The Governance and (Bio)Economization of Migrant Lives: An Interview with Dr. Marthe Achtnich

Photo by Angelos Tzortzinis.

This post should be read alongside the Colloquy edited by Marthe Achtnich, in particular Marthe Achtnich's two articles “Mobile Livings: On the Bioeconomies of Mobility” and “Bioeconomy and Migrants' Lives in Libya,” published in the February 2022 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology. We open up the interview by diving deeper into Dr. Achtnich's approaches to the bioeconomy and necroeconomy but quickly move to a range of topics, including the place for the local and the global in migration research, care practices from a comparative perspective, non-human contexts, and more. 


Dalton Price: Let’s go ahead and dive right into some of your core concepts presented in the papers. You write about the economization of life and the bioeconomy in the context of human migration in Libya and Malta. However, you point out that the bioeconomy is “always shadowed by the necroeconomy, where life’s disposability is a condition for wealth accumulation” (Mbembe 2019; Achtnich 2022a). I wonder about this analytical connection between the bioeconomy and necroeconomy. When discussing human migration, and given the broader context of racialized capitalism that orders contemporary social worlds, how would you characterize the relationship between the bioeconomy and necroeconomy? What does this “shadow” cast by the necroeconomy look like? Together disentangling the relationship between these terms, if possible, will be an important step for operationalizing them in other anthropology and migration research projects.

Marthe Achtnich: This is a very good question, and I appreciate the invitation to elaborate on the relationship between the bioeconomy and the necroeconomy. Contemporary capitalism is not only the biopolitics of profiting from life but, as Achille Mbembe (2003; 2019) and others have argued, has necropolitical orientations in that accumulation can also proceed through a devaluation of life. In my research on mobility and migration, which aims to rethink mobile life and the political and economic regimes that sustain and reproduce it, necropolitical dimensions of present-day capitalism become evident if we look beneath the surface, and especially when we shift the analytical gaze from Europe to what happens in Europe’s outside, in the borderlands.

Take the externalization of Europe’s borders to North Africa, for example—a topic I look at in my recent articles as well as a book I am working on. Here, borderwork is often informal and proceeds more through a racialization of the figure of the migrant and less through a bureaucratic apparatus or legal arrangements. Detention of migrants in Libya, as I have argued elsewhere (Achtnich 2022c) becomes a means of generating profit from mobile life itself, and proceeds through accumulation by rendering people immobile. Value is extracted from the mobile body through indentured labor. There is also a rentier form of capitalism at work, where migrants have to repeatedly pay money for their release from detention and other spaces of confinement, and to move on. Detention, as others have suggested, also serves to ‘warehouse’ migrants (cf. Andersson 2018), creating conditions that lead many people to leave Libya for Europe in search of better lives. Migrants take fragile boats across the Mediterranean sea, which becomes ‘a liquid trap’ (Heller and Pezzani 2017, 108), a necropolitical space where people often die amidst turbulent conditions. Those who make it to Europe ultimately end up unemployed or underemployed, becoming a reserve army of workers for many different sectors of the economy (cf. Pradella and Cillo 2021).

If we look at this system as a totality, it becomes evident that a necroeconomy shadows a bioeconomy of deriving profit from life. I use the term ‘shadow,’ for necropolitical dimensions of contemporary capitalism might not always be evident when we focus on how life itself is molecularized and rendered into discrete objects for purposes of circulation and accumulation (cf. Rose 2007). However, when we turn to mobile lives, we see how capitalism in late modernity relentlessly profits from the racialized hierarchies of mobility it creates, as Ruben Andersson (2022) has also pointed out in a contribution to our Colloquy collection. People are dispossessed and displaced, they are incarcerated along the way and funneled into undertaking deadly journeys, to end up as a reserve army of workers in the most underpaid jobs. If we take out the shadow of the necroeconomy we only get a partial picture of what contemporary capitalism looks like.

Conventional migration studies, with its focus on binary and legal categories, has often overlooked the migrant body itself. In a similar vein, conversations between scholarship on the biopolitics of policing migration and the political economy of migrant labor are only slowly emerging. What a focus on the bioeconomy and necroeconomy does for the anthropological endeavor is that it brings mobile life itself, and both its valorization and devaluation, into the fray. We begin to see important connections between mobility, economy and a politics of life, connections that are crucial for understanding our contemporary condition.

