Migration is focus of new PIIRS interdisciplinary research community

Sandra Bermann

Sandra Bermann

Photo by Amaris Hardy

A new research community supported by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies will bring together faculty members from across the University to better understand the nature of migration, how it is represented and the ways it shapes the world.

The community, "Migration: People and Cultures Across Borders," will include 22 core faculty members from a range of disciplines. It will receive up to $750,000 from PIIRS over the next three years to support research, conferences and course development.

The effort is led by Sandra Bermann, the Cotsen Professor in the Humanities and professor of comparative literature, who said she was drawn to the project by her personal and professional interest in migration and by the importance of the topic to understanding history and the contemporary world.

"We know that people are migrating in unprecedented numbers," Bermann said. "The changing nature and numbers of population flows are essential to chart and to understand. It is also essential to understand both national and international regulations, security issues and human rights."

Beyond those issues, though, there are other important questions, Bermann said. Among them: Why are people leaving their homes, and how do these reasons affect their futures? Who leaves, and who stays behind? Who becomes stateless and why? How have migrants acclimated and contributed to new cultural and linguistic contexts? How might literature and the arts promote this? How do different cultures and economies respond to migrant flows? What are the public and private sectors doing to ensure that migrants become contributing members of their new homes?  

"Above all, what happens as we examine such questions holistically, bringing different disciplinary knowledges together?" Bermann said. 

Mark Beissinger, the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Politics and acting director of PIIRS, said the research community's topic is very relevant to today's geopolitical climate.

"The causes and consequences of massive migration are some of the most important issues facing the world today," Beissinger said. "Princeton has an outstanding group of faculty working on these issues across the humanities and the social sciences. What's been so impressive about the migration community is how quickly it was able to pull these people together and put them in conversation with one another — precisely what we are looking for in a PIIRS research community."

Bermann and the community's other scholars want to explore topics in fields including anthropology, art, economics, history, journalism, law, literature, religion, politics, population research, public policy, sociology and translation.

"Many scholars at Princeton are passionate about the question of migration, and we approach it from remarkably different perspectives; we have so much to learn from one another," Bermann said. "One thing we know is that this is an immensely important topic — not only to researchers, but also to the students we teach."  

While the community is still developing, it has already outlined several lines of inquiry for the next three years. They include "Narratives of Migration," "The Ethics and Politics of the Undocumented," "Terminologies," "Changing Nationalisms in an Era of Transnationalism," "Arts in Transit," and "Language Justice."  

One or more faculty members will lead work in each of these areas, and several conferences and panels are planned to discuss findings. At least one major collection of essays and a website will result from these efforts.

"This collaboration is particularly compelling because migration entails complex issues that can, in fact, best be addressed in interdisciplinary fashion," Bermann said. "Yet this rarely happens. The opportunity we have to work together over a three-year period is extraordinary. I'm very optimistic about what we might accomplish."

The group will soon incorporate graduate and undergraduate fellows, and some projects will include the broader Princeton community. In its third year of work, the research community plans an interdisciplinary, team-taught course on migration that will take advantage of the group's research, as well as the topic's potential for service and civic engagement.

The research community has invited applications for one to two visiting fellowships and one to two postdoctoral research associate appointments for the 2017-18 academic year, beginning Sept. 1, 2017. These scholars, recruited from outside the Princeton faculty, will add their voice — and expertise — to the group.