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Intra-European migration and the mobility-enclosure dialectic

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journal contribution
posted on 2009-12-11, 16:19 authored by Karen OReilly
European migrants to Spain’s coastal areas could be described as the archetypal elite transmigrant. Embodying Papastergiadis’ spectre of placeless capital and the homeless subject, ‘residential tourists’ make creative use of modern communication technologies and increasingly accessible air travel to construct fluid migration trajectories, employing transnational affective and instrumental networks. However, research on British migrants to Spain has revealed a high incidence of social, cultural, economic, and political exclusion. Following a dream of starting a new life in a new place, some migrants do not wish to transcend the assimilationist model, nor have the resources to depend on transnational ties.Their dream is integration, but the tensions inherent in the mobility–enclosure dialectic – the contradictions between freedom of movement and the reassertion of the nation state, an ambiguous status in Spanish society, their own ambivalent attitudes – constrain both assimilation and their ability to transcend it and lead to marginalization. Migration literature has accused mainstream social science of methodological nationalism and proposed (and celebrated) the concept of transnationalism as a more appropriate way to describe contemporary migrant identities and communities. However, others are increasingly noting the existence of counterflows to globalization. This article uses the concept of a mobility–enclosure dialectic to explore the tension between processes that enable and induce movement and the ongoing processes of border maintenance that reinforce the continuing salience of place. The project reported here explored the meaning and experience of integration for north European migrants to Spain. Informed by the literature on transnationalism it looked at economic, political, social and cultural connections with home. True to the notion that places still matter, I was also concerned with experiences of belonging and the nature of concrete ties, friendships and social life within Spain. On the one hand the project found confirmation of earlier analyses, that European migrants to Spain’s coastal areas could be described as the archetypal post-modern transmigrant. On the other hand, the project noted the existence of a less flexible and fluid trend of migrants who had simply moved from one place to another hoping to settle more permanently, but who are effectively excluded from various realms of social, economic, political and cultural life. This group of migrants are victims of a whole series of contradictions indicative of the tension inherent in a mobility–enclosure dialectic. They are motivated to move by the dynamics of globalization, especially the existence of Europe’s open internal borders; however they are subject to contradictory state border controls. They have an ambiguous status in Spanish society of temporary migrant or ‘residential tourist’. They express an ambivalent relationship to Spain, indicative of Britain’s more general ambivalence in Europe, yet are frustrated not to be more integrated. Embodying the dialectic, they seem unable to escape their Britishness, yet remain not within and not outwith the new place.



  • Social Sciences


  • Communication, Media, Social and Policy Studies


O'REILLY, K., 2007. Intra-European migration and the mobility-enclosure dialectic. Sociology, 41 (2), pp. 277-293.


© Sage Publications


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This article was published in the journal, Sociology [© Sage Publications] and the definitive version is available at: http://soc.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/41/2/277