The term “migration” refers to certain types of movement, by certain types of people. This in turn evokes certain kinds of responses and types of regulation, such as policies to either close the borders of nation-states or allow passageway and papers; to help immigrants “integrate” or see them only as “temporary” labor; or to respond to “masses” of people moving with either detention, deportation or humanitarian measures. Yet migration does not capture all types of human mobility; it classifies movement and those who move in particular political, temporal and spatial terms. It has a history. At the Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility, we are interested in rethinking the conceptual terms that describe the movement of people – a key issue of our era — in order to both come up with new understandings of and responses to it, in the name of social justice and equality.

Mobility is a concept that changes the political grammar of movement. It allows us to rethink the spatial dimension of migration – rather than assuming that people leave one place to settle in another, it allows us to see its circular dimensions, where people leave and return and start all over again, and where movement is not necessarily constrained or measured by nation-states. Similarly, it allows a new temporal perspective: people may be continually moving, or they may move and settle at a much quicker pace, staying a few months or a year in one place and then moving on. It also allows us to think about immobility, which always accompanies mobility (whereas migration does not evoke non-migration) – some people can move precisely because others cannot. Or, people’s immobility may be linked to the mobility of governance regimes. Finally, the language of mobility allows us to pay attention to the larger contexts in which people move, i.e. as part of assemblages that include objects, capital, ideas, technologies and other living beings. These other things have become more and more critical in how people move (or don’t), and it behooves us to take them seriously.

The Zolberg Institute on Migration and Mobility is located in a very different type of intellectual environment than most migration centers, and is the first migration center internationally to take an approach centered on mobility. Named for the late Ary Zolberg, Professor of Politics at the New School for Social Research and pioneer in the fields of immigration politics, studies of ethnicity, and practices of integration, the Institute constitutes a reinvigoration of the International Center for Migration, Ethnicity and Citizenship founded by Ary in the 1990s. We bring together a unique set of talents and skills to rethink human mobility in innovative ways, and advance both debates about migration and claims for social justice. Parsons brings a focus on design, technology and material culture which helps us to rethink how people move, what stops them, and what traces they leave; our critical perspectives at NSSR and Lang have primed our faculty and students to rethink basic political terms such as borders, sovereignty, citizenship and nation-states; NSPE brings these things together into new and innovative forms of public outreach, including new engagements with media (such as through the affiliated organization, “Feet in 2 Worlds”) and public education (through our partnerships with “Humanities Action Lab”). As part of our focus on mobility (of people, things, places, ideas), and on new ways of seeing and understanding movement, we will draw specific attention to South-South mobilities, a perspective lacking in most other centers in the global north.

This framework allows us to make better sense of what is happening in the world; it permits us to tackle new problems in more effective ways, starting with actually identifying, describing and understanding them with new analytic tools.