Current Sociology

Sociologist of the Month, December 2022

Please welcome our Sociologist of the Month for December 2022, Michaela Benson (Department of Sociology, Bowland College, Lancaster University, UK). Her article for Current Sociology Hong Kongers and the coloniality of British citizenship from decolonisation to Brexit and the foundation of ‘Global Britain’ is Open Access.

Michaela Benson

Could you please tell us about yourself? How did you come to your field of study?

M. Benson: Since June 2021, I’ve been Professor in Public Sociology at Lancaster University. I also have a longstanding relationship with The Sociological Review, serving as its editor-in-chief from 2016-21 and currently as the chief executive of the charitable Foundation behind this. I have quite a wide-ranging research interests and am known for my work in several fields of sociological enquiry. But one of my longstanding interests, and indeed the topic that brought me into sociology in the first place, is migration. Very early on in my academic career I was told that the sociology of migration did not exist within the mainstream of sociology. Call me pig-headed, but since then I have focussed on demonstrating what a distinctly sociological approach to understanding migration might offer conceptually and theoretically.

My interest in this area was initially sparked by my experiences of growing up in a transnational, mixed-race family—my mum is originally from Hong Kong, moving to England to go to University in the 1970s and never returning home to live, and my grandparents lived there until the early 1990s—and experiences of being a ‘trailing child’, my father’s job meaning that I moved schools and house every eighteen months until I was eleven, within the UK but also abroad. Coming to sociology with this family history, I was struck by the over-determined assumption of stasis—rather than mobility—that underpinned a lot of sociological thinking, but also the extent to which when migration was considered, it focussed almost exclusively on immigration, when borders work in two directions (albeit unevenly). My research is characterised by trying to dispel these assumptions, including, for example demonstrating how the everyday practices of British citizens living in rural France can be understood as the reproduction of a distinctly British middle class and what the more privileged migration flows that are often overlooked in migration research, make visible about the global political economy of migration and citizenship.

What prompted you to research the area of your article, “Hong Kongers and the coloniality of British citizenship from decolonisation to Brexit and the foundation of ‘Global Britain’”?

M. Benson: Since 2017, I’ve been researching Brexit, migration and citizenship. Conducting this research, what has become clear to me is how Brexit provided further impetus for a process that my colleague Nando Sigona and I describe as ‘rebordering Britain’. Post-Brexit we are witnessing the emergence of the government’s new political project ‘Global Britain’, its immigration and citizenship regime reshaping the membership of the political community but also brokering Britain’s shifting geopolitical position. In 2020, I started doing research into the longer history of Britain’s relationship with the people of Hong Kong, as part of a British Academy funded fellowship examining Britain’s relationship to its overseas citizens from decolonisation onwards. I’d been tracing how in the second half of the twentieth century their legal status was transformed from that of colonial citizens to those who belonged to but were not part of Britain. In 2020, when the UK government announced their commitment to providing the people of Hong Kong with a route to settlement in responses to political oppression by China —the commitment which gave rise to the Hong Kong BN(O) visa—I realised that this was not only the next step in the story of the relationship between the British government and their former colonial citizens but also the remaking of Britain after Brexit.

What do you see as the key findings of your article?

M. Benson: What I was trying to do in the article was to demonstrate the significance of the historical back story to the making sense of Britain’s present-day migration-citizenship regime. Looking at cases like that of the Hong Kongers (and others with a residual nationality status in British legislation), cases which have often escaped scholarly attention, offers unparalleled insights into the making of ‘Global Britain’ and the contours of its political community. Tracing the history of the relationship between Britain and the people of Hong Kong over time, the article shows how the status of the Hong Kongers in British legislation has long been ambiguous by design, part of a broader governance process that stratifies access to citizenship rights even within populations who share nationality. Drawing on work which explores the colonial entanglements in migration and citizenship regimes (for example the work of Manuela Boatca and Julia Roth or Ann Laura Stoler), I warn against taking on face value the idea that the provisions for Hong Kongers is an exception in the context of the UK’s increasingly restrictive immigration regime. As I argue, this case makes visible the workings of imperial forms of governance in the making of ‘Global Britain’ through its migration-citizenship regime, giving rise to an understanding of the coloniality of British citizenship.

What are the wider social implications of your research in the current social climate? How do you think things will change in the future?

M. Benson: My research in this area is inspired by the turn towards what Gurminder Bhambra conceptualises as Connected Sociologies and related shifts towards thinking about the role of global political economy—past and present—in the production of contemporary inequalities. Such work is vital in the context of the resurgence of authoritarianism and nationalism around the world, and corresponding shifts in how states manage their borders and govern their populations, concerns which I know are shared by others at the International Sociological Association. As scholars working in these areas, it is important that we bear witness to these changes—as generations of scholars before us have done—and maintain our archives in the face of the challenges that these changes bring to the production of knowledge. My research on the UK’s migration-citizenship regime is just one small part of this story, but hopefully one that contributes to this collective project.

Do you have any links to images, documents or other pieces of research which build on or add to the article? Or a suggested reading list?

M. Benson: My recommendations for readings are:

I am a strong advocate for making sociological knowledge accessible beyond our immediate scholarly community, and with this in mind I have been involved in producing a set of resources that communicate and develop elements of the argument in the paper.

This includes: