How networks crossin the life of migrants
Sociologist, Social & Business Research Lab (SBRlab), Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Tarragona
It is particularly difficult to give a title to this text. Despite how thought-provoking the idea of writing about two closely related concepts, those of migration and networks, is. Indeed their intimate interrelation involves a multiplicity of meanings that complicate the explanatory work of the social scientist, on account of the numerous options and the problem of reader comprehension owing to the possible confusion that this situation generates.
I propose to provide a number of examples to cast some light on this idea. Firstly, writing about migration networks and migration in networks is not the same thing. Migration networks refer to human structures that drive or facilitate the movement of people from one country to another. Accordingly, migration depends on the existence of sets of interpersonal ties that link migrants, former migrants and non-migrants in origin and destination areas through the bonds of kinship, friendship and shared community of origin (MASSEY ET AL, 1998:229). These ties act as nodes that help to distribute information or resources that reduce costs and risks both related to the migration process, as well as that of adapting to the host country. This social capital therefore makes certain phenomena possible, such as the migration chains that facilitate the trend of people from the same origin, and previously related to each other, choosing to go to the same destinations.
On the other hand, migration in networks refers to the creation of a certain type of imagery surrounding the fact of “being a migrant” in cyberspace. In the online world, the confluence of people with different profiles and ideologies in a space defined by freedom of speech and a supposed anonymity, leads to the content that describes the migrant becomes polarised between those that are in favour of their defence, based on the universal rights of the individual and those who criticise their presence, using discriminatory and xenophobic comments and information based on a certain chauvinistic welfare state (a concept rooted in the idea that the rights acquired by people born in developed countries do not correspond to those not born there). Interpersonal networks cross and overlap in this space with the network formed by the media, co-existing and making their differences and interests explicit. This is currently a particularly relevant point, to the extent that the war in Syria has forced thousands of people to abandon their country and move to Europe. Apart from the human tragedy involved in such a situation, it has provoked a deep polarisation in public discourses and their online expression.
Secondly, writing about the functioning of the network of the global socio-economic system and the functions of host and trafficking networks is not the same thing. The workings of the global economic system correspond to complex and diverse processes that exercise an important impact on most areas of our lives. This economic system has enabled the diversification of migratory patterns, an increase in temporary, repeated and circulatory migration and given rise to the appearance of a transnational consciousness in migrant people. Global interconnectivity promotes and facilitates the mobility of people based on the working of the economic system. Companies have woven international networks involving the exchange of goods and service which, in parallel with the development of transport systems, have laid migration on the table as an opportunity for personal and professional development for many people. Fluctuating economic cycles arising from the free movement of capital helps to create hubs attracting populations in areas that are experiencing periods of growth, while on the other hand creating areas of population departure in economic downturns or stagnant periods.
Moreover, cultural and linguistic dynamics continue to represent important frontiers when it comes to receiving and accommodating the migrant population. The increase in the number and diversity of the migrant population has not been accompanied by an improvement in its reception by the host societies. This makes it easier to create or recreate differentiated and utilitarian networks of people who share languages and cultures, aside from their migrant status. Quite often, this situation triggers a situation of vulnerability in the migrant population to which, owing to the aforementioned conditioning factors, must be added a position in the socio-economic class system that leaves the migrant population in greater difficult conditions than the rest of the population.
This migration vulnerability, both at origin and in the host country, has occasionally led to the creation of transnational systems of extortion networks and slave trading (such as trafficking people for prostitution, for adoption or, most recently, for sports reasons), as well as international criminal and arms trafficking networks. Such networks take advantage of the economic and social vulnerability of migrants, their offspring or those who wish to undertake the migrant journey, to offer ways to migrate and to get resources that lie beyond all moral and legal bounds.
Lastly, neither is it the same to point out that the transformation of transport networks has brought people who live far apart closer nor to indicate that the transformation of the communication networks has distanced people who live nearby. As indicated above, transport networks facilitate the mobility of people and goods around the world, thus the cost of contemporary migration is much less and gains in reversibility. If things do not go as expected, the cost of migrant return is increasingly more social and less economical.
In parallel, the improvement and generalisation of communication networks is making it increasingly more difficult to fully immerse oneself in the host country. There are numerous possibilities of being able to live culturally in a different space to where one lives geographically. Along with the setting up of migrant neo-communities (both social and economic) with which to mix and co-exist comes the possibility of, once at home, being permanently in contact with the country or culture of origin by means of technology, accessing information that has more to do with the cultural dimension of the migrant’s home country than that of his or her host country.
Having given this brief description, it is time to raise the question which, in the final analysis, makes it difficult to find an overall title under which to speak of networks and migration: How many networks are secretly interwoven in the life of a migrant?
The reflection I propose is based on the absence of a real quantitative answer to the question raised. Any possible number that may cross all the relational variables which, in one way or another, cross the life of a migrant person would be of ephemeral worth. It could very well serve as a valid photograph of a person at a particular moment in time and in a particular place, but would be of little use in describing a migrant’s entire story.
The answer to this question, therefore, cannot be considered anything other than qualitative. Castells’ (2006) approach focused on describing contemporary society as a network-society seems to be particularly apposite. To use a hackneyed metaphor, in the society of today, networks cross each other and overlap like a Russian doll. Within each network there are further smaller ones that connect people with ideas, concepts and resources. Several tangential networks interact with each network node to configure the directions of individual actions and thoughts. In the world of today, the cause and effect of underlying social dynamics is made up of networks: relations, exchanges, transport, movement, transmission of information, culture, etc.
Accordingly, to return to the beginning of this text, there are as many relational layers that impact on the interaction between migration, like a decision or individual option, and networks, as there are expressions of agreed or imposed group functioning at the social level, that the reduction of it to too simplistic a definition would be tantamount to reducing latent social complexity to a binary relationship devoid of any meaning and cut off from reality. Contemporary migration, as indicated above, is complex and diverse, which is why its results must likewise follow the same analytical and comprehensive pattern.
Works such as this, in their effort to avoid defining migration, but rather to show it as it is, fit in with this definition, in the sense that they attempt to reflect the complexity proper to migration and to present it as it is. The best way to understand migration, therefore, is to analyse it in all its diversity to be able to later reflect on it. One cannot expect to understand migration simply from the perspective of the economic need, in spite of the fact that the imbalanced distribution of goods and resources clearly provokes the mobility of people for economic purposes and to improve their prospects of pursuing a satisfactory individual (or family) life project. Neither can migration be understood from an analysis purely focused on interaction networks between individuals, in spite of the existence of the relationship between creating any imagery as to the benefits of migration and the exchange of information that comes about between migrants and non-migrants. Likewise, one cannot speak of migration from a holistic perspective, simply speaking about the development of transport, technology and communication networks.
In conclusion, networks as a concept play a central role in defining migration. They can be analysed separately to detect the impact they have on certain sub-dimensions of it, affording relevant information to construct a complete definition of the idea of migration. Alternatively, if the perspective aims to be global, as part of a highly complex exercise, the comprehensive approach needs to be broad and must analyse the set of networks which, both tangentially and as overlapping, affect the creation of the meaning of what migration represents, following which there must be an overall exercise of reflection.
- Castells, M. (2006). La sociedad red: una visión global. Madrid, Spain: Alianza Editoria.
- Massey, D. et al. (1998). Una evaluación de la teoría de la migración internacional: el caso de América del Norte. In G. Malgesini (Eds). Cruzando fronteras. Migraciones en el sistema mundial. Madrid, Spain: Icaria.