Connected Sociologies of Migration and Citizenship: an interview with Gurminder K Bhambra

In 2020 a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Michaela Benson (Editor-in-Chief, The Sociological Review), interviewed Gurminder K Bhambra (Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies, University of Sussex; Project Director of the Connected Sociologies Curriculum Project, supported by The Sociological Review Foundation), about Connected Sociologies and the value of this perspective for opening up conversations about migration and citizenship in Britain.

MICHAELA BENSON (MB): You are known for your approach which advocates  connected sociologies as a way of thinking differently about the concepts and theories that have taken-for-grant in sociological thinking. Do you want to start by explaining a little bit more what you see this perspective as offering and what is valuable about it?

GURMINDER K BHAMBRA (GKB): One of the things I came across in my research, for my book Rethinking Modernity, was that when thinking about the concept of modernity, for example, there was a sense that the way in which sociologists have sought to understand modernity was in terms of ideas of rupture and difference. There was the idea of the temporal rupture between a pre-modern agrarian past and a modern industrial present and that this rupture was itself located within Europe which was culturally separate from the rest of the world.

I had a background in history and I had come across any number of historians who argued very strongly against ideas of rupture—whether in time or across space—as the way of explaining particular phenomena. I began thinking, why is it that people seek to understand modernity in terms of these ideas when there are also histories that demonstrate strong connections, both across time and across space. That was the first time that I began thinking about how examining the connections between histories and between places could give us a different perspective through which to investigate concepts.

The idea of connected sociologies emerged out of that. It was a way of asking about the extent that we think that things are explainable within particular boundaries. If we were to take a step outside those boundaries and look at the connections between events, processes, etc. that are much broader, how might that change the way in which we understand and explain the phenomena that we are otherwise interested in? Connected sociologies is about pushing us to think about whether the explanations that are currently being offered adequately explain the phenomena that we are interested in. And if they don’t, what other resources are available?

MB: You have just described how you have brought ideas that you were familiar with from history into sociology, but can you explain how this might challenge predominant sociological or social scientific understandings of the world?

GKB: One of the things, again in relation to the work on modernity, was this idea that modernity emerges in Europe and then from there spreads around the rest of the world. That very simple understanding underpins most social science. What is presented as simple description, however, also includes a normative position.

I was interested in thinking about the fact that if these issues didn’t just start in Europe but have a broader global context for their emergence, how would that change the normative claims that people also make? So it is this sense both of doing sociology, or the social sciences, more adequately by taking into account histories that have challenged the dominant and standard narratives and then thinking about how we could develop, transform and improve our concepts to help us intervene politically in more effective ways.

MB: This might seem like a rather self-evident question but why do you think that connected sociologies is important?

GKB: I am not convinced that the solutions we have developed within the social sciences, for the problems that we see around us, are adequate to address those problems. If those solutions are not adequate, to the extent that they are not making the world a better place for the vast majority of people in the world, then what’s going on within our explanations?

One of the things that I sometimes get asked in relation to connected sociologies is, ‘What difference does it make if we change the way in which we think or use these concepts and ideas?’ If we think about global inequality, for example, one way of thinking about it is to say that there are places that are rich and there are places that are poor. If we are concerned about poverty or inequality in other places then one solution may be to give money to other places, an act that is framed in terms of benevolence, acts of charity and so on. On one level that is fine. But what if instead of thinking simply that there are places in the world that are poor and places that are rich, we thought about the processes that produce places as poor and then recognise that these same processes also produce other places as rich? That demonstrates a connection between poverty in one place and wealth in another place and then we can think about the historical processes by way of which places become poor or become rich.

Much of the explanation for why this happens is a consequence of the histories of European colonisation and enslavement and thinking about the ways in which the last 500 years of European movement around the world has, in effect, entrenched the inequalities that continue to configure the world today. If we understand contemporary inequalities as arising very specifically out of these historical processes, then our response to inequality and poverty elsewhere might be not to think about it in terms of benevolence or charity, but in terms of the just redistribution of resources that are currently unjustly distributed. Then it would become a question of distribution, of redistribution and of reparations, in response to that history.

This understanding provides a very different frame through which we think about how these inequalities have been produced, and what politics might be necessary to address those inequalities.

