From one vantage point, the development of research agendas on race and racism have been inextricably linked to questions about migration, asylum and refuge. Certainly, in the scholarly debates of the past few decades, accounts of migration have also often explored patterns of racialization, racist hostility and xenophobia. In the British context, by way of example, the work of scholars such as John Rex and Sheila Allen encompasses both the study of immigration and the politics of racism. Scholars working in this tradition have tended to see the two sub-fields as closely interlinked, and they have used similar theoretical tools to approach empirical research questions. And yet, at the same time, research and policy debates about race and racism have remained somewhat separate from the growing bodies of scholarship on global migration and movement. In some ways, this separation can be seen as reflecting the trend by scholars within the academy to create space both for the study of race and of migration. It also reflects wider political and policy agendas that seek to separate questions about immigration from those about race and ethnic relations.

Perhaps one way to begin addressing this separation is to seek to understand the focus of studies of race and racism, as compared to studies of migration. The study of race and racism has a historical focus as well as a contemporary research agenda. In particular, it developed out of efforts to understand the social significance attached to social groups that differ in terms of physical attributes that are defined through a language of race. Thus, we have seen a range of studies for over a century now about the social significance of race in the USA both during the period of slavery and in the century and a half since its abolition. In this context, racism as a concept is much more closely tied to the concept of race, and is a reminder that, where members of a society make distinctions between different racial groups, at least some members of that society are likely to behave in ways which give rise to racism as a behavioural and ideational consequence of making racial distinctions in the first place. Within the context of British society, the study of what came to be called race relations grew out of research on immigration and the political and social responses to the arrival and settlement of racial and ethnic minorities. Thus, John Rex’s early attempt to define the study of race relations highlights the positioning of migrant labour as an underclass, unusually harsh class exploitation, strict legal intergroup distinctions and occupational segregation, differential access to power and prestige, and cultural diversity and limited group interaction (1970). This framing of race relations was seen in somewhat different terms from American scholars but was still premised on the ways in which social groups were defined as occupying racially defined social positions.

The study of global migration has its roots in efforts to comprehend the role of the wider context of changing patterns of migration and refugee movements that have done much to reshape the global order that has emerged from the late 20th century onwards. Although the study of migration has longer term historical roots, it has become more significant in the period since the 1960s and 1970s, and has become a more established field of research in recent years. Both the theoretical and empirical focus of migration research is thus different from the influences that helped to shape the study of race relations. Although some accounts of migration emphasize the complex social and political debates that result from processes of migration and minority formation (Castles et al., 2014), major strands of migration research have tended to focus on the experiences of particular migrant communities or sections of those communities. From this perspective, the broad phenomenon of migration and mobility, particularly in all its varied global and geopolitical forms, is a field of scholarship and research that can be seen as differentiated from the study of race and racism in both conceptual and empirical terms.

The development of both scholarly and policy agendas in the period since the 1990s has tended to accentuate a trend towards a differentiation between studies of race and racism and those concerned with global migration. Yet over the same period, it has also become evident that there are important linkages between the study of race and racism and migration. Both race and racism and migration are shaped by, and in turn shape, the changing patterns of globalization and neoliberal economic and social policy agendas that have become evident over the past two decades. It can be argued, in this context, that we need more engaged dialogue by scholars working in these sub-fields, in order to better comprehend the changing role of race and racism, as well as complex patterns of migration and diversity in contemporary societies. Scholars working in both fields can learn from each other by exploring issues such as global economic transformation, political mobilization, multiculture and urban life, and racist movements and ideologies. Such an exploration needs to move beyond a national frame and situate the importance of comparative analysis. In investigating such issues it will also be possible to address the question of the relevance of the conceptual frames that can be used to address both sets of phenomena.


Castles, S., de Haas, H. and Miller, M. J. (2014) The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World, 5th edn, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rex, J. (1970) Race Relations in Sociological Theory, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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