The concept of multi-level governance in migration studies

Tihomir Sabchev

12 July 2019


The recent IMISCOE 2019 conference in Malmö confirmed the increased popularity of the multi-level governance concept among migration scholars. At the same time, it revealed two important issues that need to be addressed – the lack of progress towards developing a minimum consensus on what multi-level governance in the field of migration studies actually means and the problem of concept stretching. In this blog, I argue that while it is very important to continue refining the MLG concept and strengthening its applicability, it is also crucial not to increase the misconception and misuse of it.

Malmö University, the host of the 16th IMISCOE Annual Conference Source: personal archive 


Migration governance nowadays has become an increasingly complex exercise. Diverse populations driven by diverse factors travel to diverse destinations, where diverse state and non-state actors usually try to integrate them into often already diverse local communities. There is nothing surprising, therefore, in the fact that migration scholars in their efforts to manage and incorporate this complexity into their research have recently advanced in enriching their conceptual toolkit.


This increased complexity manifested itself in the best possible way at this year’s IMISCOE conference, entitled “Understanding International Migration in the 21st century: Conceptual and methodological approaches”. Hundreds of scholars from Europe and beyond gathered to present and discuss their most recent research in the broader field of migration studies. Topics varied greatly - from externalization of EU border control and refugee reception to brain drain and discrimination. However, there seemed to be one protagonist who was constantly moving from one room to another, very often even managing to be present at several panels at the same time. Sometimes in the spotlight attracting everyone’s attention, while at other times patiently waiting in the back of the room for a good opportunity to remind of itself – “multiness” was without a doubt one of the highlights of the conference.


Even if one has not managed to attend IMISCOE 2019, it would be sufficient to browse through the conference booklet to ascertain the correctness of the above observation. The multi-layered reality of (multiple) migration in multicultural and multilingual states and cities has resulted in studies that incorporate multi-dimensional, multi-level and multi-scalar approaches, while multi-actor models applied in multi-sited research facilitate the opening of the migration governance black box, or one should rather say – black hole.  


Within this labyrinth of “multiness”, one concept stood out in seemingly attracting the greatest attention among migration scholars –multi-level governance (MLG). A significant number of researchers engaged directly with the concept during their presentations, while several separate panels were explicitly devoted to MLG. As a result, one could observe the MLG concept being applied to different contexts varying from the Nordic countries (Denmark and Sweden), to continental Europe (Germany and Austria), to the Mediterranean region (Spain and Italy) and finally to non-EU countries.


Indeed, MLG is a very rich and useful concept that has been gradually adopted by an increasing number of migration scholars in the last two decades. In short, MLG describes the shift of responsibilities as regards migration governance away from the central state in three different directions – upwards to supra-national institutions, downwards to sub-national state entities and outwards to non-governmental bodies. In addition, MLG recognizes that rather than a one-way devolution of authority, this development has been largely influenced by the mobilization of sub-state and non-state actors who have challenged the central state’s authority over migration-related issues, trying to earn their role in the decision-making process (Caponio & Jones-Correa, 2017). With its large explanatory value and potential for fairly broad application, MLG has greatly assisted the recent migration scholarship in putting diverse actors into one analytical framework and shedding light upon the processes and outcomes of migration policy-making. Given the abovementioned ever-increasing complexity, MLG undoubtedly has a bright future in assisting scholars theorize the novel phenomena emerging in the contemporary fast-paced arenas of migration governance. 


Ironically, however, the potential of MLG to incorporate diverse actors, encompass diverse levels and travel at a first glance effortlessly across borders, can also be a major source of weakness. More concretely, the application of MLG backfired doubly in my opinion during IMISCOE 2019 – revealing the lack of progress towards developing a minimum consensus on what MLG in the field of migration studies actually means and raising concerns about concept stretching.


Firstly, it should be noted that as Caponio and Jones-Correa (2017) have put it, “the lack of agreement on single definition of MLG, which is by the way the case also with other classical concepts in the social sciences more generally, should not be regarded as an impediment to move the research agenda forward”. Despite this observation, the authors recognized the necessity of reaching a minimum consensus on some main components of the MLG concept in order to avoid misunderstandings. Therefore, they proposed three minimum elements of MLG as a policy arrangement, discussing also alternative ways of conceptualizing MLG, as well as the use of other relevant concepts like intergovernmental relations to describe similar phenomena. With some exceptions, however, it seems that migration policy scholarship is still far from agreeing on one or a few major conceptualizations of MLG. The concept is still used to describe very different (policy) arrangements: formal relationships between different levels of government (EU-central state-regional-local), interactions between national governments and international organizations, formal and informal relationships between state and public/private actors, and sometimes even between every actor identified as somehow relevant to the specific migration governance arrangement that is researched.


Secondly, the permanently broadening application of MLG continues to raise serious concerns about concept stretching. As Giovanni Sartori has pointed out in his groundbreaking work Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics(1970), concepts have two profound characteristics - intension (the collection of the concept’s properties) and extension (the totality of cases to which the concept applies). By adding new attributes to a certain concept we increase its intension, while at the same time the number of cases that the concept indicates is reduced. In order to avoid concept stretching and therefore misuse a given concept, we should either climb up the “ladder of abstraction” and make our concepts more abstract while widening the potential for their application, or descend it and make them more concrete, but at the same time applicable to a smaller number of empirical examples.[1]