On edge: tools for an anthropology of precarity

Madeleine Reeves

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


This paper proceeds from two empirical dilemmas which have arisen during my research into the illegalization of migrant labour in urban Russia. Firstly, how to do descriptive justice to the gradations of legal residence and labour that my respondents described: of being “legal enough” to get by; of having “clean fake” registration documents; of living as the “ghost” of a deceased (but still registered) tenant; or of having “illegal” documents authorized by state officials? Secondly, how to do methodological justice to the feelings that such legal precarity create: of fear and uncertainty; of living and working “on edge” with the ever-constant risk of deportation; but also of hope and sense of abandon; of possibility and thrill. I argue in this paper that whilst anthropology has increasingly dedicated attention to what De Geneova has called the “legal production of migrant illegality” through analysis of the economic and political logics that illegalize migrant work and residence, it has been less concerned the ways in which legal regimes and structures of feeling coincide, nor to the tools which we might use to “sense the political”(Navaro-Yashin, 2003) in contemporary states, including in states that thrive on the production of legal exceptions. The paper argues that part of the reason for this silence is methodological: that critical migration studies has developed primarily through textual and institutional critique, rather than from an exploration of the way in which precarity comes to be embodied and lived: shaping bodily comportment, structuring habitual reactions and mediating social relations with officials and friends. Engaging with the conference’s thematic concern with “transformative practice”, the paper asks what an anthropology of precarity might look like; how we might attend methodologically to the varieties of lived experiences of migrant labour – including work and life that is in-between “legal” and “illegal” domains; and how such methods might contribute to critiquing the binaries (of legal/illegal; documented/undocumented) that still tend to dominate in the classification and analysis of migrant labour.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationhost publication
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2010
EventOn edge: tools for an anthropology of precarity - St. Hughes College, University of Oxford
Duration: 31 Aug 20103 Sept 3010


ConferenceOn edge: tools for an anthropology of precarity
CitySt. Hughes College, University of Oxford
Internet address


  • Migration
  • (il)legality
  • Russia
  • Documents
  • Precarity


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