Panel 34

The meanings of migration: Connecting inequality and the culture of migration in West Africa

Panel organisers: Erlend Paasche, University of Oslo, Norway and Gunvor Jónsson, University of Oxford, UK.


This panel starts from the observation that the meanings of migration in West Africa cannot be understood in isolation from people’s differentiated access to and experiences of mobility. As defined in a groundbreaking paper by Massey et al. (1993) a ‘culture of migration’ emerges when, ‘At the community level, migration becomes deeply ingrained into the repertoire of people’s behaviors, and values associated with migration become part of the community’s values.’ Such a definition imposes on communities a bounded homogeneity that they rarely exhibit. Any discussion of the cultural and social meanings of migration need to deal with, if not foreground, the conflict-ridden and socially stratified nature of migration. Attempts to become mobile are systematically successful for a privileged few and systematically thwarted for others who seek to emulate them. While both of these groups may share the aspiration for connecting with global flows and ending local ‘waithoods’, and although they may inhabit a shared society if not social space, they do not engage in the same migration trajectories. Nor do they reap the same fruits from migration, or, ultimately, share the same ‘culture of migration’. Unitary images of the culture of migration depoliticizes inequality and impose a sameness on social groups that differ not only in terms of attributes like age, gender and class but in terms of life chances. In this panel we critically connect ‘culture’ to migration in a way that highlights rather than glosses over the heterogeneity of those who cross West African borders, or aspire to do so.

To the top