Political Conflicts in Postmigration Societies: A Sociological Perspective
This is part of our special feature, The Politics of Postmigration.
It is only too tempting to fall into the trap of assuming that, because essentialism has been deconstructed theoretically, therefore it has been displaced politically (Hall 1996, 249).
The concept of postmigration is often employed as “a critical intervention into existing discourses pivoting around ‘migration’ and ‘diversity’” (Schramm et al. 2019, 9). With its critical agenda, the concept works toward new perspectives in migration studies, political science, and cultural studies. As education scholar Erol Yildiz once mentioned, postmigration is mainly about “the re-narration and re-interpretation of the phenomenon of ‘migration’ and its consequences” (2013, 177). Accordingly, as a political-normative concept, it is often explored as a counter-discourse, opening the way for new perspectives and epistemologies against what is perceived as an hegemonic mainstreaming of anti-immigration agendas in major parts of Europe. In particular, the approach seeks to de-essentialize and de-naturalize supposedly pregiven identities and cultural paradigms. Therefore, it can also be considered part of the overall “reflexive turn” in migration studies, challenging traditional approaches and binary distinctions between us and them and between migration and non-migration, which typically undergirds traditional migration studies (Dahinden 2016; Nieswand and Drotbohm 2014; Schramm 2023a). Although the focus on the de-essentialization and re-narration of traditional approaches and perspectives is important and timely, the concept itself has only been seldom contextualized within broader sociological theories and analysis. In particular, the political conflicts occurring in contemporary European societies have mainly, if not exclusively, been analyzed as struggles about discourses and narratives. The social background of these struggles has mostly been overlooked. In this essay, I include such a social perspective by arguing that postmigration theory should be made more sensitive about the structural changes happening in European societies. An understanding of these changes can help explain the struggles currently taking place there, in particular the political conflicts emerging between those in society who support rather open migration policies and those who argue against such policies. Furthermore, the task of building political alliances and coalitions, which often is at the heart of postmigration theory, appears arduous when read against the background of these societal changes and transformations. In this article, I summarize the most recent debates on postmigration societies and political conflicts within these societies before focusing on societal transformations taking place in Europe, as they have been described by, among others, sociologist Andreas Reckwitz (2020, 2021). Against this background, I also address possibilities and hindrances for the future of postmigration politics.
Conflicts in postmigration societies
One of the backbones of postmigration theory is the description of a “postmigration society” (Foroutan 2019; Gaonkar et al. 2021, 20-21; Schramm et al. 2019, 15–19). This term emphasizes the increasing cultural diversity of European societies and enables discussions about the challenges that citizens with multiple cultural backgrounds are confronted with in contemporary societies. Additionally, the concept seeks to overcome the shortcomings of some migration research that has focused too narrowly on a specific group within a given population. While many scholars merely place their attention on migrants and their descendants, scholars who use the concept of postmigration society tend to focus on more general conflicts and negotiations taking place in society. The term does not imply, however, that migration is over. The intention is to analyze the consequences and effects of migration after migration has happened. In an article from 2014, sociologists Juliane Karakayalı and Vassilis S. Tsianos proposed a broad definition:
With the cipher “postmigration society” we refer to the political, cultural and social transformations of societies with a history of post-colonial and guest worker immigration. The adjective postmigration does not seek to historicize the fact of migration, but rather describes a society structured by the experience of migration – which is also relevant for all current forms of immigration (such as ﬂight, temporary migration), both politically, legally and socially (Karakayalı and Tsianos 2014, 34).
In most studies on the topic, postmigration societies are conceived of as polarized societies where ambivalence and antagonism between different agendas and actors are at the center of the political discourse. In postmigration theory, these ambivalences are mainly explained as conflicts stemming from people’s different attitudes toward migration and plurality. Conversely, the opposition between those who have experienced migration and those who have not—which often undergirds political debates on migration and integration—has largely lost significance. If there is a demarcation line in postmigration societies, migration researcher Naika Foroutan famously argued, then this line is not along differences in religion, class, ethnicity, or origin; rather, it separates “those who accept and appreciate plurality and those who do not” (2017). As Esra Küçük also stressed, conflicts in postmigration societies entail “taking a stance on values like freedom, equality, solidarity and brotherhood” (Küçük 2016; Foroutan 2019, 209-212). Accordingly, the political conflicts in postmigration societies are mainly described as struggles on values and attitudes.
