ScienceBlogs
Home

Ontological Security and Migration Politics: A Critical Perspective

1
1
Ontological Security and Migration Politics: A Critical Perspective
To what extend can ontological security theory help us to better understand crises? - © Ozer Unsplash

As we seek to make sense of global political trends and the increased securitization of migration, it can be difficult to understand the motivations and rationale behind government restrictions on movement and punitive measures. In this blog I argue that the theoretical approach of ontological security can provide a starting point for analyzing such trends. The theory is helpful in emphasizing the importance of narratives and self-identity to establish a sense of security and can be applied to recent political developments.

Global insecurities about migration have resulted in increasingly harsh restrictions on movement and threats to the lives of individual migrants. For example, in Italy the government has recently made an agreement with Albania for the processing of asylum seekers in detention centers overseas. In the UK, a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda remains a government priority despite initial setbacks. These processes of externalizing migration control can be seen as a reaction against the perceived threat which migrants are seen to pose to the identity and security of the state.

Introducing Ontological Security

Academic theories for understanding moments of crises are often considered too abstract for to be helpful to the wider population but they should not be completely dismissed. This blog delves into the potential of ontological security theory to explain and understand government reactions to political crises. I argue that the theory can help us to understand the motivations behind global trends in migration politics. Ontological security was first used at a micro-level to explain how psychiatric patients battled with their own issues of self-identity, but it has since been used to theoriz e macro-level state dynamics. One important component for ontological security is having a secure sense of self-identity, which is aided by having a “continuous biographical narrative” or life story. When unexpected or threatening events disrupt the idea of the self, the individual or state reacts to preserve self-identity, and continue with the security-seeking process. Migration is often framed as an unexpected event which threatens the self-identity of the nation state.

Macro-level: How politicians instrumentalize security

In relation to externalizing migration control, we can see how governments seek to retaliate against the identity threat that migrants are seen to present and make emotional appeals to gain public support for their actions. This was particularly evident in the Brexit campaign in the UK in 2016 when voters were urged to “take back control” of immigration controls by leaving the European Union. This narrative played a key part in the referendum vote that led to the UK’s subsequent departure from the EU.

In this case, right wing politicians were able to draw on public fears of increased migration, and argue that the mismanagement of the EU had led to unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving in Europe. Pro-Brexit parties successfully argued that leaving the EU was the only option to protect the UK from the threat of illegal migration, and secure Britain’s economic future. Ontological security can help us to understand why politicians use these narratives, to uphold a shared vision of national security. Catarina Kinnvall describes this process as follows:

“You know ontological security is about this kind of feeling of safety, that somebody can provide you with, even if it is built on misinformation, disinformation, fantasies, lies… It can provide a kind of emotional attachment. In the hands of far-right leaders and movements, it is about channeling and governing emotions for containing anxiety, for neutralizing anger… It often becomes a means to guide future action while creating this illusion of ontological security in the present.

C. Kinnvall

Micro Level: Individual migrant perspectives on security

Individual migrants are themselves not passive spectators of political narratives but are engaged in their own security-seeking processes, to feel safe and secure in their local environment, and go on with everyday life. This includes the need to have a stable sense of identity and idea of home. The ontological security-seeking process is made even more difficult for migrants in Europe, who are faced with hostile political narratives, punitive restrictions on movement, and barriers to national identity. Scholars, including Alexandria Innes, have focused on the life histories of individual migrants to emphasize the importance of everyday social interactions for feeling secure. Innes has argued:

“Ultimately, the experience of ontological security is tied to identity experiences in mundane everyday encounters.”

A. Innes

This means that routine social interactions, such as small interactions with a bus driver, teacher, or shopkeeper can play an important role in how ontologically secure a person feels. These experiences may correspond with wider political narratives about migration, or they may point to the emergence of counternarratives and responses to hostile migration policies. In some cases, individual migrants may experience discrimination in daily life, and respond to these experiences of insecurity by presenting a more favourable view of social relations.

Ontological Security: A Critical Lens

Through the examples given above we can begin to understand the potential for ontological security theory to explain the response of governments and states to moments of perceived crises, by emphasizing the importance of emotional narratives and self-identity. The theory is also applicable at a micro-level and can help us to understand how individuals try to feel themselves more secure when faced with uncertainty.

Against a backdrop of consecutive global crises, social and political scientists alike have sought to better understand government reactions. One way to better understand international migration politics is through the theoretical framework of ontological security, which highlights the emotional appeal of political narratives and the need to establish a degree of certainty over a self identity. This perspective is beneficial for everyone, not just theorists and academics.

Please see below for a video recording of a recent webinar with Catarina Kinnvall and Alexandria Innes, where we discussed these themes in further detail.

This content is hosted by a third party. By showing the external content you accept the terms and conditions.

Ontological Security Theory and Migration Studies

Marcus Nicolson

Marcus Nicolson

Marcus Nicolson works in the Institute for Minority Rights as a Post-Doctoral Researcher in the Horizon 2020-funded B-Shapes project exploring how borders shape perceptions of European societies. His PhD project used an ontological security theoretical framework to examine the lived experiences of young adult migrants in Glasgow, UK. This research has foregrounded individual perceptions of security, transnational identity negotiation, and the role of (im)migration narratives in sub-state contexts. Marcus has published research in journals including Comparative Migration Studies, Social Inclusion, and International Migration.

Tags

Citation

https://doi.org/10.57708/bedtmxdrgqfumyftp-zvlrw
Nicolson, M. Ontological Security and Migration Politics: A Critical Perspective . https://doi.org/10.57708/BEDTMXDRGQFUMYFTP-ZVLRW

Related Post

A US-designed Migration Pact for the Americas?
ScienceBlogs
mobile-people-and-diverse-societies

A US-designed Migration Pact for the Americas?

Leiza BrumatLeiza Brumat
“I’ll see you on the other side”: migrant journeys and the (re)formation of diasporic identities
ScienceBlogs
mobile-people-and-diverse-societies

“I’ll see you on the other side”: migrant journeys and the (re)formation of diasporic identities

Leah Simmons WoodLeah Simmons Wood
A rural area in Germany
ScienceBlogs
mobile-people-and-diverse-societies

Politics of Adjustment: How mayors in rural municipalities manage reception facilities for asylum seekers

namename

Science Shots Newsletter

Science Shots Eurac Research Newsletter

Get your monthly dose of our best science stories and upcoming events.

Choose language