The latest iteration of this.

State attempts to influence and manage human movement of has been an integral aspect of the growth and development of states, such that historians of different national fields need to attend to the movement of people into and out of the state in question. Lucy Salyer writes that she set out “to explore the roots of the American administrative state in the Progressive Era” with no intention to do immigration history. “But as [she] studied the court docket books” for the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California she “was struck by the number of cases brought by Chinese litigants contesting the decision of the collector of the port to deny them entry under the Chinese exclusion acts.” These cases, she found, “revealed a crucial, yet largely overlooked, story in the history of (…) the growth of administrative power.” (Salyer, xiii.) The history of the movements of people across borders has also been a key aspect of labor movements, in the sense of political movements, which have been at various times more and less nationalist and internationalist. (Gabaccia, 1988.) Changes in immigration policy were also an important matter for international relations, being the subject of bilateral agreements such as the Burlingame Treaty as well as international summits. (Green, 271.)

If state and market formation and labor movements can not be fully explained without discussing immigration, does that mean that political and economic and labor history are automatically immigration history? Not at all. What, then, characterizes immigration history?

The common denominator across the various examples that can be called “immigration history” is motion. More specifically, immigration historians write about the movement of people. Immigration history takes the movement of people not as an important element, but as its object of study. At the same time, appropriately enough, the range of work that this definition takes in has blurry and permeable borders, in relation to other fields of history and to other disciplines.

Movement is only identifiable in relation to some frame of reference and some point of view. In order for one thing to be moving or to be moving more quickly, something else must be still or at least moving more slowly. The nature of the location, however, is part of ongoing debate within the field. Immigration and emigration involve movement of persons across locations, but not just any movement and any location. For some historians, “migration simply means moving” while immigration or emigration “means moving across a national frontier.” Take, for instance, “two unemployed auto workers in Detroit leaving the motor city to seek a job elsewhere – one of them taking a trolley across the bridge to Windsor, Ontario, and the other flying to San Diego – only the first is immigrating, even though his is the shorter journey. Thus an immigrant is simply a migrant whose move has involved crossing at least on international frontier.” (Daniels 2002, 3.)

From this perspective, immigration is “a quintessentially national subject.” (Brody, xi.) This perspective is an example of methodological nationalism, the assumption of the “apparent naturalness and givenness of a world divided into societies along the lines of nation-states.” (Glick Schiller and Wimmer, 304.) Methodological nationalism or, more polemically, “the tyranny of the national” has been a subject of debate within immigration history. (Gabaccia, 1999. See also Gabaccia’s response to Gary Gerstle. Gerstle, 1997; Gabaccia 1997.)

This is not to say that location should or does not enter into immigration history. Far from it. Movement only occurs in relation to locations, and the history of movement would be incomprehensible if it did not engage with states and nations. The point is that the nature of the nation and state is at question within the field. While nations and states remain important, they are considered as historical, and as objects of historical inquiry rather than factors determining the shape of inquiry. This trend in immigration history matches a trend in American history to attempt to open up the field and “transnationalize” it. (For this trend in American history outside of immigration history (outside to the degree which immigration history is outside of American history, which is not at all clear to me) see Tyrrell 1991, Thelen 1992, Bender 2002.)

While “the need to expand the boundaries of [historical] inquiry beyond the nation-state, to internationalize the subject and render it more cosmopolitan” has been discussed in history for some time, “there is confusion over the appropriate perspective and methodology.” (Kenny 2003, 134.) There are a variety of responses within immigration history which seek to get beyond the national frame. These divide roughly into four very general categories. For the sake of convenience, I will call them world-systems, comparative, intranational, and diasporic.

The first category, world-systems, relativizes the nation by interpreting it as one element – albeit an important and constitutive element – within the history of a supranational regional or global economic and political system or interlocking systems. The world-systems approach focuses on structural forces, primarily economic and to a lesser extent political, and tends to emphasize labor related migration. As such, this approach borders on economic history, labor history, and world history. It is difficult to address agency or first person experiences at this level of scope and within a structural focus. (For examples of this approach see Guerin-Gonzales and Strikwerda 1998, Hoerder 1994 and 2002, and McKeown 2004.) Given the prevalence of economic factors in this category, it is important to remember that this approach is only one mode of explanation. “Market relations can explain much, but certainly not everything, about migration patterns.” (Gabacca 1988, 172.)

