Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration

What or who does the ‘global South’ refer to and should it be ‘recentred’ in migration studies? In this abridged version of her introduction to the new 2020 Open Access Special Issue of the Migration and Society journal on this topic (here), Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh sets out the diverse ways that scholars have sought to redress Eurocentrism in migration studies, including 1) examining the applicability of classical concepts and frameworks in the South, 2) filling blind spots by studying migration in the South and South-South migration, and 3) engaging critically with the geopolitics of knowledge production. Questions on decentering and recentering and different ways of conceptualizing the South are examined (as we have also been exploring in our Thinking Through the Global South series), in addition to how the politics of citation can contribute to the politics of knowledge production and new conceptualisations of ‘the South’.

You can read the full length article, and the rest of the Special Issue, here. If you find this piece of interest please visit our Thinking through the Global South series or the recommended readings at the end of this piece.

Introduction: Recentering the South in Studies of Migration

by Prof. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Principal Investigator, Southern Responses to Displacement


In line with long-standing debates in diverse disciplines, over the past few years scholars have increasingly argued that redressing the Eurocentrism of migration studies requires a commitment to a decentering of global North knowledge of and about migration (ie. see Achiume 2019; Pailey 2019; Vanyoro 2019). However, it is less clear whether the “epistemic decolonization of migration theory” (Grosfoguel et al. 2015: 646) necessarily means “recentering the South” in such studies.

This piece starts by delineating three ways that researchers—including the contributors of the 2020 Special Issue of Migration and Society available here—have aimed to redress Eurocentrism in migration studies: (1) examining the applicability of classical concepts and frameworks in the South; (2) filling blind spots by studying migration in the South and South-South migration; and (3) engaging critically with the geopolitics of knowledge production. In addition, I examine questions on decentering and recentering, discuss different ways of conceptualizing the South, and reflect on how engaging carefully with the politics of citation can contribute to the politics of knowledge production. 

Redressing Eurocentrism in Migration Studies

It has become increasingly mainstream to acknowledge that academic and policy studies of and responses to migration have been dominated by scholarship produced in the Northern Hemisphere. In turn, the alignment of migration studies with the political and policy priorities of North American and European states, including a long-standing focus on “classical” questions in migration studies (such as relating to the challenges of “integration” and migration management and governance), has been widely documented and critiqued. Concurrently, the field has been dominated by studies of South-North migration in spite of the greater numerical significance of South-South migration. Jonathan Crush and Abel Chikanda (2018: 394) remind us that “this blind spot is indicative of the hegemony of the Northern discourse on South–North migration.”

One of the questions that emerges in this context is how to redress this Northern and Eurocentric bias. Diverse responses have arisen accordingly, including three key approaches outlined below and explored in more detail in the journal Special Issue.

  1. Examining the Applicability of Classical Concepts and Frameworks in the South

Starting from the acknowledgment that many concepts in the field are far from universal, scholars have examined the applicability of a range of ‘classical’ concepts and frameworks in countries that are not readily classified as “Western liberal democracies.” They critically draw on research in countries of the global South to explore concepts, policies, and programs originally developed from the vantage point of European states and “international” (read: Northern-led) intergovernmental organizations and examine how these concepts are perceived, conceptualised and negotiated by stakeholders within these Southern positionalities.

  1. Filling ‘Blind Spots’: Studying Migration in the South and South-South Migration

A second approach that scholars, and indeed politicians, policy makers, and UN agencies, have pointed to in order to redress the above-mentioned “blind spot” is promoting, and funding, further studies of migration in the South and of South-South migration. As Patricia Daley and I argue elsewhere, this can be seen as offering “an important corrective to Northern state and non-state discourses which depict the North as a ‘magnet’ for migrants from across the global South.” At the same time, however, the extent to which policy makers and politicians in Europe and North America have expressed an interest in better understanding and promoting South-South migration raises concerns that “Northern actors might precisely be instrumentalising and co-opting Southern people and dynamics (in this case, migrants and migration flows) to achieve the aims established and promoted by Northern states and institutions.”

  1. Engaging Critically with The Geopolitics of Knowledge Production

Such concerns resonate with a third approach: engaging critically with the geopolitics of knowledge production in this field. Researching migration in the South or about South-South migration per se can be seen as a continuation of normative and hegemonic research, policy, and political practices, rather than “decentering” the North or “recentering” the South. However, as Francesco Carella argues, it is also the case that the ‘global South’ has been developing multiple understandings and critical analysis of migration, rather than necessarily having “South-South migration concepts and models imposed from the ‘global North’.”

