Postmigrant Practices and Political Subjectification
This is part of our special feature, The Politics of Postmigration.
This text focuses on postmigration as a concept that was first developed primarily in Germany and has been discussed internationally in recent years. Postmigration does not constitute a purely academic research approach; it is a way of thinking that is open and encompasses perspectives from different areas such as art, culture, literature, and social sciences. Thinking societies in a postmigratory way primarily means to change the perspective of inquiry by critically questioning deficit-oriented and nation-state-centered migration studies, which have been subject to “migrantism.” A postmigratory way of thinking implies three particular aspects: first, it is about rethinking the history of society from the perspective of migration. Second, it entails expanding the research field of migration studies to include a much wider social analysis. Third, the focus of such approach is on the children and grandchildren of immigrants who we refer to as the postmigrant generations. As our recent research has focused on these generations’ different practices and articulations, the postmigratory perspective has opened new alternative ways of assessing and incorporating their experiences and actions. Here, we consider that these practices and articulations represent dissent and political subjectivations, as envisaged by Jacques Rancière (1999), because they break from social hegemony, make new alternative ways of thinking society visible, and design a new topography of possibly more convivial social interactions.
We explain how “migrantism,” as a methodology, has led to a certain limitation on knowledge production. Therefore, our postmigratory perspective emerges from a critique of migrantism. Moreover, we discuss why postmigration can be seen as dissent and political subjectivation in Rancière’s sense. As concrete postmigrant practices come into focus and are interpreted as resistance against hegemonic relations, we engage in practices and articulations within postmigrant generations, which are understood as fostering convivial cultures.
Migrantism is a system of thought used to judge or look down on people’s everyday practices and on the realities of their lives based on historically founded constructions of what is considered normal within a certain society. Migrantism has been deemed to be a product of nation-state oriented migration studies. For example, terms such as “ethnic colony,” “living between two worlds,” and “migration background,” which still shape the understanding of migration in German-speaking cultures today, have established a sorting logic of “us and them” and produced a hegemonic knowledge that has dominated migration studies to this day.
When using the term migrantism, we follow a pathway similar to that Edward Said (1978) took when defining Orientalism as “a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between ‘the Orient’ and (most of the time) ‘the Occident.’” Thus, following Said’s leap from “Orientals” to Orientalism, we leap from “migrants” to “migrantism” to classify thoughts and reasoning grounded in a distinction between a country’s native nationals, on the one hand, and migrants or their descendants, on the other. Using migrantism as a method means carrying out research using categories based on imagined ethnic or cultural traits. Such approach predicates an “ideal” order and deviations therefrom, focusing on the shortcomings and deficits of migrantism that need to be resolved. A “migrantist” way of thinking has long reflected and produced an understanding of social normality that has formed some aspects of research on migration, integration, and segregation. As such, migrantism acts as a dispositif (as described by Michel Foucault): an apparatus that actually brings migrant realities into being (Nieswand and Drotbohm 2014, 4).
Deep-rooted migrantism has thus played a significant role in drawing an “us vs. them” distinction along ethnic and national lines. This distinction in turn has shaped the ways in which immigrants’ practices and the realities of their lives have been perceived by society. It has also led to certain developments in epistemological theory, methodology, research practices, and social policy. For example, terms such as “origins,” “ethnicity,” or “integration” have become key categories in scholars’ approaches to migration and have ultimately become dominant in society. The use of migrantism as a methodology has gradually become a dominant explanatory model, as can be seen in studies that assume groups differ based on culture and modernity. When examining migration and integration, scholars have used these hypotheses to explain migration through interpretive schemes (Bukow and Llaryora 1988). The concepts of “ethnic colony,” “living between cultures” and “migration background” are three examples of negative interpretative schemes that must be envisaged critically, as they illustrate the historical expansion of methodological migrantism into society.
The concept of “ethnic colony” was introduced into German-language migration and integration research by the migration researcher Friedrich Heckmann (2015). Heckmann borrowed the term “colony” from the Chicago school of sociology (Burgess, McKenzie, and Park 1925), which used it in the 1980s in the development of its discourse on assimilation (Esser 2000; critically Aumüller 2009). According to that school of thought, migrants form a culturally separate group, which explains their failure to integrate; this theory has remained influential to the present. In an interview, Heckmann stated that living in an “ethnic colony” could facilitate the process of “initial integration” but for the fact that the colony “becomes, and remains, the immigrants’ sole social circle” (2016, 63). Moreover, life in an “ethnic colony” can be interpreted positively or negatively, depending on the vantage point.
