How Place Matters for Migrants’ Socio-Legal Experiences: Local Reasoning about the Law and the Importance of Becoming a “Moral Insider”

Noemi Casati & Silvia Pasquetti (2022)

Qualitative Sociology, 45, pp. 189-218

Abstract. In this article, we argue that migrants’ socio-legal experiences in the places where they settle are formed in interaction with how local residents morally reason about the law. Specifically, based on nine months of fieldwork in an impoverished Italian town, we argue that aligning with how local residents approach the law, including when they justify disobeying it, matters a great deal for migrants’ lives. Focusing on the workings of a reception center for asylum seekers, we first show how local residents regularly support various violations of the law by referring to alternative—and in their view higher—principles of justice. Migrants find themselves caught up in these local moral tensions, at times even becoming involved in illegal practices unbeknownst to them. We then show how migrants’ reactions to the marginality of the law in the town affect their access to local support. Those who align with local nonlegal moral norms obtain access to opportunities, while those who in similar situations invoke the primacy of legality tend to experience ostracization. By investigating the dynamic role of local moralities in situated interaction, this article contributes to both the sociology of morality and the sociology of migration. It shows how moral decision-making processes can and should be studied in their collective dimension, beyond individual-level experiments. Further, with its focus on processes of moral (mis)alignment, it allows us to grasp how place matters for migrants’ lives beyond overly general notions of ‘hostile’ versus ‘hospitable’ localities.

Extract: “Moral reasoning about the law should thus be analyzed as grounded both locally and situationally. As Boltanski (2012 [1990], 33) puts it, “we are in a position to understand the actions of persons when…we have grasped the constraints that they have had to take into account, in the situation in which they found themselves, to make their critiques or their judgments acceptable to others.” From this perspective, recognition of moral competence—and thus “insideness”—by local residents is particularly relevant for obtaining access to a variety of resources, from social support to employment opportunities in the town.” (p. 196)

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