DP: Your ethnography reflects an intimate understanding of the local context and experiences of migrants passing through Libya and Malta. Yet as local as your attention is, you also zoom out analytically to show how global capitalism comes to systematize and order the local. Anthropologists have long theorized the complicated relationship between the local and the global—or perhaps the “glocal” (Swyngedouw 1997; Escobar 2001). Anna Tsing has theorized these interconnections as “friction” taking place in “zones of awkward engagement” (2004), whereas Arjun Appadurai has described certain “scapes” within the global imaginary (1996). How would you characterize the relationship between the local and the global in the context of the economization of life? To what extent do global capitalist logics become vernacularized, local phenomenon in your field site or in migration research contexts? You mention the economization of life orienting itself towards macroeconomic horizons, but might these horizons be more microeconomic than we think?

MA: This is a very relevant point and it follows from the previous question. One important means of understanding migration and mobile life is through multi-sited ethnography, for it is an endeavor that is attentive to movement and becomings. Whilst there are ‘sympathetic’ critiques of multi-sited ethnography (for example Candea 2007), and one can also look at mobility through a bounded site (cf. Elliot 2021), engaging with mobility as people traverse through places allows for an ethnographic inquiry that is directed at a number of different scales. My particular focus has been on peoples’ journeys, and I propose the journey itself as an analytic for understanding migrants’ lives. Macro-level political economic analysis of migration often posits the journey as linear, with fixed points of departure and destination, and determined by ‘push’ or ‘pull’ factors. Looking at migrants’ experiences along the journey on the other hand points to the non-linearity of movement, it draws attention to periods of immobility, whether through incarceration or deliberate waiting. In a similar vein, and as mentioned before, migration studies has often tended to work with binary categories such as asylum seeker, refugee, economic or irregular migrant. The analytic of the journey on the other hand allows us to see how so-called migrant ‘categories’ are often fluid, with people inhabiting different identities at different times, all of which have material and economic bearings on their lives.

Going back to your question, one important aspect of the journey and, therefore, mobility, is that it emphasizes how places are forged through movement. As Tim Ingold (2011) argues, localities are place-binding rather than place-bound. Many of the sites that I conducted research in—whether private houses in Libya, detention centers, or reception centers in Malta—are the outcomes of peoples’ movements and their enmeshment with the lives of others. Thus ‘the local’ might be understood as the product of mobility, whether of people, goods or things. It is a situated happening. What the journey also enables us to do is to think of connections across time and space, thus to ‘zoom out’ and look at wider dynamics. Erik Swyngedouw, Anna Tsing, and Arjun Appadurai, as you mention, all, in different ways, attend to the folded nature of the local and the global through the terms they propose.

The analytic of the journey therefore enables us to look at the bioeconomies of mobility at a number of scales. These can be ‘localized,’ as in the instance of the carceral regime of accumulation one witnesses in Libya. They, however, are also partly a product of the externalization of Europe’s borders, so you see trans-national processes at work. If you take a private house in Libya from where migrants try to move on by boat, like the one I have described in a recent article (Achtnich 2021), one sees how such a space can be studied at a number of scales, from a place forged through migrants’ mobilities, to an almost incidental product of Europe’s borderwork. These different scales point towards an economy surrounding migration. When we turn to relations between migrants, and particularly the support networks between migrants along the journey and the labors of care they enact, we witness what I call, following Wendy Vogt (2018, 16), ‘intimate economies of mobility,’ which become vital for the reproduction of the mobile body. These are not necessarily dictated by financial logics, but they reveal other processes that make the extraction of value from mobile life possible. To foreground this, we need to zoom out, to see how places like the house become embroiled in the trans-national processes of generating a reserve army of workers in Europe (cf. Pradella and Cillo 2021).

Mobility is implicated in wider processes of capitalist accumulation at a number of sites and scales. An anthropology examining the economization of mobile life thus needs to hold the local and the global, the intimate and the distant, within the same analytical plane. Here, the analytic of the journey is one crucial entry point. It fosters a nuanced account of the practices through which mobile life is rendered into a site of accumulation.

DP: In your piece, you briefly mentioned the sorts of mutual care, support, healing, and intimacy among migrants who are equally rendered disposable in this economization of life. How significant and generalized are these forms of care in your research? I ask because this is something I have thought about in the context of my own work among Venezuelan migrants. While I indeed see and am told of Venezuelans supporting Venezuelans, almost just as often am I told of “Venezuelans eating Venezuelans” (“venezolanos comiendo a otros venezolanos”) and how the contexts they find themselves in at times forces migrants to take advantage of each other along travel routes. In other words, migrants, perhaps beyond their own will, become participants in this violent economization of migrants. Did you see things like this as well, or was the narrative more so one of migrant-migrant solidarity? I also ask about these care or intimate economies given the fragmented state context you describe in Libya. Here in La Guajira, Colombia, where I do my fieldwork, state abandonment is all the talk. The role of the Colombian government in caring for Venezuelan migrants living here is minimally discussed. How might such state contexts shape these caring (or not) relations among migrants?

