Migration and Identity in a Post-national World

Review of Migration and Identity in a Post-national World, a book challenging the self-evidence of border controls and fenced communities. Katherine Tonkiss sees the development of a post-national world and proposes the replacement of the national identities with a new identity shared by all human based on ‘constitutional patriotism’.

by Vanessa Barker via bordercriminologies

In  Migration and Identity in a Post-national World, Katherine Tonkiss asks how is it possible to create new forms of belonging that are not based on shared identity? This is a central dilemma for all democratic societies faced with mass migration and increased ethnic diversity. Historically, democratic societies have been tied to particular and potent national narratives and it is this sense of shared belonging that has underpinned democratic practices and legitimacy. How, then, in a post-national world with increased mobility, can we continue to uphold democratic rule that is not based on national identity? Tonkiss takes on this challenge by engaging in normative political theory, a style of reasoning about the way things ought to be, and coupling these principles with qualitative fieldwork on migration. She looks at how the influx of Eastern European migrants, particularly in the agricultural sector, impacts national identity in the countryside and small towns in the United Kingdom.

This is an innovative book that combines political theory with empirical research in order to improve the normative theory itself. The book is all the more interesting because when it looks as though Tonkiss has solved the theoretical dilemma, she interrupts her own solution with empirical reality. First, she proposes a new form of post-national identity based on constitutional patriotism—that is, the idea that we are tied to key principles such as the equal worth of all human beings rather than collective or national identities. This move—we are all equal—is important because Tonkiss wants to ensure that constitutional patriotism allows for free movement. How can we limit or restrict mobility if we are committed to the principle of equality? Efforts to restrict or limit mobility then appear as arbitrary and unfair. But rather than wrapping up her argument there, she brings in her fieldwork to add a new layer of understanding to the normative claims. What she finds in the field complicates her claim and requires her to rework the normative dimension. Specifically, Tonkiss finds that although post-national identity does support free movement, increased migration does not necessarily reinforce post-national identity. Instead, it can lead to a backlash. Based on her observations and interviews with local community members, political party members, and representatives from migrant charity organisations in two small towns in the English countryside, she found that the villagers and townspeople were more likely to reassert nationalistic sentiments and nationalistic forms of belonging than espouse post-nationalistic identities or loyalties. Tonkiss concludes that the only way forward is to directly confront these kinds of thick nationalistic citizenship frames with open dialogue and discussions about difference to uphold core liberal values in a globalising world.

The book has limitations of course and some of these come from the source of its innovation: the attempt to combine normative theory with field research. The field research is used primarily to rework normative theory rather than to explain or understand the phenomenon itself. This is a different approach to research and may leave some readers puzzled by the choice of cases and implications of the findings. For example, it may not be very surprising to find that small town nationalistic party members hold on to nationalistic sentiments and national identities and resist increased migration to the countryside. It would have been interesting to compare these smaller town dynamics to a larger, much more urban setting. Moreover, it would have also been interesting to see how the Eastern European migrants themselves identified in this post-national frame but they were not part of the sample. For example, did they hold on to their Polish or Romanian identities or did they readily give these up as they crossed the border? How did they justify their movements? How thick is the European citizenship frame as a prime factor? How do regional identities disrupt both national and post-national identities?

But that said, Migration and Identity is a welcome addition to the literature on mobility control. It provides a nice overview of contemporary political theory on democracy and migration, opening up fruitful lines of investigation centered on the state, democratic principles, and local and national politics.