Some Useful Categories of Knowledge for Understanding Migration

A good decision is based on knowledge… –Plato  

I never thought Plato and I shared a common scholarly interest. My research on the millions of eastern Europeans who emigrated to the United States (ancestors of the subjects of Bruce Springsteen songs) at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seemed far removed from what I had once thought were the lofty realms of the the history of knowledge. Even so, armed with two thinkers, Max Weber and Michel Foucault, as well as reams of bureaucratic sources, I started to think about my research in terms of state knowledge in the surveillance and control of migration.1 But what about the everyday experiences of people in transit, experiences as banal as changing trains, which didn’t exactly gel with ideas from the great minds of civilization? Inspectors at Ellis Island didn’t scribble down treatises on free will, yet knowledge must have played a role in everyday experiences…

It turns out that the history of knowledge has a much broader scope than intellectual history and is inseparable from the history of proletarian migration. The movement of millions of people required information and imaginaries as much as it required railroads and steamships. During my fellowship in the history of knowledge at the GHI, I’ve found some useful categories for my research and hopefully also for other scholars of migration. Of course, all definitions are up for discussion and debate.

Knowledge circulation
Letters from relatives and friends overseas, newspapers, telegrams, phone calls. How quickly and pervasively information spread can also say a lot about the infrastructure of an area (road conditions, for example, or access to electricity).
Deliberately striving for or feigning ignorance. For example, a migrant tries to cross a border, gets caught, and claims to not know he or she needed certain documentation in order to alleviate negative repercussions. Or when German police and steamship agents knew young Austro-Hungarian men crossed borders to avoid the draft but did not say anything to maintain the lucrative business of human cargo.3 Another definition is knowing what one doesn’t know.
According to Wikipedia, this term originated in early twentieth-century Russia. But that could be misinformation. Or if the Wikipedia author put this false definition on there so readers would act in a certain way, that would indeed be disinformation. False advertising and news do occur in migration. For example, a steamship company prints flyers that wrongly claim that a checkpoint is closed, so their customers take another route away from competing travel agents.
In America the streets are paved with gold. On Ellis Island officials permanently changed people’s names entered into the registry. Neither of these rumors are true, but the latter still lingers.
Strategic knowledge
Buying train or plane tickets in segments to avoid suspicion of having plans to move, traveling one route instead of another because of fewer checkpoints—all such decisions depend on strategic knowledge.
Five women immigrants on a dock at Ellis Island, their dress and bare feet indicating simple peasant origins. Many immigrants screened there had already heard about U.S. regulations through friends, family, and travel agents.

Source: Library of Congress,

Why would these categories from the history of knowledge be useful for migration scholars? Without some form of knowledge attached to it, the name “United States” meant nothing to potential emigrants—exerted no attraction on them. Behind mass migrations stand extensive networks of communication. Journeying from one’s home involves a risk assessment that leaving is a better option than staying, if not for the migrants themselves then for their families and friends. To a certain extent, knowledge allays uncertainties and anxieties, and it fortifies (or inflates) hopes. While Weber and Foucault aptly decode systemic knowledge, the categories presented here can give migrants and individual officials the agency and power that intellectual and cultural histories often do not. The history of knowledge brings together both social and intellectual history because, to return to Plato, migrants have tried to make good decisions based on knowledge, albeit with mixed results because knowledge is social, formed by many different actors.

  1. See Allison Schmidt, “Crossing Germany: Eastern European Transmigrants and Saxon State Surveillance, 1900–1924” (PhD diss., University of Kansas, 2016); and idem, “‘The Long March Through Leipzig’: Train Terminal Chaos and the Transmigrant Registration Station, 1904-1914,” Journal of Migration History 2 (2016), 307-329
  2. See an analysis of non-knowledge and migration in William O’Reilly, “Non-Knowledge and Decision Making: The Challenge for the Historian” in The Dark Side of Knowledge: Histories of Ignorance, 1400 to 1800, ed. Cornel Zwierlein (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 397–419. 
  3. Thank you to Caitlin Murdock for this example from her commentary on the panel “Migration and Knowledge: Knowledge and Trans-Migrants in Late Holy Roman and Habsburg Empire” (sponsored by the GHI Washington DC), German Studies Association Annual Conference, San Diego, CA, September 29th–October 2nd 2016. 
  4. Gregory Evans Dowd examines the effects of rumors in history and present-day knowledge in Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015).