Time in migration: temporariness, precarity and temporal labour amongst Chinese scholars returning from the Global North to South

Wang, Bingyu. (2019). Time in migration: temporariness, precarity and temporal labour amongst Chinese scholars returning from the Global North to South. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2019.1642741

Related article: Wang, Bingyu. (2019). A Temporal Gaze Towards Academic Migration: Everyday Times, Lifetimes and Temporal Strategies amongst Early Career Chinese Academic Returnees. Time and Society. DOI: 10.1177/0961463X19873806

Bingyu Wang

Bingyu Wang, School of Sociology and Anthropology, Sun Yat-sen University


While facing labour precarity of the increasingly competitive academia-industry, mobile academics encounter another set of challenges brought by the global shift away from permanent migration towards more temporary forms of migration since the 2000s. Yet, the occurrence and impact of ‘temporariness’ in academic migration, especially at the personal and individual level, are not well understood. Drawing on qualitative research with 40 early career Chinese academic returnees, this paper focuses on the state of ‘being temporary’ Chinese academic returnees experience both before and after their return. Their temporary status in host countries undermines their labour market performance and thus cause job insecurities and fragmented career paths, which instils a sense of precariousness and powerlessness into their daily lives. As a result, many of them decided to return, but only to find that they are thrown into another state of temporariness – they end up inhabiting fragile institutional positions or have their lifetime progressions interrupted and suspended while aspiring to establish themselves in academia. Their temporary contracts and/or compulsory return impose a set of emotional burdens on them and thus reshape their subjectivities, causing anxiety, distress and all sorts of temporal precarities.

Despite the state of ‘being temporary’ and related many temporal impediments faced by these academic returnees both before and after the return, exercising individual agency and developing temporal strategies was a clear theme that emerged from their narratives. First, some of them immerse themselves into a positive waiting period and perceives their temporary jobs as a preparation stage for longer-term employment opportunities. Second, in order to mitigate the negative effects caused by their physical departure from the western academic community, some interviewees practise temporary academic mobilities both on a national and an international level. That way, they can avoid academic immobilities and the dangers of being stuck with ‘double absence’. In addition, some returnees absorb hopes and motivations through nurturing alternative career pathways and imagining multiple futures.

In this regard, this article makes the following contributions. First, theoretically, it has contributed to addressing the intensifying spatial emphasis of migration studies whereby the temporal dimensions have been neglected either as an independent research approach or subject of debate. Moreover, it has further demonstrated how macro-level or institutional temporal discourses (e.g. migration policy, visa status, work contract length) can intimately affect the micro-politics of migrant lives and subjectivities, including their individual lifetime progressions, labour market performances and everyday forms of social belonging. In this respect, this article has delved into the question of how the constructions of time articulate with migration temporalities, and thus brought the temporal and emotional dimension of migration to the fore and unpacked how they intersect with each other in shaping migrant lives.

Second, empirically, this article has not only looked at the conventional academic migration pattern moving from the Global South to the Global North but also focused on the return. Meanwhile, the majority of existing literature on ‘time and academia’ has mainly focused on scholars in the West and rather fewer attempts have been made at a cross-country level. Furthermore, by examining the temporal precarity embedded in the lives of academic migrants, this article challenges some of the standard claims around highly skilled mobility as relatively ‘seamless’ or ‘smooth’ and thus contributes to a more comprehensive understanding towards high-status migration.

Third, this article has drawn attention to the growing trend of temporariness and pre- cariousness involved in modern academia, especially in the context of migration. Those mobile scholars under temporary contracts have to familiarise themselves with a life of unstable labour and unpredictable career futures. Critically, the article has not only focused on the temporal precarity academic migrants encounter but also investigated the way they exercise their agentive will. In doing so, the paper shows that, despite positions of vulnerability, mobile academics are not merely victims of their temporal predicament, but rather, find ways to engage in temporal labour, navigating through the uneven temporal terrains they inhabit. Their experiences of both precarity and agency relating to the current academic migration offer insights into understanding how other new forms of temporary migration regimes trans- form mobile individuals’ subjectivities and living realities, and in turn, whether and how some of those ‘precariats’ manage to obtain a greater sense of control of their ‘time’, to pursue positive migration and life outcomes.


BookBingyu Wang is an Associate Professor at the School of Sociology and Anthropology of Sun Yat-sen University, where she was recruited as a member of the ‘100 Top Talents Program’. Her research areas include migration and mobilities, intercultural encounters, and cosmopolitanism, with an empirical focus on highly-skilled migrants and temporary migrants, and a theoretical focus on emotions, time and the everyday. She has published widely in high-ranked international journals and is the author of New Chinese Migrants in New Zealand: Becoming Cosmopolitan? Roots, Emotions and Everyday Diversity (Routledge, 2019). Currently she is conducting a project on academic mobilities in and out of China supported by ‘National Social Science Fund of China’.  Bingyu is on the editorial board of Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies.  She can be reached at wangby29@mail.sysu.edu.cn or via her profile page at Research Gate.


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