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  Gregory Feldman


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My research interests have centered on the question of how individuals in positions of technocratic authority come to view other individuals as “problems” to be solved and then act accordingly.  This simple question leads in many complex directions, which, for my work, has involved matters of security, law and undercover police work; migration and minority policy; the state and globalization; cultures of expertise; technocracy and population regulation; and the Mediterranean Sea region as a space of both separation and integration of the EU, Africa, and the Middle East. Currently, I am taking this question to try to understand the conditions for ethical intervention among state security agents within rationalized security apparatuses.

The 'Gray Zone' (2013-present)

We are All Migrants (2012-2014)

The Migration Apparatus (2006-2012)

Constructing the "non-Estonian" (1999-2006)



_ The Gray Zone: Sovereignty and Action among Undercover Police Investigators in a World of Migration (2013-present)___

(Funded by a 2013-2018 Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, 101,081 CAD)

(Forthcoming, Stanford University Press 2018)

My current ethnographic research examines how an undercover team of police investigators operates in the “gray zone”, or that space of legal ambiguity where they must constitute their own rules of engagement to gather evidence for state prosecutors. This team works in an interior ministry of southern maritime EU member state and mainly investigates human trafficking and human smuggling rings. Ultimately, this research examines the conditions in which ethical action can occur in the realm of otherwise rationalized security practices. By “ethical”, I simply mean joint action undertaken on the basis of the actors’ particular assessments of what should be done in spite of legal, policy, or cultural conventions.

Fieldwork has shown a remarkable degree of ethical reflection in this team’s work that, on the one hand, sometimes results in their taking risks for trafficking victims, and, on the other, has them pushing legal boundaries to force compliance from informants or to obtain intelligence against criminal suspects. Hence, two intriguing aspects appear in their work: 1) a concern with “doing the right thing” for someone when they can; and 2) a sense of reasonable measure when conducting quasi-legal actions for the sake of the case against suspects and unwilling informants.

Empirically, I examine how the team’s organization, and their peculiar location within their larger bureaucratic home, positions them to act with such freedom, and how their work together, at times, generates a modest sovereign space that they themselves constitute as particular actors. They enjoy these moments for the freedom more than the power. Fieldwork entails learning how team members “come into their own” through their interactions with each other and in the course of their work itself. It also involves understanding the technocratic limits of rationalized European security practices in order to learn how these investigators creatively pursue transnational criminal rings. The ethnographic research, therefore, offers a fluid picture of how the “state” interfaces with “illegal” migrants moving across national borders and with the clandestine networks that facilitate their journeys.

Theoretically, moving from Hannah Arendt’s oeuvre, I aim to develop an understanding of action that 1) illuminates spaces of ethical intervention in security apparatuses that integrate the Mediterranean Sea region as an area of conditioned movement; and 2) reconciles differences between phenomenological anthropology and post-Marxism to show how the individual’s quest for being in the contemporary state-capitalist context initiates political action.


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_We are All Migrants: Political Action and the Ubiquitous Condition of Migrant-hood (2012-2014)

(Stanford University Press 2015)

We are All Migrantsargues 1) that the line between the “citizen” and the “migrant” dissipates under close inspection as both subjects are effectively atomized and consequently disempowered, regardless of their relationship to the state; and 2) that to end the “condition of migrant-hood”, people must constitute themselves in sovereign spaces where they appear as particular speaking subjects rather than as abstract citizens or animalized laborers. Along with scholarly literature, We are All Migrants examines this issue in reference to core texts”: i.e. books that have been continually re-read and that underpin the shifting foci of cutting edge research. In particular, it draws on the works of Homer, Aristotle, Marx, Tocqueville, Beckett, Coetzee, Levi, Agamben, Foucault, and Arendt.

The first of the book’s three sections examines the modern condition of migrant-hood with respect to politics, economics, and society. It argues that  this condition emerges because entry into modern mass society requires the denial of the particular speaking subject, regardless of whether one inhabits the status of “migrant” and “citizen”. The second section argues that the emphasis on “connections” in today’s neoliberal world does not overcome the condition of migrant-hood, but rather exacerbates it. This situation has arisen because the modes in which we are connected – and seen most fully in educated laboring practices supported by large-scale IT systems – still deny the particular speaking subject because they draw upon the laborer’s faculty of cognition as opposed to the faculty of thinking. The former reaches certainty through abstract logic, while the latter searches for meaning in the messy, empirical world. People do not distinguish themselves as particular subjects through their cognitive capacities and so atomization persists. Instead, they can only appear as particular speaking subjects when they try to persuade others of what they think ethically about the world around them. The third section argues that to overcome the condition of migrant-hood people must be empowered to constitute their own sovereign spaces in which they both disclose themselves as particular speaking subjects to each other while deliberating on how they should inhabit the same space. It is through thinking, judging, and persuading that people appear as their particular selves in the very act of constituting sovereign space between them.