The second category, comparative, compares migration in different national contexts in order to show differences and similarities and, perhaps to some degree, to denaturalize the nation. “Comparative approaches (…) examine specific similarities and differences in the experiences of similar migrants who have settled in different nations or national regions.” This approach can be called “cross-national.” (Kenny 135.) Nancy Green argues that migration is particularly amenable to comparative work because there is an element in experiences of migration which is akin to the activity of historical comparison. “The immigrant represents the Other in the nation-state” while “the new land is the referential Other for the newly arrived.” Thus, “[t]he migrant embodies an implicit comparison between past and present, between on world and another, between two languages, and two sets of cultural norms.” (Green, 1994, 1.) Green identifies three different models of comparison, which she calls divergent, linear, and convergent. Divergent comparison is close to what other call diaspora, so I will address this under that heading.

Linear comparison involves following a migrant or group migrants from one location to another, say from the German countryside to the rural Midwest, comparing experiences along this line of motion, and comparing life pre-departure with life post-arrival. This model is “often used but rarely made explicit.” (Green 1994, 6.) Linear comparison is in many respects thoroughly compatible with methodological nationalism and is the implied mode of analysis in any history of immigration which compares life in the “old country” with life in the new location.

Convergent comparison “perhaps th[e] mode of comparison that has been more frequently undertaken in American migration studies.” (Green, 1994, 7.) Convergent comparison takes a place, such as a city like New York, as a constant, and takes the points of arrival into or travel through that location as variable, in order to compare the experiences of different immigrant groups within the city. At its worst, this type of comparison assesses the “relative success or failure” of groups based on internal criteria such as group culture, resulting in a rank order of successful and failing immigrant groups. When “factors such as timing and economic opportunity at the time of arrival” are included, however, this method can yield more interesting results.

The third category, intranational, works on elements of how the nation is built and in the process how it manages the movement of people. This approach still works on the history of one nation, or or an aspect of the nation and so in one respect remains in a national frame. This category is not in a national frame in the sense of being methodologically nationalist. This approach studies the nation or elements of the nation at is changes over time. The nation here is considered produced rather than natural, by focusing on an element of the nation’s migration history such as border policy and immigration law.

Central to this approach is analysis of power. The management of movement and borders are forms or operations of power which varied over time and which involved conflict. This category could also be called “border policing” history. In some cases, the construction of borders was an integral part of the project of nation building, as Salyer argues, as well as shaping how race and structures of racialization. (Two other examples of this type are Erika Lee 1999 and Mae Ngai 1999, both of which, like Salyer, focus on law. Ngai’s work in particular includes fascinating treatment of the history of race as shaped by immigration law.) Indeed, race and racialization shaped discourse about national borders and were shaped by this discourse. Furthermore, racial segregation itself forms a type of border in and across national borders. Race has been tremendously important within the history of immigration, both shaped by and shaping immigration patterns. This is another location where immigration history – particularly as treated by intranational approaches – borders with other fields and disciplines, particularly ethnic studies and studies of the construction of whiteness in American Studies.

The fourth category, diasporic, centers on a group of migrants across the world or at least across more than one nation-state, generally a group with a common point of origin. The diasporic approach “seeks to transcend the nation-state as the primary unit of historical analysis, searching for reciprocal interactions and and the sensibilities they nurture among globally scattered communities.” (Kenny, 135.) “[S]ome recent theorists have proposed common features” defining a diaspora. “The first is dispersal from a homeland to two or more foreign regions, including not only traumatic dispersals (…) but also voluntary migration in search of work or in pursuit of trade. Second, diasporas manifest some collective myth about the homeland, a commitment to its maintenance or restoration (or creation), and a desire to return home, whether literally or spiritually. Third, diasporic communities generally experience alienation and isolation in their new homelands”. (Kenny, 142. Kenny criticizes this list of features as overly inclusive.)

