Interdisciplinarity in Migration Research: Combining law and anthropology
Blog post

Multiple, uneven and relational time in ethnographic research

In the following, we want to reflect on what it means for interdisciplinary studies of migration to understand time as multiple, uneven, and relational.

Trees in a park
The picture is taken in Hamburg, where Kari Anne Drangsland did her fieldwork amongst irregularized immigrants.
Kari Anne Drangsland

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In our blog post Addressing the co-production of law and time in regularisation processes: legal and ethnographic lines of enquiry, we focus on the entanglements of law and time in migration governance. In this blogpost, we want to highlight how the endeavour to unpack law and time from a feminist ethnographic perspective involves recognizing how law produces its effects in a world where people are differently positioned within racialized, gendered, and classed structures of power. 

We understand these structures of power as co-constitutive and spanning multiple spaces and scales. To grasp the unequal workings of law in the context of migration governing, we therefore argue that it is necessary to situate the analysis of (temporal) difference and the temporalities of law in a wider context of social relations of power. Furthermore, people live their lives in relation to temporal templates that are not (merely) defined by migration law. Such temporal templates crucially shape people’s situated positions within, and their navigations, of the border timespace. It is, in other words, necessary to widen the ‘temporal gaze’ (Adam, 2000) on law and time to encompass non-legal temporalities and times. 

In the following, we want to reflect on what it means for interdisciplinary studies of migration to understand time as multiple, uneven, and relational. Doing this, we draw on feminist, queer, and post-colonial discussions of temporality. 

Multiple, uneven …. 

The legal scholar Elizabeth Cohen (2012: 54) argues that the temporal rules of law are powerful governing instruments because they have the potential to ‘ensure the smooth functioning of a large-scale state committed to basic liberal egalitarian norms’. This is so, she states, because time, unlike property, work, or money, is understood to be ‘equally available to all people’ (Cohen, 2012: 54). The time Cohen addresses here is what often is referred to as objective or quantitative time – the time known to people today through the measurement of the clock. Yet, working ethnographically with law and time in the context of European migration governing, opens the temporal gaze to how time is unevenly produced, distributed, and valued. On the one hand, the notion of ‘uneven time’ entails an understanding of how temporal orders are hierarchically organized and produce uneven effects along lines of difference such as gender, race, ableness or age. 1 The concept of temporal order, here, refers to the temporal regulation of social entities through the discursive and material structuring of time, and the norms attached to time. On the other hand, the conceptual lens of uneven time also involves attention to how the ‘time of life’ as such are unequally produced and supported. In our own work we have addressed questions of temporal difference through a biopolitical lens and researched how present forms of migration governing differently invest in bodies. The analytical lens of uneven temporalities thus allows us to investigate how - and according to what (spatiotemporal) rationalities and techniques - some bodies are let/made to wait, while other hurry; some bodies slowly decay, while others’ embodied lives are made to flourish within today’s border regimes. Indeed, working with a notion of uneven time disturbs the myth of a non-political, neutrally ticking clock-time equally available to all. 2

To approach time as multiple entails acknowledging the multiplicity of temporal norms and constructs through which people invest life with meaning and through which they are governed. For interdisciplinary studies of migration, the lens of multiple temporalities provides awareness of the different and often conflicting temporalities of the various institutions involved in migration governing. It also opens for simultaneously addressing multiple scales of governing, such as the intimate scale of the body and the scale of law, when researching present regimes of migration governing. In Drangsland’s research on migration governing in Germany since 2015, she investigates how asylum seekers and variously irregularised migrants struggle to make a meaningful life for themselves in relation to the temporal formulas of migration law, but also in relation to the rhythms of the ageing body, and to gendered and heteronormative life cycle periodisations (Drangsland, 2020b; 2020a; 2021). The latter temporalities, she finds, play a crucial role in migrants’ navigations of the German legal landscape and in shaping their attachments and social bonds. Furthermore, she shows that how people relate to German asylum, residence and regularization policies are shaped by institutional and political dynamics in their home countries and by international politics – institutions and dynamics with their own temporal norms and rhythms. Karlsen (2021) explores in her research on irregularised migrants’ access to welfare in Norway how healthcare providers navigate the different temporalities of medicine and migration control. She shows how the tension between the temporalities of medicine and migration control raise both ethical and practical dilemmas for service providers in their encounter with irregularised migrants. For example, while medical practice relies on the doctors’ control of the patient time and space, patients who are irregularised remain deportable, making the prospect of planning and completing treatment unpredictable. Moreover, the healthcare regulation stipulates that irregular migrants only have the right to emergency health care and ‘health care that cannot wait’, whereas established medical practice and knowledge indicate that untreated illness and treatment prospects often worsen over time. 

