ISAAC, MARY: QUESTIONING AN ETHNOGRAPHIC TEXT: BRIGDEN, NOELLE: THE MIGRANT PASSAGE: CLANDESTINE JOURNEYS FROM CENTRAL AMERICA

Text

What is the text about – empirically?

What phenomenon is drawn out in the text?  A social process; a cultural and political-economic shift; a cultural “infrastructure;” an emergent assemblage of science-culture-technology-economics? Clandestine migration, a social-political process taken on by migrants that are escaping political and non-political violence but need to mask their nationality and identity in order to successfully migrate. 

Where is this phenomenon located – in a neighborhood, in a country, in “Western Culture,” in a globalizing economy?Central America, and Mexico, specifically along the Mexico- US border

What historical trajectory is the phenomenon situated within?  What, in the chronology provided or implied, is emphasized -- the role of political or economic forces, the role of certain individuals or social groups?  What does the chronology leave out or discount? The book focuses on the role of political and non-political violence that causes refugees and mass migration, and then deals with the political issue of nationalism and cross-border politics. 

What scale(s) are focused on -- nano (i.e. the level of language), micro, meso, macro? What empirical material is developed at each scale? Micro-level focus on individual’s decisions to flip identity when necessary for passing through visual checkpoints and conversing with law enforcement. 

Who are the players in the text and what are their relations?  Does the text trace how these relations have changed across time – because of new technologies, for example? The players are mainly Central American migrants, Mexican and US immigration officers and policemen, as well as Mexican smugglers and gang members. This text discusses how the migration routes have adapted to new levels of violence undertaken by gang members that exploit migrants, and how law enforcement has adapted to the changing migration patterns and tactics of migrants. 

What is the temporal frame in which players play?  In the wake of a particular policy, disaster or other significant “event?”  In the general climate of the Reagan era, or of “after-the-Wall” globalization? The author analyzes the players from 2009-2012, a period of time where the drug wars and cartel violence peaked significantly, causing a massive influx of refugees.

What cultures and social structures are in play in the text? Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and other Central American and South American cultures are at play, namely discussing the specific linguistic, cultural, and physical characteristics of each country’s people. 

What kinds of practices are described in the text?  Are players shown to be embedded in structural contradictions or double-binds? Players are shown to be embedded in structural contradictions; people are forced to break the law because of imminent violence and danger, but also because the government fails to protect these citizens from violence. The contradiction lies in the fact that the state wants to prevent illegal migration whilst allowing the persecution of their citizens occur, hence the clandestine nature of the migratory practice. 

How are science and technology implicated in the phenomenon described?The author doesn't necessarily dive into these topics, but technology is one of the key factors in aiding the state to identify or catch illegal migrants, and science is used in the sense of biological-phenotypical attributes that are given to different ethnic groups and later used for identification. 

What structural conditions– technological, legal and legislative, political, cultural – are highlighted, and how are they shown to have shaped the phenomenon described in this text? Policing of borders and nationalism have shaped the phenomenon described in the text, as they have forced migrants to adopt new identities nationalities in order to move across the borders safely.

How – at different scales, in different ways – is power shown to operate?  Is there evidence of power operating through language, “discipline,” social hierarchies, bureaucratic function, economics, etc? Power is shown in the most literal sense; the bureaucratic state and police exhibit and hold the most power here, and wield their influence on the migrants, who thus have to adapt in order to safely move through borders and physical checkpoints. 

Does the text provide comparative or systems level perspectives?  In other words, is the particular phenomenon described in this text situated in relation to similar phenomenon in other settings?  Is this particular phenomena situated within global structures and processes? The author compares literature that studies a slightly similar phenomenon that is based in India, but does not analyze this specific case through a comparative case analysis. Instead, this is a systems level perspective, shedding light primarily on the migration practices in Mexico and how the state has attempted to shift and adapt to changing migratory strategies. More than that though, she focuses on how people have adapted to the state’s routine efforts to thwart migration into the US. 

 

What is the text about – conceptually?

Is the goal to verify, challenge or extend prior theoretical claims? The goal is to challenge the study of migration by analyzing this phenomenon from the bottom up, rather than what typical international relations scholars focus on, which is top-down approaches to illegal migration. Her goal is to show that an ethnographic study of the migrants can reveal more about the state’s authority and the actual reasons for migration than one could find by interviewing law enforcement or doing a policy analysis.

