Overview of topic: Power as productive

After reading Chapter 3, you should be familiar with the concepts that were introduced relating to different types of, and ways of conceptualizing, power. You are advised to consult this chapter if you have not done so already as the contents will not be repeated here in-depth.

As Chapter 3 outlined (see section 3.3.2 Power/Knowledge), rather than accepting power as simply residing in acts of repression or violence, Michel Foucault approached power as operating in a more complex way, moving horizontally as well as vertically. Foucault writes that “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (Foucault, 1978: 95-96). This means that power is at work in creation and invention as well as control and coercion. For Foucault, the subject is always situated in relation to discourse. His reading of power as productive is at the centre of his thinking on subjectification, or the making of the subject.

We can understand how this theorization of power operates through reflecting on the unauthorized movements of people – migrants who are or become undocumented, or those seeking the status of asylum seeker and refugee. For Vicki Squire (2017), migrant agency, or capacity to act, can be usefully theorized through a Foucauldian approach to subjectification, which is based on the formation of the subject in the dynamics of power-resistance: “an emphasis on subjectification involves unpacking how subjects are constituted through relations of power-resistance, and in this regard problematises the idea of ‘agency’ more fundamentally.” This refers to Foucault’s interest in how people are constituted in particular ways through the discursive conditions they find themselves in, rather than assuming their actions are grounded in intention. Subjects come into being through discourse (as power), which subjugates by codifying and fixing them in place but also allows them access to expression and movement. Daniele Lorenzini and Martina Tazzioli (2015, p75) discuss this dimension of subjectification as containing the potential for a “more autonomous ways of constituting oneself as a subject,” explained further in the following quote.

Case Study Box 3.1

“… subjectivation involves two moments; a first, reactive moment, which can be called a moment of de-subjection or de-objectivation’, and which consists in resisting and trying to get rid of the mechanisms of power that govern the individual within a certain regime of truth; and a second, creative moment, which is strictly speaking, the moment of subjectivation, that is, of the (relatively) autonomous invention of a different form of subjectivity, entailing at the same time a series of ‘practices of freedom’ and the inauguration of new ways of life (Foucault, 1997: 282-3).” Daniele Lorenzini and Martina Tazzioli. Confessional Subjects and Conducts of NonTruth: Foucault, Fanon, and the Making of the Subject. Theory, Culture & Society 35(1): 71-90, 76.

In assuming agency exists beyond binary form, that it coexists with suffering and oppression, we can start to understand how people act in complicated relations to power, being both subjugated by it and brought into being as political actors. Foucault’s thinking on power therefore allows us to move away from assumptions about agency as being simply present or absent, an approach that leads to portrayals of oppressed people as merely victims. In the case of unauthorized migrants, it can also lead to dominant discourses constructing them according to the binary of “bogus asylum seeker” versus victim of violence and object of suffering. In the first instance, migrants become figures with too much agency, their apparent deceitfulness representing a threat to society, while in the second, they are passive figures bereft of agency. One becomes a potential object of security concern needing to be policed, while the other, as helpless victim, needs a different kind of state intervention. This is an example of how dominant discourses produce norms as common sense.

The refugee status determination (RSD) process, for example, is a technology for managing refugees as problems to be addressed, a way of producing individuals as subjects. The refugee is distinguished from the citizen, while the asylum seeker is categorized separately from the refugee. In the following quote, Natasha Saunders argues that this act of naming individuals according to mobility and citizen status is an important dimension of producing the migrant subject.

Case Study Box 3.2

“[The RSD is] a process which literally fabricates subjects (Scheel and Ratfisch, 2014: 928). There are ‘artificial’ subjectivities to the extent that those assigned to them often do not imagine their own identities and presence ‘in terms of the categories and statuses that are produced’… yet these ‘artificial’ categories and statuses not only have a significant impact on an individual’s ability to continue living his/her life in a manner of their own choosing, but are also themselves judgements on the legitimacy of his/her previous exercising of agency by deciding to migrate at all.” Natasha Saunders (2018) International Political Theory and the Refugee Problem. (New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge) 111.

The production of migrants according to intentions for moving – distinguishing those who may be lying from “authentic” refugees – can lead to constructions of the good refugee versus the bad migrant. To focus on intentionality of those who move fails to acknowledge how this approach to migrant agency is bound up with attempts to legitimize some as good and delegitimize others as bad. The focus on migrants’ responsibility – whether they are criminals (welfare cheats) or victims – presents a reductive understanding of agency, where the subject is either harmful or harmless.