MB: That’s a really helpful example. I wonder if we can turn towards thinking about your approach specifically in terms of understandings of migration and citizenship and I think here I am really talking about migration and citizenship in Britain. My opening question here is to your mind what do you see as the problem with the common sense understandings of who belongs and who has the rights of citizens in Britain?

GKB: Citizenship is commonly understood as something that emerged with the development of the modern nation state. When we think about citizenship within Britain, what we are missing is that Britain has never been a nation state; it has always been an imperial state. It may have had a national project within that imperial state but the state itself was imperial. In that sense when we start thinking about questions of citizenship and thinking about questions of belonging that are often associated with citizenship, we have an implicit understanding that citizenship is linked to the nation. Therefore those who belong historically to the nation belong politically today, they have the rights of citizens. We fail to understand that the imperial state is what organised citizenship and therefore belonging is a racialised category that has been laid on top of our understandings of citizenship.

Just to give some background, the first time that Britain established a formal understanding of citizenship wasn’t until 1948. It only did it then because its dominions and its former colonies, which were now becoming independent, were all establishing forms of citizenship. India becomes independent in 1947 and from the outset establishes what it means to be a citizen of India. Britain at that stage doesn’t have citizenship defined and so it is not until the British Nationality Act of 1948 that Britain legislates for the first time how citizenship is to be constituted.

Interestingly, the very first articulation of this acknowledges citizens as belonging to the imperial state because what is set out is that there are two main forms of citizenship. One is that you are a Citizen of the UK and its Colonies, a common shared citizenship, with no distinction made between whether you live in the UK or you live in the colonies.  And then the second form of citizenship is Commonwealth Citizen and that is given to anybody who lives in a country that is now part of the Commonwealth and was formerly part of the British Empire. Ireland refuses to be part of this, however Britain creates a fudge whereby Irish citizens are seen as if they are part of the Commonwealth and are treated as if they are Commonwealth citizens.

So the very first articulation of citizenship within Britain constitutes citizenship in relation to its imperial understandings and yet the way in which we think about citizenship in the present is that to be a citizen is to be a member of a nation. 

MB: I think that is really helpful in terms of laying out the discontinuity between the initial constitution of citizenship in nationality law and where we have got to now which is this very racially hierarchised understanding of who belongs in. But one of the things that stood out to me in your explanation of citizenship in Britain is its simultaneous position as an abstract category, as you described it, and as a legal structure. I wondered if you had some thoughts on the interconnections of those two?

GKB: What is so interesting about citizenship is how contemporary a phenomenon it is. Things that we think have always existed such as the passport, or borders, haven’t existed for that long. There is a wonderful book by Radhika Mongia setting out the emergence of the passport and the idea of borders. She explains that often what was being policed was the entry of people from the colonies coming into metropoles. It wasn’t something that was required for people who were moving from the heart of Empire to the colonies. What this makes visible is that citizenship is something that emerges in the mid to late 20th century as a category that stops people moving. We often think of the passport as something that enables us to move, but it emerged in the context of stopping people moving.

The 1948 Act gave a form of citizenship to around 800m people, and with it the right to travel to Britain, to live in Britain, to work in Britain, and in all other parts of Empire as well. Now, when I’ve talked about this, people have said “Why on earth did Britain do this?” What you have to remember is that in 1948 the direction of travel was still very much from Britain to the rest of the world. It wasn’t from other parts of the world to Britain. The latter only began to occur in significant numbers in the 50s and 60s. As soon as you began to have people from the darker parts of Empire coming to Britain that is the point at which there are debates in Parliament and elsewhere about what could be done to stop ‘coloured immigration’. They weren’t interested in stopping people moving from places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia to Britain. They were interested in stopping people from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, coming to Britain. But it was incredibly difficult to create barriers to people from some parts of the Commonwealth versus other parts of the Commonwealth, so they tried all sorts of ways of doing this. The Commonwealth Immigration Acts that you get in the 1960s and 70s are instances of gradually taking rights away from people on the basis of geography which stands in for race and is something that comes to be explicitly racialised over time.

MB: I think that is really really helpful as a way of explaining things. There’s always a danger of thinking with questions of citizenship as they emerge now, as they are territorialised now, and then thinking back to 1948 and forgetting that in 1948 citizenship was about being citizen of an Empire where there was no real expectation of anyone moving and where Britain had this vast power through its imperial state. What does it do to normative understandings of migration and citizenship if we recover imperial histories and role of decolonisation in producing these?

