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The State Effect at the Border: Avoiding Totalizing Theories of Political Power in Migration Studies

Sat, August 12, 10:30 to 11:30am, Palais des congrès de Montréal, Floor: Level 5, 517B


Previous migration scholarship has either ignored the state altogether, or, more recently, made the state out to be a powerful entity that subsumes grassroots politics. To address these extremes, I argue that we can theorize the relationship between state practices and political behavior through the concept of ‘state effect.’ This concept also provides a way to theorize, rather than just describe, the relationship between the two sides of this politics. To illustrate these ideas, I draw on data collected through 16 months of participant observation and 70 interviews with activists in Arizona. Pro-immigrant activists in this study contended that the problem of undocumented migration resulted from the state’s unchecked coercive power. Experiencing this strong-state effect, pro-immigrant activists’ tactics focused on limiting the state’s reach and reinforcing society’s capacity to resist the state. Meanwhile, immigration restrictionist activists attributed the problem of undocumented immigration to the state’s feebleness as a policing entity. In response to this weak-state effect, restrictionist tactics tried to expand the state’s scope and build society’s ability to aid the state. Thus, this study illustrates how the politics of immigration plays out at the grassroots level as a struggle between expanding and restricting the state The article concludes by discussing how the strong/weak-state effect framework helps draw our attention to the structural ambiguities of political power and provides an avenue for inductively exploring the relationship between state practices and social movements.