that emphasizes the social structure –, the journalist/IR scholar Edward Alden and the political scientists Ilker Atac, Kim Rygiel, and Maurice Stierl, although writing on distinct themes, consider states’ policy the manageable variable to solve the contentious politics on border enforcement and citizenship, respectively.

Through a policy paper format, in which, as opposed to anthropologists’ ethnographic knowledge that transcends the empirical (Brettel & Hollifield, 2000, p. 4), Alden shapes a rational public debate. He enlightens the current discussion, within a political and institutionalized sphere, over the border enforcement between the U.S. and Mexico. While the author exposes the changing nature of border crossers and the growing ineffectiveness of a physical border (Alden, 2018, pp. 481-482) – because: (1) current arrivals are mostly asylum seekers (from Central America) rather than traditional economic migrants; (2) unauthorized population of the U.S. is entry through legal visas; and (3) among Mexicans, a considerable percentage of the repeat border crossers are parents with children in America –, we can see how IR scientists can also take into consideration the micro – or “meso” level – to analyse the implications of migration and geopolitical subjectivity.

Alden employs the “meso” level approach by inspecting the domestic policies applied, for example, by a law enforcement agency (United States Border Patrol) or a federal government (Unites States Congress) – E.g. the launch of the “Consequence Delivery System” in 2011, formalising harsher penalties to unlawful migrants) (Alden, 2018, pp. 483-484). Accordingly, through a liberal institutional approach on the domestic politics of the U.S., Edward Alden draws the crucial impact of such domestic mechanisms on the international political arena.

Physical borders are not the only factor under states’ control that the phenomenon of migration challenges by raising subjectivity; “counter-hegemonic social action” (Atac, Rygiel, & Stierl, 2016, p. 530) or contentious politics, also challenges the confined meaning of citizenship. Thus, the political scientists Ilker Atac, Kim Rygiel, and Maurice Stierl, expose the neglected study of the global enactments of citizenships. In their text, – as opposed to IR Scholar Edward Alden that uncover a rational and institutionalized discourse – social arrangements through transnational responses (including marches, hunger strikes, and protest camps) against restrictive border regimes, is a platform to examine the principles of citizenship and its link to migration (Atac, Rygiel, & Stierl, 2016, pp. 527-529).

In other words, we can see that albeit political sciences tends to mix the level of analysis, depending on the subject to be studied – in that case the limits of citizenship –, it can mix the level of study moving back and forth from the individual, to the state, to the international level. In essence, international migration phenomenon is gradually filling the shelves of IR academics. The relatively recent theoretical proliferation within international relations reflects a pluralistic exchange of views over migration. Will the increase of migration be a virtuous or vicious cycle? Will it be destabilizing, leading the international system to greater anarchy and disorder? Or will it lead to greater openness and human development? (Hollifield, 2012, pp. 26-27).

To accurately investigate such questions and trends, the level of analysis must be, to some degree, mixed; as previously mentioned. Hence, the conclusion that this text draws concerns a complementary approach of the discussion. The nature of each discussion, theory, and approach here exposed, I argue, are all interrelated and harmonious, rather than antagonists and unconnected. Accordingly, this text values and urges for further patterns of analysis, but never under a definitive and static truth, to understand why 200 million people reside outside their country of birth and tens of millions cross borders on a daily basis (Hollifield, 2012, p. 1). After all, under no unifying theory, the role and challenge of international relations as an institutionalized branch of knowledge is to seize the major trends of a world continually more interconnected and interdependent.


ALDEN, E. Is Border Enforcement Effective? What We Know and What It Means. Journal on Migration and Human Security, 5, 481-490. 2018

ATAC, l.; RYGIEL, K.; STIERL, M. Introduction: The Contentious Politics of Refugee and Migrant Protest and Solidarity Movements: Remaking Citizenship from the Margins, Citizenship Studies, Vol. 20 (5), 527 -544. 2016.

BATTISTELL, D. Théories des relations internationales (4th ed.). Paris: Sciences po, les presses. 2012

BRETTEL, C. B.; HOLLIFIELD, J.F. Migration Theory – Talking across Disciplines, Routledge. 2000.

COHEN, J.H; SIRKECI, I. The Cultures of Migration in Cohen, J.H. and Sirkeci, I., Cultures of Migration – The Global Nature of Contemporary Mobility, The University of Texas Press, 1-20. 2011.

HOLLIFIELD, James F. Migration and International Relations, Oxford Handbook of the Political of International Migration, 1-32. 2012.

Sobre o Autor

Graduando em Relações Internacionais pela Universidade da Columbia Britanica (Canada). Editor da revista UBC International Affairs e redator mensal do jornal Diário das Nações.

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