Climate change and migration represent two of the most powerful symbols of global inequality. During the last decades, studies of the ‘climate-migration nexus’ have greatly evolved from environmental deterministic explanations to more sophisticated accounts of human (im)mobility in the context of climate change. These findings have shown the multi-causality and complexity of migration drivers in the context of climate change as well as the differentiated impacts that climate change has on migration. However, and despite increasing calls for the integration of gender and social equity considerations, studies have often sidestepped gender or underestimated the gendered causes, processes, and impacts of migration in the context of climate change. More importantly, they often overlook the underlying power relations which turn hazards into disasters.
Centered on the notion of habitability, and based on a socio-ecological systems approach, the HABITABLE project seeks to formulate a broad and interdisciplinary conceptualization of ‘social tipping points’ as a means to understand how climate and environmental changes can trigger migration. Inherent to the concept of social tipping point is the notion of ‘perceptions’ which introduces a subjective element to how people perceive the habitability or ‘the capacity/capability of a socio-ecological system to sustain and support the lives and livelihoods of its constituent population(s)’ (Gemenne et al. 2021).
Gender and social relations are key in shaping social tipping points as well as the perceptions of socio-environmental risks. On the one hand, they influence who migrates and why, and how decisions about migration in the context of climate change are made. On the other hand, migration itself shapes pre-existing socio-ecological inequities, either to further entrench traditional values and norms or by challenging and transforming them. In this way, gender and social inequities become key explanatory factors influencing both the objective and subjective dimensions around the climate-migration nexus that the HABITABLE project aims to analyze.
Feminist political ecology and habitability
Feminist Political Ecology (FPE) emerged as a sub-field of political ecology in the 1990s by bringing feminist theory and objectives into political ecology (Rocheleau, Thomas-Slayter, and Wangari 1996). Power and politics are central to feminist political ecology analyses which seek to unpack how combined socio-ecological relations produce unequal outcomes. Instead of treating women and men as homogeneous groups, FPE’s analyses of migration call for an intersectional approach that pays attention to how gender intersects with other social identities, and with peoples position in society (i.e., age, class, education, ability, race, migratory status, location, etc.). This analytical angle can help not only illuminate social differentiation in migration patterns, but also how perceptions ofenvironmental risks vary depending on how people are situated within power structures according to dynamic social categorizations (Vigil 2021).
Building on systems thinking, socio-ecological systems (SES) developed to emphasize the synergies, interdependencies, and dynamics between human and environmental sub-systems (Berkes, Folke, and Colding 2000). Instead of focusing on multiple (social) outcomes from a singular (‘natural’) event – such as the linear impacts of climate change on migration – SES aims to understand the elements of vulnerability (exposure, sensitivity and resilience) of a bounded system at a particular scale and to make explicit its links to other scales (Adger 2006). In so doing, SES underlines essential feedback loops and acknowledges how people are a part of, rather than apart from nature. Despite great advances in socio-ecological systems thinking, and its usefulness for climate related migration research, the power analytic has tended to be progressively sidelined (see Tschakert et al. 2013; Stone-Jovicich 2015 for a critique).
Critiques of socio-ecological systems stem from their under theorization of social change (Stojanovic et al. 2016) and from their scarce attention to ‘the social’ (Cote and Nightingale 2012, 476). Although gender and other markers of social inequalities have been introduced, these have tended to be interpreted as additional variables for which new data must be collected (Kawarazuka et al. 2017). However, there is an essential difference between including measures of biological sex as dichotomous variables – also called the ‘add women and stir approach’ – and integrating a more complex theoretical gender and social equity analysis into our work (Nawyn 2010). To this end, the integration of Feminist Political Ecology within SES – that underlines gender and social equity across HABITABLE – seeks to unpack the power structures that shape social inequities by not only advancing our understanding on who is vulnerable, but on why they are vulnerable, and what policy makers can do to redress these imbalances (Vigil 2021).
