McCulloch Center Conference Explores Migration

Posted: March 11, 2010

It wasn’t long ago that the study of migration was thought of as an academic backwater, according to participants in a conference that brought together thinkers from a host of disciplines to share their research on one of today’s hot-button issues. If the Global Challenges: Migration conference held by the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives on March 5-6 proved anything, it was that a rich and diverse body of scholarship is taking shape on issues related to the movement of people from one place to another.

Topics included how asylum requests based on gender-specific claims of persecution are being handled, how to interpret responses to the publication of cartoons in Denmark caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad, and the way climate change may effect migration in the coming decades.

When she started planning the conference, McCulloch Center acting director Kavita Khory said she was struck by how narrow public debates over migration tend to be. “Our objectives were to inform our students and the general public about the histories” of policies surrounding migration and to challenge people to “think about it analytically and from different disciplinary perspectives.”


Aristide Zolberg, Walter P. Eberstadt Professor of Political Science at New School for Social Research, delivers the keynote address at the "Global Challenges: Migration" conference, held at MHC March 5-6, 2010. 

The conference capped a six-week mini-course on migration that was team-taught by Mount Holyoke faculty members from politics, anthropology, sociology, art history, and German studies. More than 100 students enrolled.

"The papers delivered over the weekend will be compiled in an edited volume," said Khory, "and the interest sparked within the College is being harnessed to create a cluster of courses that will comprise a minor in migration studies."

“I loved the way the conference was organized,” said Daniel Tichenor, a political science professor at the University of Oregon. “It had more breadth and depth in its perspectives than one often finds at these conferences.” He delivered a paper going into the history of the periodic sense of urgency for immigration reform in the United States and what he calls the “Faustian bargains” politicians and constituents with widely divergent interests often strike. A perennial feature of debates over immigration in this country is that policy positions don’t fall within traditional left/right alliances, said Tichenor, and there are powerful strains within each of the parties advocating for both more open and more restrictive immigration policies. “Immigration can be used as a wedge issue against both parties,” he said.

Jane Freedman, who teaches at the Université de Paris, spoke about requests for asylum officials are receiving from women who are fleeing areas where rape is being used as an instrument of war. She also writes about women who have escaped domestic violence and whose lives may be in danger if they are forced to return to their country of origin. Cases of women who have left areas where ritual female genital mutilation is widely practiced and who have sought protection from deportation have led to “big debates over universal cultural rights,” said Freedman.

Erik Bleich, associate professor of political science at Middlebury College, examined the worldwide controversy sparked by the publication of editorial cartoons in a Danish newspaper rendering the Prophet Muhammad as a bearded man with a head in the shape of a bomb that was about to explode. Bleich raised the question of whether images such as those were protected as expressions of free speech in Denmark, or whether they constituted unlawful hate speech intended to incite violence. This is a live issue within the legal frameworks of many European countries where growing Muslim minorities are seen by large swaths of the population as infiltrators who threaten traditional values. Bleich’s point was that by using the legal system to advance their positions Muslim immigrants are in effect joining the fabric of the societies to which they have come.

Professor of political science at the New School for Social Research Aristide Zolberg delivered a keynote address on “ethical dilemmas of immigration policy.” He began writing on the topic almost 40 years ago when few in academia saw it as a fruitful area of research. “He drew the attention of people who study migration back to politics,” said James Hollified, who himself participated in a panel on the “Political Economy of Migration. “One of the things about professor Zolberg is that he crosses a lot of disciplinary divides,” said Hollifield. “His writings on migration were really the foundational writings in the field.”

Khory commented that many of the presenters had written books that she assigns in her classes and which students in the mini-course attached to the conference had read. “For me, it’s a dream come true to have these people here at Mount Holyoke,” she said. “There was a lot of depth to these papers.” She added that it was “a tremendous treat” for Mount Holyoke women to be able to mingle with these scholars and that she was very proud of how the students acquitted themselves. “They asked very good questions; they were informed and articulate,” she said. “They did a really terrific job and all in all I am thrilled.”

Natasha Naidoo '12, a Mount Holyoke sophomore double majoring in biology and geography, was part of the course leading up to the conference. One of the extraordinary things about the experience, she noted, is that after spending half a semester reading the leading authors in the field, she got to actually meet some of them and see them hashing out differences and commonalities of opinion with each other in a scholarly setting.

Naidoo asked conference participant James F. Hollifield, the Arnold Professor of International Political Economy at Southern Methodist University, about policy advice he gave when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was being negotiated. "I am now able to say, 'I know this author, I know exactly what the person looks like and, having heard him speak in person, I know more what his paradigm is,' " Naidoo said.

Anthony Messina, who teaches political science at Trinity College, closed out the conference by recalling a time early in his career when the topic received scant attention. “From my perspective it is especially heartening to see how many people now are working on the subject of migration, because there are a few of us in the room who know a time when that wasn’t so,” said Messina. “When I was doing a doctoral dissertation at MIT in the early '80s, frankly, not that many people were interested.” The book he wrote at the time on the politics of migration in the United Kingdom, he added, “has probably been read by more people in the last five years than in the previous 20 years.”

Other topics the conference delved into included the dynamics of the so-called “brain drain” where, Mount Holyoke economics professor Shahrukh Rafi Khan noted, people with advanced degrees in poor countries leave to live in richer countries. Karen Jacobsen of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University analyzed the economic insecurities experienced by refugees based on her research in the Darfur region of Sudan. Fiona Adamson, who teaches international relations at the University of London, talked about how diaspora communities sometimes provide support to combatants, or what she referred to as “conflict entrepreneurs,” in their countries of origin.

“I was extremely impressed with the lineup that Khory pulled together, and I am even more impressed with how that lineup delivered,” said Messina. “So I’d like to offer my congratulations.”

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McCulloch Center Conference Program

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