Indeed, there are multiple and heterogenous ways of knowing, characterised and constituted by complex relationalities; these include postcolonial, decolonial, and/or Southern epistemological perspectives and methodological approaches that aim to resist Eurocentrism. To study, explain, and diagnose the challenges faced by migrants throughout their journeys thus requires going beyond testing the applicability of classical concepts that “fix and contain those subjects and spatialities” (Jazeel 2019: 10) and instead involves resisting what Raewyn Connell refers to as “methodological projection,” through which “data from the periphery are framed by concepts, debates and research strategies from the metropole” (Connell 2008 cited in Jazeel 2019: 11).

This can include considering what it means to engage critically with “local” or “Southern” perspectives not merely as data but as forms of knowledge; to acknowledge artistic production as forms of knowledge (see here); studying structures of inequality rather than researching the lived experiences of refugees; shifting the geographical focus of the critical academic gaze; viewing migration to the North itself as a form of “decolonial migration,” or even, as Tendayi Achiume suggests, conceptualising “migration as decolonization” (Achiume 2019: 1510, 1523).

Throughout, decolonial and postcolonial scholars have thus been critiquing the ways that particular directionalities and modalities of migration, and specific groups of migrants, have been constituted as “problems to be solved,” including through processes that are deeply inflected by gender, class, and race. In so doing, many of these scholars are part of a broader collective that argues that there is a need to challenge the very foundations and nature of knowledge production—to “decolonise migration research” (Vanyoro 2019) —and to acknowledge and resist the way that migration research is embedded within and reproduces neoliberal and neocolonial systems of exploitation. 

Decentering the North qua Recentering the South?

As noted above, “recentering the South” in empirical terms—by filling a gap in knowledge— does not necessarily “decenter” or challenge the dominance of and inequalities perpetuated by the original system, nor does it contest what is constituted as knowledge itself.

Indeed, gap-filling studies are open to similar critiques as those developed in response to studies of women in development that merely adopted an “add women and stir” approach, thereby failing to challenge the systems that excluded women in the first place, and that sought to instrumentalize the “added” women to meet preexisting, externally established goals. Critical inquiry vis-à-vis people, places, and processes that have historically been marginalized and erased extend from feminist theory (ie hooks 1984)  to “recentering” or “adding and stirring” Africa into international relations (respectively, Iñiguez de Heredia and Wai 2018; Smith 2013).

The Politics of Recentering

While many scholars and activists advocate a process of placing “Africa at the center of international relations and world politics”, others, including Achille Mbembe and Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni, contest the notion of recentering, instead rejecting the assumption that the modern West is the central root of Africa’s consciousness and cultural heritage. Centering—whether “Africa,” “Africans,” or, “the South”—can still be characterized by inequalities, and may, in fact, risk perpetuating systems of exclusion.

However, as scholars including Raewyn Connell and Boaventura de Sousa Santos argue, “Southern ideas,” theories, and epistemologies enable us to productively engage with the complexity of intersecting and mutually constitutive processes. This approach echoes analyses that assert that there are multiple Souths in the world, including “Souths” (and Southern voices) within powerful metropoles, as well as multiple Souths within multiple peripheries. Historical and contemporary processes mean that “the South and the North alike ‘can thus be said to exist and evolve in a mutually constitutive relationship,’ rather than in isolation from one another” (Aneja, quoted in Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Daley 2018: 3). In turn, this parallels assertions that “the global South was not only invented from outside by European imperial forces but it also invented itself through resistance and solidarity-building” (Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Kenneth Tafira 2018: 131). With this in mind, rather than “recentering,” perhaps what is required is a process of “decentering” the hegemonic.

The “South” or “Southern Theories”?

If recentering is a contested proposition, so too is “the South,” as we are exploring in the Southern Responses to Displacement project here and here. When used in the context of examining “migration in the global South” or “South-South migration,” it is often taken for granted that a geographical complex known as “the South” objectively exists. It is equally the case that states have often defined themselves with reference to the global “South.” However, far from being “either static or purely defined through reference to physical territories and demarcations”, geographical imaginaries of the South (and the Orient) have been invented, after Edward Said (1978), through the active deployment of “imperial reason and scientific racism” (Ndlovu-Gatsheni and Tafira 2018: 127) that constitutes certain places, peoples, ways of knowing, and ways of being as inferior to or void of hegemonic systems of meaning.

Walter Mignolo (2009: 3) proposes that redressing Eurocentrism can only be achieved through “de-Westernisation” and by going beyond the aim “to change the content of the conversation,” and instead aiming to “change the terms of the conversation” (ibid.: 4, emphasis added). However, Achille Mbembe disagrees with the diagnosis of “de-Westernization” as the solution. Amongst other things, he argues that (2015: 24) “the Western archive is singularly complex,” it is “neither monolithic, nor the exclusive property of the West… Africa and its diaspora decisively contributed to its making and should legitimately make foundational claims on it” (ibid.).

