A Political Sociologist’s Tribute to Aristide Zolberg by Irene Bloemraad

A Political Sociologist’s Tribute to Aristide Zolberg

Irene Bloemraad
Thomas Garden Barnes Chair of Canadian Studies
Associate Professor, Sociology, University of California, Berkeley


As anyone who has read A Nation By Design knows, Ary Zolberg was a truly interdisciplinary writer and thinker.  He took the long historical view in order to understand the politics of migration and processes of immigrant integration through to the present.  At the same time, he tenaciously reminded scholars that states matter and political institutions are central to understanding international migration.

These are themes I latched on to as a graduate student in sociology and which I continue to convey in my teaching on immigration.  In all of my undergraduate and graduate classes on migration, students read a range of economic and social explanations of international migration.  I then have students read Ary’s 1999 chapter in the Handbook of International Migration, “Matters of State: Theorizing Immigration Policy.”  While increasingly ancient in the eyes of some of my students – who were just entering kindergarten when it was published – to my mind it is a ‘classic’ for the classroom.  In Ary’s typical wide-ranging style, he underscores how states can (and have) controlled migration, he urges us to pay attention to sending states’ emigration policies as much as receiving countries’ laws, he reminds us that refugees are part of international migration, too, and he highlights the “strange bedfellows” of U.S. immigration politics, which cut across traditional right/left divides.  All of this is packed into 22 pages!

Ary’s intellectual legacy is also very personal.  With an undergraduate degree in political science, I moved to sociology in the mid-1990s because the discipline felt more open to interdisciplinary and mixed methods approaches to the study of immigration.  I continue to believe sociology offers these advantages, but as a graduate student, my foray into the sociological literature on immigration was – to my surprise – largely silent on the role of states, politics and power.  While it was a breath of fresh air to read sociologists take economic structures, racial hierarchies and cultural identities seriously in their analyses, much of the research seemed to imply that power and politics had little to do with migration patterns, processes of integration, and transnationalism.  There were, of course, some mentions here and there, but few detailed analyses.

It was consequently a joy to attend two lectures that Ary gave at Harvard University in late fall, 2000.  He underscored the need to theorize integration as occurring within institutional domains, especially those created by states and government policy.  He spoke about the importance of citizenship, the topic of my dissertation, which reassured me that I had something important to say.  However, he also spoke about the emptiness of multiculturalism policies, which he likened to subsided folklore.  Given that my dissertation was building an argument about the importance of multiculturalism and integration policies for explaining the gap between immigrants’ high level of citizenship in Canada compared to low naturalization in the United States, these comments were troubling.

I decided to write to Ary about my intellectual differences over multiculturalism.  I didn’t know him, but he seemed more approachable than many other famous speakers who came through Harvard.  And I desperately wanted a conversation with someone who cared deeply about immigration and did so with a view to the importance of politics and citizenship.  With the letter, I sent a copy of a paper in which I elaborated some of my ideas on Canada/ US differences. Of course, as an unknown graduate student from another university, I didn’t expect a reply, much less that he would read or comment on the paper.

I was thus astounded when I received an email from Ary on December 26, 2000 thanking me for the paper and offering some reactions.  He had spent the day before reading it.  While he still had reservations about the integrative value of multiculturalism, he found my data and arguments intriguing.  Years later, Ary would review my book for Sociological Forum, writing, “Having expressed skepticism regarding the reality and advantages of “official” multiculturalism [to her] while conducting her dissertation research, I would like to conclude by indicating that I find her evidence on behalf of the Canadian case broadly persuasive.”  Given his love of robust debate, Ary then went on to question how “exportable” the multicultural model was for the United States or European nations.

To this day, I remain deeply touched that he took the time to read the work of an unknown graduate student and treat her as a colleague with whom he could have a lively intellectual debate.  Such generosity of time and real engagement with ideas constitute one of Ary’s enduring legacies.  It is a legacy that I hope I can pass on to the next generation of immigration researchers.


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