What is the main conceptual argument or theoretical claim of the text?  Is it performed, rendered explicit or both? The main conceptual argument is looking at how “unauthorized migration requires the negotiation of interpersonal encounters through which nationality is collectively re-imagined by migrants, migration enforcement agents, humanitarian aid workers, kidnappers, smugglers, and other people living along the route”.

What ancillary concepts are developed to articulate the conceptual argument? Clandestine migration, identity reformation and adoption, statelessness, paper citizenship and the lack thereof. 

How is empirical material used to support or build the conceptual argument? Empirical materials such as interviews of migrants while in Mexico and then after they’ve made it to the US, and this is crucial to her argument in that these testimonials verify a different phenomenon occurring on the ground than what is being talked about in other academic work on migration from Mexico to the US. 

How robust is the main conceptual argument of the text?  On what grounds could it be challenged? The main argument seems very robust, and can easily be applied to historical cases where citizenship has been challenged, not to defy the state, but to preserve life, especially when the state has lost its ability or authority to do so. It could be challenged in cases where citizenship processes are very top-down, state capacity is high and strong, and in ethnically homogenous regions experiencing an influx of migration. 

How could the empirical material provided support conceptual arguments other than those built in the text? The materials/ empirics from this study could support conceptual arguments on the breakdown of the state, anarchy, the end of the nation-state, the borderless world, and globalization. 

 

Modes of inquiry?

What theoretical edifice provides the (perhaps haunting – i.e. non-explicit) backdrop to the text? Migration - illegal migration.

What assumptions appear to have shaped the inquiry?  Does the author assume that individuals are rational actors, for example, or assume that the unconscious is a force to be dealt with?  Does the author assume that the “goal” of society is (functional) stability? Does the author assume that what is most interesting occurs with regularity, or is she interested in the incidental and deviant? The assumptions are that people will deviate from authority and will defy the state if their lives are at risk, rendering police and citizenship insignificant. 

What kinds of data (ethnographic, experimental, statistical, etc.)  are used in the text, and how were they obtained? The author gathers ethnographic data from migrants, interviewing those who have shifted identities to get through the border and then interviews them in the US. 

If interviews were conducted, what kinds of questions were asked?  What does the author seem to have learned from the interviews? She asks how these migrants try to change their looks to look more Mexican, Central American, The different strategies adopted by migrants when dealing with identifications at checkpoints, the kinds of discriminations they’ve faced, how they’ve been able to differentiate between migrants from different backgrounds, mainly questions about how to identify the other (Mexican), and how to blend in with the other (Mexican).

How was the data analyzed?  If this is not explicit, what can be inferred? The data was interpreted in the broader context of the literature. She organizes them by general themes and patterns, such as the different clothes or different phenotypical and cultural practices most of these migrants adopt to blend in. 

How are people, objects or ideas aggregated into groups or categories?People’s actions are aggregated into groups, specifically by what clothes one adopts, what linguistic changes they have to make, what specific transportation they have to take depending on their wealth, what kind of smuggler provides the best results. 

What additional data would strengthen the text? I think descriptive data from the interviews on the different tactics and the different steps along the way each migrant has to potentially adapt to or does typically adapt to would be interesting, especially to validate the frequency of this clandestine practice.

Structure and performance

What is in the introduction? Does the introduction turn around unanswered questions -- in other words, are we told how this text embodies a research project? Yes, we are immediately presented with a research project that combines both an ethnographic research undertaken by this author, which is situated in a broader literature on citizenship, state capacity, and migration. 

Where is theory in the text?  Is the theoretical backdrop to the text explained, or assumed to be understood? The theory in the text is that people will abandon citizenship and create imagined communities when the state fails to intervene and protect these people, and thus people will turn to deviant practices in order to meet their immediate security needs. 

What is the structure of the discourse in the text?  What binaries recur in the text, or are conspicuously avoided? The structure of the discourse are about ethnographic studies versus broader top-down international relations approaches, as well as the discourse on state security and immigration policies versus citizen perception of security and state capacity. 

How is the historical trajectory delineated?  Is there explicit chronological development? The article is actually organized by the story of identity from a national lens, and then identity from the migrant’s lens, and lastly, the idea of identity and statehood/nationality from the general scholarly perspective. There is no chronological development, except when she discusses a migrant’s journey from beginning to end, which is also geographically defined as from Central America, to Mexico, to the US. 

