Tackling the Nation-State ‘Container Model’ in Statelessness Research

by Victoria Reitter

October 2020

In this blog entry, Victoria Reitter, PhD candidate at Paris Lodron University of Salzburg (Department of Sociology) describes the approach of her PhD project. Researching statelessness through the analytic lens of an ethnographer, Reitter critiques an over reliance on quantitative data in the field, without also looking behind the curtains at the backstage performances, dynamics and developments of state institutions.

Statelessness would not exist if it were not for a world system of administratively and politically separated nation-states. As such, when researching statelessness as a global social phenomenon, it is useful to reflect about the already two decades’ old critique of methodological nationalism in social sciences. Methodological nationalism means equating society with the nation-state, and taking for granted the artificially constructed boundaries of the latter by assuming the nation-state is the natural social unit of study (see Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002). Social anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists and other social scientists have famously criticized the conceptual fallacies of methodological nationalism which has also been referred to as the ‘container model’ of national society (see e.g. Pries 2005; Faist 2012). Asserting that statelessness is a product of global nation-state formation, the reader might be puzzled how not to think in a nation-state container logic when focusing the research on the outcomes of this very logic. I have come up with several solutions how to address the critique of methodological nationalism in my research through a multi-local and multi-method ethnographic research design that aims at complementing the useful but overly relied upon juridical and quantitative approach to statelessness research.

In my PhD, I investigate local configurations in state-authorities with regard to stateless persons’ registrations and applications in two European countries, Austria and Spain. My multi-sited ethnographic approach involves conducting (participatory) observation and interviews with public service employees on all levels in relevant state-authorities (in Spanish and Austrian cities). The comparative perspective is two-tiered in the way that it not only aims at retrieving the differences and commonalities in different local contexts but also at detecting discrepancies and similarities within and between state-agencies and administrations. My research design aims at highlighting precisely how the boundaries are drawn between those eligible for a (statelessness or protection) status and those who are not. This elucidates understanding of how conditions for membership are produced and reinforced by the nation-states’ logic of inclusion and exclusion as put in practice by its state-agents, from street- to high-level.

Dedicating the research interest to a specific phenomenon as a global system rather than to its specific national manifestations is one way to tackle methodological nationalism. As statelessness in Europe is often linked to migration, I talked to some scholars in Madrid engaging in quantitative migration research. They showed me impressive charts about the development of migration and the attitudes towards migration by the Spanish population that greatly differ compared to the majority of European countries. They show that Spain tends to be more optimistic about migration and, until recently, Spanish politics had not evidenced a big politicization of the topic. While these charts are extremely catchy and look good on paper, reality is a more complex and mixed picture that cannot be captured with numbers alone.

Further, in the field of statelessness research, we find a lot of technical-juridical accounts about statelessness worldwide that inform us about how procedures should work in theory – how systems are supposed to function, the black-and-white descriptions of internationally differing regulations, manuals, and court-rulings. However, those juridical juxtapositions of different legal procedures also leave some blind spots. These accounts neither inform us about how everyday practices in state-authorities diverge from formal national regulations, nor do they enhance our understanding about why state-agents act and decide the way they do. For some questions, we cannot just compare the statistics for Austria and Spain, or take Madrid and Vienna as representatives for the entire countries and extrapolate their local characteristics to the nation-states. However, doing multi-local ethnographic research in several cities while zooming in on the organizational-institutional level – in this case the state-authorities dealing with statelessness – can make inter-city comparisons across administrative and nation-state borders useful.

Applying a multi-method approach is another way to tackle methodological nationalism. Conducting qualitative ethnographic research enriches the quantitative and juridical analysis – something we only get when we observe, talk to people and understand why they do things as they do. For example, one state-agent in Madrid told me that for the statelessness applications that are unresolved for several years, the only solution would be to conduct interviews with those individuals who filed applications. Without a face-to-face exchange, for which he says there is no time, the decisions have to be postponed for years and thus files accumulate on, what he called, a ‘pile of shame’ (‘monton de vergüenza’). Such accounts enable us to look through the lens of the practitioners and to learn about their assumptions, views, opinions and dogmas on the respective national regulations, how they negotiate, reason and justify daily practices and decisions.

As a trained ethnographer, I seek to conduct qualitative in-depth research that complements the juridical accounts and quantitative analysis, and aims at an understanding of the subject. I do not compare Austria and Spain per se. Instead I investigate the global logic of nation-state inclusion and exclusion in dealing with the global phenomenon of statelessness through numerous possible avenues: Listening to experiences and stories of the state-agents and observing what they do in various state-offices in several cities, in different national contexts and, finally, relating that to the global efforts of supra-national bodies trying to eradicate statelessness worldwide.

Without ethnographic contributions, the whole matter of statelessness determination can remain as a black box. Multi-local, multi-method qualitative research allows the ethnographer to zoom in on the local level and even closer down to the organizational-institutional level. By so doing, ethnographers can take into account intra-city and inter-city, intra-organizational and inter-organizational differences and commonalities.  Those insights have to be put in context with national regulations shaped by a particular historical trajectory, a particular political-cultural background and a particular local discourse about migration and statelessness. Thus, starting from a useful collection of statistical data and techno-juridical analysis that allow a contrasting juxtaposition, this container form of thinking might not be the final answer we are looking for. We have to also look behind the curtains and discover the backstage performances, dynamics and developments.

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

The CSS Blog serves as a space for short reflective pieces by individuals working on statelessness from a critical perspective. Click here to learn more about the CSS project or here to read about how to contribute to the blog.