A second, recurring motif used in migrantist thought is the metaphor that migrants live “between two cultures” or “between two worlds,” which Kadire Idrizi sees as a kind of “cultural schizophrenia” (Idrizi 2015). Idrizi’s study on this type of schizophrenia explicitly depicts the conflict between the values and norms migrants bring with them from their respective native countries as well as those people are expected to hold in the country of arrival—i.e., Switzerland, in her study. Idrizi does not describe processes of adjustment to or engagement with the restrictive social conditions there; instead, the scholar details a pathological situation requiring therapeutic treatment. Furthermore, she sees the experiences of immigrants and their descendants as “remnants” or “relics” of the past rather than as experiences relevant to the time and place in which these immigrants currently live.
Third, the German term Migrationshintergrund, usually translated as “migration background,” conveys that a person’s family has a history of migration. Considered a politically correct way of describing the descendants of migrants, the term has not been accompanied by any critical reflection in studies or public debates about what this category means. In fact, although originally introduced by the German Federal Statistic Office to be used only for statistical purposes, the term has become normalized through its use in wider society and political rhetoric. However, in recent years the term has been criticized on the ground that distinguishing between people with and without a “migration background” creates artificial boundaries between groups that hardly correspond to the reality of people’s lives.
Hence, the use of migrantism as an established method in social studies reveals a limited understanding of society and migration; nonetheless, migrantism has been the basis for ample research. Social structures and institutional practices themselves exist within theoretical, methodical, and methodological contexts that rely on imagined ethnic and national differences, which leads to the use of binary constructs such as “foreign vs. not foreign,” “native vs. ethnic,” or “with vs. without a migration background” in the classification of migrants. These binary classifications have reality-generating effects; they guide people in their perception of reality and thus have an impact on society. At the same time, they make the complexities of people’s lives harder to recognize.
Viewing society from the perspective of postmigrantism
In recent years, an epistemological turn has occurred in critical migration studies, according to which the “us and them” sorting logic used in migrantism has been questioned; this turn has brought to the front other inquiries that had previously been ignored. Thinking postmigrantly—or contrapuntally—in this context means making other perspectives visible and telling stories that were previously marginalized or repressed. Viewing society from the perspective of postmigrantism means going beyond the long-established binary understanding of society by re-interpreting the history or genealogy of people’s migration. Indeed, a postmigrantist approach entails the rejection of the classifications customarily established along ethnic or national lines and instead focuses on interconnections, shared histories, overlaps, multivalence, and the manifold nature of real lives while not overlooking or ignoring structural barriers, power differentials, and forms of racism. Postmigrantist observations and analysis imply a different understanding of society and politics and thus a different type of migration research that includes new contemporary political understandings in the context of a globalized world.
Moreover, using a postmigrantist perspective to examine society involves a “contrapuntal” reading, as Edward Said (1994, 66) put it. It allows a rethinking of historical continuities and current conditions, hence challenging the established notion that society, culture, and identity represent homogenizing, dualizing forces. At the same time, this perspective brings to light previously untold or hidden practices, articulations, and histories (Yildiz 2019). This departure from a hegemonic writing of history constitutes a political act, as it casts doubt on certain continuities that have evolved over the course of history; instead, such act encourages people to center on discontinuities and to welcome a broader range of alternative modes of thought and interpretation. By bringing marginalized experiences and narrations into focus and analysis, the postmigrantist perspective can thus offer a forum for marginalized, forgotten, and silenced minority voices (Lorey 2020, 17). The main emphasis is on the political process by which those who have been denied the ability to make themselves heard are made into subjects (Rancière 1999, 36).
