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Lucie Lyall

Specialised Subjects

Economics, Education, International Development, International Relations, International Studies, Politics, Research Methods, Security Studies, Social Policy, Sociology, Statistics

I am a full-time researcher for an educational research institute at one of the best universities in the UK.   I have a master’s degree in International Political Economics, and a first class undergraduate degree in International Development. Before beginning my postgraduate job, I worked as an educational mentor teaching various study skills to university students. In my spare time, I regularly attend lectures and debates to keep up to date with new developments in political theory and interesting research methodologies.

Feminism, Constructivism and the conceptualisation of Economic Migration – Why an analytical framework?

In order to study events in global politics, it is essential to develop an analytical framework; this will create a structure for the study and help to identify trends and information that might not otherwise be clear.  Feminism and constructivism are often referred to as forms of critical theory and they both attempt, in their own way, to approach global politics by asking different questions and using new methods.

Introduction: Feminism, Constructivism and the Conceptualisation of Economic Migration

To understand theories of global politics, it is necessary to show how the particular theorists conceptualise real world events and situations.  In this essay, I will evaluate the approaches of feminism and constructivism to economic migration.  Economic migration refers specifically to the global movement of people due to economic conditions, rather than movement related to security or culture (although  these can be part of the process associated with economic migration).  I have specifically chosen economic migration because it is a very contentious issue, with many different perspectives being offered by both academics and the general population. Some of the most heated discussions in political discourse in the UK and across the globe focus on this issue. Receiving countries and those experiencing depopulation are affected by the situation.

The perspectives of feminism and constructivism are often used to bring further understanding to issues in global politics, but that they have less of an economic approach.  In this paper, I will attempt to show how theories of feminism and constructivism can both be valuable for looking at a broader range of issues, using the example of economic migration. In order to do this, I will evaluate each theory separately, looking at the research questions that would be posed by each, and the possible research that could be carried out. I will consider why each theory is different from other theoretical approaches, and what it is not able to cover.  I will then consider which concepts pertaining to economic migration and, more broadly, global politics would be useful to each approach, in order to understand the causes, occurrence, trends and possible impact of economic migration, and which would not be covered by each theory.  I will also look at possible methods that would be adopted in order to investigate economic migration by both feminism and constructivism, by looking at methods that are commonly used by each approach to investigate other issues in global politics, and how these differ from each other and other theoretical approaches.  I will conclude by evaluating which I think is more compelling and useful in the particular study of economic migration, and why this is the case.

What is Economic Migration?

The EU immigration portal defines an economic migrant as ‘A person who leaves his or her country of origin purely for economic reasons’.  However, this definition has a number of problems.  It assumes that economic factors are independent of other factors that might lead someone to migrate and does not give any insight into who might be migrating. Therefore the use of this definition leaves many gaps in the research in this area.

The dialogue about and analyses of economic migration are often from a purely economic perspective. Generally, regional wage differentials are used to explain and predict why people migrate, who will migrate and to where they will migrate.  Within this conceptualisation of economic migration, economic migration can be defined as the movement by an individual or a group of people from one area to another based on the perceived or actual possibility of improved economic prospects, as discussed in Hicks’ Theory of Wages (1932). Often people move from developing countries to developed countries to seek employment when employment prospects in the home countries no longer meet the needs of the population.  It is argued that by using regional wage differentials, it is possible to predict who will move, to where they will move and when they will move.  In addition, rational choice theorists claim that economic migrants are rational individuals who can work out whether they should move and when would be the most beneficial time for them to move. They can also decide which member or members of the family should move and who should stay behind.  Although these theories can give some insight into the migration process, there are many aspects that are not investigated, such as the emotional impact of separating families, the cultural diversity of those migrating, and the circumstances when people choose to remain in their own country despite better economic prospects elsewhere.

How does Feminism conceptualise Economic Migration? 

