21 Feb

(En)gendering Migration: Narratives from South Asia and Beyond

By Professor Crispin Bates, Director of South Asian Studies, the University of Edinburgh


With five papers being presented in two sessions (by myself, Samita Sen, Paula Banerjee, Supurna Banerjee and Lauren Wilks), and a round table discussion involving eight leading experts (including Saswati Ghosh, Swati Ghosh, and Ishita Mukhopadhyay), this was a full, rewarding and thoroughly interdisciplinary workshop.

The audience included staff and postgraduates from institutes and departments across the city of Kolkata, whose questions at the end of each session and to the panellists were pointed and extremely helpful. By the conclusion of the proceedings there appeared to emerge a general frustration with most economic theories of migration.

Particularly noted was the tendency of general economic theory to regard marriage migration as unrelated to work migration (which it actually is in India in every sector). Most speakers favoured an abandonment of conventional push-pull explanations in favour of the ethnographic study of networks and the intermediaries who connected together the worker and employer. The coercive control exercised over plantation and domestic workers was described, but it was noted that all forms of employment, even in developed societies, involve an element of un-freedom, and as sociologists and historians we should be looking for the ways in which workers exercised agency and fulfilled their ambitions though migration.


In the concluding panel, the very high level of female migration (higher than that of men) in Bengal in the past decade was highlighted. This makes migration a particularly important issue for women in the State. Instead of demonising and denouncing it as the result of economic insecurity and the source of crime, disease, family break-up and moral corruption, several panellists argued the very opposite . In other words migration is normative behaviour and we should therefore pay more attention instead to the coercive behaviour of the state and elites in civil society, who discourage migrants and prevent their employment becoming more secure, at the same time as benefitting from their cheap labour.

This is clearly a rich field for future enquiry, with multiple intersections with other developmental, and social concerns. There was a general desire expressed therefore to repeat the workshop and to encourage some form of international collaborative research. There were lengthy chats amongst the participants over coffee, tea, lunch, and high tea at the end of the day, and we could see some very important ‘networks’ of our own being established or renewed. We all very much look forward to keeping in touch and meeting again in the near future and are extremely grateful to the Institute of Development Studies Kolkata (IDSK) for hosting this event.