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The politics of transformative research- T2S mid-term workshop June 2020

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Under the exceptional circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the midterm workshop of the T2S programme in 2020 became a virtual event. However, as the organisers themselves quite rightly pointed out, the workshop focus – the politics of transformative research – has become, under these circumstances, even more relevant and timely. Each of the 12 projects in the T2S programme were asked this week to talk about the key concepts of their projects and to share what they are learning in relation to the politics of transformative research, before and since the COVID-19 crisis.

For MISTY, Neil Adger and Carloine Zickgraf together gave a presentation that clearly summarised our project’s objectives, scope and methods, and introduced the team’s initial thinking on Post-COVID pathways to sustainability.

Migration as Transformation

“Is the mobility and movement of labour part of the unsustainability problem? Or is migration a key element of transformation to sustainability?”

Much environmental science focuses, rightly, in Professor Adger’s opinion, on involuntary migration – that is people displaced from their homes because of environmental change or hazards. While important, this is a small part of the migration story. The dominant migration flow is still rural to urban migration into medium and large cities globally. In the fastest growing cities in the world, about two-thirds of their residents are in fact life time migrants. This is where the real story of migration and sustainability lies and where we are focused in this project.

Migration Studies is a cross-disciplinary field that has not been central to the sustainability sciences. Some of its major findings include:

  • ·Migration is more than simply about the flow of labour. Migration is transformative of individuals’ lives and involves decisions that are made for long term social mobility, education and other opportunities.

  • · Migration is also transformative of societies. Yet many of the dynamics are omitted in models of sustainability that assume people are rooted in one place and don’t make major changes during their lifecourse.

  • · And migration is, of course, highly politicized, especially with regard to international movement. Like many issues of public policy, it has been discussed in terms of security and threats to nation states, but particularly so in the past twenty years.

MISTY is trying to bring some of these ideas into these models of sustainability. We are tackling these issues in three prongs:

Migration and Sustainability

Conceptual and empirical modelling of migration-sustainability relationships

First, we are examining economic, social and environmental sustainability indicators, and hypothesising how they are affected by labour, human capital and resource demands associated with migration.

We are calibrating this at country level for 130 countries where we have data on internal migration flows, and on bi-lateral international flows.

Identity & Lifecourse

Indepth analysis of how migration affects sustainability transitions at individual and community scales

In six cities globally, we are collecting primary data with cohorts of migrants (and non-migrants) on the lived experience, place and meaning of sustainability.

We are doing this in various ways. First an in depth qualitative look, over the past six months, with small cohort of migrants across the six cities about what sustainability, community, and identity means for them.

We have planned a larger comparative survey more on behavioural aspects, but this is currently postponed.

The COVID crisis has altered peoples’ lives drastically. For migration, there are two related elements:

1. the implied blame of the ‘others’ in transporting and importing the COVID virus, and divisive politics around biosecurity.

2. the prolonged economic shock that potentially disproportionately affects migrant or insecure workers.

We are directly investigating how this plays out, using the first phase of data as a baseline and re-interviewing this cohort this month and keeping up with them over the next year or more to find out how the COVID crisis has affected migrant populations in different contexts and ultimately how this affects identity, community and transitions to sustainability.


Analysis of the politics and formal governance of migration in relation to environmental governance and regimes

MISTY investigates the political aspects of migration and sustainability particularly through its third research theme: governance. In this we ask: “What are the connections between the governance of migration and the governance of sustainability?” And, “How do local policies address the role of migration in the transformation towards sustainability?”

Here we address both horizontal and vertical governance divides and potential incoherence between governance dimensions and fora, such as the integration of migration issues within UNFCCC processes, where the environment-migration link has received more attention that in, for example, migration governance and policy, where environmental and sustainability dimensions have been put on the backburner so to speak.

We also consider the vertical dimension, as city governance perspectives of migration towards sustainability can differ dramatically from their national level and international discourses.

We do this methodologically via a mixed method approach, using discourse analysis, interviews, and participatory research approaches such as photo elicitation.

Partnerships and Impact

Ensuring the impact of MISTY throughout its duration, and not only at its conclusion, is fundamental to achieving our objectives.We therefore engage in both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

Caroline Zickgraf presenting at a COP25 side event in Madrid last year

From a top down, we engage with policymakers, delegates, and international organisations, through, for example, participation in COP, with migration organisations and processes like the GCM, and SDGs.

Underlining the importance of local actors and interests, we recently concluded a complementary research partnering with the Mayors Migration Council and C40 Cities Climate Leadership group seeking to advise on the vulnerability of migrants but also their potential to be sustainable actors and residents, not just the victims of unsustainability or climate impacts.

Next Steps for MISTY

Moving forward, on top of implementing our research design, we are looking towards what transformations to sustainability will look like in the critical coming years for migrants, migration policies, and inclusive sustainable action. Certainly, in order to ensure an impact of MISTY, we have to consider how this picture is and will change with COVID-19, and what that means for migrants and mobility more broadly.

Transforming towards sustainability is clearly multi-dimensional, and COVID-19 has exposed any number of inequalities, not least of which for vulnerable migrants. What mobility and migration will look like, and how they are perceived, will undoubtedly be impacted by new biosecurity and economic concerns. Migrants are often scapegoated, whether blamed for the spread of COVID-19, conflating migration with travel and general global mobility patterns, or seen as economic threats. This scapegoating brings with it political ramifications: from restrictive migration policies or bans on permanent migration, deportation measures, and in the long run with a looming economic downturn, the decreased demand for labour migration. With this in mind, the coming years will be critical in determining how and to what extent transformations take place towards sustainability, and if and how they will be inclusive.

This text is an abridged version of the presentation given by Neil Adger and Caroline Zickgraf on behalf of MISTY for the T2S mid-term meeting held virtually on 2nd June, 2020.


The full set of PowerPoint slides for the MISTY presentation can be found here on the T2S website.

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