The theory of feminism in global politics includes gender as a variable to be studied in various ways (Peterson, 2005).  Feminists argue that traditionally, theories formulated and applied to the understanding of global politics have excluded women as well as other marginalised groups, and only by readdressing this can the world be properly understood.  In economics, feminism resists a uniform concept of rationality and the concept of homo economicus in neoliberal theories because it does not fully explain how people act. In the case of economic migration, a feminist perspective allows for a deeper understanding of those processes and how women’s lives, in particular, are affected, especially due to the large number of female migrants. ‘In 2003, of 175 million people identified as international migrants, 85 million were women’ (Pettman, 2010: 255).

The ontological, epistemological and methodological aspects of feminism can be difficult to pin down as it is a broad and varied approach, but there are some key elements that can be discussed.  Feminism was developed in response to the failure of traditional theories to include a gendered element, and a failure of these theories to represent the experiences of everyone within the global political system.  Looking at the world through different lenses gives different explanations of it. Ontologically, feminist theory believes that the world and roles within it are socially constructed. There is not necessarily a world which is independent of those in it which can be observed empirically to give answers. It is often a counter to the positivist search for social facts that are independent of values, such as is posited by Durkheim.

Feminists maintain that the way knowledge is acquired and what is valued influences society and politics. They argue that the way that knowledge has been acquired in the past has been androcentric and has excluded women, leading women to be misrepresented and their experiences to be ignored.  One distinctive feature of feminism is the value they place on the creation of new knowledge. To rectify the past bias in knowledge creation, feminists have focused on ‘increased knowledge about women’s and men’s lives and how gender both structures and differentially valorises masculinised and feminised identities, desires, expectations, knowledges, skills, labour, wages, activities and experiences’ (Peterson, 1997: 500). They emphasise the importance of concrete lived experience as a base from which to build knowledge (Hesse-Biber, 2012).  The focus is on unearthing subjugated knowledge as basis of theory.

Due to the extensive interests of feminism, and the various feminisms, there are numerous ways it conceptualises economic migration that are different from traditional theories.  Feminists include the emotional aspect of economic migration: the concepts of separation, identity issues, cultural differences, and ‘situated knowledges’ (Harroway, 1988). Further, the context, values, differences in a global context and social location are all approaches taken by feminism.  Feminism also seeks to analyse how gender roles are changed – either strengthened or broken down – by economic migration, both in those left behind and those who migrate. One of the most important questions being asked is how gender roles are affected when women have to take on traditional men’s roles when their partners migrate. There would be a focus on the gendered experience of economic migration, the process of it, the experience and also the reasons for it. ‘As a fundamental organizing principle of society, gender is central in any discussion of the causes of international migration – the decision-making involved and the mechanisms associated with enacting migrating decisions – as well as the consequences of migration’ (Pettman, 2010: 255).

Feminist research would exclude many concepts that have been used in the study of economic migration to date, such as economic measures, as they are perceived to have gender bias. ‘Relating the concept of gender knowledge to the field of migration we assume that migratory practice and the knowledge about causes and patterns of migration are based on explicit and/or implicit assumptions about gender (Schwenken and Eberhardt, 2008: 4).

Defining ontological, epistemological and methodological practices of feminism, facilitates speculation about possible research questions that would be posed when conceptualising economic migration. Feminism asks questions from a different standpoint – one that places women and other marginalised groups at the centre of social enquiry.  It is important to question who is moving and how they are conceptualised. ‘It makes a difference which bodies we imagine when we call up people moving. For example, if we see ‘migrant women’, do we see professional women or domestic workers?’ (Pettman, 2010). Feminist research could challenge researchers to include gender as a unit of analysis when looking at economic migration.

Methodology is key to feminist research. It has been stressed that there should be no distinction between feminist research and praxis, meaning feminist research itself must be carried out in a feminist way (Stanley and Wise, 1983). Feminists use mixed methods in their research, which can include many of the traditional research methods.  Their research does not exclude the scientific method, but when it is applied, feminists ensure that the analysis includes a gendered element.  There is an emphasis on the effect of the relationship between the researcher and the researched, and that the process of knowledge building through research should be empowering to both (Harding, 1991).

