Perspectives from Migration Studies: Rethinking Modern Greek Studies beyond Greece

Invited to conceive or indeed rethink Modern Greek Studies as an interdisciplinary, critical and dialectic field of study during the first meeting of the Rethinking Modern Greek Studies network, made me reconceptualize my positioning vis-a-vis this field of enquiry. It is true that up to that point I hadn't thought of myself as a modern Greek studies scholar. And that is strange given that in my research, in most if not all occasions, Greece or Greece-related phenomena formed the focus: either solely or in the context of a wider comparative framework.  Greece has consistently formed the prism through which I have tried to explore broader phenomena. And as a result, I have always striven to figure out how Greece fits within wider geographies and longer-term histories and how local instances of broader social processes manifest themselves in Greece. It is through this perspective that I would like to offer some scattered thoughts on the questions that Dimitri asked us to reflect on in a special panel on “Migration, Refuggeehood, Citizenship” on the first day of the conference which I shared with Effie Voutira and Olga Demetriou.

Speaking of the relation between our field of study (migration, nationalism and ethnic relations) and Modern Greek Studies, an issue that I found worthwhile highlighting is the need to study Greece through a global perspective. Greece forms an illuminating case because a number of issues that are possibly much more subtle in countries of the 'western core', appear there in a much more clear-cut and graphic manner. Focusing on the study of nationhood, for instance, the Greek experience showcases the historically ambivalent relation between ‘the state’ and ‘the national community’, which are oftentimes treated as one undifferentiated and coherent bundle. However, the unproblematized pairing of the ‘nation-state’ often needs analytical decoupling, as one who works on Greece knows. Another issue to be noted has to do with the fact that Modern Greece was built by and for a transterritorial community and in that sense provides fruitful historical examples to explore the formation of diasporic identities and transnational communities, often treated as contemporary phenomena without a historical depth.

Third, and looking at much more negative social forces, the rather blatant and explicit nationalist discourses that prevail in Greece force the analysist to pay attention to phenomena that often pass unnoticed in the societies of the West, where they also prevail, albeit in a much more subtle manner. As Michael Billig wrote in his book on banal nationalism, nationalism is stronger and often much more impactful in structuring everyday life, in the counties where it is historically more secure and thus more ingrained in the consciousness of the local population. This is the case in the countries of the Western core, where people tend to see themselves as being non-nationalistic and where local liberals are now being taken by surprise by the rise of far-right wing populist politicians. And this perspective also relates to mainstream notions of integration as conceptualized in academia and practiced in policy. Integration is seen as a matter that pertains to migrants only;  a necessary process of adopting the norms of national culture norms as a means to progress.  This functionalist viewpoint, however, eclipses the conflictual basis of immigrant–native relations that can be better conceptualized as unequal configurations unfolding through a symbolic contestation over defining the nation and who belongs to it.

Not only one can observe, record and analyse broader phenomena that stand out in a more graphic manner in Greece, but also in recent years, Greece was found at the epicenter of two Europe-wide or even global crises, the financial crisis, and the so-called refugee crisis. This again makes studying Greece important beyond the indeed pressing domestic issues and concerns. Speaking of my current research on the new Greek emigration, the Greek experience showcases clearly something which has gone rather unnoticed or uncommented in the field of migration studies despite the fact that it is a general trend: the simultaneity of emigration and immigration flows in most countries. In migration theory, we tend to conceptualize migration in terms of an evolutionary process, linked to economic development whereby countries transition from being sources of emigration to becoming destinations of immigration. That is no longer the case (if it ever was) and the Greek case exemplifies a global trend thus asking for the normalization of (all) people’s mobility. Finally, Dimitri has also asked us to comment upon the question whether the developments that have taken place in the Greek society over the past 20 years have had an impact on conceptions of Greekness and everyday interactions.

On the one hand, immigration, initially of people from the Balkans and the former Soviet Union, and later on from more far away destinations in Asia and the Middle East increased the ethnic diversity of Greece, de facto turning it into a much more multicultural society. However, as we know since the fundamental work of psychologist Gordon Allport, co-existence does not necessarily lead to more openness and to the construction of more inclusive identities. During the 1990s and 2000s, we have witnessed the successive stigmatization and racialization of different immigrant groups in Greece. One structural element that provided opportunities for the life trajectories of the migrants at that time was the existence of all sorts of informal economies in Greece oftentimes also facilitating social contact between locals and newcomers. Instances of positive encounters were also facilitated by cultural commonality, especially between the Balkan migrants and the locals. The prevalence of racist discourse was often coupled with much more diverse experiences of everyday interaction and for several groups progress was recorded.

Yet I'm really worried how things will turn out with the incorporation of the recent refugees in Greece. That is despite the fact that indeed legacies and native understandings of the term ‘refugee’, related to national historical experiences (notably the 1920s refugee flows as illustrated by Effie Voutira and Renee Hirschon) have aided for what seems to have been a more positive initial reception (at least when compared to other European states). Such native, emic conceptions however appear to be losing their steam and together with Greece’s fragile economy as well as a recorded society-wide xenophobic outbreak make up for a not so positive setting and leave us concerned and alerted on future developments.

Manolis Pratsinakis is the Onassis Fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. He is also Deputy Project Manager of the SEESOX Diaspora project and a research affiliate COMPAS at the University of Oxford. Manolis Pratsinakis was previously a Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at the University of Macedonia, a visiting fellow at the University of Sussex and a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam. His academic interests broadly concern the study of migration and nationalism. He has done research and published on immigrant-native relations, ethnic boundaries and categorization, everyday nationhood, brain drain, and intra-EU mobility in the post 2008 period.


Migration, Refugeehood, Citizenship Panel

Olga Demetriou (Durham University), Effie Voutira (University of Macedonia / Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford), Manolis Pratsinakis (University of Oxford) and Eleni Stamou (University of Athens) during the panel discussion Migration, Refugeehood, Citizenship and book presentation of Olga Demetriou’s Refugeehood and the Post-Conflict Subject (SUNY Press, 2018)