Histories of Migrant Knowledges in and across the Transpacific: Agencies, Scales, Translations

May 28, 2019 - Apr 06, 2019

Conference at UC Berkeley | Organized by The Forum Transregionale Studien, the Max Weber Stiftung, GHI West, The Maria Sibylla Merian Center for Advanced Latin American Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CALAS), and the Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley

Organized by the Pacific Regional Office in cooperation with Isabel Richter (DAAD visiting professor, UC Berkeley) and the Goethe-Institute San Francisco. Steering Committee members: Simone Lässig (German Historical Institute Washington), Andrea Westermann (GHI PRO), Akasemi Newsome (Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley), Ryan Jones (University of Oregon), Katerina Teaiwa (Australian National University, Canberra), and Albert Manke (Bielefeld University). Participants: Mitiana Arbon (Australian National University, Canberra), Hayley Brazier (University of Oregon), Wei-ti Chen (College of Charleston), Sarah Comyn (University of Dublin), Ruth Faleolo (University of Queensland), Sylvia Frain (Auckland University of Technology),Connor Hamm (UCLA), Bianca Hennessy (Australian National University, Canberra), Karin Louise Hermes (Humboldt University, Berlin), Rebecca Hogue (University of California, Davis), Botakoz Kassymbekova (FTS, Berlin), Rachel Lim (UC Berkeley), Talei Luscia Mangioni (Australian National University, Canberra), Kristin Oberiano (Harvard University), Emma Powell (Victoria University of Wellington), Nathaniel Rigler (Victoria University of Wellington), Samid Suliman (Griffith University), Tammy Tabe (University of the South Pacific), Daniella Trimboli (Deakin University), Vanessa Warheit (filmmaker, Berkeley), Danny Zborover (Institute for Field Research).

Conference Report

This week-long Transregional Academy hosted 24 scholars with an interest in history from all fields, including (art) history, literary studies, geography, environmental humanities, sociology, political science, anthropology or ethnic studies. The aim of Transregional Academies is to offer an extended workspace for scholars with different regional and disciplinary expertise to present and connect their work to international peers, to question and experiment with conceptual and methodological frameworks in regional and transregional contexts. In our everyday work, we typically archive away for later consideration what we read, saw, and discussed about standard (or not so standard) vs. decolonial scholarship that together form today’s humanities: Yet we sincerely hope that we all think and write slightly differently about “the Transpacific” the next time we venture into research contributions. One finding of the week surely was that the participants got a sense of the importance of “time” for their research. Time is of the essence. We repeatedly discussed the culturally specific meanings and realizations of time or divergent notions of “the past” different societies maintain(ed). Perhaps more importantly: the discussions only highlighted the time-consuming workload ahead of us when it comes to embracing all the knowledge in and contradicting academia. 

We might agree with what Brazilian scholar Eduardo Viveiros de Castro stated in 2004: “Common sense is not common. That is why anthropology exists. The incommensurability of clashing notions is precisely what enables and justifies it ... Since it is only worth comparing the incommensurable, comparing the commensurable is a task for accountants, not anthropologists” (Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Perspectival Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Equivocation”, Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America 2).  But how do we as scholars come to terms with incompatible knowledge underlying (indigenous or imperial) science, history writing, community building, or the Pacific islanders’ dancing? We asked: do any narratives or media make the task easier? How do the very actors we study deal with contradictory logics? How do we not just compare and comprehend the incommensurability between ways of thinking and apprehending the world, but make this understanding the starting point for true collaboration across academic landscapes and cultural geographies? 

The Academy put the topics of migrations and knowledge center stage. Scholars of migration studies have focused on questions of knowledge for a long time. Consider the well-analyzed logics of bureaucratic and societal classification and reclassification of those who newly arrive. In yet another field of migration studies the epistemological dimension has gained some prominence: refugees and migrants render the concept of state territoriality not only visible but also more fluid. Perhaps even more so in the spread-out archipelagic states of the Pacific. Issues of territory, place, or soil take on specific meanings here. Migrations, islands, and seascapes have been closely linked via seafaring, trade and family networks as have migrations and radical environmental change — from resource extraction to nuclear fall-out and global warming. Consequently, we kept asking: How do people assess and assert their options and navigate the entangled scenarios of flight, migration, and mobility? Why do people leave in the first place? Why do they stay put or routinely return? 