The common features which make the diasporic community a community and therefore a diaspora can be a source of difficulty. Telling history via the concept of diaspora, however, “has a strong tendency to conceal “differences and discontinuities” and to erase “complexities and contradictions as it seek to fit all within the metaphor.”” (Kelly, 145, quoting Tiffany Ruby Patterson and Robin D. G. Kelley.) This tendency derives in part from a potential for the concept of diaspora to repeat methodological nationalism via its centering on the homeland as the lynchpin of the diasporic community. “[D]iasporic approaches sometimes appear to posit a “transnational nation” – a single, globally dispersed culture exhibiting common features wherever it took root, by virtue of a presupposed common peoplehood.” (Kenny, 161.) This peoplehood is defined in large part by blood ties, which states at different times have enshrined in law. (Green, 276.) “The result, ironically, is national history writ large. To locate a dispersed population group in discrete portions of the globe and analyze its members as a single people is by no means to transcend the pitfalls of essentialism or the tyranny of place. If the inhabitants of the different areas are endowed by the historian with attributes based on their place or culture of origin, it is only a short step back to national history.” (Kenny, 161.)

The above categories are ideal types which represent different poles or tendencies within immigration history as the field questions the national. Actual immigration histories do not fit neatly into just one category, just as immigrants do not fit neatly into national categories. Immigration historians embrace a methodological pluralism approach, taking useful information and methods from different types of studies and studies of different groups or areas than they work on and applying this material in their own work. These categories also indicate different locations where immigration history borders on and crosses into other fields of history and in some cases other disciplines.

I would like to make a few other observations about immigration history. First, along with the attempt to get away from methodological nationalism, there seems to be a trend away from historians focusing solely on one group – perhaps partially in response to problems with the single diaspora model – and instead comparing different immigrant groups. The scope of such a project is daunting, however, as it can require expensive and time consuming trips to multiple locations, and language ability in several languages. Partially as a result of these issues, there has been a growth of collaboration between historians internationally in large research projects. This too is part of a broader trend – certainly not yet the norm – toward transnational scholarship in the form of scholars in different national locations reading each others’ work within the discipline of history. (See Gabaccia 1999, Gabaccia and Ottanelli 2001, and Thelen 1992.) The continued growth of this trend – or not – will depend in part upon institutional factors such as support for language learning and travel funding.

My second observation concerns the borders of the field. I have repeatedly referred to the “borders” of immigration history. This metaphor could be overstated in a way which over-inflates aspects of academic life and trivialize aspects of border management and border crossing. (It should be noted, however, that that many academics are themselves migrants of one sort or another, and have been caught up in border management.) That is not my intent.

While the metaphor could be somewhat overstated, immigration history can be said to be like the migrants whose lives it narrates: crossing borders, connecting ostensibly different locations, and troubling attempts to limit its movements. Historians cross the boundaries of historical fields. Some also cross into and out from other disciplinary boundaries, such as sociology, anthropology, ethnic studies, women’s studies, gender studies, national language departments and literary studies (particularly in relation to postcolonialism) etc. Certain trajectories may lead immigration historians to move away from immigrant history and do other scholarship, however shaped by their prior work. By the same token, other trajectories lead other historians to “migrate” into immigration history from other avenues of inquiry, like Salyer. These historians carry elements of their prior work and approaches into the field of immigration history.

If immigration historians are like migrants, they do not have entirely unrestricted movement across borders. In an institutional context shaped by methodological and institutional nationalism, immigration history’s migratory status may not always be welcome or supported. In 1999 George Sanchez noted a division within academic departments and fields like ethnic studies, Chicano and Asian American studies, and immigration history, and found “relatively few jobs” in the latter. Sanchez concluded “if one looks at job prospects in the field (…) things do not look bright and have not looked well for a while.” This is not to say that people employed in different locations in universities are not immigrant historians, but segmentation by nation is still common in universities and must surely have at least some impact on the contents of scholarship as scholars attempt to produce work salable within the academic workplace. (Sanchez 1999, 68. See also Gabaccia and Ottanelli 2001, xi.)

Institutional constraints coupled with an interest in doing work which is hard to fit into institutional frameworks has led some historians to consider these institutional factors as an object of inquiry. Institutional factors were and are a shaping element in the historiography of immigration. At same time, history as a discipline came to play a shaping role in forming national sensibilities as “historians forged power institutional and intellectual connections with state structures” in part by the types of narratives they constructed. (Tyrrell 1999, 1015-1016. See also Gabaccia 1997 and 1999b, Glick Schiller and Wimmer 2002, Granatir Alexander 2006.) That is to say, methodological nationalism has a history and there are structural forces which help sustain it. Attention to institutions and historiography, concomitant with the transnational collaboration mentioned in my first observation, has involved comparing different national traditions of historiography. (Collomp 1999, Gabaccia 1999, Green 1994 and 1999.)

