Issues – University of Copenhagen

Home > Issues


Background: Migration Studies

 Migration is a historical as well as a trans-historical concept; trans-historical in the sense that people and cultural forms have always migrated; historical in the sense that the character of migration has changed in the 20th and 21st centuries. No longer a condition limited to individuals or specific groups, it has become a mass phenomenon, the age of migration.

Contrary to the social sciences, the humanities – and especially studies in the fine arts – are rather overlooked in the expanding field of migration studies. The reason may be that research in literature, music, cinema etc. has been undertaken primarily within the domain of the respective disciplines. Considering the mutual isolation and geographic scattering of researchers, the NMC offers a forum that cuts across disciplinary borders, where scholars can meet to explore the methodological connections and differences, their analytical consequences and the possibilities of exchange.

The Scope of the Network and Its Core Issues

The participants enrolled in the network cover a considerable range of approaches to the study of migration and culture, ranging from the analysis of form, content and reception with a focus on questions relating to aesthetics and mediation to political and ethical discussions of the role and recognition of immigrant cultures in society.

The work of the network thus has a distinct relevance to society: It deepens our understanding of the human experience of migration as well as of the socio-cultural challenges and possibilities of migration. It sheds light on how cultural, linguistic and artistic expressions change due to the impact of migration and the processes of cultural translation that are involved in cultural encounters; it puts these changes in a historical perspective and adds to the scarce knowledge about transnational cultural heritage.

The aesthetic and cultural forms that the network participants work with include, but are not limited to, literature, music, film, visual arts, theatre, television and web-based, interactive media.

The network operates with the term migration as understood in a broad sense and used as an umbrella term that includes a series of related terms such as exile, diaspora, refugee, forced migration, migrant workers and migration related to colonisation and decolonisation.

The network programme focuses in particular on the following three aspects in relation to culture and migration:

1. Migration and Aesthetics:

The juxtaposition of the term migration and the term aesthetics emphasises that the participants’ primary object of study is the arts and cultures rooted in migration. Research relating to this aspect aims to develop new frameworks for understanding the epistemological and aesthetic as well as the semiotic and political dimensions of art and culture created by individuals with a migrant background, or by individuals exploring the topic of migration without having a migrant background themselves. The concept of aesthetics includes a broad range of cultural material and media, in order to avoid a limitation of the field to what the Western institutional system has traditionally recognised as “art”. On the one hand, the concept of aesthetics opens the field to cultural phenomena that call for an examination of the social and political uses of culture, on the other hand, it counters the marginalisation of the sensory and affective dimensions of culture common in anthropological and sociological research.

2. Migration, Identity and Recognition:

The significance of migration for the formation of identities is a vital issue, aspects of which are double identity, identity conflicts and transcultural and transnational constructions of identity. Recent social philosophy and political philosophy have connected these elements to “recognition”, a concept that alludes to the successful recognition of cultural and individual differences, but also to the normative pressure involved in any relation of recognition.
Concurrently, attention has shifted from the recognition of groups to the importance of
intersubjective and socio-political recognition for the formation of identities. Thus, the concept of recognition adds a philosophical, ethical and political perspective to migration studies. With the emphasis on recognition the network stresses that identity is not something the subject is born with and “has”, but something that is developed through intersubjective relations and which invariably involves questions of mutual recognition.

While aspect no. 1 designates the network’s object of study, aspect no. 2 points to the
constructivist understanding of identity, on which its work is based.

3. Migration, Institutions and Publics:

Distinctive political dimensions are common in art and culture rooted in migration. One can think of the public discourses on nationalism and multiculturalism, but also on the way artistic representations of migration are received by a European public. Do cultural expressions rooted in transnational relations have a potential to contribute to the creation of a cosmopolitan imagination and diasporic public spheres that are not bounded by localities like cities, nations or regions, but are often supported by digital media and networks as means of communication as well as sources of cultural and social impact? Can they shed light on how cultural material is “smuggled into” the urban environment and institutions of receiver countries, where those who are not immigrants can also read “the sign systems of displacement” (Irit Rogoff)? This focus on publics and institutions underscores that the network does not only invite the study of cultural artefacts, but also their reception by audiences, be it on a phenomenological and semiotic level – “the encounter with the work of art” – or on the level of institutional critique, discourse analysis or reception studies. This aspect also includes cultural policy studies and questions regarding gate-keeping and access, social inclusion and “outreach” programmes as well as the role of the media in shaping public opinion.