Over the course of the week, participants presented and workshopped their respective papers, each of which situated and explored “the Pacific” in varying ways in three smaller groups. In group A, Mitiana Arbon’s paper examined how art auction houses ascribe value to Pacific art via Western value systems and offered ways to disrupt these attributions. Samid Suliman’s paper examined how climate change is causing different worldviews to collide in the Pacific, requiring us to think about migration structures in collaborative — and possibly regional — ways. Rachel Lim’s paper focused on the Korean diaspora in Mexico, and asked questions pertaining to the circulation of migrant knowledge as well as claims to diaspora via embodied and corporeal practices of “Koreanness.” Hayley Brazier was grappling with cartographic issues of the sea floor, specifically, how the notion of the deep sea is dominantly mapped by Western European frameworks and how this space might be visually storied alternatively. Daniella Trimboli’s paper examined how whiteness lands in particular ways in Australia and how this is contested or reaffirmed through digital, diasporic interventions. Finally, Connor Hamm’s paper tried to establish ways to use Pacific-based art on climate change to intervene in Western art history, and, ultimately, how the terms of “humanness” might be rearticulated through Pacific-based art projects.

In group B, Tammy Tabe examined the colonial history of the Gilbertese relocation to the Solomon Islands, which the British Colonial Administration declared a humanitarian aid project mitigating environmental migration due to recurrent droughts. Tabe explained that settlers, in contrast, saw this as a forced migration due to the nuclear testing conducted on Christmas Island, which was silenced in the colonial archives. Similarly, Rebecca Hogue juxtaposed activist materials testifying to Pacific women’s knowledge about the extent of nuclear testing and its infrastructure across Micronesia and Polynesia to popular U.S. media reports from the mid-1940s that emphasized the U.S. Navy’s justification for forced migration “for the good of all mankind.” Kristin Oberiano dealt with the relationship between Filipino immigrants and the indigenous Chamorro people in Guam/Guahan after World War II in order to show how the United States empire, settler colonialism, and militarism are historically intertwined in the Pacific. Oberiano’s project is about the complex ways both migrants and indigenous peoples search for belonging in the Transpacific. Bianca Hennessy analyzed how place is conceptualized in Pacific Studies focusing on the interplay between the twinned forces of belonging to place and movement of people between places (roots and routes). Her ethnographic research in Pacific Studies departments showed how intellectual communities implicitly frame their notions of place through the lens of their favored epistemic approaches. Sarah Comyn analyzed the literary sociability created by colonial mechanics’ institutes established in gold mining districts across the Transpacific. She reconstructed the transnational literary networks formed by events such as Mark Twain’s lecture tour of Australian mechanics’ institutes in the 1890s, and its practices of inclusion and exclusion. Sylvia Frain explored the creative approaches to climate change action produced on digital platforms as visual and textual content to explore how indigenous oceanic futures challenge persisting political arrangements of the Micronesian region, which continues to be controlled by the United States for naval exercises and expanding military bases. Nathaniel Rigler analyzed the identity construction and maintenance by both Pacific Islanders and Western consumers through coconut oil consumption as a legacy of post-1960s Pacific Islanders’ migrations to Pacific Rim nations. Coconut oil is an interesting commodity in this respect because it simultaneously retains indigenous meaning and reflects new luxury status. 