How is the temporal context provided or evoked in the text? The author states that she does her field work for two years, starting in 2009, with over 500 hours of participant observation work. 

How does the text specify the cultures and social structures in play in the text? She openly discusses her field work at the Catholic migrant shelter about mid-point along the route in Mexico, and discusses that she interviews mainly Central American and South American migrants on their actions in abandoning cultural and phenotypical norms in order to fit into their surrounding culture to avoid detection. 

How are informant perspectives dealt with and integrated? This entire text integrates informants’ perspectives and builds on the patterns she gathers from the various migrants in order to build her argument and the evidence. This is how she figures WHERE her work is placed in the theoretical framework on citizenship and nationhood.

How does the text draw out the implications of science and technology? At what level of detail are scientific and technological practices described? She almost never touches on science and technology, expect for when discussing biological ethnicity and phenotypic attributes that define a migrant’s practice and his or her every move along the transit route. 

How does the text provide in-depth detail – hopefully without losing readers? This text does the job of a book within a 12 page article.

What is the layout of the text?  How does it move, from first page to last?  Does it ask for other ways of reading? Does the layout perform an argument? She breaks down her text into three sections; in the first act of the argument, she highlights the shapeshift nature of identity; In the second act, she describes the fluid nature of identity switching, and then shows how state and non-state violence structure the route, over 1,800 km of terrain across the interior of Mexico from the southern border to its northern limit; in the third act, she describes the migrants in the reverse order, now through the perspective of the greater political- security lens embodied by most scholars and my nationalists. This layout performs her argument in calling for greater ethnographic and anthropological studies of phenomenon as such rather than primarily and solely relying on top-down information. 

What kinds of visuals are used, and to what effect? No visuals are used. 

What kind of material and analysis are in the footnotes? Anonymity of informants are discussed, different literature and their respective arguments are discussed, and ultimately how the present literature misses specific points she highlights in her study. 

How is the criticism of the text performed?  If through overt argumentation, who is the “opposition”? The opposition is anyone who relies solely on methods of big data collection or on  policy analysis, because she discusses the nature of sovereignty through a personal, grassroots perspective, which she believes others fail to analyze through traditional social scientific research methods. 

How does the text situate itself?  In other words, how is reflexivity addressed, or not? The text situates itself within political science, citizenship, nation-state, and transnationalism literature. Reflexivity is addressed and implications are thoroughly discussed, not just for her findings but for her methods. 

Circulation

Who is the text written for?  How are arguments and evidence in the text shaped to address particular audiences? This text seems to have been written for social scientists, espectically international relations scholars. Although her findings are predominantly ethnographic, she situates her question and evidence  within political science literature. 

What all audiences can you imagine for the text, given its empirical and conceptual scope? Anyone studying migration, citizenship, nationalism, and globalization. Also, I believe that the current administration can certainly learn of the very innocent  human nature of clandestine migration, and recognize that the core problem is not illegal migration but the consequences of political and social violence, and the breakdown of the state. 

What new knowledge does this text put into circulation?  What does this text have to say that otherwise is not obvious? Identity manipulation, clandestine migration,  the various socio-cultural workings within Central America and Mexico that facilitate or cause this to happen, the economic nature of smuggling and migrating. Most of this has undoubtedly been discussed before, but she sheds a light on the practice through an ethnographic study of the dynamic relationship between territory, state, and nation.

How generalizable is the main argument?  How does this text lay the groundwork for further research? This is very applicable to migration and refugee cases within the Middle East, India/Pakistan, as Kamal Sadiq has already done, alongside many scholars of this academic niche. 

What kind of “action” is suggested by the main argument of the text? I believe this asks for more in-depth research study that asks migrants, rather than the state, what the idea of the state is and should be. 

Other modes of expression? 

Describe how the material and arguments of this text could be presented in a form other than that of a conventional scholarly book -- as a graphic novel, museum exhibit, activist stunt, or educational module for kids, for example? This would be effectively presented in a documentary or a dramatic film or play. The nature of the study is very humanistic, heart-wrenching, and important in the sense that it sheds light on different perspectives that are easily lost in public policy or nation-building or protecting politics, but equally important to state-formation.

 

 

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Created date

October 13, 2019

Critical Commentary

“This sketch was done for UCI Anthro 215A, Ethnographic Methods, Fall 2019.”