GKB: This could turn some normative understandings on their head. For example, the people commonly referred to as 2nd or 3rd generation migrants become instead citizens. If you have an understanding of citizenship as belonging to the nation and the nation is understood as white, anybody who is not white is obviously not a citizen but a migrant. But as a consequence of the British Empire, citizenship was given to people who weren’t white and they were citizens with all the same rights and responsibilities as white British people. When people moved from different parts of the Empire to Britain they weren’t crossing borders in their movements, they were simply travelling within an imperial polity and, to my mind, to be a migrant you have to cross a political border, you have to move from one polity to another. If you move within the circuits of Empire it is not clear to me why people ought to be understood as migrants, as in coming from another polity because they are not.

On a personal anecdotal level I was talking to my dad at one point about these sorts of issues, and he brought out all these old passports. His old passports, my grandfather’s old passports, they were all passports which indicated that they were British citizens. I grew up thinking I was a migrant, because that is what school told me, that is what TV told me, that’s what my friends told me.  Why? Because I was darker. And yet all the documentation is that my family were always British and I don’t say that for any reason apart from saying that we have to understand our history to understand our present and if we don’t understand that people within Britain who are not white are nonetheless citizens, then we misunderstand inequalities as produced by particular phenomenon as opposed to by other ones and therefore we don’t address these issues adequately.

MB: I think using the passport in that way is a really useful way of bringing to life the misremembering of that history and the normative understandings this produces in the present. One of the things that is really clear in your work on citizenship is that you’ve argued that neglecting the kind of imperial histories in the construction of who is a citizen and who is a migrant, translates into what we could see as a neglect of a polity as structured by race. Could you explain that in a little bit more detail?

GKB: One of the taken-for-granted understandings is that the racial inequalities that structure Britain are related somehow to people who are understood as migrants who come into the polity. They come in either as invited guest workers or to labour or sometimes not as invited at all but are nonetheless here. Their presence here is presented as somehow irregular. Even those who come through regular means are presented as coming from the outside and therefore the differences in experience that they might have in terms of access to jobs, to opportunities and so on is seen to be justified because they are not part of the nation, they are not part of the history of belonging to the nation. Even over the last few years we have seen how so many elections and other political moments have been organised around this idea of who ought to be the legitimate object of public policy in this country. And whenever racial inequalities are raised, one of the things that sometimes gets said is ‘Well yes that’s important, but we need to look after our citizens’. This draws a distinction made between citizens and ‘others’.

My argument is that many of those who are considered as ‘other’ were often part of the polity and belong to the history of Empire. They ought not to be treated as outsiders who are coming in requesting stuff but are ‘legitimate’ beneficiaries of the rights, opportunities and benefits of Britain as currently articulated. This goes even to the extent of thinking about welfare and other issues. Through a current research project that I am working on, one of the things that is quite clear is that people from across the Empire paid taxes to Britain. The taxes that imperial subjects paid, they didn’t simply pay for local administration, they also contributed to the national state. There is no institution in Britain that has not been funded by the taxes of its colonial subjects.

Even the welfare state is something that is only made possible because of the resources produced through labour, taxation, coercion and extraction that occurred across the Empire. All peoples with a history of belonging to Empire have paid into the national state and ought not to be seen as illegitimate when they arrive and seek to participate and partake of the benefits of that state.

MB: I think that is really important in terms of reframing that particular narrative about welfare recipients and who that money is for and as you say, who is a legitimate object of public policy. What does it do to reposition those darker skinned citizens as full members of the polity?

GKB: It might enable us to focus on policies that address the socioeconomic inequalities that structure our society. Issues of class in the present are too often racialised as simply being concerned with the white working class. The working class in Britain is multicultural, it’s multi-ethnic and it includes people who aren’t citizens of Britain. For example, if we are thinking about issues around work and employment, employment practices and regulations could be organised in such a way that they benefitted everybody. It is only because people don’t wish to do that that arguments privileging the ‘white working class’ as the legitimate beneficiaries of action emerge, while work addressing racial inequalities is presented as somehow at the expense of the ‘legitimate’ citizens of the country.  I think if we understood our history better we would understand that that is an arbitrary distinction that works only to prevent socioeconomic reforms that would be beneficial for all of us.

