& David Cook-Martín
In this brief essay, we suggest that even from the heart of empire one can make judicious use of "Global South'' through sustained comparative and historical approximations to matters of sociological interest and in dialogue with knowledge producers outside core contexts. We distinguish revelatory or reflexive uses of Global South from obfuscating or irreflexive ones - those that confound understanding by hiding or leveling out meaningful differences. Our argument is informed by an analysis of refuge and migration in the Americas, but with comparative references to Europe, the Middle East, and Australasia. Drawing on research in and across these regions, we probe how an irreflexive Global South perspective misses significant differences, obfuscates similarities, or cannot readily explain aspects of migration policies, movements, and lived experiences.
A Global South perspective is powerful. It reminds social analysts of what Raúl Prebisch observed of general economic theory: that seen from the periphery it had "a false sense of universality" (1949, 358, authors' translation). A "southern standpoint" built on the perspective of Latin Americanists like Prebisch, among others, has the potential to correct skewed "core" views (Go 2016, 2). While Global South admittedly has a range of meanings - geographic demarcations, location in a global economic and political hierarchy, or history of colonial subjugation, among others - it does important signifying work. It captures family resemblances, and it throws into sharp relief crystallized forms of exploitative and oppressive relational dynamics. Viewing human mobility through the Global South/North dichotomy, for instance, shows much about the ways and whys of global migration patterns, flows, and restrictions.
At the same time, when we conceptually cleave the world in two as part of an unexamined intellectual reflex, however well intentioned, we can flatten important dimensions of that which we study. In the case of migration and mobility, the Global South lens could prevent us from seeing and explaining other relations and patterns of difference and commonality across the globe.
Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz (2015) has fruitfully alerted us to "ontological myopias" - constrictions of scholarly imagination based on fundamental assumptions about the social world or cultural infrastructures of knowledge - and proposed analytic corrections. Given the constraints of this essay, we focus on the first corrective measure proposed by Muñiz: to identify a reductive Global South prism and its effects. Moreover, while we focus on myopias associated with the Global South perspective, we acknowledge that Global North has its own shortcomings though they are beyond the scope of this discussion.
In what follows, we identify empirical and analytic distortions of migration introduced by an irreflexive use of the Global South perspective and the benefits of adopting a southern standpoint following Prebisch (1949) and Julian Go (2016). As noted earlier, by ‘irreflexive use’ we mean one that reduces a case to one dimension, like geography, to the detriment of additional theoretically significant dimensions relative to other cases at a given point in time. In such uses, “Global South” serves as a self-evident explanation that does not value nor build from grounded, deep knowledge about particular social milieu. A reflexive use, on the other hand, investigates the phenomenon or case of interest within historical and contemporary webs of relations and reveals key processes and causes. And it grapples with intellectual traditions that offer alternative theoretical and empirical “casings” of the world. By engaging southern standpoint scholars, Argentina, for example, becomes not only a situ for studying social movements, but also African and Afrodescendant immigrant experiences of racism in a country mythologized as “without black people” (Bidaseca 2010; Espiro and Zubrzycki 2013).
A simplistic Global South lens misses or distorts differences, similarities, and directionalities in migration phenomena. It glosses over gradations and multiplicities found among southern countries as well as within them.
Missed or distorted differences and similarities
Take, for example, refugee policies that show no uniform trend by region. Countries categorized as belonging to the "Global South" range from highly welcoming to restrictive. One global survey declares Brazil the best place in the world to be a refugee, followed by Costa Rica and Niger, but also Canada; and on the other end, names Iran, Malaysia, and Thailand the worst places for refugee rights (Forster 2011). Both the seemingly best and worst countries to be a refugee are in the “South.”
The widest spectrum of variation exists outside the North Atlantic West generally, as well as within its subregions. Latin America has been lauded as having the highest standards of refugee protection in the world. Yet, there are significant gaps between countries like Argentina and Brazil, on the one hand, and Cuba and the Dominican Republic, on the other (Freier and Gauci 2020). Nor are such contexts static. Chile and other countries have responded to Venezuelan forced displacement with increasing restrictions, but Brazil has expanded pathways to regularization.