FPE helps to address the power analytic by framing migration in its historical and political context, emphasizing underlying structural explanations over who wins, who loses and why as well as considering the outcomes of migration from a social justice vantage point (Radel et al. 2018). It also pushes academic and policy circles to examine the gendered and social dimension of climate and migration research by unmasking ‘discourses of power … to address [individual’s] uneven access to resources to assuage their daily livelihood struggles’ (Resurreccion and Sajor 2015, 22). By paying attention to the relational nature of ‘gendered geographies of power’ across multiple scales (i.e. the body, the family, the state), feminist researchers highlight how gender relations are reaffirmed and reconstructed through relations of domination and oppression (Mahler and Pessar 2001). This includes through the gendering, racialization and discrimination embedded in migration laws and labor markets and the gendered division of labor within and beyond households (Silvey 2004).
The ‘power geometries’ embedded in migration processes are evident at all stages of the migration cycle (Bélanger and Silvey 2020). A close look at social inequalities can also help unpack what has been referred to as the ‘immobility paradox’ where some are highly mobile and others highly immobile due to inequities that force some to stay put in the face of disasters (Chatterji 2017). Moreover, and importantly for migration research, the social identities or structures that make people privileged or oppressed in one place, may not do so in another (and vice-versa). For example, an individual or family that enjoys a privileged position in their origin community may become marginalized at destination (Mahler, Chaudhuri, and Patil 2015). Therefore, a trans-local or ‘transnational intersectional approach’ (Mahler, Chaudhuri, and Patil 2015, 101) can help analyze how perceptions of both environmental risks and migration opportunities are (re)shaped across time and space. This approach has implications for understanding migration decisions as well as for unpacking the transformational capacity of migration in the context of climate change.
|Methodological steps in HABITABLE|
The HABITABLE project aims to substantially push the frontier of knowledge on how gender and social inequities transform migration patterns in the context of climate change and on the types of interventions that are needed to protect socio-ecological systems. For their meaningful integration, gender and social equity considerations are integrated from the very framing of the research and streamlined across all key areas of the research project (and of respective work packages):objectives, research questions, methods, analysis, and dissemination of results.One of the key innovations of HABITABLE with regards to the integration of intersectionality, will be not only its coherent integration through the myriad of qualitative methods across the project, but crucially across quantitative methods and models. The mixed-methods approach inherent to the HABITABLE project will allow us to make the most of out of the advantages that each method has (i.e. by combining statistical approaches with in depth grounded narratives from qualitative research). For more methodological guidance on gender and social equity in HABITABLE, please refer to the Gender Analysis Guidance for HABITABLE researchers.
Towards transformative migration
Research and practice around the ‘climate-migration nexus’ aims to both avoid forced (im)mobility in the context of climate change and to facilitate safe, regular and adaptive migration. Although different adaptation frames exist within climate adaptation efforts, the dominant frames of adaptation fall within the ‘adjustment adaptation’ category whereby the aim of interventions is to ‘return socio-ecological systems to a normatively desirable state of equilibrium in order to maintain business as usual’ (Schulz and Siriwardane 2015, 8). This means that instead of seeking causality in historical inequality, exploitation, and socio-economic choices (of which climate change is an outcome), hazards framings around climate adaptation locate risks within hazards to which people are expected to adjust (Vigil 2020).
Critically, FPE attempts to transform (rather than just adapt to) a fundamentally unjust, unequal, and oppressive situation. By interrogating people’s perceptions of habitability, and interpreting them within power hierarchies based on social differences and on location, our research seeks to challenge unequal power relations and shift towards equitable socio-ecological and migration systems. The ultimate aim of transformative research is not just to be critical of existing circumstances, but also to contribute to the co-production of alternative ones. The HABITABLE project seeks exactly this outcome, particularly for the millions of vulnerable people impacted by climate related migration and (im)mobilities across the globe.
This blog post draws on a working paper entitled “Towards a (World) Feminist Political Ecology of Migration” which was presented at the Development Studies Association Conference in the Panel ‘Unsettling climate: exploring climate mobility with a governance perspective’ (28 June-2 July 2021: Online Conference at UEA).
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———. 2021. “Gender and Social Equity Guidance Note for HABITABLE Researchers.” HABITABLE project, D8.1 https://habitableproject.org/publication/gender-analysis-guidance-for-habitable-researchers/