Notes on ‘Migrant City’ by Les Back and Shamser Sinha with Charlynne Bryan, Vlad Baraku and Mardoche Yemba by Yasmeen Narayan

Les Talk Birkbeck
Image by Ben Gidley

This is my response to the talk on ‘Migrant City’ by Les Back at the Department of Psychosocial Studies Research Seminar, Birkbeck on 28 January 2019.

The collaborative ethnography ‘Migrant City’ is remarkable in its refusal to separate migration from race, empire and contemporary geopolitics. Back, Sinha, Bryan, Baraku and Yemba produce rich, beautiful and compelling ethnographic material which illuminates the connections between histories of colonialism and migration, colonial wealth production, the very formation of urban neighbourhoods in modern London and contemporary inequalities that Migration Studies as a discipline is infamous for turning away from. The authors argue for, ‘developing an inventory of these connections’ (Back et al 2018, 3) that will restructure the study of migration in the twenty-first century.

I began to read ‘Migrant City’ around the same time as members of our department – the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck – collectively decided to carve out time to discuss institutional racism at British universities so at a time that I was thinking about the terror of silence. Back, Sinha and their collaborators have written a bold ethnography which insists on discussing the lives of young migrants but only in relation to contemporary postcolonial urban multiculture, racist hate, austerity, surveillance, warfare and border control. Nor do the authors shy away from narratives of gendered and gendering violence which they position at the centre of the text but they are careful not to reproduce an immutable notion of sexual difference which erases histories and legacies of sexual violence.

I am always struck by the binary between migrants including those in detention centres and prisoners and how the concern for migrants seems to effortlessly co-exist with a brutal indifference towards police violence and the lives and deaths of prisoners. ‘Migrant City’ refuses these distinctions as it illuminates what Davis and Gordon have called the ‘prisonisation’ (Davis and Gordon 1998/9, 147) of the urban and rural landscape and how racialised subjects whether ‘new strangers’ (Back et al 2018, 7) or older ‘folk devils’ (Cohen 1972) can be detained, deported, imprisoned or left to die. These reconnections in ‘Migrant City’ simultaneously point to histories of anti-racist resistance that don’t produce this binary such as Justice for Grenfell or legal campaigns against deaths in custody whether in immigration detention centres, police stations, prison cells or psychiatric hospitals.

The authors offer a theory of urban multiculture which not only illustrates the co-existence of everyday conviviality with melancholic nationalism (Gilroy 2004) but demonstrates how our endlessly criminalised and pathologised yet magnificent urban cultures are formed through hate, gentrification, police violence and border regulation.

I have two questions on their argument on ‘new hierarchies of belonging’ (Back et al 2018, 7). Are you arguing that there are new hierarchies with ‘new strangers’ (ibid) at the bottom and/or that there are different racial hierarchies in different neighbourhoods? Related to this, could you say something about what you describe as ‘new and emergent forms of racism’ (Back et al 2018, 5)?

Returning to the terror of silence in the university, it is not just the circulation of discourses that pathologise and criminalise which patrol the borders of departments, disciplines and academic communities with astonishing precision. The silences on the connections between histories of colonisation, the very formation of modern Britain and her colonial classes, the contemporary beneficiaries of empire and predominantly white, upper middle-class academic communities produce a terror which pushes students and academics out. Back, Sinha and their collaborators are not seduced or even distracted by the promise of belonging offered by reproducing the same silences or humiliating the unrespectable.

This is why I found the method of collaborative ethnography and a sociable interdisciplinary sociology and the co-production of theory particularly compelling. It is framed by anti-colonial critiques of ethnography and academic histories of pathologising minoritised communities and it pushes, as the authors detail, respondents who are co-authors but not academics into heavily patrolled academic spaces.

‘Migrant City’ produces a new narrative on migration, race, empire and postcolonial geopolitics that does not defer to contemporary left populisms and common-sense academic nationalisms. It is an important text for those concerned with decolonising the curriculum.

Hall traces the shift from perpetrators to beneficiaries in debates on reparations after the second world war before she moves to the idea of reparation as repair and argues for ‘a reparatory history’ (Hall 2018, 4) framed by hopes of reconciliation and possibilities of different futures. She argues that academics who are the beneficiaries of contemporary postcolonial inequalities have a responsibility to produce academic work that illuminates the connections between histories of colonialism and contemporary patterns of privilege. All academic work including work on migration must be reparatory.

It is important that we recognise that the black or people of colour and white binary cannot be easily transposed onto those who are the beneficiaries of empire and those whose lives may be engulfed by the struggles postcolonial racism and warfare leaves them with without erasing histories of colonisation, genocide, persecution and criminalisation. ‘Migrant City’ does not erase but adds to these histories. It does present ‘an inventory of these connections’(Back et al 2018, 3). It is a bold, important, reparatory text and a beautiful tribute to our unruly, hybridised urban cultures.

Yasmeen Narayan is a Lecturer in Postcolonial and Psychosocial Studies in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck. She convenes the MA Culture Diaspora Ethnicity programme and the Race Forum.



Back, L and Sinha, S. with Bryan, C. Baraku, V. and Yemba, M (2018) Migrant City. London: Routledge Advances in Ethnography.

Cohen, S. (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics. St. Albans: Paladin.

Davis, A & Gordon, A. F.  (1998/9) ‘Globalism and the prison industrial complex: an interview with Angela Davis’ Race & Class 40: 145-157

Gilroy, P. (2004). After Empire: melancholia or convivial culture?  London: Routledge.

Hall, C. (2018) ‘Doing reparatory history: bringing ‘race’ and slavery home,’ Race and Class 60 (1) 3 – 21.




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