This fundamental change of perspective indicates a break from established methodological migrantism. This rupture enables us to recontextualize historical continuities and social developments, see them in a new light, adopt different ways of thinking, and thus re-map the topography of the possible. The new approach is based on a critical appraisal of how knowledge has been produced until now and reconsiders what has been told, ignored, or left out. It serves as an epistemological shift in migration research, addressing certain patterns of thinking and re-imagining the entire field surrounding migration discourse. The postmigrantist perspective thus represents a radical departure from the basic premises of methodological migrantism, which relies on a categorical division between “migrants/non-migrants” and “migration/sedentarism”
Postmigrantism as dissensus
Rancière (1999) opposes the notion that social and political recognition ideally culminates in the recognized subject achieving self-realization. He defines the political as “modes of subjectification,” which refer to practices that go beyond the horizons of people’s previous experiences and redefine what they have experienced: “Political subjectification produces a multiple that was not given in the police constitution of the community, a multiple whose count poses itself as contradictory in terms of police logic” (36). He argues that the subject is constituted through the process of (political) subjectification, which thus primarily means disidentification: subjects relinquish their assigned identity and position in the dominant order. “Any subjectification is a disidentification, removal from the naturalness of a place” (36). Through these practices, a rupture occurs and the person becomes a political subject. We see Rancière’s ideas about the link between recognition and (political) subjectification as relevant to the postmigrantist perspective in general and to the description and interpretation of postmigrantist practices in particular. In connection with Rancière’s observations, the perspective of postmigrantism means exposing hegemonic patterns of thinking and destroying them to create new spaces and possibilities for articulations and practices that reflect a postmigrantist understanding.
In his later philosophical and political analyses of society, Rancière (2004) shows how social dissensus is generated and how different forms of political subjectification emerge. Thus, in line with Rancière’s argument, postmigrantist practices and articulations can be described as dissensus, as they make the invisible visible and the unthinkable thinkable. They disrupt what Rancière calls the “representative regime” (35) and upset the established order. One example of such representative regime manifests itself when the “natives” of a country act as experts on integration and define “others” as non-integrated. From the point of view of the regime, postmigrantist articulations appear deficient, as they do not correspond to the hegemonic notion that defines what society considers the right or wrong way to act, what is acceptable, and what constitutes a deviation from the norm.
In this article, postmigrantist practices are understood as modes of political subjectification. The focus is placed on “in-between” positionings that are articulated as dissensus and interrupt the simplifying, nation-based, natural order of domination (Rancière 1999, 11). Adopting an in-between position is a form of productive disorientation; it is a practice of knowledge production that expresses resistance by creating spaces for subjectivity that extend beyond hegemonic and ethnic or national horizons. The nature of this in-between space does not allow it to fit into a solely nation-based frame of thought.
Positions located “in-between” spaces play a crucial role in revealing the previously marginalized or invisible. In this situation, a new political subject is constituted through the production of dissensus, which disturbs the dominant order and departs from the traditional certainties that form the basis of hegemonic knowledge production. That departure from the past comes about, for example, when postmigrantist articulations reclaim discriminatory and racist stereotypes and re-interpret them in an ironic manner. This reclaiming is what Stuart Hall (1997) described as “trans-coding” (270). Telling stories based on the perspective and experience of migration and thus revealing marginalized, largely unknown knowledge is a subversive practice of resistance that is of central importance to the postmigrantist view of society.
Postmigrantist articulations as (subversive) forms of resistance
In recent years, not only Migrationshintergrund but also the related neologism Migrationsgeschichte (“migration history”) have become popular, all-too-familiar terms used to refer to the generations of people who descend from those who once arrived in Germany and Austria as immigrants. These expressions have conveyed that all that is required to better grasp the cohesion of a modern-world community is a rewording of “foreigners” into “people with a migration background.” Few have questioned the usefulness of these classifications or why people are even categorized according to such criteria in the first place.
Young adults born in German-speaking countries who have been labelled as having a “migration background” have started to create new life plans, practices, and collaborative articulations; they have increasingly grappled with the established discourse on migration and integration that constantly reproduces “others” and portrays them as deficient individuals who must integrate (Terkessidis 2015; Yildiz 2020). They have been able to discover and develop various ways of resisting against the excessive pressure they feel to declare their national allegiance and become integrated, and they have also found ways to combat stigmatization. In fact, the specific practices and articulations that have emerged under such discriminatory conditions constitute a subversive, creative strategy of resistance. No longer allowing others to define them, children of migrants have developed their own perspectives and articulations, which are relevant to their (political) positionings in society. They have become united not based on their fate but based on their common experiences of marginalization, discrimination, and exclusion.
These new generations apply their new, subversive “postmigrantist” approach to their living circumstances, family biographies, and the different experiences of their everyday lives, whether in education, at work, in politics, or in social matters and (civil) society. They debunk traditional stereotypes by responding to reductionist understandings of ethnicity and religion by posing questions such as “Who can prove to me that I’m a foreigner?” (Cindark 2004, 301). Such interrogations express their positionings and re-positionings and the subversive refuting of supposed “common knowledge” within society, which structures belonging based on a binary logic of them vs. us. These young people show that everyone in Germany and Austria today belongs there.
