Debt, Guilt and Migration in Urban Settings Field:Migration and Urban Studies, Anthropological and Social Theory

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Social & Cultural Anthropology


A multidisciplinary study of the relation between debt and migration in the context of urban mobilities, which draws on both theoretical approaches and ethnographic research, including the case study of refugee centres in Berlin
Debt has become a defining element of the global economy, but is mostly seen as a merely technical concept. Yet, it not only facilitates and prevents practices of migration, it also often relates to moral obligations of repayment, leaving many migrants and refugees "indebted" to their communities. In 2015-2016, the "refugee crisis" brought questions of mobility and indebtedness to host societies, as well as the moral obligations of the state, to the forefront of
contemporary debate in Europe. But what do we mean when we speak of debt in the context of migration? Is the economic notion of debt semantically congruent with the moral notion of "guilt", as the German words for debt ("Schulden") and guilt ("Schuld") imply?
In my research project, I propose to examine processes of contemporary migration through the lens of the nexus between economic debt and moral guilt. My hypothesis is that bodies with credit are highly mobile, that is, they are free to move through space, unbound by geopolitical and economic constrains. Bodies in debt, however, are bound by moral, economic or political constrains.
As migration into cities rises in the 21st-century, urban spaces increasingly become the site of bordering practises and nationalist conflict. Conducting ethnographic fieldwork in selected empirical sites in Berlin, Germany, my project combines theoretical approaches with in-depth qualitative research techniques. I propose an innovative conceptual framework, which allows us to understand why processes of migration might involve a moral dimension of debt: An individual owes her presence, work and, sometimes, even her life to a specific socio-cultural setting. She is, when viewed in this way, bound to repay her debt to the community, family or the nation. The broader theoretical argument of my research is that the concept of debt links individual and social relations to the global economy.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000649/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
2127363 Studentship ES/P000649/1 01/10/2018 12/10/2019 Rouven Symank