MA: These are very perceptive observations, and congratulations on what sounds like wonderful fieldwork you are conducting in Colombia. In my research I try to highlight how lines between different actors are blurred—whether between migrants and the state, migrants and human smugglers, migrants and criminal actors, or migrants and other migrants. Migration can at times be a very individualistic situation, and often people only have capacity in daily life to think of themselves and their own survival. This is particularly the case in situations of fragmented authority like Libya, where there are few formal structures of support. It means that, yes, migrants can play different roles in these economies surrounding mobility. But what I have seen is that even in situations of stronger state authority or legal framework, like the EU country of Malta, for example, migrants rely on intimate and caring relations amongst each other, for support that the state cannot or refuses to provide. Intimate relations established amongst a group during the boat crossing, for example, would stretch far beyond the temporality of the journey and offer support in the long term. One way of looking at care here is that it is an antidote to the necropolitics of abandon that some of the most vulnerable people in the world are subjected to. The relations and networks they form become infrastructural (cf. Simone 2004; 2021), enabling people to maintain the status quo or keep adversity at bay, however frail or momentary. Of course, as you mention, relations of care are not generalizable. They are situational, in both spatial and temporal terms.

DP: In this colloquy, other scholars write about the economization of life in non-human contexts. To what extent is the non-human a relevant and worthwhile object of study when examining human migration? In other words, just how non-human can human migration be? Have you considered attending to such non-human worlds in your research?

MA: If we think of the body as multiple (cf. Mol 2002), then it is not just people who move, but with them a range of pathogens, viruses, and symbionts. The policing of migration, for example through Europe’s borderwork, is not just about legal categories but targets the body and its constituents, as well. A screening for certain diseases after arrival by boat would be one example. In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, the ways in which borderwork targets the body multiple have become even more evident. Global mobility is thus not just about the movement of people, but also of animals, plants, and viruses, as Sarah Green (2022) and Hans Lucht (2022) have also shown in their contributions to our Colloquy collection. It can also involve the circulation of body parts, as Madeleine Reeves (2022) shows in another contribution. The human and non-human are entangled in their mobilities, although it is our academic disciplines that often seek to parse the two. If we shift our attention to animal commodities, for example, then you see strict protocols regarding the animal bodies that are allowed to cross borders and the ones that are not. The movement of pathogens with animal life then has bearings on human health, and thus biosecurity is intimately caught up with the policing of animal bodies (cf. Green 2022). The intersections between the human and the nonhuman are crucial to how the biopolitics of governing migration unfolds. A wider anthropology of mobility must take these intersections into account, and it is for this reason our Colloquy sparks a dialogue across different forms of life that constitutes the bios in bioeconomies of mobility.

DP: To wrap up, I have just one more question. What’s next for you? Will you continue to study the economization of life in your next project, or has such thinking and theorization unexpectedly brought you elsewhere? Tell us where you’re going and how you got there.

MA: Thank you so much for the opportunity to engage with these questions on the bioeconomies of mobility. I had not deliberately set out to study this topic when I embarked on my earlier fieldwork years ago, but bioeconomies of mobility emerged as a theme when I realized the value that is linked to mobile life in this context, and how migrants themselves often related to it—for example by referring to themselves as ‘moneymakers’ or ‘goods,’—but also when I noted the different ways value is extracted by a range of actors, taking different forms that go beyond the simply financial. My plan for the immediate future is to continue studying bioeconomies of mobility in the context of migration, with a particular focus on health and labor. The former opens up inquiry into the non-human, particularly viruses and pathogens, and how borderwork targets such bodies to police mobility. A focus on the migrant body also opens up questions about work and its relation to illness. These are some themes that I am examining in ongoing and envisaged work.


Achtnich, Marthe. 2021. “Waiting to Move On: Migration, Borderwork and Mobility Economies in Libya.” Geopolitics.

———. 2022a. “Mobile Livings: On the Bioeconomies of Mobility.” Cultural Anthropology 37, no. 1: 1–8.

———. 2022b. “Bioeconomy and Migrants’ Lives in Libya.” Cultural Anthropology 37, no. 1: 9–15.

———. 2022c. “Accumulation by Immobilization: Migration, Mobility and Money in Libya.” Economy and Society 51, no. 1: 95–115.

Andersson, Ruben. 2018. “Profits and Predation in the Human Bioeconomy.Public Culture 30, no. 3: 413–39.

———. 2022. “The Bioeconomy and the Birth of a ‘New Anthropology.’” Cultural Anthropology 37, no. 1: 37–44.

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———. 2019. Necropolitics. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

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———. 2021. “Ritornello: “People as Infrastructure.Urban Geography 42, no. 9: 1341–1348.

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