The tension between those who support plurality and those who do not is often, if not exclusively, explained through the growing diversities of contemporary societies. Theoretically, this tension is typically seen because European societies have become more diverse and multiple, also in relation to colonialism and its aftermaths. As curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung and cultural anthropologist Regina Römhild argued (2013, 213), the colonial order between here and there—between the periphery and the center—still influences our idea about migration and integration. The promise and condition of integration, Ndikung and Römhild argued, “makes use of the assimilated Other to create and stabilize the notion of a ‘natural,’ racially unmarked, white self” (2013, 213). Importantly, however, the spatial order of colonial times has gradually collapsed because of past and present migrations and mobilities. The formerly “distant Other” is now proliferating inside Europe, fostering a state of “post-Otherness,” where “multitudes of minorities” increasingly thrive in European cities (2013, 214). Most of the anti-immigration agendas in European countries are, according to Ndikung and Römhild, reactions against this growing diversity in European societies; representants of traditional anti-immigration agendas have to overemphasize the construction of an “ethnicized, racialized Other” to keep up the fiction of a national, white Europe (2013, 214).
This interpretation resonates with many other theories, such as postcolonial theory. Not least Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy pointed to similar struggles typically unfolding between an expanding conviviality in society, on the one side, and the melancholic insistence of lost empires, on the other (Gilroy 2004). Hence, anti-immigration discourses are also mainly described as reactions against ongoing transformations in society, which are mainly—if not inherently—explained through the impact of earlier and contemporary migration flows. As art historian Iain Chambers once argued, Europe has seen the “return of the repressed,” which has irrevocably interrupted the sense of ourselves we previously held, as well as earlier presumptions of “centre and of ‘home’” (1996, xii). In the face of the new diversity of European societies, people either accept or support this emerging plurality.
The aforementioned political-normative ambition to explore counter-narratives, which opens the way for new perspectives and epistemologies to arise, must be understood in the context of this interpretation of historical changes. Past and contemporary migrations and mobilities have brought about new experiences of multiple belongings, new transnational biographies, and experiences of hybridity and métissage. As those experiences are often forgotten and overlooked in traditional and mainstream narratives, diversity and plurality must be highlighted. The widespread focus on counter-narratives of multiplicity and hybridity is, accordingly, an important attempt to challenge anti-immigration agendas. However, although the struggle for diversity is timely and crucial, these interventions typically do not account for the social context in which those struggles and conflicts occur. What happens if we understand the conflict between those who support plurality and those who favor homogeneity not simply as a consequence of the growing diversity of contemporary societies but also as the result of structural societal transformations that foster tensions between different cultural milieus and socio-cultural classes? What significance does such a perspective have for a future politics of postmigration?
Structural transformations and the “society of singularities”
One possible way to include such a perspective, is the sociological approach elaborated by Andreas Reckwitz. Reckwitz envisages the main political conflicts of contemporary society not only as the result of past and ongoing migratory movements but also as consequences of structural changes within a given society. According to Reckwitz, most European societies after World War II developed a “levelled middle-class” structure based on specific economic and cultural ideas about standardization and homogeneity. The predominant role of the “levelled middle class” started, however, to decrease in the 1970s. Since then, European societies have increasingly been characterized by the erosion of this levelled middle class, which has been split into the old middle class and the new middle class. Those changes have led to the emergence of a three-class society. Besides including a small number of super-rich individuals, modern societies today consist of an “ascendant and highly qualified new middle class, a stagnating old or traditional middle class, and a declining new underclass or precarious class” (Reckwitz 2021, 38). According to Reckwitz, those changes are fostered by structural transformations within European societies. Those structural transformations have encompassed changes in economic structures toward post-industrialization since the late 1970s, the expansion of education, and a general shift in values since the 1970s. The ascending and highly qualified new middle class is the result of those transformations. Most importantly, for Reckwitz, “class” is not simply about economic levels of income, as has been traditionally presumed. Instead, “classes” are “cultural, economic, and political configurations at the same time” (2021, 35). For him, a class is “a group of individuals [who] share a common lifestyle, which includes a corresponding set of life maxims, everyday expectations, and practices” (2021, 35–36). Thus, the cultural dimensions of class include “forms of consumption and of spending leisure time, gender roles and family life, geographical restrictions (urban or national), education and upbringing, media engagement, and finally also political orientations” (2021, 36).
