‘Precarity & Belonging’ captures insights from global discussion of citizenship, migration, socioeconomic mobility

the book cover, featuring a photograph of clothes on a line outside a tent
The book cover features a photo depicting a refugee camp in Calais, France, taken by Lewis Watts, a professor emeritus of art at UCSC.

An interdisciplinary group of leading UC Santa Cruz scholars have released a new book called Precarity & Belonging that culminates more than five years of collaborative research and discussion around themes of global migration, citizenship, and marginalization. 

The project started in the spring of 2016, when Latin American and Latino Studies Professor Catherine Ramírez organized a series of events called “Borders and Belonging” to convene experts on migration from across campus and around the world. From there, the conversation continued into the fall of 2016 and through the spring of 2017, thanks to a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that allowed UC Santa Cruz to host a Sawyer Seminar series of events on forced migration, labor, and citizenship. 

The book Precarity and Belonging captures insights that emerged from those gatherings. Ramírez collaborated with Associate Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies Sylvanna Falcón, Professor of Literature Juan Poblete, Associate Professor of Sociology Steve McKay, and Professor of Feminist Studies Felicity Amaya Schaeffer to co-edit a volume featuring 23 contributors from around the world. Ramírez, Poblete, and Schaeffer also contributed chapters. 

“Ultimately, our book is about mobility and immobility, and by mobility, we refer to both physical movement and movement along socioeconomic lines,” Ramírez said. 

Precarity and Belonging explores these themes in connection to three interrelated concepts: migration, the legal and social elements of belonging, and precarity, which is a measure of socioeconomic vulnerability and risk. Associate Professor of Sociology Steve McKay says the term precarity originated in Europe to describe rising unemployment and inadequate, shrinking social safety nets. 

“In some ways, Europe was just catching up to the rest of the world, where that has been the state of things for a very long time,” McKay said. “Unfortunately, precarity has become more and more common, both as a theoretical framework and as a lived experience.”

Precarity and Belonging provides a global look at this concept, including a focus on the United States. 

“When we talk about the American Dream, it’s often celebrated as upward mobility: the ‘rags to riches’ story,” Ramírez said. “But what we’re actually seeing in this country, and what we’ve been seeing for decades, is decreasing wealth among the majority and downward mobility along many different indices of well-being, health, and wealth.”

The book’s authors particularly wanted to illustrate how precarity affects people across citizenship statuses. 

“There’s a spectrum of precarity and belonging that connects people who have very little formal claim on the status of citizenship with people whose full claims to the status have been devalued by changing economic conditions, globalization, politics, and racism,” said Literature Professor Juan Poblete. “That includes undocumented workers as well as a blue-collar white citizen who has been laid off by a big plant that disappears in the Midwest.”

Ramírez explained that traditional notions of citizenship and belonging focus on “the people who are fully participating in society and its institutions: those who serve on juries and vote and own their homes.” But for many U.S. citizens, economic participation in institutions like homeownership is increasingly unattainable. Meanwhile, legal rights—like the right to vote—can be denied to citizens who have been incarcerated, or who simply live in states that have made it more difficult to vote, for example. And institutionalized prejudice has long eroded the legal, social, and economic rights of Americans on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and many other factors. 

“We end up with this gradation of citizenship and belonging, where you have some people who experience full citizenship, while others are treated as denizens who live in a place but are basically second-class citizens or extremely well-integrated non-citizens,” Ramírez said. “And then you have the ‘alien’ or outsider who is seen as an interloper.” 

Precarity and Belonging sheds new light on the degradation of citizenship while emphasizing shared precarity in order to drive toward a new “politics of commonality.” The book envisions a future in which people work together to dismantle barriers across the spectrum of belonging while improving quality of life for all. 

“It can seem almost paradoxical to try to bring some of these groups together, because it has been so extraordinarily effective for politicians to pit them against each other,” said Poblete. “But the basis of the politics of commonality is the fact that your destiny is tied to solving all the problems that also affect these other people. Because without that, there will be no social peace.”

Precarity and Belonging can’t offer all the answers on what it would take to achieve a politics of commonality, but the book’s coeditors believe that inviting global discussion on that topic is an essential step forward. And they’re proud to have positioned the university as a convener in those efforts. 

“It’s exciting because I think UC Santa Cruz does something unusual in that we often have multidisciplinary approaches to large systemic problems,” McKay said. “It’s that kind of broad thinking and bringing together of people—not just from different disciplines, but also from all over the world—that makes this book a uniquely UC Santa Cruz project.” 

The Research Center for The Americas will host a book launch event for ‘Precarity and Belonging’ on November 9, featuring a discussion among the coeditors. Stay tuned to the RCA website for updates on full event details.