Ambrosini (2022): Moral Economy, Deservingness, Competing Moral Economies and Immigration Policies.

By Alexandra Pereira, 2022

In this sixth blog post, I will examine the connection between the concepts of moral economy, deservingness, competing moral economies and concrete immigration policies based on the analyses provided by Maurizio Ambrosini (2021, 2022). I will proceed by bridging them with the general use of time as a tool in migration governance (temporalities, uncertainties, othering processes, protection and oppression logics). 

© Alexandra Pereira, CECC, UCP, 2022

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  • Maurizio Ambrosini (2022) analyses the concept of moral economy in migration studies and its related concept of deservingness. But also the conflict between competing moral economies (“alternative”, “mainstream” and “deservingness-based”).
  • The concept of moral economy is applied by this author to the recent measure (related to the COVID-19 pandemic) enacted to regularise unauthorised immigrants in Italy (May–August 2020), with applications still under examination. He defends that a restrictive version of moral economy has prevailed. 
  • Ending, I rehearse a connection of the debate above with the topic of time used as a tool in migration governance (temporalities, uncertainties, othering processes, oppression and protection phenomena).

In July 2022, Maurizio Ambrosini introduced one conference paper entitled Deservingness and care work in immigration policies: the case of regularizations in Italy through the pandemic[1]. He discussed the measure, related to the COVID-19 pandemic, enacted to regularise unauthorised immigrants in Italy (May-August 2020). The measure, almost unique in Europe and in the Global North (only Portugal enacted a somewhat similar provision[2]) has involved only workers, and those workers employed in two sectors: agriculture and domestic/care services. This decision can be seen as a choice in terms of moral economy: some sectors and some immigrant workers have deserved more consideration than others. About 200,000 applications were presented, and they are still under examination in 2022. Ambrosini’s empirical material was constituted by declarations and statements made by various actors who took part in the debate, using moral-economic arguments to support their positions. I will summarize here Ambrosini’s stance in this regard and his review of this debate through the lens of competing moral economies and different notions of deservingness.

Nepali Bowl, by Alexandra Pereira, 2022.

In another paper published in 2022 on the journal Ethnicities (Moral economy and deservingness in immigration policies. The case of regularisations in Italy[3]), Maurizio Ambrosini revises the use of the concept of moral economy in migration studies, together with the related concept of deservingness, analysing their importance but their simultaneous disregard for the conflict between competing moral economies. He then applies the concept of moral economy to a reflection about the recent measure enacted to regularise unauthorised immigrants in Italy. Of course, selective regularisations of migrant workers in Italy serve the interests of different stakeholders and employers, especially those linked to the care and the agriculture sectors.

The concept of moral economy was used both by historians (Thompson, 1971) and US anthropologists (Scott, 1976) during the 1970’s, relating economy to society and to Polanyi’s (1957) perspectives on the social consequences of the shift from an embedded economy to market society. Götz (2015) and Arnold (2001) tried to liberate the concept of moral economy from associations with “hunger rioters clashing with emerging market forces” (Ambrosini, 2022: 3), preferring to refer to it as “an economic order imbued with humanitarian principles, and in particular concern for the poor” and “global justice”, or to “communal social goods” to be preserved, such as water, advocating “a moral-economic political analysis based on social goods” (id., ibid.: 3). These could also be seen as partially connected to the adaptation of Ostrom’s principles for managing the global commons[4]. In his definition, Sayer (2004) distances himself from the contrast between a moral versus an amoral (or even immoral) conception of economic activities, while Daston’s (1995) definition (a shared system of values, emotions and norms by the mainstream of a given society), considered as a “more durkheimian” one by Ambrosini (id., ibid.: 4), seems to be connected to Ahmed’s (2004) concept of “affective economies” (id., ibid.: 3).

The use of the concept of moral economy in migration studies has different meanings (Ambrosini, 2022: 4-6):

  • Related with networks of ethnic solidarity: norms which are shared by members of a minority social group and which are related to economic exchange (Chauvin and Garces-Mascareñas, 2020; Polanyi, 1957). Here, moral economies are defined as “the alternative norms and rationalities that characterize exchange in nonmarket contexts” (Horton, 2015: 57).
  • As a code of economic conduct divergent from written laws, but perceived by the people concerned as substantially more right, human and dependent on stronger ethical values (with a gender dimension) (Fedyuk, 2020).
  • As the exchange of remittances (economic, but not exclusively) between emigrants, their families and communities in the homeland. Here the concept recalls moral obligations and unwritten norms shaping behaviours of senders and receivers on both sides of migrants’ journeys (Cf. Garbin, 2019; Katigbag, 2015; Paerregaard, 2014; Simoni and Voirol, 2021; Solari, 2018).
  • Differently, it can refer not to the subaltern classes or marginal communities, but to the ruling class and its political institutions (e.g. Fassin, 2005): as the frame of reference of decision makers and institutional actors. In this regard, it has been employed especially to talk of immigration policies: more precisely, of the combination between “compassion and repression” (politics of pity and policies of control) in the treatment of asylum seekers and irregular immigrants which defines the scope of contemporary biopolitics (Fassin, 2005). Sharaoui (2020) distinguished macro level moral economy from meso and micro level ones.
  • Not as the principles inspiring the normative production, but as the reception and the actual application of the laws written in books (Näre, 2011, Bonizzoni, 2017; Amelina and Lutz, 2019). Ambrosini (2016) mentioned a moral economy regulating the social acceptance of unauthorized immigrants beyond the terms of the laws (e.g. in Italy), in which gender played a relevant role.
  • Efforts by irregular immigrants to demonstrate moral qualities through compliance with the law, hard work, and irreprehensible behaviour (Chauvin and Garcés Mascareñas, 2012, 2020; Wernesjo, 2020): they appeal to deservingness in the eyes of people in contact, and afterwards by receiving societies and public institutions. The acquisition of legal status is conceived as an achievement based on an effective performance of deservingness (Bonizzoni, 2017; Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas, 2014). Here, moral economy “is constructed from below, as a strategy adopted by unauthorized immigrants to achieve tolerance, then social acceptance, and then – if possible – legal recognition” (Ambrosini, 2022: 6).