My third observation is that, strictly speaking, “immigration” is only one type of movement that immigration historians write about. To call someone an “immigrant” is to view them from the perspective of the new location in which they arrive, generally with the assumption that they will stay there and assimilate. This perspective generally treats the arrival location and its borders as still or as moving more slowly, with immigrants moving across the borders and into the location. Immigration is one aspect of the history of human movements, and an important one at that. Treating immigration exclusively, however, misrepresents this history and leaves out many people, and leaves out important aspects of experiences of immigration. The frame of reference involved in discussing immigration is not the only one used by immigration historians. Exclusive focus on immigration has been made problematic within the field, as part of discussion over the appropriateness and legitimacy of the nation as a unit and frame of reference.

Every immigrant is or was also an emigrant. For a variety of reasons emigration has become “a staple of the immigration literature for the past two decades.” (Green 2005, 268.) “Emigration” takes the perspective of the location left behind by someone who leaves. The “sending” location is as legitimate a focus of inquiry as that of the “receiving” location implied in the term “immigration history.” Emigration, perceptions of emigration, and policy toward emigration are important aspects of the histories of states and nations. Italy and Germany, for instance, both faced “the contradictory aim of inventing themselves just as large numbers of their subjects were leaving.” The concept of citizenship by blood in both countries was a way of “constructing the nation even across space.” Both countries attempted to restrict emigration, often under the guise of protecting emigrants. (Green, 276.) I have already mentioned the example Salyer gives of the role of Chinese exclusion in the formation of the administrative state in the U.S. Kevin Kenny writes that in nineteenth century Ireland emigration led to – and in part resulted from – the rise “an emergent class of Irish commercial farmer who blamed emigration, not on their own practices of eviction, enclosure, and market-oriented farming, but on British colonial rule.” (Kenny 138.) Emigration thus shaped Irish nationalist sentiment in relation to Britain, and this sentiment also formed a part of the ensemble which shaped further emigration.

Emigration was an important aspect of the experience of migrants, as well. Many Irish, for instance, “regard[ed] emigration as involuntary banishment” resulting from terrible conditions in Ireland, “rather than voluntary enterprise or self-improvement.” (Kenny 137-138.) This sensibility informed Irish self-understanding and sensibilities within Irish communities, thereby shaping the characteristics of the global Irish diaspora.

Attention to emigration changes the understanding of the history of immigration. In the United States “[t]he dominant official stance toward immigration remained one of open arms,” with almost no immigration restrictions until 1875. This was the case in many other countries as well. (Salyer, 3.) This does not mean that movement across borders were not managed. “Chinese law,” for example, “had defined emigration as a crime punishable by death” for several centuries prior to signing the Burlingame Treaty with the U.S. in 1868, which allowed Chinese to emigrate if they immigrated to the U.S. (Salyer, 9.)

Focusing on emigration complicates the view that from the nineteenth through the twentieth century restrictions on mobility have simply increased. Immigration restrictions have increased, which an important historical (and political) matter. At the same time, this increase is not simply a move from less management to greater management of population movement. Rather, the site and forms of population movement have shifted, from emigration centered to immigration centered border regimes. (Green, 287.)

None of this is to say that immigration should be not studied or that it can only studied from a methodologically nationalist perspective. Nor is this to say that studying emigration per se is a mechanism to escape methodological nationalism. These concerns have led some to propose other terms than either immigrant or emigrant.

The most common alternative term used is migrant. Migrants make up “migration chains” which encompass emigration and immigration and link different parts of the world. (Gabaccia and Ottanelli, 3.) Historians in the world-systems category also speak of migration systems. (Hoerder 1994 and 2002.)

The phrase “transmigrant” has been used to indicate that many migrants maintain interconnections and communication across national borders on an ongoing basis. These interconnections form an important part of many people’s sense of self and of the flow of information and money that helps maintain migration systems. (Glick Schiller et al 1995.) The term does not seem to have caught on, in part because these interconnections existed for many migrants, though previous methodologically nationalist approaches failed to see this.