Moreover, reductive uses of "Global South'' likewise miss differences within a national context. While Brazil, for instance, is heralded as a model in refugee protection, there is much bureaucratic variance in how its policies are enacted and experienced on the ground. Getting asylum looks very different for black and white refugees in that country. The asylum cases of Black African refugees receive more scrutiny, are more frequently disregarded, and suffer delays in adjudication and deferrals of rights than those of other asylum seekers (Jensen 2021a, 2021b, in progress). Broadly, local scholars have shown Brazil’s national myth of welcoming immigrants to be undercut by white and European racial preferences historically and into the present-day (Campos 2015; Koifman 2012; Miranda 2018).
Conversely, reductive uses of "Global South" can presume differences where there are in fact similarities, thus obfuscating patterned resemblances across geographical divides. Temporary labor migration programs appear in the Global North and South, and we may assume that they will take different forms depending on the political regimes of countries in which they occur, and policymakers tout these differences. Yet we see similar patterns of wage theft, low wages, vulnerable statuses, and exploitation by employers across countries with regime types as different as those of Australia, Canada, and Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Cook-Martín, in progress).
Finally, they miss important migratory movements. Most US-sociological research focuses on South-to-North migration. Yet many migrants do not follow this trajectory. As of 2020, 86 percent of refugees were in the Global South. Primary refugee hosts are not the United States or Canada but instead Turkey, Colombia, Uganda, and Pakistan. A fifth of Lebanon’s population is refugees. More broadly, 88 percent of the United Arab Emirates is international migrants. Laser attention to South-North dynamics precludes us from seeing other, even more common, mobility patterns and offers little to make sense of them. Hein de Haas et al. (2019, 889) remind us that while migration as a percentage of the world’s population has remained relatively constant, its directions have changed since World War II. Most recently, shifts in direction have been from Southeast Asia and Africa to Gulf countries. Finally, the assumption of unidirectional South to North mobility, may lead us to miss “stepwise” migration in which people move from one country to another in search of an ideal(ized) destination (Bhachu 1986; Paul 2017).
While an irreflexive Global South lens constricts our view of mobility, it may also distort our analyses by eliding that which is to be explained and obscuring other lines of causality. Here we offer two examples of explanatory myopias in our areas of research: presumed directionalities of diffusion, and North Atlantic West migration dynamics as universalized benchmarks.
It is common to ascribe a gravity to relations among countries in the North and South which implies that diffusion moves in that direction. Ideas about and patterns of migration policy in the Americas, for instance, may be seen to spread in the same North-to-South direction as those in the economic domain. This assumption, however, can cause us to miss alternative patterns and thus to forego explanations of them. After 1940, for example, anti-discrimination immigration policies diffused from South to North in part by collective leveraging on the part of Latin American countries (Cook-Martín and Fitzgerald 2019).
Moreover, adopting northern dynamics as the analytical standard, we can misread what we see in southern contexts and likewise be blinded to seemingly southern patterns at work in the North. In immigration research, this myopia leads to evaluating migrant experiences based on formal exclusions from legal status and through immigration control. Yet, migrants can experience societal precarity, racial marginalization, and economic exploitation absent deportation regimes. Latin America pushes us to consider other mechanisms of inequality, as countries officially welcome foreign newcomers through liberal legislation recognizing migration as a universal human right but, in practice, reject and limit certain nationalities, or subject migrants–even those with regularized legal statuses and pathways to citizenship–to politically stifling bureaucratic hurdles (Arcarazo and Freier 2015; Del Real 2022; Jensen 2021).
What alternative explanations emerge when we reflexively widen our scope of vision and perceptions of how social worlds work? First, we become attuned to policy patterns that vary by factors other than geography. With labor migration regimes, for example, policies may instead vary by level of state autonomy relative to capitalist employers, and by population management ideologies. With refugee policies, attention to global variations that do not map onto regional divides makes visible patterns explained by other directionalities of influence, like relations with the refugee-origin country (Abdelaaty 2021).