Attention to the relational and situated nature of knowledge production and the broader geopolitics of knowledge is therefore required.

The Politics of Citation: Beyond Diversity and Inclusion

Scarlett Hester and Catherine Squires (2018: 344) remind us that although “recentering and historicizing race scholarship around black feminism is one approach to the issue of citational politics,” inclusive citation is insufficient when it becomes little more than an exercise in “diversity management.” Inter alia, Hester and Squires argue that, just as insisting that scholars cite white, European, or North American “experts” in the field is part of an exclusionary and hegemonic process, so too “the insistence that scholars cite particular, well-known, ‘authorized’ theorists of color, serves to police the boundaries: which fields and which scholars are permitted, and which scholars are unrecognized because their ideas haven’t made their way into the authorized shortlist?” (ibid.: 345). Going beyond “inclusion” as “diversity” requires a reconsideration of whose knowledge and what types of knowledge are viewed as knowledge to be engaged with, or as material to be “quoted” to inspire academic analysis.

The Politics of “Quoted” Knowledge

There is a long history of dismissing the intellectual and conceptual work of people outside the Northern academy, characterized by epistemic coloniality (Mbembe 2016: 36) “exploiting” and “extorting,” to use Paulin Hountondji’s terms (1992: 242), “their” words to develop concepts and theories rather than acknowledging “their” words as concepts, theories, and knowledge. As I discuss in the full length version of this article with reference to the work of Gloria Anzaldua, it is important to disrupt citational practices that have long been implicated in bordering knowledge and keeping certain people in the center while excluding others. Attention must be paid not only to the questions of who produces knowledge, when, why, and how but also of what knowledge is acknowledged and cited as knowledge, and on whose terms. (for a more detailed discussion of this point, see here).

In this regard, a further significant challenge emerges: the importance of not only recognizing but indeed centralizing the knowledge and the conceptualizations of people who have migrated, been displaced, and/or who are responding to migration in different ways.

If our starting point is the acknowledgment that people have heterogeneous experiences of migration and are active agents whose capacity to act is restricted by diverse systems of inequality and violence, it subsequently becomes essential to go beyond collecting, or documenting, such experiences, voices, and acts. It becomes necessary to challenge rather than reproduce the assumption that migrants and refugees merely experience, are affected by, and/or respond to migratory processes, and that it is only through critical scholarly attention that these experiences can be analyzed, for “us” to make sense of “their” lives and worlds.

In Yousif M. Qasmiyeh’s powerful words, it is essential to reject the violence of projects that take ownership of migrants’ and refugees’ voices — “After spending hours with us, in the same room, she left with a jar of homemade pickles and three full cassettes of our voices” (Qasmiyeh 2014: 68) — even, or especially, when these projects are undertaken ostensibly to subsequently “give voice” to people from the South. The aim should instead be

“to embroider the voice with its own needle: an act proposed to problematise the notion of the voice; something that cannot be given (to anyone) since it must firmly belong to everyone from the beginning.” (Qasmiyeh 2019)

Such a commitment means thinking carefully about how and why we “quote” migrants, refugees, and those responding to migration, and to recognize that analysis and theorization are not the preserve of academics and practitioners.

People who are involved in diverse migratory processes conceptualize their own situations, positions, and responses as everyday theorists rather than as providers of “data” to be analyzed to provide the materials for conceptual and theoretical scholarship. This means that it is urgent for us to focus intently on identifying and challenging the diverse structural barriers—including academic, political, economic, cultural, and social ones—that prevent certain people’s understandings and worldviews from being perceived as knowledge.

As such, in addition to considering which topics, geographies, and directionalities of migration are explored, and which scholars or enunciators are being cited, it is essential to remain critically attentive to the conditions under which processes of enunciation take place and are engaged with.

In particular, it is a focus on the unequal process of listening and recognizing speech as more than words that emerges as being pivotal here, as has long been argued by thinkers such as bell hooks (1989) and Gayatri Spivak (1988). This involves being attentive to who is positioned as being capable of producing what bell hooks refers to as “significant speech” (1989: 6) including across intersecting vectors of gender, race, sexuality, and, as discussed above, also what kind of knowledge is viewed as significant in their own right.

These are some of the questions that both Migration and Society and the Southern Responses to Displacement project will be bringing to the fore, as key priorities, over the years to come.

You can read the full introduction here, and the entire Open Access Special Issue here.


If you found this piece of interest please visit our Thinking Thorough the Global South series or the recommended readings below.