MB: That’s a really reminder of the histories that produced a multi-ethnic working class in Britain and more broadly within the empire. But it is also, as you have shown in your work, a methodological criticism that as social scientists we have to take on board. Going back to the kind of question of Britain and Britishness, to your mind how does recasting those conversations around Britain and Britishness through a recognition of decolonisation and imperial histories, how does that change the conversations that we might be having? 

GKB: It is partly around who do we consider to be part of the narrative? What things do we think we have an obligation to address or not? And who gets to be seen to be part of the community that we are talking about? If we are thinking about some of the work that sociologists do, often communities are identified in terms of their belonging to the nation, and anybody else is presented as a migrant outside that community, and not of immediate concern in addressing inequalities. We need to challenge these arbitrary distinctions. 

MB: I suppose just as reframing people as migrants removes the obligation of the state towards them, within social scientist discourse if we present people as migrants we also remove our obligations and a methodologically nationalist social science towards them as well and we don’t have to consider them in that frame of inequalities.

GKB: Yes, absolutely, our explanations are tailored simply to a particular community within the broader community and as you said the rest don’t have to be taken into account. Then, if their experiences contradict the narratives that we present, again that doesn’t really matter because they are not who we are looking at. If we understand that our history has always been an imperial history this would change who we considered to be part of the community today.

MB: That leads me on very nicely to the next question. To your mind how can connected sociologies help us to reclaim alternative narratives?

GKB: There are lots of different ways to contest the inequalities that exist and that shape and structure societies. My own way into these debates is to think about what are the standards by way of which the dominant narratives are organised. There are particular standards that they present and these standards are around methodological rigour and so on. And it is this aspect that, if by their own accounts, can be demonstrated to be deficient then that’s a way of challenging those narratives from the inside.

So to return to an earlier example, the idea that people who have access to the welfare state are those who either themselves or historically through their families have contributed to the welfare state is central to all the narratives that exist around how the welfare state came about. Michael Mann talks about warfare and welfare and the sense that because of the contribution of the working class in Britain to the two wars in the early 20th century, there was a sense that the state had to repay that sacrifice. One of the ways in which it repays that sacrifice was to provide welfare for them and their descendants.

Now, on its own terms that narrative is incredibly plausible. Then you think about who else fought in the war and fought for Britain within the war, and it was the colonial soldiers from the broader Empire. They gave as much sacrifice, not just in terms of them being soldiers and porters and contributing to the war effort through the very populations who were sent there to fight and to die, but also through the increased taxes that were levied upon India and other places to pay for a war that Britain was fighting. They contributed to the war effort through their populations and through their taxes in the same way as the population in Britain did, but when it came to talking about how you would repay the sacrifice it was only one group that was deemed to be legitimate in terms of being recompensed for their sacrifice. In relation to the others, their sacrifice was just taken for granted and not something that had to be addressed. And this narrative continues to get reproduced within the social sciences, particularly around histories of the welfare state, in order to justify a parochial notion of welfare separate from a more expansive notion of it.

MB: It is really interesting when you think with the pillars of what being a citizen is and that idea of it being a relationship between the state and the individual whereby you have responsibilities and obligations as a citizen and the state has obligations and responsibilities towards you. It looks as though citizens are are doing what they are supposed to do in terms of that social contract, and yet the state is not reciprocating. And then at the same time, it recasts them as undeserving of the obligations of the state in the ways that we know they have done through not permitting them today the right of abode in Britain.

More recently you have been writing about Brexit and COVID to draw out the connected sociologies approach and to really force the hand of the social sciences towards a more connected understanding of history as underpinning it. Turning first to Brexit, you’ve explained how this connected sociologies approach offers an important critique of the now unfortunately taken-for-granted argument that Brexit is a form of white working class revolt.  Could you give a little bit more of an outline to that argument and what you are trying to do there?

GKB: One of the things that concerned me in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit Referendum was the way in which the media and many social scientists, seemed to latch onto this narrative of the vote being about réssentiment, of people who haven’t been heard giving a kick to the establishment and seeking to take back control. Yet, once you began looking at the data, which was usefully presented by Danny Dorling, what became incredibly clear was that the disproportionate vote for Brexit came from the white middle class, not the white working class. That is not to suggest that people from within the white working class didn’t also vote for Brexit but the key issue here is the disproportionate vote and that was very strongly from the white middle class. I became puzzled as to why was it that not just media commentators but also social scientists continued to reproduce this idea of it being an expression of white working class resentment.

