Socioeconomic relations are increasingly organised, and changed, through the mobility of people, things, data, and energy. Mobility brings about change at the operational level – the quotidian processes through which things actually take place and which often diverge from explicitly-stated plans and designs. By following the latest developments in mobility, the Mobility Lab (MoLab) explores and tests new lines of inquiry into socioeconomic change.
The Mobility Lab Inventory
The Mobility Lab (MoLab) Inventory consists of entries that document ongoing changes in mobility, and how these changes reflect larger dynamics in the global political economy. The MoLab Inventory grew out of the blog Coronavirus and Mobility Forum (2020-21), which demonstrated that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, mobility was not only a subject of governance, but also a tool to regulate many other kinds of activities. Building on observations accumulated at the Coronavirus and Mobility Forum, the MoLab Inventory develops broader themes including Shock (Im)mobilities, Mobile Work, the Securitisation of Mobility, and Mobility Infrastructure.
Mobile work refers to organised and paid labour for which bodily movement beyond a fixed worksite is essential. It includes forms of work as diverse as transportation, postal services, delivery, sales, and seafaring. As mobile work requires the organisation and management of mobility in order to generate commercial value, and is controllable, it differs from mobile labour or migrants’ work. Mobile work in the 21st century is intensively mediated, particularly by large digital platforms. Based on case studies of ride-hailing drivers, short-term or piecemeal domestic helpers, and salespersons in China, this project examines the operational processes through which mobility is organised, and the larger political economy behind it.
The Mobility Lab (MoLab) Inventory contains a large number of entries
Xiang, Biao. 2021. “Reproduction-driven labor migration from China.” The Georgetown Journal of Asian Affairs. Volume 7: 34-43. >
Xiang, Biao. “The global bazaar economy”. In Economic Sociology: Perspectives and Conversations. Vol. 23, No. 2. March 2022: 11-14. >
Xiang, Biao and Pal Nyiri. 2022. “Migration and values”. >
Migration, Money, and Values
22 November 2022; MPI Halle
Voluntary migration is primarily regarded as a pursuit of economic advancement - onward migration for upward mobility. However, delving into people’s motivations and aspirations for migration animate a more complex entanglement of economic value and ethical values, inseparable, yet distinct. Narrowing our focus on migration and mobility to capital accumulation obscures the quest for other values, such as freedom, authenticity, and happiness (Xiang and Nyíri 2022). Anthropologists have long recognized the centrality of values such as political freedom to migration throughout history. Curiously, the current migration literature tends to overemphasize the motivation for value while downplaying the influence of values, privileging monetary gains above all else.
This session seeks to re-think how migration and mobility may be conceptualized through relations between value and values. Can migration be productively conceived as a process of generating, transferring, and transforming (the form of) economic value? Here, we are interested not only in the exchange of value but also in its conversion into values, such as autonomy and fairness. How can we take seriously the ‘abstractness’ of values in migration alongside the ‘concreteness’ of value, and also consider when values might be subordinate to value in migration projects? What roles do class, gender, or religion play?
Moreover, if the pursuit of values is an ethical endeavour, in balance or in tension with monetary impulses, then these connections require elucidation. What political economic conditions help shape these connections? And how do we remain sensitive to the view that, however linked value is in the economic sense to values in the ethical sense (Graeber 2001), any model of value cannot be overly unified (Lambek 2008)? Imperative to our understanding of social change is the exploration of how collectively sanctioned norms figure in individually negotiated values. What processes of value accumulation and transformation are implicated in changing normative values, and with what consequences? For example, how does capital conversion to desired values through a sacrifice of capital accumulation simultaneously exalt money as the ultimate value while also attempting to transcend it? That is, a narrative of ‘giving up’ future income is often framed as both an irreplaceable loss and an incommensurable gain. Examining these mechanisms may shed light on underlying dynamics in larger processes such as global inequality, social reproduction, and ideological shift.
We begin with a panel of four ethnographic cases to highlight the interplay of migration, money, and values, followed by a roundtable featuring remarks from three discussants and an open discussion. Tracking our topic from the ethnographic to the thematic we seek to identify generative threads across cases, looking beneath surface similarities for concrete connections.
Platform Mobilities: Automation, Labour Migration, Reproduction.
7-8 July 2022; Humboldt University Halle
Co-organised with Institute for European Ethnology & Berlin Institute for Migration Research, Humboldt University; Transforming Solidarities (Berlin University Alliance, Germany); and The Geopolitics of Automation (Western Sydney University, Australia)
Platform Mobilities explores the transformation of labour and reproduction, infrastructures and landscapes, and mobility and migration under conditions of automation.
