'State and people are not always contained within clear boundaries'

In this series, we actively invite scholars from Leiden, Delft, and Erasmus to engage with issues on governance, migration, and diversity from their field of expertise. In this episode, we invited dr. Zeynep Kasli, Assistant Professor at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). We spoke with dr. Kasli about her motivation for studying mobility, her current research on urban borderscapes and the LDE Centre GMD.

By Vanessa Ntinu

Zeynep KasliWhy do you think an interdisciplinary approach is needed to understand migration and mobility?

I love this question because it is certainly one of the strengths I bring to ISS, which is more or less the norm at the institution. When I was studying political science, I was always interested in the social world and social phenomena. There is almost no escape from philosophy, social-political thought, and sociology, especially when studying something like migration. When you then begin to dig deeper, you see that history is also very necessary in understanding contemporary phenomena. The study of migration requires you to look at it from multiple angles and multiple directions. I am interested in an interdisciplinary approach because I am more question-driven and that is why I tend to bring a lot of disciplines into my toolbox to understand the social phenomenon of mobility. 

What prompted your interest in migration and mobility/borders?

My initial interest was state-society relations and thereafter citizenships, citizenship practices, and how the idea of citizenship has evolved. In my previous training in my undergraduate, I was fascinated by this transition from empire to nation-state, especially coming from Turkey. This phenomenon is the core of politics in Turkey and influences the problems that persist in the political scenery nowadays. Coming from a young nation-state in that case, really makes you think through this historical transition. It also influences your understanding of citizenship and border making. Those were the things that were initially very interesting to me. When I was working on my two Masters', particularly the longer one, I studied the Turkish state’s relationship with ethnically Turkish migrants coming from Bulgaria to Turkey. I was interested in seeing how they experienced being an irregular migrant compared to others, such as people from Afghanistan or Iran. I wanted to understand where this ethnic identity placed them, seeing as they were always largely favored due to their historical connection to the Ottoman Empire, but this began to change with the demise of the USSR and the EU membership of Bulgaria and shifting interests and alliances in the region. This then makes you think about the state and the people as things that are not necessarily contained within clear boundaries. 

The study of migration requires you to look at it from multiple angles and multiple directions.

Tell us about your current research on European borders/urban border scapes. What can we learn from your research?

When you talk about urbanscape and urban citizenship, we tend to think of migrants as migrants without transnational ties. There is a lot of literature on urban citizenship and a lot of literature on transnationalism, but no particular link has been made between the two phenomena. What is missing is this diversity within the communities themselves and the diversity driven by politics elsewhere. Take for example the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, that has been carried over space. You suddenly have this clash in the streets of Rotterdam between Turkish and Kurdish communities, and you tend to think it is arbitrary and trivial, but maybe it means much more. Therefore, migrants as transnational political subjects and the diversity of political subjectivity are topics that have to be explored and underlined. 

You are also a member of the VCC, can you tell us about that? How does it relate to your other work?

I got involved in VCC via this project that I was working on with Asya Pisarevskaya and Peter Scholten on cities of migration. My role in that project is coming to an end but it was a very exciting project. We explored different methods and tried to combine qualitative and quantitative methods to compare European cities. European cities, in a way, are quite different from the kind of cities where I was previously hanging around for my research - from the border towns to Istanbul, to Izmir. This project's beauty is that it tries to break this dominance in the literature on looking at the global cities and focusing on cities of all levels. The project normalized exploring similarities between cities of different scales in terms of diversity, urban inequality, segregation, and mobility levels. The project also speaks to my research in the sense that I also want to overcome the overemphasis on certain types of cities. There are of course global hubs in every region, but there are lots of small places that tell you a lot about large issues. 

There are a lot of small places that tell you a lot about large issues.

You recently moved to ISS. Can you tell us something about working at ISS?

I truly enjoy working at ISS because of my interdisciplinary background, therefore I feel quite at home in that sense. I also love the international environment; I think that was something I needed. I also appreciate the epistemological diversity, there is quite some openness in that sense. There's an appreciation for different ways of learning, different ways of knowing, and different sources of knowledge. This also brought me back to my intellectual origins a little bit more and helped me find my footing initially. It’s an incredibly inclusive institution, a very international student body, of course. I feel sorry that I haven't yet had the chance to interact with the students in a physical space as much as I would have wanted to. But even then, the experience has been great. Classes have also been a place where I can learn from the students. It is quite an enriching space. I really feel at home in this kind of atmosphere because I also studied in Seattle and the program I was part of there was also based in an International Studies school. Therefore, both experiences have encouraged an international perspective as opposed to a national or EU level one. 

You also have a public agenda, actively engaging with societal issues. Why do you think that is needed?

There is no escape from that really. People also choose not to, but this does not necessarily keep them clean. You choose to be engaged at different levels maybe, especially if you are a social scientist and working on social issues. But whether you like it or not, whatever knowledge you produce is taken up and used one way or another. In the end, there must be something bothering you that sets you on that path. For me, it was my relationship with my state and seeing all kinds of injustices and trying to do something about that. If you are working on an issue like migration nowadays, it’s very hard to not say something. I find it very hard to stay away from it. At a more philosophical level, I think we are all asking these questions daily and engaging in different ways. Even if we don't accept or openly say that we are engaged, we all are engaging in some capacity. 

What are potential blind spots for us as LDE Centre GMD and migration scholars, in general, we should be mindful about?

Big question! Well, if you look at the Centre now, it’s doing a good job, especially when considering it is a new and young Centre. It is trying to be diverse and inclusive and integrating different disciplines and backgrounds within different levels of profession. Master's students are also as active as professors and that is quite important. I hope the Center maintains a non-hierarchical structure and that we can all continue to see and work with each other as peers. It is important to keep in mind, however, to situate migration issues and migration-related diversity issues within larger debates. It is important not to focus too much only on migration per se, especially when you talk about diversity. There's this tendency to collate migration and diversity as the same thing, whereas we know that there are a lot of different layers of that diversity and intersecting hierarchies, and migration status is one of them. This is important to keep in mind when we look at migration and diversity and something to consider at some point in the journey of the Centre.