Penguins or sparrows? What we talk about when we talk about migration

Jens Røyrvik & Olav Eggebø

Jens Røyrvik

PhD Fellow Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim

Olav Eggebø

PhD Fellow Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim

Stories about people on the move are more common today than ever before. The flow and movements of people are considered increasingly as important issues both in mainstream media and in academic texts. In the social sciences the dominant concept in investigating these movements of people has been migration - the self-directed movements of individuals from one nation state to another. This concept, that is both used for categorizing people on the move, and as a frame for understanding social reality in a globalized world, is based, by and large, on the practice of bureaucratic categorisation according to the Nation State-model (Sanjek 2003, Malkki 1995, Hart 2003, Krohn Hansen 2005). This article examines forms of analysis that are based on this conceptualization of migration, and argues that they make some presuppositions that need to be made more explicit.

The concept of migration was originally used to describe the movements of people across a specified boundary for the purpose of establishing a new permanent residence, but is also now used to describe temporary movement and settlement.1 This is understood as a new kind of migration related and explained through concepts that are commonly linked to the globalization process (Clifford 1994, Appadurai 1991, Rouse 2002).

When migration is used as framework in understanding the movements of people, one must keep in mind that these are not just any movements – each has its own particularity. Following this, we argue that a focus on when and how motion becomes migration may help us to understand that migration is, in fact, a process of conceptualization rather than a kind of a priori entity.

We base our arguments on experience from the offshore oil industry, more specifically people on board vessels that work with anchor handling and tugging of oilrigs. In the field of marine operations the question of when to draw the line between motion and migration is interesting because here people move in many different ways and cross many formal lines and borders. None of these are visible to the eye when crossed out at sea, but very much so on maps and in regulations and contracts. 

The term migration connotes certain types of movement more than others; just as bird connotes sparrow more than penguin. Following this analogy, the motion of the people we describe would be the penguin of migration, while most migration studies tend to describe a stereotypical sparrow. A second question is thus: What do we talk about when we talk about migration?

In our case of marine operations, the migration category seems problematic as the associations do not seem to fit well. The migration processes in the field of advanced marine operations do not easily correspond with the ideal representation of the term migration, thus theory constructed according to these ideal representation does not fit well either. Relations between constructs such as globalization, migration and individual consequences in the field of marine operations are different to those presented in migration literature.

The two questions raised in this article - on the difference between motion and migration, and what we actually talk about when we talk about migration - directs us to discuss the validity of theories and models from representations based on idealized terms or concepts. We argue that models and theories founded on stereotypical concepts of migration leads to black-boxing rather than clarification, and, therefore, to reified stereotypes, rather than

       Motion in Advanced marine operations

The main function of the ships known as Anchor Handling Vessels (AHV)  is to tow and anchor oilrigs in search for off shore oil. The work is demanding and often conducted in extreme conditions. Consequently, these operations are named advanced marine operations by the industry.

These operations demand highly trained personnel and advanced technology, and so both vessels and personnel tend to work all around the world. Norwegian vessels operate on the shores of Africa (e.g. outside Angola, Nigeria and South Africa) as well as European shores. The vessels and the personnel are sought after for all manner of off shore work, and there is high demand for the work, as it is    

The work in itself involves a lot of movements. The rigs are towed from one position to another, and even working on just one anchor line2 involves moving over a couple of kilometres. Even within one operation it is common to cross nation state boarders, economic zones or at least regional zones.

Left: The crew of Orca secures an anchor line close to a rig
Right: Torn Arne leans on an anchor on the deck of Orca. 
Photos: Jens Røyrvik

Between operations the vessels move both geographically and categorically, in terms of contracts and ownership. The vessels move between harbours locally, on the Norwegian coast, and internationally, from Norway to Nigeria, and they also move in a formal sense between one oil company to another. Some vessels work on long-term contracts for an Oil Company or in a nation state, and others work on spot contracts, changing contract relationships for every operation.

So, the vessel itself is engaged in a range of movements, both geographically and in  terms of employment. Individuals, too, are moved frequently, as is the case of Paul. Paul’s family have been fishermen for generations, and he started working on boats at the age

“I started because I was tired of school. I started working at a place called UFAS when I was 14 outfitting MOB boats. It was a fairly easy job, it consisted mostly of attaching lanterns, fuse boxes, you know, stuff like that. But then UFAS went bankrupt, and I found work in the fishing industry.