In group C, Ruth Faleolo described her mixed-methods approach in examinations of Samoan and Tongan migrants crossing from New Zealand to Australia. Faleolo’s descriptions of her research to-date revealed a curious new development: e-Talanoa — a mutual knowledge-sharing and knowledge-forming practice wherein Faleolo undertook extended conversations with research participants via social-media platforms. In arguing for culturally responsive and respectful engagement with Pasifika peoples, Faleolo described how social-media platforms enabled the observation of, and admission to, moments often inaccessible. Within indigenous Pacific epistemological and methodological practice, the researcher accepts that they are never truly objective given their kuleana (or responsibility) to the work and thus, the people and places their work affects. Karin Louise Hermes’ account of Kānaka Maoli and allied resistance and activism through the arts and demonstrations for and at Mauna Kea on the island of Hawai’i, reminded us of this. Emma Powell presented on genealogical method (‘akapapa’anga) in the Cook Islands context. She recounted how her grandmother had gathered her placenta from an Auckland hospital and subsequently buried it on land purchased when her grandparents first migrated to New Zealand. She went on to explain how such acts demonstrate the different scales of geography, mobility, and relatedness being invoked by Cook Islands Māori people in contrast to economic and development models of diaspora. Talei Luscia Mangioni proposed a similar, latticed network of relatedness between people and place. In her multi-sited research, she traced how the genealogies of the Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific (NFIP) movement were haunting her own academic orbit. Using the nuclear science program of the University of California, Berkeley campus as a beginning reference point, Mangioni traced key historical intersections between American actors in the development of nuclear science and her own institution, the Australian National University (ANU). Danny Zborover described costumed festival participants assuming the roles of pechelingues (pirates), negros (The Black Ones), turcos (Turks) and others at the annual San Pedro festivities in Huamelula, Mexico. He explained how the research had revealed that aspects of the festival represented much older Chontal histories of colonialism, mobility and globalization. Wei-Te Chen then went on to discuss the entrepreneurial spirit that has long motivated Japanese medical professionals to pursue opportunities in the far parts of empire. Wei-ti Chen’s discussion of the Taiwanese and Japanese expansionist project during the early twentieth century decentered the prominence of state power showing that, in particular, Japanese medical professional migrants were exercising agency at the height of imperialism, independent of state machinations. During additional sessions, we had curated conversations about academic blog posting and watched three films, including one by Berkeley-based filmmaker Vanessa Warheit (The Insular Empire, 2010) who joined in the conversation. The screening closed a film series taking a “history from below” look at migration. The Pacific Regional Office organized this series over the spring with DAAD-professor Isabel Richter from UCB’s department of history in collaboration with the Goethe-Institute San Francisco. A field trip to Angel Island, a former Immigration Station, provided an opportunity to reflect on our topics in a historic setting. 

Andrea Westermann (GHI PRO), Daniella Trimboli (Deakin University), Bianca Hennessy (Australian National University, Canberra), Nathaniel Rigler (Victoria University of Wellington), and Emma Powell (Victoria University of Wellington). ( 
This report is a revised compilation of the authors’ individual contributions for the academic blog https://academies.hypotheses.org)

Call for Papers

The Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung – German Humanities Institutes Abroad in cooperation with the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington DC (GHI West) at UC Berkeley, The Maria Sibylla Merian Center for Advanced Latin American Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CALAS), and the Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley, invite scholars with an interest in history from all fields, including history, literary studies, geography, environmental humanities, sociology, political science, anthropology, ethnic studies, economics, or legal studies to apply to attend a Transregional Academy that will be convened from May 28 to June 4, 2019, at UC Berkeley on the theme of Histories of Migrant Knowledges in and across the Transpacific: Agencies, Scales, Translations.


The Transregional Academy sets out to study migration across time and the metageographical space we call the “Transpacific”: The Transpacific entangles various continents, islands, cultures, and epochs. It includes histories, people, materials, natures, and societies whose shapes and boundaries have been in f lux comprising, by way of example, the Americas, coastlines and seascapes, European, Asian, and US empires, fish stocks, Oceania, religions, minerals, the ocean floor, water, plantation cultures, etc.

