Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Book Review: Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility: The Migrant’s-Eye View of the World



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Guest post by Stav Salpeter. Stav is an MA (Hons) International Relations and International Law student at the University of Edinburgh, where she is currently specialising in the politicisation of human rights organisations in the Palestinian-Israeli context. She has worked for NGOs supporting migrants in Norway and is a René Cassin Human Rights Ambassador focusing on advocacy for asylum seekers' rights. She is the recipient of the 2020 Margaret Balfour Keith Award for distinction in Public Law and is a former editor of the Re:Think Journal of Creative Ethnography. Stav is on Twitter: @StavSalpeter.

Review of Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility: The Migrant’s-Eye View of the World by Alex Sager (Palgrave 2018)

The debate between cosmopolitan and statist or nationalist accounts of borders has taken an increasingly central place in the literature on the ethics of migration. Sager’s intervention is personal, passionately argued, and compelling. From the beautifully bilingual acknowledgements to his final call to action, Sager places himself firmly within the debate while successfully outlining its contours. 

Although the book occasionally reads like a literature review, that becomes understandable when one considers the ambitious scope of the work. The strength of this emphasis on breadth is that Sager undertakes a truly interdisciplinary approach, allowing him to expand the scope of his previous work while generally arguing along the same lines. In ‘Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility,’ he (viii) takes the lead in remedying what he points out is a lack of engagement with political philosophy by social scientists, and social scientific research by political philosophers. For those of us concerned with border criminologies, and perhaps less immersed in the philosophical literature on migration, the book provides a useful overview of the state of the art, a bridge between academic disciplines, and a promising foundation for further applied research.  

The main argument of the book is that methodological nationalism, the framework prioritising the nation state as the basic unit of analysis, underlies even the most cosmopolitan accounts of mobility, and the solution lies in adopting a critical cosmopolitan approach. Sager (6-7) reveals a deeply imbued methodological nationalism in political philosophy, based on a consistent sedentary bias. This bias existed amongst political philosophers from Aristotle to Rawls, being reinforced with the emergence of social contract theory. Sager’s emphasis on sedentary biases as underlying methodological nationalism helps add a new layer to our examinations of the criminalization of migrants, allowing us to understand not only how methodological nationalism is constructed, but also how it seeps into domestic criminalisation of mobility such as anti-nomadic regulations.

Methodological nationalism and the underlying sedentary bias mean that migration is either disparaged or made invisible: the focus becomes on immigration into the nation, and when emigration is referred to it is treated as a zero-sum game (27). Such nation-based perceptions of migration also make it easier to ignore internal migration and internal elements of international migration. 

To counteract the impact of methodological nationalism, Sager (80-82) proposes we apply Delanty’s ‘critical cosmopolitanism’ to our conceptualisation of migration. In essence, he argues that classic cosmopolitan accounts, and especially the ‘weak cosmopolitanism’ proposed by David Miller, carry the risk of facilitating liberal nationalist notions of mobility. Sager shows the ways in which critical cosmopolitanism can overcome several shortcomings of traditional cosmopolitanism. Applying critical cosmopolitan approaches to migration would ensure an added emphasis on the ways in which borders exacerbate existing structural injustice on the basis of race or gender. Moreover, it would remedy the tendency, prominent even in cosmopolitan accounts of mobility, to ignore mobility restrictions at sub-state levels. This approach to migration systems approaches also has normative implications, allowing us to question the commonly accepted distinction between domestic and international migration restrictions. 

Sager (Chapter 3) argues that a new research programme in the spirit of critical cosmopolitanism should realise states are not inevitable, drawing on transnational histories and consciously assuming the perspective of the migrant. However, since the focus is very much on meta-ethics (viii), the application of the theory remains undefined. 

The case studies chosen are not especially strong – or global. This may be my only disappointment in a book purporting to challenge western-centric perceptions of migration. Sager (26) emphasises that academic discourse generally focuses on South-North migration despite the fact that it is exceeded by South-South migration, but his case studies unfortunately do not reflect that balance. Besides this shortcoming, the lack of in-depth case studies leave it unclear how Sager intends for this theory to be applied. However, as noted, extensive case studies and application of this meta-theory is beyond the scope of the book, and it remains up to us to apply the theory to our research. This would include dealing with practical issues in a world where statistics are collected on a state level and where people experience daily violence on the basis of borders that have already been constructed on a nation-state basis. 

Overall, ‘Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility’ is a quick read with lasting impact. Sager proposes a useful framework – which I started applying myself when thinking about the vagaries of border controls in the current pandemic or the ways in which methodological nationalism feeds into domestic restrictions on nomadic lifestyles as in the present Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. Ultimately, the true test of the book will rest in how it is applied. Although it may seem idealistic, it makes a meaningful contribution in breaking down our way of thinking about the ethics of border control beyond the level of the nation-state. To begin, Sager convincingly invites us to break down the borders in our minds. 

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Salpeter, S. (2021). Book Review: Toward a Cosmopolitan Ethics of Mobility: The Migrant’s-Eye View of the World. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2021/09/book-review-0 [date]

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