Second, hesitancy in applying a priori benchmarks allows other analytical concepts to emerge from the local milieu. Taking this approach shows, for instance, that the absence of institutionalized refugee policies is not a matter of neglect, “weak institutions,” or limited state capacity, as northern scholars have claimed, but of "strategic indifference" whereby states strive to maintain international credibility without investing resources (Norman 2021).
A PROPOSAL FOR EPISTEMOLOGICAL VIGILANCE
A reflexive global south approach usefully calls us to pay attention to dynamics outside milieu often studied from “the heart of the Death Star.” It reminds us that other places fundamentally matter and merit close scholarly consideration on their own terms. It can powerfully call forth relational dynamics, questions, and entanglements of power between countries and regions, as well as within them, in particular times and places. At its best this can entail not scaling up existing concepts, or mushrooming multiplicities, but pursuing a realist, from-below “Southern standpoint” for social theorizing (Go 2016).
Yet “Global South” needs to be engaged thoughtfully, with continued caution that an irreflexive use – seen in its commonsensical purchase and ease of application – elides crucial dynamics. Much is rendered visible by painting the world with broad strokes, but much else is lost. A reductivist use runs the danger of crystallizing analyses too early, only illuminating what it predisposes us to see and foreclosing other theoretical renderings. It forestalls the recognition of connections that transcend presupposed geographic binaries, as well as of the rich dynamism of policy regimes and lived experiences. It becomes particularly troubling when it loses sight of specificities definitional to the problematics under inquiry.
We invite scholars to remain open to the role of Global North and South relations in influencing migration policies and shaping migrant experiences, but also to be keenly sensitive to contextual and lived specificities. While policies and experiences can be influenced by that fault line, their structuring factors and explanations are irreducible to it.
We think of this endeavor as one of epistemological vigilance whereby we are cautious about defining the bounds of our object of study too early, or assuming that patterns and explanations from elsewhere apply here (those of the North Atlantic West and particularly the United States), and that we know the nature and gravity of connections among places.
While a detailed proposal for how to enhance this vigilance is outside our limited scope, we propose a few practical suggestions. First, a good way forward is to study locations in an empirically grounded way, with fine-tuned attention to the specificities of migrant lives, for example, as similarly and variably governed across places.
Second, reflexivity is aided by engaging with a breadth and diversity of scholarly perspectives from outside “the Death Star” and the epistemic tools they offer. Scholars in and of the Global South have created a corpus of empirical knowledge and theoretical frameworks that northern scholars would do well to read attentively and against the familiar. Engaging this corpus, could, for instance, alert those of us interested in migration that the construction of race, historically and in the present, eludes easy categorization. Argentina is a country thought of as "outside Afro-Latin America," but scholars like Gisele Kleidermacher (2011), Marta M. Maffia (2010), Alejandro Frigerio (2006), and Bernarda Zubrzycki (2019) highlight the historical presence of Afro-Argentines and emergence of African immigrant communities. Scholars in Brazil have called attention to the racism and xenophobia experienced by recent Haitian and African migration to that country, making problematic assumptions of a welcoming Brazilian racial democracy that outside observers may let slide into their analysis (Cogo 2018; Dutra and Silva 2016; Martínez and Dutra 2018; Miranda 2018).
Third, sustained dialogue with scholars who do work on the Global South and/or are in those locations may help us avoid some of the myopias detailed here and the foundational misconception that patterns and dynamics of the Global North are universal while everything else is particular. The authors have learned from and been challenged by engaging with scholars in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and Southeast Asia among other places. Without disregarding linguistic and institutional barriers, which we would likewise do well to reflexively address, such exchanges can have enormous recompense for those who openly engage in them. Among them, eschewing the imperial assumption that if "we" have not seen or thought it then it is not (yet) part of knowledge.
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 We're reminded of Julian Go's observation that the "Southern standpoint is not reducible to an investigator's essential identity or presumed epistemic privilege" (2016, 32).
 On model "casings" and their geographies, see Krause (2021).
 Garrido (2021) makes a similar point about how segregation with a northern conceptual inflection is used to analyze segregation elsewhere.
 We are inspired here by Bourdieu, Chamboredon, and Passeron (1991, 121 ff.).