2022 Book Prize Finalist - Lauren Stokes

Fear of the Family: Guest Workers and Family Migration in the Federal Republic of Germany. (Oxford University Press) 

Numerous people protesting.

Beginning in 1955, West Germany recruited millions of people as guest workers from Yugoslavia, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and especially Turkey. This labor force was essential to creating the postwar German economic miracle. Employers fantasized that foreign "guest workers" would provide labor power in their prime productive years without having to pay for their education, pensions, or medical care. They especially hoped that the workers would leave behind their spouses and children and not encumber the German state or society with the cost of caring for them.

As Lauren Stokes argues, the Federal Republic of Germany turned fear of this foreign family into the basis of policymaking, while at the same time implementing policies that inflicted fear in foreign families. Workers did not always prove willing to live their work lives in the FRG and their family lives elsewhere. They consistently challenged the state's assumption that "family" and "labor" could be cleanly divided, defied restrictive and discriminatory policies, staged political protests, and took their deportation orders to court. In 1973, the federal court legally recognized the constitutional right to family reunification, but almost immediately after the decision, the migration bureaucracy sought to limit that right in practice. Officials derided family migrants as a group of burdensome dependents seeking to defraud the welfare state and demonized them as a dangerous source of foreign values on German soil. Description from Oxford University Press.

Read a Q&A with Lauren Stokes

If your readers take away only one idea from your book, what would you want that idea to be?

Debates over family migration are fundamentally debates about how a society organizes and values reproductive labor and social care. Because family ties are the predominant pathway to legal migration in much of Europe today, discussions about migration are simultaneously discussions of who is entitled to care.

What got you interested in the topic of your book?

At the time I started doing this research, Germany was debating whether to legally recognize relationships between two members of the same sex, while politicians were beginning to float the argument that immigration was bad for German society because immigrants were more likely to be homophobic. And yet, because Germany didn’t acknowledge queer relationships legally, many queer foreigners could not migrate to Germanyit seemed to me Germany’s own migration policies were at least partially responsible for producing an apparently “straight” foreign population, and I hoped that tracing the history of family migration law would help me better understand.

By the time I finished the book, Germany did recognize marriage between same-sex couples, but pro-gay nationalism had only become more prominent as a political stance. The assumption that German gender norms can change, while foreign gender norms cannot, has remained oddly stubborn, and my book tries to suggest why.

For those interested in learning more about your topic, what should they turn to next (after having read your book, of course)?

After they’ve exhausted my footnotes, I’d tell them that there’s a rush of truly excellent work about to come out on the topic of the history of migration to Germany, so they should remain patient and perhaps watch this space in the future! If they particularly enjoyed thinking about family migration, I’d encourage them to look beyond the borders of Germany to better appreciate the numerous ways that states can think about foreign families. Nimisha Barton’s Reproductive Citizens, about France before 1945, tells the story of a state that took a very different approach to migrant families and to reproductive labor.

The nature of their sources means that ethnographers can often do a better job than historians of getting inside the family unit and understanding how it works. I learned a lot from Pallavi Banerjee’s book The Opportunity Trap, which focuses on how US visa policies hurt the families even of “high-skilled” workers in tech and health care. I also just finished Martina Cvajner’sbook Soviet Signoras, about women from the former Soviet Union who migrated to Italy as care workers in the early 2000s. The women she studies created a “chain” network not of women and men but of women and more women, upsetting assumptions that chain migration always reproduces heterosocial units.

What work or idea or thinker influenced you the most in the writing of this book?

My copy of Ulrich Beck’s 1986 book Risk Society [Risikogesellschaft] has become quite tattered.That book is usually name-checked by people influenced by Beck’s discussion environmental risks—to wit, we live in a society in which we know there are all kinds of invisible risks around us, but we must confront them as more or less isolated individuals.

But Beck also theorizes social risks, including the risks people take on in their work lives. In the section of the book that has most influenced me, he draws on the work of Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim—his wifewho has worked on how people make decisions about who to marry, whether to have children, and how to define their own “family.” That section argues that the imperatives of family increasingly contradict other imperatives imposed by capitalist society. The book was written during the history I chronicle in the book, and it helped me to better understand the way that migration was one risk among many. The state tried to regulate that specific risk in such a way that its benefits would accrue to employers and the state, while many of its negative effects—such as family separation—were left for migrants to figure out as individuals, sometimes to disastrous effect.

Books answer questions, but they also raise new questions. What questions does your book raise?

At least as many as it answers! Some of the most important: how can European countries come to understand immigration as an ongoing feature of their societies rather than a crisis that erupts every other year? Can they move away from an approach to migration that relies on suspicion and policing? What would a migration system designed on the assumption of dignity and full humanity for all individuals look like?

The book doesn’t answer these questions, but it does show that discussions about immigration and belonging are contingent and malleable. The future remains open to both much more progressive and much more reactionary outcomes.

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