Section 1: Migrants’ agency and the production of new identities


We can investigate these ideas more closely through the phenomenon of unauthorized migrants taking rights in the context of different forms of state violence, including vulnerability to deportation. European states have brought in increasingly punitive policies on asylum, in particular after the 2001 attacks on the US (Huysmans, 2006), although deportation, as a form of “extended border control”, has proliferated since the mid-90s (Anderson et al., 2011: 549). The practice of deportation has created disagreement among citizens about who belongs and who should belong to the political community. Although the deportation of unwanted individuals – the “criminal, bogus asylum seeker, trafficker, welfare cheat, un-integrated individual” – on one hand “affirms the political community’s idealised view of what membership should (or should not) mean”, on the other it reveals the cracks in perceptions of who should belong (Anderson et al., 2011: 548). In response to state practices such as deportation and detention, migrants in countries across the world have protested for rights.

1) No Borders

In 2012, migrants seeking asylum in Austria established a protest camp in Vienna and maintained this presence for almost a year, articulating to the government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees their demand to rights to live and work in the country. In Germany, networks of unauthorized migrants organized as a collective committee in response to restrictive government measures for asylum seekers, leading to countrywide protesting. For Maurice Stierl (2019), collective actions by migrants in Germany, resisting dehumanizing policies through making demands, demonstrate the process through which migrants created their own position and rejected government classification. The collectivity took the name of “Non-Citizen” at a congress in Munich, releasing a statement that argued capitalist powers had exploited their places of origin, forcing people to migrate to the rich world where they were received as “asylum seekers” and made into an “under-class” (Stierl, 2019, p41). The statement concluded the only solution for people trapped in this position was to gain citizenship in order to assume power over their own lives. Yet the name Non-Citizen also transgresses the normative boundaries of citizenship by claiming rights from outside this category.

2) The Sans Papier

The struggle for regularization waged by unauthorized migrants in France also illustrates how political claims articulated by outsiders trouble established boundaries around a given political community. In 1996, migrant workers, their work permits expired, called on the French government to recognize their presence as economic actors and members of society, taking the name the Sans Papier (meaning “without papers”) – the lack of documented status forming the platform for their claims. For Anne McNevin (2011), these demands challenge the significance of state-given categories by demonstrating how they are not the only measure of political belonging. The Sans Papier’s claims resonate beyond the specific grievances articulated in relation to their position as workers fighting for labour rights. In a broader sense, making claims based on the absence of rights is generative of political subjectivities that challenge normative frameworks of who has the right to speak. Like migrants in Germany, the Sans Papier made claims associated with citizenship but from an unauthorized position. This has disruptive effects on the status quo by opening up debates about who are the legitimate arbiters of power and who should have access to political rights.

Subjectification and rights claiming

The case study has attempted to demonstrate how a reading of power as productive can provide new insights into migrants and refugees as subject to and subjects of power. Unauthorized migrants made claims to citizenship, to have rights and recognition as belonging in German and French societies, despite lacking formal rights to do so. In this way, they put pressure on existing political arrangements and called into question the right of the respective state authorities to deny them the resources traditionally associated with citizenship. The act of claiming rights by those speaking from an unauthorized position introduces a new demand and new subject. For scholars influenced by a Foucauldian reading of power, we should not assume agency to be either given or denied; rather, power and resistance are always interrelated and exist in complex mutuality.


Anderson, Bridget, Gibney, Matthew J. & Paoletti, Emanuela (2011) Citizenship, deportation and the boundaries of belonging. Citizenship Studies 15(5): 547-563.

Foucault, Michel (1978) The History of Sexuality Vol 1. New York: Pantheon Books.

Huysmans, Jef (2006) The Politics of Insecurity: Fear, Migration and Asylum in the EU. London and New York. Routledge.

Lorenzini, Daniele and Tazzioli, Martina (2018) Confessional Subjects and Conducts of NonTruth: Foucault, Fanon, and the Making of the Subject. Theory, Culture & Society 35(1): 71-90.

McNevin, Anne (2011) Contesting Citizenship: Irregular Migrants and New Frontiers of the Political. New York: Columbia University Press.

Saunders, Natasha (2018) International Political Theory and the Refugee Problem. New York and Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.

Squire, Vicki (2017) Unauthorised Migration beyond Structure/Agency? Acts, Interventions, Effects. Politics 37(3): 254–272.

Stierl, Maurice (2019) Migrant Resistance in Contemporary Europe. Abingdon and New York: Routledge.