In his research, Reckwitz added a new focus on the internal power relations among the different social milieus and classes. Although the “pluralization of lifestyles” has been widely accepted since the 1980s, sociological research has tended, according to Reckwitz, “to proceed from the presumption that, in society, these different lifestyles exist alongside one another on an equal footing” (Reckwitz 2021, 35). Still according to him, different classes not only embrace different norms and values, but they also differ in relation to the distribution of resources and to “social mechanisms of power and domination” (2021, 35). Accordingly, from his perspective, “all cultural ways of life are not treated equally; rather, they differ radically from one another in terms of their life opportunities, their attitudes toward life, and their social prestige” (2021, 35). In this context, Reckwitz noted a “paternoster-elevator effect” (2021, 38), according to which the growing influence of the new middle class comes at the expense of the traditional middle class. Because different classes always entail different cultural paradigms, those “simultaneous processes of social ascent and descent” not only constitute social developments but also go hand in hand with “processes of cultural valuation and devaluation” (2021, 38).
According to Reckwitz, the main conflict in contemporary societies occurs between the cultural paradigm defined by the ascending new middle class and that defined by the descending old middle class. While the latter mainly defends traditional core values of stability, homogeneity, and “geographical and social rootedness” (Reckwitz 2021, 52), the new and ascending liberal middle class basically embraces values of individuality, plurality, and non-conformity (Reckwitz 2021). Moreover, although the new middle class is very much consumer-oriented, the cultural paradigm of the new middle class is highly focused on an urban cosmopolitan lifestyle and strongly in favor of the pluralization of subject positions. This new middle class denounces every form of group thinking and rejects notions of “cultural ethnocentrisms” (Reckwitz 2020, 300); moreover, it bears at its center, according to Reckwitz (2021), a cultural paradigm of singularity. As European societies are increasingly dominated by this class, they are labeled society of singularities (2020). Hence, right-wing populists not only disagree about the liberal values and attitudes of the ascending new middle class but also frame the representants of that class as “essential opponents,” also perceiving “large sectors of the post-industrial economy, the local governments of metropolitan regions, migrant members of the population, the established media, and educational institutions” as enemies (Reckwitz 2021, 257). The aggressivity increasingly present in the public discourse then results from the old middle class losing its political and cultural influence. Right-wing populists react not only against an increasingly diverse society but also against the devaluation of a cultural paradigm associated with the old middle class.
The politics of postmigration
Reckwitz’s description of the main conflicts in contemporary societies and that of postmigration theory bear some similarities and differences. The similarities are particularly visible in relation to the major line of conflict. Both theoretical approaches observe, independently from each other, a growing tension between those who support plurality and diversity and those who would rather vote in favor of stability and homogeneity. Moreover, both approaches also agree that contemporary social conflict are not primarily about migration. As Foroutan famously noted, migration has merely become a “trigger stimulus for public debates on norms and values” (2019, 17). It is nothing less than “a chiffre for the question of how to deal with difference, hybridity, and ambiguity” (Foroutan 2019, 61). Reckwitz’s sociological approach supports this reading, as for him conflicts about migration and integration are mainly placeholders for a more fundamental struggle about basic values and attitudes. However, contrary to most tenets of postmigration theory, Reckwitz included a social dimension in his analysis. While postmigration theory merely focuses on values and political attitudes, Reckwitz ties conflicts to structural transformations within society. Therefore, conflict is not only about discourses and narratives but also about changing power-relations among different socio-cultural milieus and classes. This structural dimension is largely absent in postmigration theory, whose predominant focus is on narratives, epistemologies, and discourses. In Reckwitz’s perspective, the struggle about migration and migration politics is in the end a struggle between two different social classes and their respective cultural paradigm.
