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Lecture | Leiden Interdisciplinary Migration Seminar (LIMS)

The Grid: Making A Universal Migration Regime

Friday 5 March 2021
Leiden Interdisciplinary Migration Seminars 2020-2021

LIMS talk by Dr. Darshan Vigneswaran (Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies, University of Amsterdam), entitled 'The Grid: Making A Universal Migration Regime'.


The Leiden Interdisciplinary Migration Seminars (LIMS) aim at fostering further discussion across disciplines on migration-related topics and creating an open dialogue between the speakers and the attendees. The seminars are a platform for those at Leiden University working on migration-related topics.


How does international migration governance work? More specifically, how do we make collective decisions about who can move from their own country to reside in a different part of the world? The most basic tool of international migration governance is ‘The Grid’: a network of borders, checkpoints, identifying documents and surveillance technologies that divides the earth’s surface into a series of territories where each of us resides and helps officials determine who belongs where. We have described and historicised aspects of the Grid in Europe and North America (Torpey 2018, Zolberg 2008). However, we do not know how the grid moved out of these local and particular origins to become a universal political regime spanning the Global North and South, influencing migration decision-making and practice across the globe.

This study builds on recent historical efforts to explore how the international regime emerged out of post-colonial efforts to restructure linkages between developed and developing worlds (Mongia 2018, Vigneswaran 2020) to ask how ‘the grid’ become the way that rulers across the world decide who belongs where. The paper develops this account by looking away from the Western states and Western ideas that dominate our history of international migration governance, to instead develop insights through observations of the everyday practices of ordinary officials, state agents and non-state actors in developing regions. The paper uses these empirical insights to launch a broad inter-disciplinary ‘re’-theorization of the concept of ‘the grid’. Drawing in reflections from the study of other types of grids in design, town planning, biology, computer science, art, mathematics, geography and more, the account engages critically with social scientists’ tendency to treat sovereign territoriality and its powerful hold on international migration governance as something ‘invented’ by European elites (Foucault 2008, Elden 2013, Scott 1998, Branch 2014, Vigneswaran 2013), appealing instead for recognition of the global and social construction of this principle.

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