Histories of the late nineteenth to early twentieth century immigration and our time

Ranabir Samaddar, Current Sociology, 2017
16 December, 2017

Please see this article from our O’Brien Fellow in Residence, Ranabir Samaddar.

“Recent studies on welfare state and schemes suggest a different way of understanding modern governance in which the study of the nation is not at the centre of political understanding. Instead, of significance in such studies is the inadequately explored history of governing a mobile, unruly world of population flows. These works have given us a sense of the hidden histories of conflicts, desperate survivals, and new and old networks. Studies of hunger in the nineteenth century, of itinerant movements, transportations of coolies, spread of famines, shipping of children and adult women, trafficking in sex and labour, and pieces of welfare legislation to cope with this great infamy tell us how actually we have arrived at our own time of subject formation. This is certainly different from conventional nation-centred histories. Working within this new strand of history writing, labour historians have tried to recognise the political significance of labour migration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Their works suggest a different way of writing the history of the nation form in the last two centuries, where the extra-nationalist narrative of mobile labour constitutes a different universe. Through all these studies two issues have come closer as marks of modern time – on one hand mixed up, messy, population flows, provoking desperate governmental responses, on the other hand innovations at a furious pace in humanitarian methods, functions, institutions and principles. Modern humanitarianism had to combine the old techniques with new ones of care, protection, information gathering, interference, intervention and invention of a skewed theory of sovereignty, a one-sided theory of responsibility, and the gigantic humanitarian machines which would be likened to the transnational corporations (TNCs). In practical terms this means today managing the societies which produce the obdurate refugees and migrants to stop them from leaving the shores, to keep them within the national territorial confines, and eventually to manage societies in ‘an enlightened way’. Managing moving population groups became the deus ex machina of modern governmentality. This will not be a straightforward history, as national, gender-related, race, and several other factors contributed to the making of a hugely heterogeneous labour market. The subjectivities produced in that process have contributed to the contentious history of our time.”

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