Borders, peripheries and the “subnational”

Last April 2019, I participated in the ECPR Joint Sessions in Mons. More specifically, I joined the workshop entitled “Subnational Immigration Policies and Politics: Towards a Second Generation Research Agenda”. Led by three political scientists from both sides of the Atlantic, the workshop aimed at sharing our research projects and getting quality feedbacks by peers.

Two months have passed since that week, but I still thought it would be of interest to reflect on the questions we addressed together. On the first day, the conveyors started the session with a set of questions, which they would eventually come back to the last day:

  • What do we mean by “subnational” and “local”?
  • What can we learn when looking at the subnational level?
  • What are the relations between various levels (of policymaking and politics)?
  • What are the actors and the targeted beneficiaries of these policies?

My co-author and I were the first ones to present. I, for my part, introduced my doctoral project, and presented my work on four cities located at the borders of Israel. And right after, the first comment made by the discussant related to the broader question “what is the subnational?”. Is it the municipal level? If so, are the cities connected?

I agree with those questionings: is it possible to speak of the four cities that I surveyed at the time, or of the villages I will look at in the framework of MigRural, within one category (may it be frontier towns, peripheral cities or peripheries)? Can I lump them together?

I would say yes and no.

It seems impossible to lump them together, since each township or village under inquiry is a unique place. I have argued that place matters, since it went through specific historical events which have a continuous effect on present outcomes; and since distinctive social interactions occurred and are occurring in that place. Each village that I might visit in the framework of MigRural will have a different experience of return migration, because of whom left, when, to where, whom return and to do what, and what were the external forces at play (an office, a subsidy, a political event that might have affected the place). But at the same time, I could possibly make some generalisations. As a matter of fact, wouldn’t there be a “common destiny” of these villages which are at the border, far from the political, administrative, economic and sociocultural centre(s)? Couldn’t I assume that being border villages, peripheral villages belonging to the “territorio do interior” may shape them in a more similar way than if they were to be compared to coastal villages?

I have also argued that looking at the actors is crucial to understand a particular place. In particular, in my doctoral research, I have focused on the agency of local elected officials and public service workers. Here again, this can lead to extreme variations, since each actor can influence policies which in turn affect places. And each aggregation of actors will be different (what I have called in my thesis the “subnational scalar space”). But then, when I started to represent visually these spaces, I have seen that some actors’ functions repeat in each city, and are not so central when looking at local politics in larger cities, or in towns in the centre. I labelled them “typical actors of the periphery”, since they draw policies for the periphery, dedicate resources and subsidies for the periphery, sketch working procedures and in general, create convergences through stabilised institutional discourses and practices. Here again, couldn’t I imagine that policy mobility might occur within specific places that distinguish themselves because of common experiences? Benefiting from specific convergence funds from the EU, from specific national policies… etc, and seeing the future of the town/village dealt with by a range of actors that interact regularly could lead to some homogeneity in policy responses, which in turn make it possible to look at some villages in some regions together.

And following this line of thought, when I tracked (although modestly) the “money” (that is the subsidies, transfers but also the way you get this money, the language you must command to access funds) and the people which authorise these transfers, I realised that there were similar channels. This enabled me to look at a meso-level: between the particularity of each place (shaped by the intentions of each actor in these places) on one hand; and the common experiences, practices, discourses that lead to a certain convergence in policy responses on the other hand. I would argue that both are meaningful: the uniqueness of the place; but also a common experience of being at the border, in the periphery, at the margin. In that sense, there is a common subnational experience. It shows through recurrent actors, infrastructures… that create some non-administrative boundaries, between the peripheries and the centre, even if not continuous.

Moreover, I believe that to think methodology through this (albeit fragmented) subnational level is useful when there is no proper written policies to analyse. Cities, towns or villages that are peripheral usually suffer from weak governance structures. Dealing with survival, the actors in these local administrations have little resources and time to put together policy papers. Practices are looser and not “archived” in a systematic manner. Looking at money, actors and relations between actors enable the researcher to analyse policies without written policies.

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