Deservingness is thus conceived of as a possible “moral bridge” between immigrants and receiving societies. However, critics of deservingness as defined by the local majority underline that it induces the exclusion of a growing number of immigrants (Marchetti, 2020, cited by Ambrosini, 2022), while advocates of migrants and social workers might appeal to it as well. Sharaoui (2020) and other authors link deservingness (entitlement of different categories of migrants to receive various types of treatment and reception) and moral economy. But immigrants, decision makers, religious communities or healtcare professionals hold distinct views of deservingness. Ambrosini refers to the concept of competing moral economies to discuss policies and the decision to grant legal status to irregular immigrants employed in some sectors in Italy (2020), as he shows that different versions of moral economy have been discursively introduced in that debate: 1) the “alternative”, 2) the “mainstream”, and 3) the “deservingness-based” (Ambrosini, 2022: 8). He defends that a restricted version of moral economy has prevailed, although the regularization of more than 200,000 immigrants was set in motion. In Italy, aside from the several amnesties enacted throughout the decades, the idea of deservingness was particularly emphasised for the regularization of migrants via work contracts.

By Travis Saylor for Pexels, 2022.

In his article The transnationalized social question and immigration policies: three comments and one question in regard to an outstanding study (2021)[5], Ambrosini reviews Thomas Faist’s book The Transnationalized Social Question (2018)[6] and finds three relevant points: 1) the increasing selectivity of migration policies, highlighted by the “mobility paradox”, namely the tension between aspirations to find a better life abroad and political opportunities to migrate to the Global North; 2) the vision of social protection across borders, centred around four actors – state, market, household, civil society[7] – at both sides of migratory movements; 3) the public role of intellectuals: social scientific knowledge plays a crucial role in producing orientation and meaning (Ambrosini, 2021: 1382).

The mobility paradox, essentially the increasing selectivity of migration policies, together with a heightened tension between migration aspirations and political opportunities to migrate to the Global North, has become an evidence for scholars such as Glick Schiller and Salazar (2013), De Haas, Natter and Vezzoli (2018), Faist (2018), Portes (2020) or Ambrosini (2021). While highly skilled migrants, investors, wealthy pensioners and tourists are welcome and even desired in developed countries, a growing population of labor migrants and underskilled workers are seen as undesirable, problematic and face an increasing number of barriers to their cross-border mobilities, often being pushed into irregular migration channels and towards dubious or dangerous intermediaries and practices, or facing unpredictable, tortuous and time-stretched documentation processes upon arrival to destination countries. Simultaneously, only specific categories of migrants, such as “deserving” asylum seekers and refugees are seen, under some circumstances, as worthy of compassion.

Stasis, speed, and the general management of time and temporalities are often used as a tool and instrumentalised in the context of migration governance, as multiple researchers have shown extensively. As such, time is instrumentalised by “alternative”, “mainstream” and “deservingness-based” competing moral economies as well, while distinct temporalities are associated with different moral economies and might dictate, along with other factors, the prevalence of one over the others. Moral economies that respect the temporalities of ethnic networks, unwritten codes of conduct and gender dimensions compete with moral economies guided by the times of decision makers and institutional actors, and with moral economies linking “minimum periods of dedication”, “compliant waiting”, “survival to wars and catastrophes”, “moral inferiority, surrender to saviors” and “the respect for our values, norms or deadlines” to notions of deservingness. Immigration policies shape oppression and protection logics based on delay, waiting, the creation of limbos, suspension, uncertainties and urgencies. “Othering processes” often imply that the “others” do not share our time, even if they share the same space as us.

Nepali Bowl, by Alexandra Pereira, 2022.


*Please find the portuguese translation on the next page

*Para a tradução portuguesa da publicação, por favor aceda à próxima página

[1] IMISCOE Annual Conference 2022, OsloMet.

[2] Portugal’s provision (March 2020), however, was enacted for the extraordinary regularization, during the pandemic, of all undocumented migrants and asylum seekers who were waiting for a residence permit and had contacted the border authority (SEF) [Despacho n.º 3863-B/2020]. Humanitarian and public health arguments were presented as the main reason behind that decision. We must note, however, that thousands of migrants remain undocumented in 2022, just as in Italy.

[3] Ambrosini, M. (2022). Moral economy and deservingness in immigration policies. The case of regularisations in Italy. Ethnicities, 14687968221117544.

[4] Global Commons – Global Commons Alliance.

[5] Ambrosini, M. (2021). The transnationalized social question and immigration policies: three comments and one question in regard to an outstanding study. Ethnic and Racial Studies44(8), 1382-1387.

[6] Faist, T. (2018). The transnationalized social question: Migration and the politics of social inequalities in the twenty-first century. Oxford University Press.

[7] Comprising HTOs (Hometown Organisations), diasporic groups, NGOs and other actors in receiving countries.

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