Various aspects of Reckwitz’s sociological approach could be contested and differentiated. Additionally, the extent of the structural transformations fostering a society of singularities may differ across European societies. However, a future politics of postmigration can, I believe, still benefit from this sociological perspective. There are at least three takeaways that should be considered when talking about the future politics of postmigration: first, a sociological perspective can help to better comprehend the dynamics of conflict in contemporary societies; second, it can force advocates of postmigration theory to reflect on their own position of power in society; and third, it can help to further reflect on political strategies and the political-normative dimension of postmigration approaches.
First, Reckwitz’s sociological perspective emphasizes that conflicts within postmigration societies are not simply about an enhanced social diversity that results from past and present migrations and mobilities: these conflicts are also fostered by structural transformations within European societies. As mentioned, this dimension may explain why debates on those issues have become particularly aggressive and hostile. Migration and diversity are—together with gender issues—the basic terrains on which the declining old middle class has responded to its rapidly increasing loss of societal influence. If postmigration theory only focused on narratives and discourses, it would risk failing to provide an understanding of the dynamics behind social conflicts. Moreover, postmigration theorists could benefit from situating cultural struggles in the broader sociological and historical context, as proposed by Reckwitz. For example, certain political struggles and interventions that took place during the 1980s and 1990s—such as the Kanak Attak movement in Germany—can be read as expressions of a more general push toward the new middle class’s cultural paradigm, which, at that time, had begun to dominate civil society but had not often been adopted at an institutional or political level (Schramm 2021). According to Reckwitz, that period’s avantgarde movements must be analyzed as part of an overall societal change that started in the late 1970s. Moreover, “post-Otherness,” as described by Ndikung and Römhild, is very much in line with the basic understandings of the cultural paradigm of singularity, as it dominates in the new middle class. Has the social dimension of the political and cultural struggles of our times been omitted in postmigration theory?
Second, Reckwitz’s sociological perspective makes it urgent for researchers, activists and artists working in the field of postmigration to reflect on their own position of power. It is telling that most of the artists, activists, and scholars who have engaged in this field have mostly started their analysis with the idea of a hegemonic, traditional, mainstream society that must be challenged and disrupted, which is understandable from a historical perspective. According to Reckwitz, most European societies were traditional and conservative until at least the 1980s and were typically dominated by the cultural paradigm of stability, homogeneity, and rootedness. This cultural paradigm has, however, increasingly lost its influence and has increasingly been replaced by that of the new liberal middle class. At least in some European societies—particularly in cities and urban spaces—values such as plurality, non-conformity, and singularity have been broadly accepted and may be already dominant. This change in power relations has generally been overlooked in postmigration theory. While many scholars and artists have remained concerned with opposing a supposedly hegemonic conservative mainstream that has to be disrupted, real conflicts are possibly unfolding on a different and more structural level. How does postmigration theory approach the tension between the historical turn toward diversity and plurality on the one side and the lack of institutional change and progression on the other? How does postmigration theory translate the power the cultural paradigm of the new middle class has into real political results? Moreover, what kind of responsibility does the new dominant middle class have, if any, toward the losers of the historical process—i.e., the descending old middle class? The widespread idea that the politics of postmigration is mainly “a struggle about narratives” (Langhoff 2018, 309) may fail in addressing the real challenges of our times. In fact, when scholars, activists, and artists persist in opposing the conservative mainstream, they may be prevented from addressing more difficult, structural challenges facing the future postmigration politics.