Indeed, while constantly confronted with negative stereotypes about themselves, these young adults seem capable of coping with unclear, multivalent, and ambivalent living circumstances, adopting a position as political subjects in those conflicting circumstances and establishing a “convivial culture” in a postmigrant society (Ohnmacht and Yildiz 2021). Their life plans and everyday practices are characterized by “in-betweenness,” as demonstrated by the following passage from an interview with Dino Izic, aka the rapper Dynomite, in the Viennese newspaper Wiener Zeitung:
I do feel like I’ve found my feet now because I’ve realized that this in-betweenness is what makes me who I am. It’s my life. I don’t have to try to live like my parents, or like the other people that live here. I live with both sides; both influence me, and that’s OK. You don’t have to bend and break yourself to fit in somewhere (Steiner-Watzinger 2020, 2).
Faced with a public discourse that portrays postmigrantism as deviating from the norm, in a case study involving young adult descendants of migrants, we determined that they do not passively assume the role of victims but instead rebel against domination and create alternatives (Yildiz and Rotter 2022, 409; see also Pieper 2022, 200).
A convivial culture in a postmigrant society
Today, young adults born in Germany or Austria as children or grandchildren of immigrants are confronted with negative stereotypes, experiences of discrimination, and exclusion. They produce and use their own practices and articulations to wrestle with these restrictive circumstances, adopting different political positions in varied contexts. Hence, they break away from the imagined identities that have been imposed upon them. This back and forth between disidentification and reidentification or resubjectification sparks critical thinking, alternative ideas, and social visions that are crucial in the development of communal living in the future.
Young adults acquire skills and resources that enable them to live and find their position in a society characterized by discrimination and racism and to work toward a “convivial society” (Illich 1975). These young adults constitute tools to build convivial abilities through postmigrant practices; their new articulations become means of countering the discrimination and exclusion they experience and allow them to advocate for a more inclusive understanding of democracy in superdiverse societies. Navigating the tension between discrimination and political subjectification requires migrants and subsequent generations to develop counter-strategies and counter-narratives. As migrants’ various practices and articulations suggest, that conflict can open up emancipatory spheres of experience, which are, according to Gilroy (2004), what convivial cultures are all about:
‘Recognising conviviality should not signify the absence of racism’ […]. What the notion of conviviality does offer is an alternative understanding of culture that focuses on what people do everyday rather than always reducing them to their cultural origins (Back and Sinha 2016, 522).
Postmigrantist practices and articulations always demonstrate conflicting situations in which both racism and conviviality can be experienced. They create a feeling that the future is not set in stone and help members of the next generation navigate the barriers and constraints imposed upon them by their experiences of discrimination. These articulations thus create convivial spaces and convivial relationships that seem greatly relevant to living together in a democracy, on the one hand, and to pluralizing society, on the other.
Anita Rotter is a postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Education, University of Innsbruck, Austria. In her teaching and research, she addresses postmigrantist perspectives on solidarity, culture of remembrance, education, and generation.
Erol Yildiz is university professor in the research areas of migration, education, and diversity studies at the Faculty of Education, University of Innsbruck, Austria. His research focuses on postmigration, migration, and urbanity.
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 All translations, if not indicated otherwise, are by the authors.
 This idea draws on Foucault’s genealogical perspective, which can be used to reveal events, discontinuities, minority histories, breaks with the past, and other origins. According to Foucault, events should be sought “in the most unpromising places, in what we tend to feel is without history” (Foucault 1977, 139).
 For examples, see Hill and Yildiz 2018; Foroutan 2019; Schramm et al. 2019; Alkin and Geuer 2022.
 The figurative term “in-between” primarily refers to spaces of transition and rethinking, where reductive, norm-imposing ethnic/national categories are stripped of their legitimacy and power of persuasion. They are thus spaces where new guiding principles and stances can flourish. Echoing Homi Bhabha’s (1994, 36) concept of “third space,” in-between spaces can be understood as places where stories and societal developments can be rethought and as spaces offering new sources of inspiration for democratization.
 Stuart Hall uses the word “trans-coding” to describe the process of turning negative stereotypes around, re-interpreting and thus re-appropriating them; he explains that the process is possible and takes place naturally, because no-one can fully fix and control its meanings and terms (Hall 1997, 270).
 Dino Izic arrived in Austria as a refugee from the Yugoslav Wars.
Published on May 1, 2023.