Interwar and Post-war Apparatuses of Displacement Response in Comparative Perspective

  • Rebecca Viney-Wood

Student thesis: Unknown


This thesis responds to two critiques of the contemporary historiography of displacement; Firstly, that existing histories of displacement are too narrow in scope, and secondly, that they are based on weak theoretical foundations. In comparison to other disciplines within the field of refugees and forced migration studies, the history of displacement is notable for its paucity of explicitly comparative, geographically broad, or theoretically grounded scholarship. This thesis provides an example of how to address these theoretical and spatial shortcomings by employing a framework built upon the concepts of apparatus and assemblage, in combination with microhistorical approaches to archival research. Through the comparison of the interwar 'Nansen' era and the beginnings of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the 1950s, this work offers new insights into the evolution of responses to displacement, highlighting and evidencing aspects of both continuity and change. The expansive geographical scope of this project, which ranges from South East Asia to Europe and the Middle East, also underscores the importance of smaller case studies for understanding the character and complexity of responses to displacement. Taking Foucault's notion of apparatus as its starting point, this thesis argues that responses to displacement in the interwar and early UNHCR period can be understood as being formed of a complex apparatus of networks, decision making, discourse and material objects which produced unpredictable and frequently uneven results, whilst maintaining a family resemblance. By applying the apparatus concept to two periods of displacement response patterns of both coherence and difference emerge, revealing two geographically diffuse systems which operated in many different contexts. Seemingly unconnected responses to displacement such as the Nansen Offices presence in interwar China, and the UNHCR's attempt and failure to offer assistance to Chinese refugees in post-war Burma highlight the devices which hold it together, and which if missing allow it to fall apart. This project is further enriched by the notion of assemblage, which incorporates more diverse elements such as material agency. By engaging with the question of material agency, this work intervenes in ongoing debates about Nansen Passports, going beyond binary distinctions of whether they were a 'success' or a 'failure.' Furthermore, this project offers new research into the separation of the mobility and identification functions of refugee passports in the post-war era, shedding light on why contemporary refugee documents lack the imagination of interwar Nansen Passports. In using the apparatus/assemblage concepts, this thesis challenges teleological accounts of responses to displacement, offering new research into often unknown episodes which speak to contemporary processes that shape how refugees are perceived and assisted.
Date of Award1 Aug 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorPeter Gatrell (Supervisor) & Bertrand Taithe (Supervisor)


  • Stateless
  • refugee regime
  • Nansen
  • material agency
  • China
  • Russia
  • Second World War
  • Burma
  • Nansen Passport
  • League of Nations
  • Postwar
  • Interwar
  • History
  • Assemblage
  • Apparatus
  • Displacement
  • Refugees
  • United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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