Third, Reckwitz’s sociological perspective urges advocates of postmigration theory to reflect on the strategies they use to address conflicts in postmigration societies. Typically, postmigration theory has delved into “postmigrant alliances,” which gather people with similar attitudes toward migration and diversity (Foroutan 2019). “Postmigrant alliances” are mainly focused on values and political attitudes. They are often described as being based on forms of inclusive solidarity beyond heritage, religion, ethnicity, class, culture, or origin (Stjepandić and Karakayalı 2018, Foroutan 2019, 198-212). When including Reckwitz’s sociological perspectives, however, these “postmigration alliances” seem to become more limited and less inclusive. They suddenly appear to be self-centered, as they arguably merely assemble members of the same social milieu who already share the same core values. Postmigration theorist should therefore become clearer about the aims of their own political strategies. If the aim of a contemporary and future politics of postmigration is to mobilize those who favor plurality and diversity against those who vote for rootedness and conformity, “postmigrant alliances” may be helpful. However, if the aim is to overcome growing polarization in society and build bridges between different social and cultural milieus, this approach may be much more limited. In fact, the widespread focus on values and political attitudes as foundational to political alliances may not only cement existing divisions in society but also runs the risk of deepening polarization and aggression. One way to confront this challenge is, as Dabiri argued (2021), to focus on common interests rather than on common values. While the focus on common values and attitudes potentially affirms and deepens social polarization, common interests may open new and different forms of collaboration. Alliances formed around interests may, in political practice, be less stable and more vulnerable than coalitions based on common values and attitudes; however, interest-based alliances could help to overcome at least some tensions, potentially also building bridges to include members of the “precarious class,” according to Reckwitz. However, the challenges for a future politics of postmigration cannot be solved by simply and endlessly repeating the same old narrative about a supposedly hegemonic conservative mainstream that needs to be disrupted and challenged through “counter-narratives” and new epistemologies. If we want postmigration approaches to be part of a future Europe—a Europe based on mutual respect and a vision of individualized difference—we must learn to contextualize contemporary struggles and conflicts in a broader perspective. Reflecting on one’s own position of increased power, as well as on the changes of the past few decades, is a good place to start.
Moritz Schramm is Associate Professor at the Department of Language, Culture, History and Communication at the University of Southern Denmark. He has worked on postmigration theory for many years, for example as the primary investigator for the collaborative research project “Art, Culture and Politics in the Postmigrant Condition” (2016-8).
The work on this essay was supported by a Carlsberg Foundation Monograph Fellowship (CF21-0608).
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 Those underlaying conditions for social changes are often described in sociological theory. They are also at the core of Reckwitz’s reading of historical transformations (see in detail Reckwitz 2021, 41–45).
 For example, the different attitudes toward migration and diversity in some Eastern European countries, when compared with attitudes in Western European countries, can potentially be read through this perspective as well. As the sociologists Stephen Holms and Ivan Krastev have shown, developments in Eastern Europe are strongly influenced by the fact that a great number of people who were part of the emerging liberal middle class left those countries after the revolutions of 1989, leaving behind an increasingly frustrated and declining old middle class (Holms and Krastev 2019; Schramm 2021, 65–68).
 Ndikung and Römhild describe this state of post-Otherness as consisting of “a multitude of neighboring minorities”, which include “postcolonial, post-migrant, post-socialist subjects and citizens” as well as “‘dissident’ genders, sexualities, subcultural, anti-neoliberal, post-capitalist political articulations and movements” (Ndikung and Römhild 2013: 214). Even though the new middle class may be more consumer-orientated than the social milieus, Ndikung and Römhild refer to, the similarities in lifestyle and attitude are not to be overlooked (see also Schramm 2023b).
 This counts both for the cultural practitioners in the field of postmigration, as for most of the research perspectives, see e.g. Ndikung and Römhild, who also frame the state of post-Otherness as avant-garde, which interrupts the supposedly conservative mainstream.
Published on May 1st, 2023.