Analytical attention to the multiple times through which people navigate legal and political structures and make sense of their spatially lived lives, thus broadens the analytical gaze on migrant il/legality and their ’legalizing moves’ (Coutin, 2003) beyond the space of the national container. Indeed, such a perspective makes apparent, that how scholars think about time has reverberations for their understandings of space and vice versa, as feminist geographer Doreen Massey (2005) has powerfully argued. 

… and relational times 

As ethnographers working with notions of multiple and uneven time, we are faced with the question as to how we should understand the entanglements and relations between different temporalities. Indeed, an important question in our own research practice has been what it means to produce an analysis of ethnographic encounters that recognize the multiplicities and relationalities of time (Jacobsen and Karlsen, forthcoming).  

We understand temporalities as entangled and relationally constituted at the intersection of complex power structure. Furthermore, the lens of relational time entails an acknowledgement of and analytical attention to how people – be it irregularised migrants, researchers, state bureaucrats, first class business travelers - are differently positioned within dominant temporal orders. Temporal orders are productive of migrant il/legality and underpin legally and politically valuations of the ‘good citizen’. Feminist media scholar Sarah Sharma (2014) for instance, deploys a lens of relational time to investigate the present temporal order of neoliberal capitalism and its emphasis of speed. She shows how illegalised migrant taxi drivers and high-class business travelers are affected by the quest for speed – enforcing taxi-drivers to long waits, and exhausting shifts, while speeding up the mobility and pace of life of business travelers (see also Jacobsen, 2020). Relatedly, in her work on German migration governing, Drangsland has researched how gender, age, class and health work to differently position migrants within the temporal order of German regularisation schemes, with their embedded logics of patience, progression and formulas of productive ways of relating to the (pre-defined) future.  

Relational time also takes on another meaning in the work of feminist scholars, such as for instance in the works of Doreen Massey (2005) and Barbara Adam (1990). In their thinking, relational time is also a way to address becoming and change. Massey is concerned with how places are continuously re-produced within practices and interactions (relations) spanning spaces and scales. Adam, in her effort to theorize time and questions of ‘the social’ has, amongst others, looked to biology and to how the body is re-produced through continuous interactions (relations) within the body and between the body and the environment. In these works, to start out with relations, in the sense of spatialized and contextual interactions, enables a conception of time as the constant emergence of something new. Massey and Adam show how such an epistemological and analytical approach to time has profound implications for understandings of space, sociality, and subjectivity. In her own work on epistemological questions of waiting, Drangsland argues that attention to time as becoming opens the temporal lens towards how migrants – while often depicted as ‘waiting’ for regularization - always keep on living relationally, embodied lives ‘set’ within multiple spaces. From this perspective, she calls for the need to think through what is at stake in the much-used representation of migrants’ time ‘as suspended’ in research on the temporal dynamics of migration regulation. She argues that such a representation risk occluding people’s relationally lived lives, and thereby concealing the violence of present regimes of bordering. 

Thinking politics  

Conceptualisations of relational time have been important in feminist critique and scholarship because it provides an epistemological foundation for questioning teleological narrative and for thinking the future as open. That is, thinking time in terms of becoming opens the analytical imagination for other possible worlds (e.g. Grosz, 2002). Relational time, in this sense, has thus been understood as prerequisite for feminist politics. While we sympathize with this position, we also argue from an ethnographic point of view that engaging with the potentialities inherent in the present in the context of research on global migration regimes must also entail engaging with how people are differently dis/invested in within these regimes (Karlsen, 2020; Drangsland, 2020a). People are, so to say, differently invested with futurity. 

1. Discussions of uneven time are central – while in highly different forms and arguments – in studies on queer temporality (e.g. Halberstam, 2005; 1. Dinshaw et al., 2007), post-colonial literature (e.g. Chakrabarty, 2000) and in ethnographic work of scholars such as Laura Bear (2014) and Elisabeth Povinelli (2011).

2. For critical thinking on clock-time, see Bastian 2017.


Adam B. (1990) Time and social theory, Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press. 

Chakrabarty D. (2000) Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Coutin SB. (2003) Legalizing moves: Salvadoran immigrants' struggle for US residency, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. 

Halberstam J. (2005) In a queer time and place: Transgender bodies, subcultural lives, New York and London: New York University Press.

Jacobsen C and Karlsen M-A. (forthcoming) The Meanings of Chronopolitics and Temporal Awareness in Intersectional Feminist Research.  

Massey D. (2005) For space, London, Thousand Oaks and New Dehli: Sage Publications.  

Povinelli EA. (2011) Economies of abandonment: Social belonging and endurance in late liberalism, Durham and London: Duke University Press.  

Sharma S. (2014) In the meantime: Temporality and cultural politics, Durham and London: Duke University Press.