Alice Elliot, The Outside: Migration as Life in Morocco (Indiana University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Alice Elliot (AE): I wanted to decenter dominant understandings of migration and trace what happens when places of departure rather than arrival are positioned at the heart of conceptual, ethnographic, political thinking and practice around migration. Sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad’s powerful work on the colonial and intimate connections between “immigration” and “emigration” was a central impulse for writing the book, as was my long-term engagement with Mediterranean migrations.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

AE: A core aim of the book is to address the deep, constitutive relationship between the global phenomenon of migration and the intimacy of everyday life—and to rethink “migration” accordingly. The book is organized around the ethnography of a rural area of central Morocco notorious for its striking emigration to “the outside,” and traces the multiple ways in which migration permeates life: as brutal bureaucratic machinery administering hope and despair, as an intimate force crisscrossing kinship relations and bonds of love and care, as an imaginative horizon of the self and of the future. Different literatures are engaged throughout the text—a lot of Abdelmalek Sayad’s work on the Algerian migration; a lot of anthropology—of movement, of gender and personhood, of Islam, of documents; and different writings on migration, border and racial violence, diasporas. Above all, however, the book centers peoples’ sharp theorizations and intimate experiences of “the outside,” as a way to both challenge dominant framings of migration and their deadly consequences, and begin to draw out alternative visions of what migration is, does, and can be.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AE: I have always been engaged with migration, especially Mediterranean migrations, both as an anthropologist and through migrant rights work. Before this book, my engagement was very much anchored to a perspective of “arrival”—migration understood in terms of what happens at the border of, and within, countries of arrival, rather than also in terms of the spaces, places, relations, histories of departure. Writing this book has recast my thinking, teaching, and practice around migration in fundamental ways.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AE: My big hope is that the book can contribute, even in minimal form, to the fundamental work happening within and especially outside academia to redraw the very lines along which migration is imagined and governed. This is both a labor of denaturalizing assumptions that organize dominant understandings of migration—exposing, for example, the racist logics and colonial histories underpinning contemporary migration policy—and of developing a radically different framework to conceptualize migration—for example by attending, as I aim to do with this book, to the intimate, constitutive relationships between specific forms of life and transnational movement.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AE: A lot of my energy since finishing the book has gone into teaching and working with students and colleagues on different forms of pedagogies. Very much in line with the thinking on migration developed in the book, I am working on a core theory program for anthropology students that expands the idea of “theory”—ethnographically, historically, and in terms of the classroom’s situated knowledge, experience, and conceptual work. Alongside teaching, I am developing a project in collaboration with the Italian migrant group Occhio ai Media on “ethnic profiling” and police violence during and beyond national lockdowns, a social archive of thinking on and experiences of police encounters that challenges and reconceptualizes dominant understandings of “safety.”


Excerpt from the book (from the conclusion, pp. 160-163)

In his pioneering work on the Algerian migration to France, Abdelmalek Sayad mounts a sophisticated and unforgiving critique of the “discourse and science” (2004:119) of the study of migration. At the heart of his critique lies what he sees as a failure, even resistance, to recognize migration as a “fait social global” (1991:15)—a whole entity, an entire social system, that implicates at once the historical, the political, the cultural, the personal (cf. Mauss 2002). As I mention in the Introduction to this book, Sayad develops this observation most powerfully, and most famously, by insisting on the simple but deeply significant fact that “one country’s immigration is another country’s emigration” (Sayad 2004:1). He rejects the “caesura” at the heart of dominant studies of migration, one that arbitrarily separates the process of immigration from the process of emigration. It is this separation, Sayad argues, that allows migration studies to be grounded and guided only by the (self-)perceptions, needs, and concerns of the country of immigration—the receiving, or “host,” society. This ends up reproducing—more or (often) less innocently (see Sayad 1984)—migration as an isolated phenomenon that starts and ends in (say) France, extracted from its geographical, cultural, historical, colonial roots, and understood in terms of a list of disconnected “social problems” to be solved. For Sayad, to speak of migration must be to speak “about the migratory phenomenon in its totality” (2004:63), and to begin to capture this “totality” one needs to trace the steps of migrants themselves, and start, “logically and chronologically” (1976:12), from the places of origin.

Following Sayad’s insight, this book is grounded in a place where, and with people amongst whom, migration begins. As Sayad argues throughout his writings, this decentering of the traditional location of migration studies unavoidably becomes more than a mere geographical move—it produces and demands a conceptual decentering, a decentering, that is, of the modes of thinking about migration. This conceptual decentering happens first and foremost because the analytical tools at the heart of migration studies come to be interrogated when migration is thought through departure rather than (solely) arrival. So, for example, the prism of, and concern about, migrant “adaption” or “assimilation,” still as dominant in the production of knowledge about migration as they were (to his deep exasperation) in Sayad’s time, are suddenly parochialized when the theoretical imagination of migration is expanded to include its origins, and, as we have seen in this book, a multitude other conceptual prisms and social concerns powerfully erupt on the scene. Similarly, the dominant economistic understanding of migration, one that postulates migratory movement as being ultimately about economic disadvantage, is suddenly revealed to be “no more than an exercise in accountancy” (Sayad 2004:127) if extricated from the multiple conceptualizations of what migration (and indeed “the economic”) is, should, and might be about in spaces of departure such as the Tadla.

