25 August 2020

Passports and Standardisation

'Standardizing Movements: The International Passport Conferences of the 1920s' by  Sara Kalm comments 

The First World War is usually conceived as a turning point in the history of migration policy. Before the war, borders were largely open, passports were in most places abolished, and the movement of people as well as capital and traded goods was understood through an optimistic and liberal institutionalist lens. At the outbreak of the war, states reinstated passport controls, presumably as a temporary measure, but they were never again dismantled. In this paper, I suggest that in order to comprehend this general norm change, it is useful to approach these developments in a piecemeal manner to uncover changes in governmental thought and practice. The focus is the International Passport Conferences, that were organized by the League of Nations in the 1920s, and which laid the groundwork for the modern passport regime. The argument is that the work of these conferences can be aptly analyzed as a process of standardization –a technology of government which was widespread at the time, that has particular characteristics as concerns forms of governing, the status of knowledge and the construction of identities. Among other things, this approach allows us to detect linkages to international technical standardization, and to states domestic attempts at homogenizing and making legible their own populations.

Kalm argues 

The First World War is often understood as a turning point in the history of migration controls. Before the war, movement was largely unregulated and most states had since a few decades abolished passports and exit restrictions. With the outbreak of the war, states reinstated controls, both in order to control the inflow of possibly dangerous individuals, and to prevent the outflow of potential soldiers. Controls were never dismantled after the war, but instead came to be seen as a legitimate and indeed necessary element of international relations. The contemporary Italian diplomat Egidio Reale explained in 1931 that the passport question had been “entirely settled” in the early 20th century– it was then deemed a “despotic and unnecessary barrier to the freedom of communications”. After the war, all “reasonable persons” expected the soon revival of the pre-war regime, but, deplorably, the compulsory passport system was not abolished but instead strengthened (Reale 1931). Thus, the war and its aftermath – including the newly established passport regime – is often interpreted as indicating a shift in policy paradigm, from liberal internationalism to a more realist model (Strikwerda 1999). 

The question is how such a change occurs. Constructivist scholars in international relations doubt that sudden policy diffusions, whereby many countries adopt similar measures at about the same time, can be explained by domestic factors only. They are instead indicative of a change in international norms for state behaviour, to which states adjust their actions through the “logic of appropriateness” (March and Olsen 1998). The mechanisms whereby this norm change may occur include learning, mimicry, persuasion and sometimes coercion. In the longer run, a successful process of norm change makes states internalize the norms, leading to socialization and identity change (Checkel 2005; Finnemore and Sikkink 1998). But what sets this process in motion? Here is a bone of contention for constructivists. Some refrain from ascribing identifiable agents with the power to incite norm change, and instead point at broad discursive developments and historical contingencies. Others however argue that actors play a decisive role, and that the initiation of norm change can be attributed to their conscious efforts to influence state behaviour. Non-state actors, such as transnational activist networks, NGOs and social movements are especially important, and many studies have identified the mobilization among such actors as instrumental norm change in for instance the human rights field (Brysk 2013; Keck and Sikkink 1998). Such influence is possible in our days, when non-state actors mobilize across borders and when international institutions give them access to consultation. But it seems more questionable if we go a bit back in time. 

My approach is slightly different. I will concentrate on one particular process in the post-war reorientation of migration controls, namely, the International Passport Conferences of the 1920s. These conferences were organized under the auspices of the League of Nations and gathered experts and state representatives to debate and negotiate the usage of passport and migration controls. I argue that the efforts of these conferences can fruitfully be analysed as an instance of standardization. This is to some extent to state the obvious: the conferences are known for having initiated the standardization of modern international passports. But what I propose here is to take standardization seriously and bring it into the analytical exercise on its own terms. Processes of standardization are ubiquitous and occur in the spheres of technology, economy, management, health, education, as well as bureaucracy. They tend to fall into the category of “dull things” of mundane and technical regulations, and therefore often pass unnoticed and unscrutinised although they often have far-reaching implications for power and democracy (Timmermans and Epstein 2010: 71). The standardized passport is one example; it works well for millions of people and therefore meets with little opposition. Nevertheless, it is a source of anxiety for stateless people or those with otherwise unclear nationality status (Star and Lampland 2009: 7–11). I take standardization to be one element of norm change, but not the norm change as such. My suspicion is, moreover, that it merits more attention within the study of norm change in international relations than has so far been the case. The literature that approaches standards as social regulations pertains mainly to sociology, management and organization studies (Brunsson and Jacobsson 2000; Bowker and Star 1999; Star and Lampland 2009; Timmermans and Epstein 2010; Thévenot 2009). Much less has been written about standardization from a perspective that directly concerns matters that are of concern to international relation scholars, such as international norms (but see Peña 2015; Loya and Boli 1999; parts of Ponte et al 2011 and Higgins and Larner 2010). 

In this paper, I understand the standardizing efforts at the International Passport Conferences from the point of view of a framework inspired by Michel Foucault. Standardization is then seen as a “technology of government” which has particular and recognizable characteristics but can be invested with different rationalities and be used in different contexts and for different purposes (Rose and Miller 1992; Higgins and Larner 2010). This allows me to trace the roots of the studied standardization to other practices of standardization, rather than (only) to pre-existing norms, state interests or advocacy by different groups. It also allows me to historicise the efforts of the conferences, and to consider the constructive and exclusionary practices on which they progressively erected their passport standards (cf. Ewald 1990; Higgins and Tamm Hallström 2007). 

The focus on standardization also distinguishes my effort from existing studies of the history of the passport. That scholarship has investigated how states use the passport for state making purposes, and I use many of their insights in my analysis (Torpey 2000; Caplan and Torpey 2001; Salter 2003; Robertson 2010; Lloyd 2005). 

The next section expands on the notion of standardization as a governmental technology. It is followed by a section on two main forms of standardizations that were influential at the time and that are particularly relevant for the present case. We then turn to the policy background in the League of Nations and its other engagements with international movements of people, which is followed by the case study of the Passport Conferences. The material that I use for the investigation consists mainly of the League of Nations’ documentation from the Conferences and the in-between work by related bodies, but also of secondary sources. The paper ends by a summary.