For about two years I worked trawling shrimps. During this periode I trawled shrimps in Spitsbergen, the Barents Sea, Greenland and we even sailed to Canada. Actually we went other places too, though mostly in the North. After a while the fishing industry also struggled a bit, and I was employed as an ordinary seaman in Havila. I worked there for one year, then I was a year with the coastguard sailing along the Norwegian coast, before I again returned to Havila. However, Havila had, in the meantime, been bought by a company called Bourbon, so I worked with them, mostly within Europe, for three years. By now, I decided it was time go back to school. After completing education I returned to Bourbon as second officer on Bourbon Crown. This vessel sailed along the coast of Africa, and we visited harbours in countries like Angola, and Nigeria. At the moment I work for a company called Orca. Presently we sail in the North Sea or the northern regions.”

In the cases of AHVs such as Orca or Crown or individuals like Paul (and his story resonates with many others), it is hard for both the observer and the people who are experiencing them, to say when exactly their motions become migrations. Nonetheless, movement is often conceptualised as leading into migration. The question is, at what point and why does this happen? It is rarely obvious, especially as these motions are done at sea where lines and borders are blurred, even though they are highly regulated.

The zones relevant for the Norwegian continental shelf are constantly negotiated. In 2009 the boundary of the Norwegian continental shelf was moved north, almost to the North Pole. Now these areas are open for Norwegian sub-sea drilling. Other areas in the North are the so called “grey area” or the “loophole”, famous for rich fish stocks. Here Russia and Norway have never agreed upon the issue of where the borders should be placed, hence it is presently owned by everyone and no one. These zones and borders are very important for the fishing vessels, as well as for the nation states, the latter in terms of ownership and so forth. However, for the AHVs, which undertake highly demanding and specialized work for a global oil industry, these borders do not limit their work operations. The vessels and sailors on AHVs are wanted on all continental shelves, and are welcome in all harbours that undertake advanced marine operations.    

Their life and work is not fixed to the place they migrate from. If they wake up in a harbour in the Netherlands (even though they were supposed to dock at Kristiansund) nobody is surprised. People can be a bit annoyed because the harbour is not the one preferred, plans might be changed at the last minute and so on, but no one is surprised or feels as if they have migrated. They are still on board the Orca, with the same crew, and most of the time they work next to other vessels and crew that they are familiar with.

Ideal representations of migrants

Social scientists have tended to represent immigrants and immigrant lives in a negative light. We read stories about immigrants as victims of racism (Wikan 2002, Hylland Eriksen 2006,), as victims of systematic disempowerment (Sassen 2002, De Genova 2002, Heyman 2002), and as victims of painful integration processes (Lien 2001, 2008). Narratives of work migration have also been used as examples of how all that was solid melts into air when that migration creates new career trajectories and short-term employment relations. Such narratives have led scholars such as Bauman (2000) to conclude that work no longer offers the secure axis around which people may wrap and fix self-definitions, identities and life-projects.

This is not a description of migration that fits well with the movement of the workers of advanced marine operations. Let us return to Paul and look at how he relates his experience from Africa in order to illustrate our argument.

When coming to Angola the first time, the company met me and the rest of the crew at the airport. They flew us out to the Crown by helicopter and we where hoisted down onto the deck. Then we stayed on board for most of the time until we were again picked up by the helicopter and taken back to the airport. That is how it is done; we do not have to spend much time on land.

The position they have when migrating is high up in the global hierarchy, and they move within very powerful organizations. Seen as an entity or organization, the oil industry is more powerful than many nation states. Because of this; it is more meaningful to understand their movements as within the oil industry than between nation states.

According to a dominant ideal that finds its place in the investigation of migration the natural and original state of being is one where people are born in one place in which they also go on to work and in which their relations are rooted. Work migration then is movement away from such original places to new places where the migrant is out of his/her out ‘natural’ habitat.3 Conversely, in our case study, people move within the borders of the oil industry and on the seven seas. Their relations travel with them - indeed are founded on movement itself – and, as with groups such as Roma and nomads, relations and sociality are associated with the group on the move rather than with the places they travel through - the harbours they stay in for a limited time, for example.

At the same time these people work and are a part of contract societies. They cross nation state boarders and change contracts (work for different states and oil companies). This is true both for individuals and vessels. Hence, the movement of individuals and groups is categorized as migration. Indeed, according to the bureaucratic law of the nation-state they do engage in migration. But, in general, they are not treated nor thought of as migrants, neither by themselves nor others. Clearly then, the term migration as it is deployed to refer to specific states of being and stereotypical forms of relations does not fit the movements of skilled oil workers.

Models of migration.

Much of the focus on migration and the focus on the movements of individuals between one nation state to an other seem to extend the old Malinowskian mode of treating people and societies more than many social anthropologists are aware of. The concept of migration and the focus this concept implies directs the investigations. It is predominantly limited by the presupposition of the self evident existence of the National-States. Hence, immigration studies contribute to the fixation of one distinct political order: the National-State model (Krohn Hansen 2005).