Carpi, E. (2018) Empires of Inclusion?

Carpi, E. (2018) In conversation with the Kahkaha project in Lebanon: an effective example of a Southern-led initiative

Carpi, E. (2019) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Exploring Refugees’ Conceptualisations of Southern-Led Humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Histories and spaces of Southern-led responses to displacement

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) The Localisation of Aid and Southern-led Responses to Displacement: Beyond instrumentalising local actors

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters

Nimer, M. (2019) Reflections on the Political Economy in Forced Migration Research from a ‘Global South’ Perspective

Olliff, L. (2019) Refugee diaspora humanitarianism and the value of North/South distinctions in research on responses to forced displacement.

Omata, N (2018) South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR

References cited:

Achiume, E. T. (2019). “Migration as Decolonisation.” Stanford Law Review 71 (6): 1509–1574.

Adamson, F. B. and Gerasimos T. (2019). “The Migration State in the Global South: Nationalizing, Developmental, and Neoliberal Models of Migration Management.” International Migration Review, doi: 10.1177/0197918319879057.

Connell, R. (2007). Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science, Sydney: Allen & Unwin Australia.

Crush, J and Chikanda, T. (2018). “South-South migration and diasporas,” in Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (Eds) (2018) The Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations, Oxford: Routledge. Pp. 380-396.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2014). “Gender and Forced Migration.” In The Oxford Handbook of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies, ed. Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, Gil Loescher, Katy Long and Nando Sigona. Oxford: OUP.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (2018). “Conceptualising the Global South and South-South Encounters.” In Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (Eds) The Handbook of South-South Relations, 1–28.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019). “Disasters Studies: Looking Forward.” Disasters 43 (S1): S36–S60.

Grosfoguel, R., Oso, L. and Christou, A. (2015). “‘Racism,’ Intersectionality and Migration Studies: Framing Some Theoretical Reflections.” Identities 22 (6): 635–652.

Iñiguez de Heredia, M. and Wai, Z. (Eds) (2018). Recentering Africa in International Relations Beyond Lack, Peripherality, and Failure. Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hester, S. L. and Squires, C. R. (2018). “Who Are We Working For? Recentering Black Feminism.” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 15 (4): 343–348.

hooks, b. (1989). Talking Back: Thinking Feminist—Thinking Black. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers.

Hountondji, P. J. (1992 [1983]). “Recapturing.” In The Surreptitious Speech. Presence Africaine and the Politics of Otherness, 1947–1987, ed. V.Y. Mudimbe, 238–48. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Jazeel, T. (2019). “Singularity: A Manifesto for Incomparable Geographies.” Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 40 (1): 5–21.

Mbembe, A. (2016). “Decolonizing the University: New Directions.” Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 15 (1): 29–45.

Mbembe, A. (2015). “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive.”

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. J. (2018a). “Against Bringing Africa ‘Back-In.’” In Recentering Africa in International Relations, ed. Marta Iñiguez de Heredia and Zubairu Wai, 283–305. Oxford: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. J. (2018b). “Decolonising Borders, Decriminalising Migration and Rethinking Citizenship.” In Crisis, Identity and Migration in Post-Colonial Southern Africa, ed. H.H. Magidimisha, N.E Khalema, L. Chipungu, T. Chirimambowa, and T. L. Chimedza, 23–37. Springer.

Santos, B. de Sousa. (2014). Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.

Mignolo, W. D. (2009). “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and De-Colonial Freedom.” Theory, Culture and Society 26 (7–8): 1–23.

Mignolo, W. D. (2011). “Epistemic Disobedience and the Decolonial Option: A Manifesto.” Transmodernity, Fall: 43–66.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. J. (2013). Empire, Global Coloniality and African Subjectivity. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books.

Ndlovu-Gatsheni, S. J. and Tafira, K. (2018). “The invention of the global South and the politics of South-South solidarity.” In The Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations ed. E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and P. Daley, 127-140. Oxford: Routledge.

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2014). “Thresholds.” Critical Quarterly 56 (4): 67–70.

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2020) ‘Engendering Plural Tales’, Migration and Society 3: 254-255.

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2019) ‘To Embroider the Voice with Its Own Needle’ Berghahn Books blog.

Said, E. W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books.

Smith, K. (2013). “International Relations in South Africa: A Case of ‘Add Africa and Stir’?”

Spivak, G. C. (1988). “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. C. Nelson and L.Grossberg, 271–313. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Vanyoro, K. P. (2019). “Decolonising Migration Research and Potential Pitfalls: Reflections from South Africa.” Pambazuka News, 17 May.
Featured image: My School – en route to Baddawi, N. Lebanon (c) E. Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2018.

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