To come to comparative, cross-cultural work on the issues of migration, we suggest that researchers focus on and explore the usefully broad approach of tracing histories of migrant knowledges. What exactly counts as knowledge? Who knows what? And who or what is on the move? Histories of migrant knowledges, objects or materials remind us that there are plural ways of knowing the world:  It cannot be described in only scientific or mono-cultural terms. As a heuristic device, the approach has the capacity to push us towards more intense collaborations between the disciplines assembled in the steering committee, which are history, literary studies, anthropology, Latin American Studies, Pacific Studies, and political science.

We ask participants to explain the ideas, methods and strategies that have allowed them to come to helpful notions of agency and to devise frames of analysis that recover the capacities, incentives, media and translations necessary for making knowledge in situations of transit, refuge, forced resettlement, or mobility. We encourage creative approaches that explore diverse forms of knowledge production (such as textual, visual, embodied, artistic, material or performative) as well as ways of studying how this knowledge traveled, together or separate from its creators, together or separate from the objects or persons defined by it; simultaneously with the events described or analyzed by it; or how it lagged, was stored, or even forgotten; how it did or did not change over time, or in encounters with epistemologies that differed from the context of its production.

The knowledge dimension has long resonated or been directly addressed by the social and political sciences of migration. Think of processes of bureaucratic and societal (re)classification of individual persons or social groups triggered by f light, migration, and questions of citizenship. Or think of the paradox inherent in the fact that refugees and migrants both make visible and dissolve state territoriality. As a consequence, states have recurrently used refugees and migrants to strengthen their geographical borders, while, at the same time, they have tended to de-territorialize geographical borders through regimes of out-sourcing control and securitization. All these phenomena are currently being studied with new verve; they show just how productive an epistemological lens in migration studies and, by extension, the history of migration, promises to be; this is all the more true, we argue, when this lens is used to look into everyday society and its material forms that unfold with and beyond the knowledge infrastructures of states.

In a second and closely linked move towards fostering new opportunities for dialogue and collaboration in migration studies, we have selected a transregional scale. As a region, the Transpacific highlights the fact that our knowledge must be situated, i.e., place- and culture-based. This is why the epistemological stakes in talking about it are high. US historian Eiichiro Azuma urged researchers in his Amerasia Journal article of 2016 to understand “how skewed our mapping of the Pacific is.” Historians of different areas, he argued, are conditioned “to envision a geographical bounded space in particular prescribed ways when they frame their own studies around the theme of the Pacific.” This results in many Pacifics, which are often incompatible with each other. Against this background, we will benefit from oceanic and indigenous approaches with their sensitivity for studying the actual ocean and landscapes that knowledges are formed across, but which also are transformed and move (as specimens or natural resources, for instance) because of the agency and movement of people. We will also benefit from the fact that studying oceanic and transoceanic cultures and societies over time questions Western notions of sociology or political theory, disciplines which are biased, some claim, towards a sedentary logic (Liisa Malkki 1992; Engseng Ho 2017).

Literary studies will be decisive for our endeavor (see for instance, Shu-mei Shih’s 2013 ideas on relational comparison). Compelling narratives of borders and borderlands often find ways to illuminate and extract meaning from their material using literary tools, juxtaposing established genres, data, bodily experiences, or people’s voices without aiming at an authoritative, seamless interpretation (see Francesco Cantu in his essay When The Line Becomes a River).

That is a tentative sketch of envisaged methodologies in conversation. We invite participants to highlight and reflect on the transpacific relations and angles in their histories of migrant knowledges and materials (18th to 21st centuries). We are particularly interested in exploring the following sets of questions, which might well overlap empirically:

  1. Agencies: Why do some people move? On the other hand, why do other people decide to stay? How can we think about agency if the movement was instigated and shaped by (settler) colonialism, extractive economies, war and their political, material, economic, and cultural afterlives? How do people assess and assert their options; how do they make sense of, navigate, and help shape migration regimes, mobility regimes, or refugee regimes (with their inexorable notions of legality, illegality)? From a perspective less invested in the micro-politics of state power, we might inquire less into “regimes” than into “cultures”: How do they make sense of, navigate, or help shape cultures of migration, cultures of mobility, and cultures of humanitarian action?
  2. Scales of Migration and Migrant Knowledges: How does the adoption of different spatial, temporal, or causal scales define and shape the migration phenomena and histories we study? In turn, which everyday, aesthetic, economic, or political practices of scaling and commensuration do migrants themselves deploy for narrating, justifying, subverting or resisting their migration (duration, scope, patterns) or their (protracted) transit? What does it mean for individuals to be(come) part of larger processes of migration, mobilities, relocation, urban or world politics, and the global economy? (See, for instance, the 2018 edited volume by Nina Glick Schiller and Ayse Caglar.) Last but not least, how does the sheer vastness of the Pacific Ocean impact both the actors we study and our scholarly imagination?
  3. Efforts, Media, and Practices of Translation: Shifting the scale is only one form of translation. How do migrants, refugees, settlers cope with divergent bodies and cultures of knowledge and conflicting epistemologies or ontologies? How do they distinguish between natural, cultural, economic, or political phenomena, and what are their practices of reassembling them? What terms, networks, and languages do they use or create in doing so? Are there bodies, devices, or objects of knowledge that specifically emerge in view of, on, or after the move? Why are migrants considered translators or mediators between geographical or cultural spaces or different times and temporalities in the first place? By whom?


Application Procedure

Travel, accommodation, as well as meals for the participants will be fully covered. The program targets doctoral and postdoctoral researchers who wish to present their ongoing projects in both a comparative perspective and in relation to the aforementioned themes and questions. The discussion will take place in various formats, including project presentations, thematic workshops, scholars in conversation, archival projects. The working language is English. The application should likewise be in English and consist of:

  • a curriculum vitae;
  • an outline of the project (300 words max.) on which the applicant is currently working;
  • a brief motivation letter that describes the relevance of one’s own research to the Academy’s topic;
  • two suggested readings relevant to the Academy that you would like to discuss with other participants (please provide bibliographical data only, no copies of the suggested readings are required);
  • the names of two university faculty members who can serve as referees (no letters of recommendation required).

Deadline: October 25th, 2018
Send your application by e-mail as one PDF file to academies@trafo-berlin.de

Applicants will be notified whether they have been selected in December 2018. Successful applicants will be asked to submit the draft of a research paper, draft chapter of their PhD or book project, or the rationale and pictures of their artistic or performative work (6,000 words max.) to be discussed at the event.

Steering Committee: Simone Lässig (Professor of Contemporary History, Braunschweig, Director of the German Historical Institute Washington DC); Andrea Westermann (Historian of Science, Technology, and the Environment, Head of Office of GHI West); Juliane Braun (Assistant Professor of English, Auburn University), Olaf Kaltmeier (Professor of Iberoamerican History, Bielefeld and Founding Director of the CALAS Merian Centre, Guadalajara); Akasemi Newsome, (Associate Director of the Institute of European Studies, UC Berkeley); Ryan Jones (Associate Professor of History, University of Oregon); Katerina Teaiwa (Associate Professor of Pacific Studies, Australian National University).

Contact: academies@trafo-berlin.de 

The Transregional Academy is a format of the Forum Transregionale Studien and part of the strategic cooperation with the Max Weber Foundation – German Humanities Institutes Abroad. It is supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF). For more information on the format please visit the Transregional Academies Blog.

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien is a research platform that promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. The Forum provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows.

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, concentrated around the areas of social sciences, cultural studies, and the humanities. Research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries worldwide with distinctive and independent focal points.

GHI West is the Pacific Regional Center of the German Historical Institute Washington DC with a focus on history of knowledge and migration as well as transcoceanic history.

The Institute of European Studies (IES) at UC Berkeley is the leading center for research and education on Europe in the Western United States, and among the top three such organizations in the United States.

The Maria Sibylla Merian Center for Advanced Latin American Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences (CALAS) is a university-based Center for Advanced Studies founded by a consortium of Latin American and German universities.