Migration Studies, Global Dis(orders), and Shared Precarities: Where Do We Go from Here?
14 June 2022; MPI Halle
Has migration studies lost its subject? Perhaps that seems like a senseless question at a time when a European-based war is producing yet another rapid increase of desperate people seeking refuge across borders? This is indeed a world in which millions of people are blocked from obtaining safety, security and a future, either caught in a limbo of detention centres and refugee camps or suspended upon arrival in a nightmare of endless precarious body- and soul-destroying work and debt. However, millions of others who never left home, including those in “destination” countries, also find their lives one of endless precarity with no exit. The initial question about migration studies turns out to be relevant. If this is a world in which migrant and non-migrants find themselves trapped within precarious life conditions that lead nowhere, is it migration we should be studying?
In this dialogic seminar, three migration scholars, Adrian Favell (University of Leeds), Nina Glick Schiller (Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology) and Xiang Biao (Max Planck Institute of Social Anthropology) examined the question of migration studies in a world of global disorder, war, and climate conditions that drive people from their homes or make social and physical displacement and dispossession the new normal. Presentations were followed by conversations with each other and the audience.
The Re-enchantment of Culture and Flexible Citizenship in a Hardening World. Ideology and Life Strategies in Middle-Class Migration to Europe and Beyond
26 November 2021; Centre for Social Sciences, Budapest
Co-organised with Centre for Social Sciences, Budapest
The quest for a better life that drives global migration flows, from boat people to students, is overwhelmingly understood as economic accumulation. Yet as the global balance of economic power shifts and as the nature of work and migration governance changes, migration that is driven by consumption rather than accumulation is becoming more visible.
Lifestyle migration may intersect in unexpected ways with ideological currents relating to environmental, cultural, and racial purity. While middle-class Western Europeans moving to the East in the decade after the end of the Cold War may have seen themselves as harbingers of cosmopolitanism and teachers of cool modernity, these days they may be regarding themselves – like religious settler colonists in North and Central America and Siberia from the 17th to 19th centuries – as refugees seeking an authentic, white, Christian haven. Neither group of migrants has much sympathy for the left-wing politics of “inclusion” that calls into question Europe's historical centrality and seeks to relativise its sociopolitical model.
Cumulative, Communicative and Generative: Interventions in Migration-mobility Studies
19 January 2022; online
Migration studies is one of the few fields in the social sciences that has grown fast over a sustained period of time in different parts of the world. In response to the so-called long-summer migration crisis, migration studies proliferated particularly rapidly in Europe after 2015. By 2020, the immediate urgency associated with the crisis had subsided, while more subtle, but no less consequential patterns of mobility emerged. These include mobile livelihoods tied to digital platforms, and mobility restrictions during the COVID pandemic. This is the time for reflection and consolidation. How can the large number of case studies in the past decades translate into lasting analytical insights? How can new lines of inquiry be opened in order to capture new realities? Given acute public attention to migration and mobility, how can research in this field contribute to a wide range of social debates?
Born in this historical juncture, the Mobility Lab (MoLab) at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, aims to make migration-mobility studies more cumulative, communicative, and integrative. Cumulative research progresses in a deepening and reflexive manner, beyond compiling case studies and repeating certain general propositions. Communicative research speaks to broad public concerns and takes the back-and-forth communication between researchers and the public as an integral part of research. Integrative research bridges migration and mobility, and also combines structural analysis with close-up appreciation of individual experiences. Integrative is not the same as encompassing, and integrative research aims to sharpen questions and nuance analysis. To these ends, MoLab examines how mobility itself is socially organised, and how larger social economic systems are being reorganised through mobility.
This workshop brainstorms what interventions are needed in migration-mobility studies, and how MoLab should move forward. We start the conversations by raising three questions.
First, how can migration studies and mobility studies learn from each other, and become more integrated? The “mobility turn” in the social sciences has significantly broadened migration studies, in both empirical scope and conceptual horizon. However, mobility studies appear to lack the type of foundational concerns that shape migration studies. Migration studies critically examine citizenship, nation-state, identity, labour relations, and other defining issues in modern society. What are the fundamental concerns of mobility studies? Is there a danger that mobility studies may become depoliticised and fragmented due to its emphasis on complexity?
Second, how can we detect and analyse emerging socioeconomic trends by observing individual experiences of mobility? How can the ethnographic appreciation of human experiences and feelings enhance research’s communicative capacity without losing sight of structural forces?
Third, what are feasible strategies for making migration-mobility studies more cumulative, communicative, and integrative? What are good examples that we can learn from? What kind of practical organisations and intellectual tools we should explore?
Regular MoLab Conversations