One of the things that I thought it might be about was if you are saying that the white working class have voted for this, because they’ve suffered from the effects of globalisation, and therefore even if the vote is presented as about race you can’t really blame them for that because they are suffering so badly economically. But if it wasn’t them who voted for it but the middle class, then the argument about suffering economically doesn’t work precisely because they are middle class. Then all you are left with is race as part of the explanation. Ignoring the evidence allowed people to avoid talking about what would be considered this more unsavoury side, which was people’s racial resentments rather than their economic resentments.

MB: And particularly the kind of racial resentments as upheld by the middle classes as well who are so rarely the focus of those discussions of racism in Britain I suppose?

GKB: One of the things that a number of people have talked about is the fact that it is not the white working class who are responsible for the BAME attainment gap, for example; that’s produced by university lecturers and academics who would more often be understood as middle class. It is not the working class that stops BAME young kids getting opportunities in employment and so on.  So all these gate-keeping roles are done by people who would be understood as middle class, not as working class, and so the refusal to acknowledge the racism that is evident in those sorts of practices I think is also part of what is going on here.

MB: So middle-class complicity in institutional racism and not turning attention onto those. That’s really helpful. More recently you followed up that discussion of Brexit with a discussion of COVID-19. In that work you really foreground an understanding of the British working class as multi-ethnic. My reading of this is that you throw the gauntlet down for the future of sociological research into inequalities. What I read in this work is an attempt to foreground an understanding of what might very rapidly become obscured in the analyses of COVID and socio-economic inequalities.  Do you want to kind of spell that out a little bit more?

GKB: One of the things that I was thinking about when I was writing that piece was the fact that a lot of people were making arguments for us to reconsider Brexit on the basis of the economic hit that was going to come as a consequence of COVID-19. They were talking about the fact that the economic impact of the pandemic was going to be so severe that the case for Brexit economically had to be rethought. Within that, one of the things I was thinking about was that it is not just the economic consequences of the pandemic that should cause a rethink.

The daily presention of the disproportionate deaths from COVID among ethnic minorities and also their pivotal role on the frontline of the NHS and as key workers saw them presented quite unproblematically as British. The doctors, nurses, cleaners, porters, shopkeepers, bus drivers, tube drivers just making up everyday society. There was a moment when ‘who we were’ was being represented as a multi-cultural community . Given that there was a shift in cultural conceptions of who we were, I thought that this could be a moment when we could reclaim the multicultural grounds of our collective identity and rethink what could be possible politically from that basis.  

MB: I think that is a really hopeful point, it is that gap, isn’t it, where all of a sudden events were demonstrating to people that there was a possible alternative. We will have to see what happens over the coming weeks / months, particularly as at the same time as all of this has been going on they are trying to get the Immigration Bill passed. In the closing sentence of your piece about Covid you pose a question which is “What would it mean to see ourselves as a whole country and to address the socio-economic inequalities that Covid lays bare and that Brexit would exacerbate” and you kind of leave it hanging there. How would you respond to that question?

GKB: I think we need to think about policies that work for all of us and the ways in which we can make the country work for all of us. The question is, are all of us interested in it working for all of us?  

That’s always been the issue in terms of the divisions that get established and the ways in which there’s been a strong critique being presented of the multicultural project coming from the right. I think there is something deeply cynical about the way in which many people have sought to argue that what multiculturalism was about was about privileges for particular sorts of people. Nobody who is arguing for racial inequalities to be taken seriously is arguing for things for themselves to be better than those for other people, they are arguing for equality and inclusion into a community, a society, on the basis of equality. But the arguments that are being used to attack multiculturalism and to suggest that arguing for racial self-interest is not racism when it is done by a majority population, is deeply cynical because what they are arguing for is the maintenance and the reproduction of privilege, not of equality.

If we were to understand all of us being part of this country and what would it mean to have policies that worked for all of us, then that is the opportunity that I think COVID-19 presents us with, a possibility to imagine ourselves as we have been represented over the last few months, instead of how we have been represented in the tabloid and broadsheet press prior to that.

MB: So offering an alternative future and behaving as though it were real, kind of prefiguring that alternative, it could be quite a radical intervention.  Thank you very much, Gurminder, that’s been really interesting.

GKB: My pleasure, thank you.

Above illustration: ‘Journeys’ by Pardafash (2021).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses cookies to personalise your experience and analyse site usage. See our Cookie Notice for more details.