GLOBALCIT Review Symposium on Alan Gamlen, Human Geopolitics: States, Emigrants, and the Rise of Diaspora Institutions, Oxford University Press, 2019


Jen Dickinson, University of Winchester

In Human Geopolitics, Alan Gamlen sheds light on the promulgation of policy instruments and structural bureaucratic forms designed to maximize emigrants’ contributions to economic and political nation-building efforts. The guiding theme is that changing geopolitical contexts, followed by transformations to the institutions of global migration governance, have created the context for the global spread, diffusion and transformation of formal state institutions of diaspora engagement. In so doing, Human Geopolitics reflects on the extraterritorial exertions of sovereignty over populations, the dissolution of normative distinctions between the ‘foreign’ and the ‘domestic’, and the transnationalisation of the institutions of the state. The book is therefore of interest to political geographers and international relations scholars concerned with the institutions of migration management and regimes of global migration governance.

The making of diaspora engagement

Human Geopolitics offers three important contributions to the literature. The first is methodological. As Délano and Gamlen argue elsewhere (2014), diaspora studies remains dominated by in-depth expositions of single country case studies, leaving theoretical and empirical gaps in understandings of the dynamic mechanisms that connect diaspora politics worldwide. The meticulous cross-comparative methodological approach taken here is where the empirical contribution can be found. By comparing the reasons for why and how different states engage diasporas, the book charts the global conditions through which the emigrant engagement institutions of individual political regimes have undergone significant transformations. Beginning in Chapter 1 with the distinction between tapping and embracing regimes, Chapters 2 to 5 ground these modes of engagement as responses to political ‘regime shocks’ including democratisation, economic instability, ethnonationalist tensions, border disputes and geopolitical (re)alignments. In so doing, the book moves beyond the usual rational economic explanations found for the rise of diaspora institutions.

The theoretical contribution is the identification of the dynamics of international policy mobilities that have invited political interactions with diasporas. Deploying two conceptual elements – world society theory and norm adoption- the second part of the book shows show how global policy environments built around a new migration and development ‘optimism’, influencing states to create new institutions to engage their diasporas. Although Gamlen shows how global institutions created blueprints for engagement, the argument is that a range of agentic actors including consultants, bureaucrats and state institutional actors adapt, appropriate and experiment with policy ideas. The contribution, therefore, is to show how the political and economic networks within which diasporic institutional actors are embedded shape the practice of diaspora engagement.

Theorising the human geopolitical

Human Geopolitics central argument is that diaspora engagement and the development of diaspora institutions constitutes a new form of geopolitics. There are two theoretical conceptualisations of the ‘human geopolitical’ at work in the book. Gamlen defines ‘human geopolitics’ as the “strategic competition over people but not over territory” (p. 6). Grounding this definition is an exposition of the classical geopolitics of Fredrich Ratzel, Halford Mackinder, Karl Haushofer, amongst others, whose arguments centred on explaining the connection between state power and size of populations and the spatial extent of territory. The growth of diaspora institutions historically, Gamlen argues, can similarly be understood as an attempt to ‘assert authority and maintain control by holding populations beyond state territory’ and, in the case of labour exporting economies of Asia, “seek to ensure the economic and political stability that underpins authority in both countries” (p. 119). In other words, the rise of diaspora institutions as facilitated by changes in the international system of migration governance should be understood as part and parcel of renewed geopolitical calculations over populations in response to changes in the global political economy.

Although not explicitly stated as such in the book, the second approach to human geopolitics can be located within the school of critical geopolitics, which takes as its starting point the role for what O’Tuathail (1992) calls the ‘intellectuals of statecraft’ shaping geopolitical ideas through ‘scripts’ and performances. The historical creation of geopolitical orders that centre diaspora engagement in Chapter 8 and 9, for instance, frames global policymakers and consultants as creators of ‘epistemic communities’ that promulgate the ideas, resource and mechanisms for engaging diasporas.

Although this second approach to geopolitics brings into view the wider discourses and networks of power involved in the production of geopolitical knowledge about diaspora engagement, like much of the wider literature in international relations, it is focussed on the organizational processes through which elites in and beyond the state make diaspora policies. It therefore concentrates on a very narrow range of geopolitical actors. This leads to the book’s conceptualisation of geopolitical power as operating vertically downwards. The diasporic ‘humans’ of Human Geopolitics, have in fact received very little attention, and therefore are not given any significant agency of their own. I turn now to two alternative strands of theoretical work in critical geopolitics to highlight some areas where there is a place for a more nuanced and fuller concept of the ‘human’ in theorising diaspora institutions.

The feminist geopolitics of the emigration state

In Human Geopolitics, geopolitics is conceptualised through the layering of global space from the world and regional scale to the national level and on to interactions with diaspora communities. As such, it implies a hierarchy of geographical scales through which the political-economic reality of emigrants becomes constructed. The global, world regional and nation are privileged in this book largely (although not exclusively, as discussed in the case of India on p. 85-90) to the exclusion of more situated and embodied scales. Indeed, ‘humans’ appear only as policymakers and political influencers, and whilst it is important to consider the role of elite positionalities in creating and generating diaspora policy and their global mobilities, in its elite focus, the book therefore leaves uninterrogated the wider array of agential actors who not only shape but are also impacted by the emergence of diaspora engagement.