Methods that could be employed by feminists when conducting research into economic migration include ethnography to gain a better understanding of the communities and people who are migrating, or the feminist evaluation method to show hidden biases in current research findings.  Another key method in feminism, which makes it distinctive, is the practice of holistic reflectivity that involves constantly assessing the research and how it is being conducted (Hesse-Biber, 2012).  Feminist empiricists could focus on including women in research samples to correct androcentric bias.  The strength of this approach, according to some, is that positivism can add validity and be helpful when wanting to take data and make a theory that encompasses more than the specific study. Sprague (2005) discusses the benefits of integrating qualitative and quantitative research.  On the qualitative side, difference research could be conducted to look at plurality of experiences within the economic migration process.

Although feminism can add new elements to the conceptualisation of economic migration, it can be argued that it does not necessarily offer an explanation for why economic migration occurs, whether it is beneficial, or if trends can be changed.  Feminism does not try to develop general theories that explain everything; it would focus on specific issues relevant to it and the gendered element.  Some argue that this is a limitation of feminism and that it does little to incorporate material factors. 

How could Constructivism conceptualise Economic Migration?

Constructivism has gained prominence in international relations and the success of its research studies have been widely heralded.  For the purposes of this paper, social constructivism will be applied to the research of economic migration.  Social constructivism is primarily seen as an International Relations theory, but has also become prominent in many academic disciplines.  Constructivism addresses some of the more traditional concerns of theorists in international relations, by relating identity, norms and interests to concepts such as war, peace and security. However, it is ontologically different from other traditional theorists, and is concerned with what is left out of traditional theoretical discourse. ‘Their critique of neorealists and neoliberals concerns not what these scholars do and say but what they ignore: the content and sources of state interests and the social fabric of world politics’ (Checkel, 1998).  With this as a starting point, it is possible to understand how constructivism can conceptualise and study economic migration.

Constructivism and feminism hold many similarities when their conceptualisation of global politics is considered, as they have a similar background and hold some similar ontological and epistemological beliefs.  Ontologically, constructivists dispel the idea that the world is independent of those within it, and argue that the structure and agents within it construct it. Meaning has to be accepted before it can have any credence, highlighting the importance of ideas and looking at the mutual constitution of actors and structures. ‘All constructivist analyses use an ideational ontology and holism in some way’ (Finnemore and Kikkink, 2001: 393). Unlike theories referred to as problem-solving theories, constructivism is not a substantive theory of politics but is a social theory that often needs to be coupled other theories to develop research projects.  Constructivists, as are feminists, are skeptical about the idea of an all-encompassing truth, focusing more on specifically located concepts.

Epistemologically, the foci of constructivism are different from that of feminism.  ‘Constructivists focus on the role of ideas, norms, knowledge, culture, and argument in politics, stressing in particular the role of collectively held or “intersubjective” ideas and understandings on social life’ (Finnemore and Kikkink, 2001: 392). The ideas literature is interested in the processes by which ideas initially held by a small number of individuals, such as those to do with the division of migration into groups, become widely held and institutionalized (Wendt, 1999).  Here, too, the constructivist conceptualization of norms is important as ‘norms are collective understandings that make behavioural claims on actors’ (Checkel, 1998), indicating that the norms that are held influence behaviour, not just structures.  This can bring clarity to the action of economic migration, as it could be used to research the roots of the behaviour.

Constructivism also emphasizes the idea that historical periods are important in a number of ways, limiting the options that are available to agents and also therefore how events can be analysed.  The focus is on historically produced and culturally bound knowledge, located in its specific context (Klotz and Lynch, 2007).  Because of this, a general theory of economic migration would not be proposed, but it would be viewed in relation to the specific context that was being studied. Adler, when attempting to clarify the constructivist approach to IR, manages to effectively conceptualise how constructivists could approach economic migration:

Take a group of people, a nation or various nations and metaphorically toss them in the air. Where they go, how, when and why, is not entirely determined by physical forces and constraints, but neither does it depend solely on individual preferences and rational choices. It is also a matter of their shared knowledge, the collective meaning they attach to their situation, their authority and legitimacy, the rules, institutions and material resources they use to find their way, and their practices, or even, sometimes, their joint creativity (Adler, 1997: 321-322).

Bearing this in mind, it is possible also to look at the kinds of questions constructivists would pose when conceptualising economic migration.  A paper on Fortress Europe (Sommer, 2013) gives a good example of how constructivist research has been applied to the idea of economic migration, looking at how the conflicting ideas of security, national identity and labour are discussed and which ones take precedence over others. Further, it explains why:

…analysing social interaction and interests influencing the discourse and the process of constructing current migration policies in the EU … an analysis of the process from a logic of consequences point of view with recognising dominant agents and the changing political environment influencing the discourse and with that creating and continuously re-creating migration policy (Sommer, 2013: 46).

Taking this as an example, it is possible to see that constructivist research of economic migration could give insight into the conceptualisation of economic migration itself and how it has become seen as such.  Finnemore and Kikkink’s (1998) ‘life cycle’ of normative structures could offer a helpful approach in understanding the evolution of the concept of economic migration. This is important as the way it is currently defined is very limiting and offers little insight into whose interests are served by it.  It can also look at how migration policy is constructed and the discourse around economic migration and how arguments gain power, as in Geddes (2003) when assessing how immigration is defined as ‘wanted’ and ‘unwanted’ at different points.  Concepts such as the securitisation of economic migration and how this influences migration policy and discourse would also be considered by constructivists, such as is done by Katzenstein. Questions asked could include: What happens to ethnic and national identity during the migration process? Why is there a difference between how many people migrate from different countries and where they go, even if the economic conditions are similar? How are these choices made?  Like Gurowitz’s (1999) study of refugee norms, the role of international identities on economic migration could be studied.

There is less stress on the importance of methodology in constructivism than in feminism.  Although constructivists ask different kinds of questions they employ similar methods to traditional researchers. This can be seen as one of the reasons that constructivists have been so successful in the field of global politics – their research is legitimised by the use of traditional methods. They have used a variety of tools to understand how and why change happens, including discourse analysis, process tracing, genealogy, structured focused comparisons, interviews, participant observation, and content analysis.  Checkel (1998) discusses Katzenstein’s method of studying state security:

Document the presence of the social structures; note a correlation between these and new state interests; examine changing discourse as further evidence of these normative effects; and, finally, strengthen the case by considering alternative explanations, usually drawn from neorealist and neoliberal theories (Checkel,1998).

Because of this, it is hard to say which methods would be applied exclusively to the study of economic migration, although there would be a focus on ensuring that the research was grounded in historical and political circumstances, rather than generalised laws. It is likely that empirical research would be used, as this has been used widely in the past by constructivists, but would be interpreted carefully to give new meaning.

A limitation of constructivism is that it is a social theory, and not a political one.  It can offer a framework for thinking about the nature of social life and social interaction, but does not attempt to make claims about their specific content.  It doesn’t make claims about the agents or predict how they will act. Therefore in relation to economic migration, it must be linked with another theory to give an understanding of who are the agents and what are the structures in the research.  As discussed, the strength of constructivism is in its theoretical formulations, not necessarily its research. As pointed to by Checkley (1998) constructivism must be willing to broaden its analysis to cross national boundaries if it wishes to formulate theories, and more specifically, offer insight into economic migration as a global phenomenon.

Conclusion: A blend of both?

Both feminism and constructivism are varied and broad, and use a number of different methods in order to carry out research. This allows them both to apply their approaches to a plenitude of phenomena, making them relevant in the study of economic migration. Although both theoretical approaches bring an additional element to the study of economic migration, it can be seen that there are limitations to both approaches.  I believe that it is important to have a flexible approach to research, and be able to adapt to the specific study.  Although feminism allows an extra element to be brought to the study of economic migration, the limitations of a set focus can make it difficult for feminist research to be incorporated into wider theorising.  This evaluation has shown that the strength of constructivism is its ability to be linked with other theoretical approaches to guide research and stress the ideational, cultural and also contextual aspects of economic migration. That said, the emphasis by feminists on reflectivity in research is extremely important when looking at biases and identity formation.  In this way, feminism and constructivism can be linked, and actually are already often used together in research (Peterson, 1999). They could be used together to study economic migration. The legitimacy and broad methodologies used by constructivism would allow for feminist researchers to reach a wider audience, and influence traditional researchers to consider the gendered element when conceptualising economic migration, and in migration studies as a whole.


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