The National-State model treats migration as something unnatural, as something you have to ask for permission to do and which granted on the basis of having the right papers or not (i.e. passport, visa, residence permit etc). Likewise, as Robert Sanjek points out, social scientists tend to let these bureaucratic categories define the parameters of migration studies. Immigrants are described as if they are outside their natural state of being, hence when migration happens it creates negative effects either in relation to the immigrants themselves or the society in which the immigrants are supposed to be integrated (Sanjek 2003). Migrant studies tend to describe the movement of people by the use of bureaucratic terminology, while paying little attention to the legal apparatuses that define and channel this movement.   

Nineteen out of the twenty sailors that constitute the crew on Orca come from coastal areas and sailor families. And there is an obvious trend that most people working on boats in the oil industry come from families or at least communities where most have worked either as fishermen or at sea in one way or the other. There are differences between the work of the sailor in the oil industry and the “traditional” sailor. These differences are related to factors such as the professionalizing of work practices, resource availability and dramatic differences in the respective industries’ ranks in a global hierarchy of value. But the movements involved in advanced marine operations can just as easily be described as similar to what has been done for generations, rather than something new – labelled typically as globalisation4 induced migration – and different.

Our case reveals that the movements of goods, vessels and people have been a part of people’s everyday life in coastal areas of Norway since the Viking age. The presence of a great variety of movements, whether people or goods, have always been a constant, and, in fact, the only element that is entirely new is the presence of formal borders. The patrolled borders and zones that carve up the earth were only fully completed quite recently.5 Motion become migration, not through the patterns of movement as such, but rather through the construction and management of these borders and zones.

Even if the AHVs and the sailors working on them have patterns of movement that are bureaucratically categorized as migration, they are not understood as immigrants, neither in daily language nor in migration studies, since they do not fit the ideal representation of migration. The sailors cross fixed national borders with no or very little friction. Skilled workers that come from rich countries, within a very powerful industry, will have different “migrant” experiences than, say seasonal workers from poor countries travelling to richer countries without being backed up by the same organizational muscle. Both these movements are bureaucratically defined as migration, but only one of the latter is understood as migration both in daily language and in migrant studies. This is because the movements of AHV sailors do not fit the ideal representation of migration. There is tendency to predominantly focus on examples of motion that includes friction. These continuing one-sided narratives are an essential part of conceptualising the ideal representations of migration.

We argue that to generate models and theories based on concepts such as the ideal representations of the type we have outlined is deeply problematic. It leads to a reproduction of stereotypes rather than precise knowledge about reality. In such models concepts are treated as entities that have object qualities6that can be related in some way or other and that, therefore produce a specific kind of consequence. In the cases that we refer to the entities or objectified concepts of globalization and migration are related in ways that have consequences for the individuals concerned. In cases where the motions resemble the ideal representation of migration, this kind of theorizing is a form of black-boxing, and in cases like marine operations they don’t even seemingly bear any relevance.

Summing up:

In this article we discuss migration by asking two key questions and examine migration in view of the movements of AHVs and AHV personnel. The investigation of our first question, when does motion become migration?, shows that migration is a matter of conceptualization rather than a description of motion as such. The movements that are categorized as migration existed before the category, but were constructed as a product of controllable nation state boarders and bureaucratic regulations and management. Migration must, therefore be seen as a constructed entity that sometimes is treated as existing a priori, and AHV movements show that this understanding is problematic. 

The investigation of our second question, what do we talk about when we talk about migration?, enables us to highlight central connotations within the migration concept, and show that these connotations are ideal representations rather than accurate descriptions. We argue that in order attempting to understand reality through such ideal representations results often in the production of reified, stereotypical and highly specified states of being and social relations. We are, therefore led to question analyses and models that are based on such idealized concepts, and argue that theories framed in their terms amount to no more than a form of black-boxing.


1. Seasonal agricultural workers in Norway are described as “migrant farm workers”, Rye 2009. Mexicans workers who more or less selectively move across the US-Mexican border have been referred to as  “circular migrants” (Rouse 2002)

2. All rigs are anchored with lines that are about one km. in length; most rigs are anchored with eight such lines.

3. (Malkki 1995) eg have highlighted and criticieced the use of biological methaphors in texts of migration.

4. New stories by social scientist stress the back and forth, fluid nature of the modern life, since people in motion are so much part of the new world condition.  This motion, or at least the pace of this motion, are presented as something qualitatively new and these social scientists are creating new tools to comprehend and explain this part of world history, when the velocity of the movement of goods, services capital and people across borders threatens to change the rules of how the game has been played (Mintz 1998).

5. (Graeber 2002: 1225).

6. For discussions on objects and entification referred to here: Heidegger (2002), Larsen (2008), Fyhn (2005) Arvidsson (2006), Bateson (2000), Latour (2005),  Tsoukas (2003), McGrain (1989),  



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