Work in feminist geopolitics over the last twenty years, which takes as its starting point a critique of the conceptual division between the public sphere of policy and the private sphere of everyday life, directly engages with finer scales of analysis in efforts to produce more embodied accounts of the geopolitical (Massaro and Williams 2013). By way of an example, the issue of security and securitisation run throughout the book as a factor in the emergence of diaspora institutions over the last half century. Security in Human Geopolitics means state and territorial security, but a central aspect of feminist geopolitics is the disaggregation of security to “smaller political constituencies and vulnerable groups” (Hyndman 2001, p. 214), and to the scale of the emotions (Pain 2009) as a way of highlighting the illusory division between the realm of ‘geopolitics’ and the ‘non-political’. The book downplays the lived dimensions of human economic and social security as experienced through the application of diaspora engagement policies and the constructions of diasporas as political subjects. This includes the marginalisation of minority migrant groups, especially poor and irregular migrants (Crush et al. 2016) from access to the social rights, privileges and protection offered by diaspora institutions; the reproduction of socio-economic inequalities and exclusions through the spread of diaspora engagement practices (Mullings 2011, Davies 2012) and variations in cross-border social welfare arrangements for non-citizens (Paul 2017) amongst other consequences.

A further implication of theorising a more fully rounded notion of the ‘human’, not only as a political resource but fully attendant to the emotions, capacities and affects that “connect and conjoin’ geopolitics and everyday life” (Pain and Smith 2016, p. 7) is to (re)engage with the ways that currents of the global political economy are in dialogue with the multiple qualities and capacities of human being. As an example, recent work on diaspora diplomacy foregrounds a role for the properties, emotions and agencies of a vast array of social actors, which through their interaction in various spaces and settings, both reproduces and challenges the prevailing power structures of both global migration regimes and diaspora institutions (Dickinson 2017). This flatter view of geopolitical scale brings into view the tactics that diaspora individuals and groups can employ through their engagement with diaspora institutions to “engage local, national, supranational and global levels of power, and galvanise flows of resources from site to site within the diaspora assemblages in which they are situated” (Ho and McConnell 2019, p. 245). This is not to deny the significances of processes operating at the global and regional scale that is the focus of Human Geopolitics, but to problematise the books’ unidirectional view of the growth and spread of diaspora institutions and policy models as they are adapted for national contexts. In doing so, the book elides the role for the multiple agencies found, as feminist geographers remind us, in the mundane geopolitics of everyday life.

Postcolonial geopolitics of diaspora

The second strand of work relevant to critiquing the state and global institutional focus of Human Geopolitics is postcolonial analysis that focuses on exposing the geographical assumptions of geopolitical discourses, and closely related to this, calls to acknowledge explicitly both the political and cultural situatedness of geopolitical identities and the positionality from which geopolitical analysis is developed (Müller and Reuber 2008).

One implication of the book’s historical exposition of a series of ‘regime shocks’, starting in the experiences of the Jewish diasporas and the break-up of Soviet Europe, via political and economic instability of Africa and Asia, is that it builds its theoretical explanation of policy mobilities upon a Western variant of the state as a centralized bureaucratic institutional apparatus. This universalistic conceptualisation of diaspora institutions means that theorisations of state power is selective in its scope – here it is taken to mean the formal realm of government, through which diaspora outreach is practiced and sovereignty exerted. It therefore retains a state centred perspective even as it disaggregates the political actors and practices that make up the state and expands out to consider their interactions in wider networks of political elites.

In connecting diaspora building and engaging strategies to the institutions and practices of formal state-craft, the book neglects the situatedness of the historical variety of local and regional political systems such as customary authorities and neo-patrimonial political networks that have long been an aspect of migrant resource mobilisation in contexts of political and economic instability (McGregor 2009). Historically empowered by post-colonial governmental nation-building policies that promoted a politics of primary hometown belonging and patriotism, new patterns of transnational mobility have in some contexts (re)constituted neo-patrimonial networks to fulfil various state functions associated with access to political rights and social welfare. Indeed, such informal political networks connecting diasporas to cities and more remote areas in their homeland may offer more stable forms of support and services, often in locally adaptive ways (Lindley 2009).

The different modes of diaspora engagement conducted through such political networks create types of civic belonging and exertions of elite power that is not captured within Gamlen’s focus on formal institutions. Indeed, the absence or presence of the institutions and practices of formal state-craft means that some states might be considered weak or lacking capacity for emigration management as formally defined (Adamson and Tsourapas 2019). But to do so would be to reproduce a universal view of the modalities of sovereignty and constitutive elements of the state and state power through which diasporas are enrolled in nation-building. 


The state is a fundamental unit of analysis in geopolitical thought, and critical geopolitics is at its heart is a scholarly endeavour that seeks to deconstruct the spatial practices of the state. Gamlen’s comparative approach using the theoretical framework of policy mobilities and incorporating detailed scrutiny of the key elites involved in the global spread of diaspora institutions highlights the complex mixture of practices, discourses and performances that go into global experiments with diaspora engagement. One of the consequences that Gamlen rightly points to in the concluding chapter is that the spread of diaspora institutions increasingly brings diaspora groups into the purview of state surveillance. The central implication is that the evolution of global policy environments has paved the way for new possibilities of the ‘remote control’ of overseas populations. This is an important area for future research, and it is here I see important avenues for further theoretical development drawing on both the feminist and postcolonial approaches to geopolitics to ground diaspora engagement in its pluriversal significances and ways of living politically.