he Migrant’s Paradox channels and draws from the infrastructural and spatial abundance of British city streets, utterly intertwined as they are with global and historical flows of power and decision-making. The paradox of the migrant—mobile human labor—as fundamentally necessary to contemporary economies and yet whose very existence and necessity is threatening and must be denied, is Hall’s analytic lens. Fanning out from urban street life, the paradox-as-lens builds on Chantal Mouffe’s ‘The Democratic Paradox’ (2000). Mouffe had illuminated nested tensions between a pan-national rhetoric of rights in Western sovereignties and investments in nationalism, rooted in highly circumscribed notions of citizenship. Through slow, sustained ethnographies of the street, Hall unearths and engages ‘the consistent production of inconsistencies in public policy, discourse and practice’ (p.9). What surfaces is how the febrile hypocrisies of government policies on immigration control and migrant rights jostle with ‘loose associations of multiculture…organized through small cooperations that provide care, establish shared protocols and resist regeneration processes, all the while attuned to the horizon of crisis.’ (p.168).

The matter of care and ‘practices of hanging in there that exceed survival’ (p.168)—how people make home together and alongside each other and how these efforts are torn apart  or undermine—was central to the project that the two of us worked on from 2013, with six other academics and several collaborators from civil society organizations (Jones et al., 2017). We were angered and thrown by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government’s blatant stoking of racism and xenophobia in a Home Office campaign—Operation Vaken. Vaken, quite literally, brought the government’s Hostile Environment policies onto the streets. The campaign is probably most well-known for its ‘Go-Home’ vans: two vans that drove advertising billboards with the message ‘Go Home or Face Arrest’ through six of London’s most multicultural boroughs. Via the work of Shirin Rai (2015), we understood Vaken as part of a performative politics, aimed at reassuring the public that the government was being tough on irregular migrants. If crisis has become a primary political shorthand for immigration discourses, we also found other dialects of dissent in the support services and cultural production of our civil society partners and in new coalitions of care and resistance to hate. Building on existing grassroots community organizing, these coalitions were seeking other ways of making the realities of the migrant’s paradox more liveable. 

Unsurprisingly, the migrant paradox has an uneven spatiality. It is in the ‘edge economies’ of cities that Hall finds its intensifications and heartbeat. These are small, yet expansive worlds of a disposable predominantly migrant labor force, marked by ‘increasingly casualized, outsourced, and off-shored formations of racialized work’ (p.6). Combining thick ethnographic description and striking visual images, Hall animates differential public infrastructural investments in local thoroughfares and the rich multicultures and transnational associations that spill out of them. In haunting ‘world-to-street’ maps, a depiction of a street at the top of a drawing is connected by multiple threads drawn out from it into a horizontal map of the world. Each line traces and discloses the birthplace of the proprietor of a shop. A map of Rookery Road (Birmingham), drawn by Julia King, connects countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Cameroon, Ghana, India, Kurdistan, Poland and Vietnam (p.51). King’s map of Narborough Road in Leicester, threads across Afghanistan, Jamaica, Lithuania, Sri Lanka, Uganda and Zambia. Each urban street has a story to tell or to complicate, of four or so decades of migrant street traders, their arrival, ‘their practices of hanging in there’, cooperation and exchange, redundancy and casualization (p.7). Hall knows very well how conventional cartographies have objectified and tamed the multiplicity of space into Euclidean geometries that allocate or confer value (Massey, 2005). And so, the world-to street maps and Hall’s parodying of town planning maps are repetitions with a twist. ‘Questions of representation’ Hall writes, ‘are core to writing the street’ (p.129). 

Connecting the quotidian with the apparently unfathomable magnitude of how borders are used to grind people down and how novel forms of ‘edgy’ citizenship are innovated through the assertion of difference, is perhaps how together we can find ways to not only hang in there, but to thrive.


Hall SM (2021) The Migrant’s Paradox: Street livelihoods and marginal citizenship in Britain. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Jones H, Gunaratnam Y, Bhattacharyya G, Davies W, Dhaliwal S, Forkert K, Jackson E and Saltus R (2017) Go Home? The politics of immigration controversies, Manchester: MUP.
Massey D (2005) For Space. London: Sage.
Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox. London: Verso.
Rai, S. (2015) Political performance: A framework for analysing democratic politics, Political Studies. 63 (5): 1179–97.

Yasmin Gunaratnam teaches Sociology at Goldsmiths (University of London). Her publications include 'Researching Race and Ethnicity: methods, knowledge and power' (2003, Sage), ‘Death and the Migrant’ (2013, Bloomsbury Academic) and the co-authored book ‘Go Home? The Politics of Immigration Controversies’ (2017, Manchester University Press). Yasmin is an editor of the journal Feminist Review.

Hannah Jones writes, researches and teaches about racism, migration control, belonging and public sociology. She is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her latest book, Violent Ignorance: confronting racism and migration control, was published by Zed in 2021.