Methodological Nationalism and the Ethics of Immigration


Political philosophers should try to understand the world the best they can and to imagine how it could be otherwise. My last two blog posts I explored the idea of open borders. Though I suggested that the dangers to state sovereignty and the fear that immigrants would swampdeveloped states are overblown, open borders remain very much an ideal for how the world might be. Regional arrangements for open borders exist in the European Union and some Central American states, but as far as I know no state is likely to seriously entertain opening its border universally.
I’d like to explore a related idea aimed not at defending an ideal of what the world might move toward, but rather one that helps us understand the ideas about immigration that we have. The idea is that much of the research and reflection on migration is distorted by methodological nationalism. The social sciences and humanities have emerged alongside the rise of the territorially-based nation-state as the dominant form of political organization. As a result, social scientists tend to take the nation-state, its policies, and boundaries for granted, treating it as the natural and inevitable form of social and political organization and/or ignoring how it affects their theories altogether. Most social scientists follow states’ own definitions of their territories and populations and rely on the states to provide demographic and economic data collected at the national level. Ulrich Beck has argued that much of social science is uncritical accepts what he calls the “container theory of society”.
(In my understanding of methodological nationalism, I follow Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller’s Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration, and Social Sciences. Daniel Little has a good discussionof Wimmer and Glick Schiller’s article here.)
Critics of methodological nationalism do not deny the importance of the state. Instead, they argue that we need to be more conscious of how the state and nation-building projects affect our theories. The idea that people should be assigned to nation-states enjoying sovereignty over a territory is quite recent, arguably only emerging after the Second World War. As a result, states – or the people in positions of power in states – continually strive to convince people of their legitimacy by shaping history, inventing traditions, and defining populations. States use their power to influence how a community is imagined, often at the cost of making it difficult to imagine different ways of understanding the world.
Scholars in sociology, anthropology, international relations, and migration studies have debated for decades how methodological nationalist assumptions affect their disciplines. In migration studies, theorists have drawn attention to migrant transnationalism in which migrant networks connect people across states, reshaping political, social, and economic spaces. (Glick Schiller was one of the co-authors in the seminal Nations Unbound on migrant transnationalism published nearly twenty-five years ago.) The nation-state and its policies contribute to the nature of these spaces, but as one (albeit significant) factor among many.
One of my current projects is to think more about the relationship between methodological nationalism, migration, and political philosophy. Methodological nationalism is important for political philosophers thinking about migration. Political philosophers often attempt to criticize current social institutions and propose principles for how they could be more just, their criticisms are limited by their categories and their imagination. In particular, they have not for the most part reflected on how methodological nationalism affects their normative theories. (Speranta Dumitru’s work is one important exception.)
Here are three areas of normative research that have been distorted by methodological nationalism.
First, political philosophers have largely neglected questions of internal migration, because it takes place within the boundaries of a state. Migration across borders is automatically problematized and restrictions need to be criticized or defended, whereas migration within borders which has many of the same effects is largely untheorized. This neglect includes the tragedy of internally displaced people fleeing civil war within their states.
Second, methodological nationalist assumptions have led political philosophers to treat allegations of the harms of “brain drain” – i.e., the migration of skilled workers from the developing to developed world – with undue credulity. I have arguedelsewhere that the economic case for harmful brain drain is far from clear. Beyond that, critics of brain drain take the state as the unit of analysis and attempt to balance the claims of developing and developed states without questioning the legitimacy of these claims.
Third, political philosophers have been too quick to accept politicians’ assertions that migrations are somehow different from the majority and are in need of integration or assimilation. Too often, political philosophers have equated society with the nation-state and defined its culture as that which the dominant group (allegedly) holds. Even when they have criticized claims to restrict citizenship or admission on cultural grounds, they are too quick to accept states’ efforts of mobilizing and creating culture as part of their nation-building projects.
I give a more detailed account of these criticisms here. The hope is that political philosophers, by understanding how many of our conceptual categories have been defined by the nation-state, will be able to better criticize the institutions that govern migration. In my view, the major project for political philosophers is not to debate about the legitimacy of state border controls, but better understand how borders function in practice (something which states influence but do not control). This allows us to expand the number of normative categories and explore the many ways in which the regulation of migration is unjust, from admissions policies based on socio-economic class to the ways in which migration policies interact with gender.

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