But the conceptual decentering that happens when one begins to observe migration in its “totality” and from its origins is not only at the level of tools, modes, or models of analysis. It concerns also the conceptualization of migration itself, the very object these tools, modes, models aim to “analyze.” What l-brra reveals is that the constitutive texture of migration, the “thing” migration is imagined to be in migration studies and beyond, emerges as something new, and different, when observed at its origins. What I have tried to show in this book is how migration reveals itself, just as Sayad suggests, as a fait social global, in the Maussian sense of a “total social fact” that implicates the totality of social and intimate (and religious, and esthetic, and economic, and linguistic, . . .) life. With this I do not mean to (only) say that migration affects, and is affected by, life—arguably an uncontroversial statement, at least in the social sciences (though not necessarily in migration policy making and thinking, where “life” is often disregarded, if not actively dispelled [De León 2015; Saucier and Woods 2014]). What I have tried to show in this book is that migration cannot be analytically extricated from life—that is, imagined and conceptualized as an entity/phenomenon separate from the life that makes it and is made through it, and thus something external to life that can be observed and understood in terms of its “causes” in and “effects” on life.

The anthropology of migration has often implicitly and explicitly unpacked dominant theories about the causes and effects of migration—starting from the incredibly resilient push/pull model, a model rooted in neoclassical economics that conceptualizes migratory movement in terms of labor supply and demand, global wage differentials, and individual migratory decisions based on cost-benefit calculations. Anthropology has a long tradition of actively shifting the understanding of migration away from (crude) economics and the kind of “exercise in accountancy” that Sayad laments, and drawing attention to other complex causes and effects of migration in local life: hope, history, kinship, imagination, colonialism, personhood, love, empire, the divine, to name but a few. But throughout the work of deepening, expanding, and subverting recognized causes and effects of contemporary migrations, the conceptualization of migration itself generally remains that of an entity/phenomenon that is, at some scale at least, external to its causes and effects, and exists, and can be known, independently of them—indeed, it is by virtue of this conceptual independence between migration and life (be it hope, history, kinship. . .) that one can be imagined as affecting or affected by the other.

In my attempt to understand l-brra, I have encountered a different kind of relationship between migration and life. As I argue in the closing chapter, what is significant about l-brra, and what constitutes it, is its social and intimate action in and through life. Life—in all its complexity, ambiguity, contingency—is both l-brra’s operative ground and its constitutive texture. Extricated from this (specific) life—the bodies, households, imaginations, relationships, words, gestures that actualize it and are actualized through it—l-brra is merely a “flat” place of vague betterness, as most destinations of migration probably reveal themselves to be when extricated from the specific lives that actualize, and are actualized through, them. In other words, it makes little sense to conceptualize l-brra as an entity/phenomenon independently, and independent, from its action in life—to conceptualize, that is, “what it is” independently from “what it does”—as it is this action that makes it.

The kind of constitutive relationship l-brra instantiates between migration and life in the Tadla offers a different way of thinking about migration, and indeed the dominant “discourse and science” (Sayad 2004:119) that accompanies it. Itsuggests that the conceptual labor migration requires may not be so much at the level of identifying more, and developing a more refined analysis of, its causes and effects in local life. Rather, it may be about tracing, as I have tried to do in this book, how migration emerges through life. This does not mean ignoring the obvious fact that migration has both causes and effects—be they historical, economic, physical, or divine. But it does mean shifting the conceptual imagination of the relationship between life and migration, which also underpins the understanding of migration’s causes/effects, from one of causation to one of co-constitution.

This relational shift also shifts the imagination of what the study of migration should look like—or, better and less prescriptively, where the study of migration might begin, conceptually as much as geographically (and, as Sayad shows, geographical and conceptual shifts are inextricably linked when it comes to migration). If migration is sometimes inextricable—conceptually, ethnographically, experientially—from the life through which it emerges, then this constitutive relationship must be contained within, rather than considered extrinsic to, the unit of analysis of migration studies—imminent in the very “thing” migration is conceptualized to be. This Stratherninan move—that is, one that takes, as Marilyn Strathern (1988, 1994) teaches, the relation rather than the objects/persons/things being related as its unit of analysis—means making the subject of migration studies not an insulated and a priori definition of “migration,” but rather the multiple constitutive relationships between migration and life that emerge in different migratory realities. But this relational move in the study of migration also means working with a resolutely humble and expansive conceptual imagination of migration. Humble, because, if the texture and definition of migration is inextricable from (specific) life, then the entity/phenomenon of migration can never be treated as something that is already know prior to close ethnographic and conceptual work. And expansive because the conceptual imagination of migration must be one that is able to hold as much multiplicity and complexity as life itself.