In Search of Asylum: An Interdisciplinary Discussion

deadline for submissions: 
January 10, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
The University of Chicago Weissbourd Conference
contact email: 

“In Search of Asylum: An Interdisciplinary Discussion”

The 2019 Weissbourd Conference

The University of Chicago

Conference Date: April 4-5, 2019

Abstracts due: January 10, 2019


As the global dynamics of military occupation, civil wars, neoliberal atomization, environmental degradation, renewed patriarchal chauvinisms, authoritarianism, and sectarian conflict calcify and become more violent, ever new populations are set adrift, left to the mercy of local traffickers and foreign nations’ immigration regimes. In recent years the U.S., Europe, and Australia have implemented harsher immigration policies, which have in turn precipitated local counter-measures such as self-designated “sanctuary cities.” “Asylum” has thus returned to the forefront of global political consciousness. In conjunction with highly charged terms like amnesty and assimilation, and such spectral figures as the “illegal alien” and the “migrant caravan,” asylum condenses a variety of anxieties about the changing parameters of power within a globalizing world and aspirations for a livable life. Under these circumstances asylum has taken on a new urgency, as either the moral imperative of our times or an unforgivable betrayal of the nation and its ideal.


But asylum has a longer history that belies the sense of crisis attached to the term at present. Deriving from the ancient Greek institution of ásylo, a sacred place for the persecuted and criminals to seek protection, asylum constituted a space of juridical exception and divinely-mandated mercy. In this and numerous other such figurations across the world both before and since, the impulse to protect strangers has manifested itself repeatedly.


The 2019 Weissbourd Conference, hosted by the University of Chicago Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, will focus on situating the often rancorous contemporary debate over asylum in relation to historical expressions, theories, and practices of asylum. Our keynote speaker will be James Hathaway, the James E. and Sarah A. Degan Professor of Law at the University of Michigan, a leading authority on international refugee law and the founding director of the Program in Refugee and Asylum Law.


We invite proposals from across the humanities and social sciences to discuss the transformation of the concept of asylum and its implications for understanding the present. We especially welcome papers that address one or more of the following inquiries:


• How has asylum been justified and experienced historically? Are there meaningful historical precedents for the current animus toward immigrants?

• What are the ethical concerns at stake in granting and requesting asylum?

• What are the contemporary forces driving displacement, emigration, and the search for refuge?

• How is asylum incorporated into or shaped by religious experiences and practices?

• How has asylum been portrayed in film or literature? How do popular culture and the arts imagine asylum seekers, and to what ends?

• How have governments and citizens’ groups within host cultures construed their calls for assimilation, and how have asylum-seekers responded?

• What are the limitations on accessing the voices of asylum-seekers? Where can they be found outside of official archives?

• How have issues of race, gender, sexuality, and other markers of identity shaped the different experiences of asylum-seekers?

• How have legal codes and institutions functioned with respect to asylum, whether to exacerbate or mitigate the current impasse? Why were regulations on asylum initially crafted, and how well have these served their aims?


This conference is organized by Adam Spanos, Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Humanities, and Allie Locking, Collegiate Assistant Professor in the Social Sciences, both at the University of Chicago. For inquiries, please contact Adam at and Allie at


Panels may consist of 2 or 3 presenters, with 15-20 minutes per presentation, to be followed by Q&A. To submit a proposal for a panel, please send a 500-word description of the panel, its purpose, and CV and abstracts for 2-3 presenters to To submit an individual paper proposal, please send a 300-word abstract and CV to