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_The Migration Apparatus (2006-2012)_____________________

My second major research project began in 2007. Through ethnographic research among EU policy officials, legal experts, and technical experts, I asked how these individuals, wittingly or not, are creating a large-scale, decentralized migration management apparatus to coordinate the circulation of labor migrants across the Mediterranean Sea and throughout EU territory. This apparatus not only harmonizes European national regimes. It integrates border control regimes in North Africa and the Middle East. This material appears in a book on Stanford University Press (2012) titled The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labor, and Policymaking in the European Union. It asks how a decentralized regime fuses together disparate policy domains and objectifies migrants on a mass scale without detailed policy plans or direct connections among its countless technocrats, officials, and experts.

More specifically, The Migration Apparatus investigates the daily practices of officials and experts who create a regime of population regulation on a scale beyond any of their individual work horizons. Migration is not a random process, but one that is conditioned by sundry regulatory practices conducted by specific actors. These individuals aim to reduce illegal migration and attract temporary labor. They attempt to secure the external border with advanced surveillance systems (coastal radars, open sea patrols, and satellite imaging of migrant disembarkation points), regulate flows at border control points with biometric information systems (electronic travel documents with digitalized images of the bearer’s face and fingerprints), and circulate cheap labor from the global South (seasonal employment in agricultural, service, and construction sectors). While migration is hotly contested in Europe, I argue that the proliferation of the EU’s migration apparatus proceeds relatively smoothly. The reason is that the issue’s two main antagonists – neoliberals (representing the economic right) and neonationalists (representing the nationalist right) – largely agree on increased security measures while the burgeoning number of circular migration programs resolves their key disagreement: the length of time a migrant should stay. These programs satisfy neoliberals because they attract labor at the lowest possible cost and they appease neonationalists because labor migrants do not permanently settle.

This research pushes anthropology in several exciting directions that also resonate with developments in cognate disciplines. First, it contributes to the growing number of anthropological studies of how global flows are channeled, organized, and regulated for purposes of economic productivity and public order. This research trend complements existing disciplinary expertise on quotidian responses to globalization. Second, it offers a sophisticated view of how the global circulation of labor, the convergence of security apparatuses, and the liberalization of economic regimes integrate different geographic regions. These processes conjure up a world of vertically layered spaces with lubricated channels for high-skilled labor and with stricter conditions for the circulation of low-skilled labor. Third, this research specifies the mechanisms with which decentralized apparatuses, regulating migration for example, are globally institutionalized. These include, for example, “nonce experts” who work in informal and short-lived networks and offer greater labor flexibility than white-collar workers in top-down bureaucracies. They find work an organic experience, which simplifies the extraction of their labor and facilitates the proliferation of the apparatus into new domains. These also include legal and technical standards that disparate officials can apply to their local policy contexts but can still function to integrate those contexts into larger systems of population management. Similarly, IT systems virtually organize the information flows of massive numbers of unconnected officials without the friction built into social networks. Grand statements – “a migration policy that works for everyone” – integrate migrant and migration official into a common, if ill-defined, moral frame. These mechanisms function technically and ethically to convert diverse migrant subjects into manageable policy objects on a large scale.


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_Constructing the "non-Estonian (1999-2006)______________

My first major research project, based on my dissertation, investigated how European and Estonian officials combined nationalist and neoliberal strategies to integrate Estonia’s Russian-speaking population in preparation for European Union (EU) accession in 2004. Soviet-era Russian-speakers number 500,000 out of 1.4 million people and were classified as immigrants after Estonia’s 1991 break from the Soviet Union. I asked how officials interpreted international minority rights law and Estonia’s status as a restored republic for two purposes: first, to justify the decision to deny citizenship to Russian-speakers in post-Soviet Estonia, and second, to create a multicultural policy that should integrate them into the ‘Estonian cultural domain’. The sad irony of this example is that these Russian-speakers became displaced in the post-Soviet Estonian Republic without moving across a border. Instead, the border shifted underneath their feet as a result of the 1991 events that dispossessed them of citizenship.

This research generated nine peer-reviewed articles in such journals as American Ethnologist, Anthropological Theory, Anthropological Quarterly, and the Annals of the Association of Political and Social Sciences plus additional book chapters and commentaries. It spoke to several cutting-edge theoretical questions about transnational processes through which people are either displaced or conditionally integrated. First, it demonstrated how officials used ‘neoliberal nationalism’ as the main paradigm for immigrant integration. This approach frames immigrants as apriori security threats due to an alleged cultural disorientation; it then justifies an integration policy through which they can remove that stigma and increase their own life chances by reproducing the national language and culture. Second, drawing on performativity theory, the research asked how policy officials constitute the state in the act of identifying ‘Others’ (e.g. migrants, minorities, and refugees) as different and threatening. This approach demonstrated how the identification of threat in public policy is a logical precondition of the state’s viability as a social actor. Third, this research applied the twin concepts of estrangement and mediation to show how policy officials utilize international agreements on minority rights law to contain immigrants and minorities within strict limits and to implicitly frame their transgressions in any given state as a threat to the wider European state system. Overall, this research demonstrated that east European nationalism does not deviate from European modernity, but rather that European modernity conditions it. The research also showed how the nation-state, far from being a static abstraction, results from the situated practices of people authorized to act in its name. This fact gives it the vitality to engage with ever-changing migration patterns.

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