The term sojourner has been used occasionally to refer to migrants who moved to another country for some time but didn’t remain permanently. (Gabaccia 1999, 11120.) These migrants can easily fall out of a picture that focuses on immigration or emigration, since in studies of both of the latter there is a frequent presumption of permanent movement, either permanent departure or irreversible arrival. Sojourner can be a controversial term, however, as in some cases the “status of “sojourner” is not so much a condition of the immigrant’s desire, as it is a condition of entry into United States society.” (Sanchez 77.) Someone deported or turned away at the border did in one sense “sojourn” – certainly more than they immigrated – but there are important differences between relatively voluntary sojourning and relatively involuntary sojourning.

Bender, Thomas (ed). 2002. Rethinkining American History in a Global Age. (Berkeley 2002.)

Brody, David. 1998. Foreword. Pages xi-xii in Guerin-Gonzales and Strikwerda.

Collomp, Catherine. 1999. Immigrants, Labor Markets, and the State, a Comparative Approach: France and the United States, 1880-1930. Journal of American History. June 1999: 41-66.

Daniels, Roger. 2002 [1990]. Coming To America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: Harper Perennial.

Gabaccia, Donna. 1988. Militants and Migrants: Rural Sicilians Become American Workers. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Gabaccia, Donna. 1997. Liberty, Coercion, and the Making of Immigration Historians. Journal of American History. September 1997: 570-575

Gabaccia, Donna. 1999. Is Everywhere Nowhere? Nomads, Nations, and the Immigrant Paradigm of United States History. Journal of American History. December 1999: 1115-1134

Gabaccia, Donna. 1999b. Comment: Ins and Outs: Who is an Immigration Historian? Journal of American Ethnic History. Summer 1999: 126-135

Gabaccia, Donna and Otttanelli, Fraser. 2001. Italian Workers of the World: Labor Migration and the Formation of Multiethnic States. Chicago: University of Illinois Press

Gerstle, Gary. 1997. Liberty, Coercion, and the Making of Americans. Journal of American History September 1997: 524-558

Glick Schiller, Nina; Basch, Linda; Szanton Blanc, Cristina. 1995. From Immigrant to Transmigrant. Anthropological Quarterly volume 68, issue 1

Glick Schiller, Nina; Wimmer, Andreas. 2002. Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences. Global Networks volume 2, issue 4, 301-334

Granatir Alexander, June 2006. History Matters: the Origin and Development of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society. Journal of American Ethnic History. Summer 2006: 5-42

Green, Nancy. 1994. The Comparative Method and Postructural Structuralism: New Perspectives for Migration Studies. Journal of American Ethnic History. Summer 1994, vol13 Issue 4

Green, Nancy. 1999. ‘Le Melting-Pot’: Made in America, Produced in France. Journal of American History. December 1999:1188-1208

Green, Nancy. 2005. The Politics of Exit: Reversing the Immigration Paradigm. The Journal of Modern History 77 (June 2005): 263-289.

Guerin-Gonzales, Camille; Strikwerda, Carl. 1998. The Politics of Immigrant Workers: Labor Activism and Migration in the World Economy since 1830. New York: Holmes and Meier.

Hoerder, Dirk. 1994. Changing Paradigms in Migration History: From ‘To America’ to World-Wide Systems. Canadian Review of American Studies. Spring 1994 volume 24 issue 2: 105-128

Hoerder, Dirk. 2002. From Euro- and Afro-Atlantic to Pacific Migration System: A Comparative Migration Approach to North American History, 195-233 in Bender, 2002.

Kenny, Kevin. 2003. Diaspora and Comparison: The Global Irish as a Case Study. Journal of American History. June 2003: 134-162.

Lee, Erika. 1999. Immigrants and Immigration Law: A State of the Field Assessment. Journal of American Ethnic History, summer 1999: 85-114

McKeown, Adam. 2004. Global Migration, 1846-1940. Journal of World History. Volume 15 number 2: 155-189

Salyer, Lucy. 1995. Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chines Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Sanchez, George. 1999. Race, Nation, and Culture in Recent Immigration Studies. Journal of American Ethnic History. Summer 1999.

Thelen, David. 1992. Of Audiences, Borderlands, and Comparisons: Toward the Internationalization of American History. Journal of American History 79 (Sept 1992), 436-462

Tyrrell, Ian. 1999. Making Nations/Making States: American Historians in the Context of Empire. Journal of American History (December), 1015-1044

Advertisements