Three comments on the International Workshop on Home & Migration

Sara’s comments

The International Workshop on Home & Migration held last week in Trento kicked off the HOMInG team’s research enterprise. The event was an ambivalent success: in terms of networking it proved enjoyable and promising, fueling new collaborations, in terms of theme coherence instead it exposed the inherent contradiction in studying ‘home’, a catch-it-all dub?

As for the key-notes.

Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo’s argument (on Latinos making room for themselves in historically African American neighborhoods in Los Angeles) was highly provoking: once assimilation, transnationalism and perhaps even crimmigration turn stale, can we assume homemaking as the last come of migration paradigms? A precious advice: while searching for place-based identities, we should remain open to some disruption between emotional attachment and civic engagement; people’s (feeling of) belonging to a place and participation in it do not necessarily equate.

Cathrine Brun’s engaging talk defied the assumption that protracted displacement is just about home loss, it is rather lived by people themselves as a mobilization of home. Her alluring notion ‘constellations of home’ (which accounts for successive temporary dwellings seeing the enlacement of daily experience, normative ideal and geopolitics of home) thrives with political issues. With a practitioner’s perspective, homecomings for refugees entail access to a private domain, social achievement and institutional recognition. Policy-oriented research at its best.

Parallel sessions were rich and diverse, a feast for thought. As for the ones I chaired (and obstinately went on discussing despite time constraints, my apologies to presenters but I felt that 15min. did not make justice to the breadth of their arguments), some common themes deserve divulging. Nothing seems more symbolic than domestic materiality: home designs and possessions acquire meaning(s) in so far as they are taken as stages and objects to perform the multifarious mundane ritual of homemaking. A ‘concrete utopia’ (Bloch), home is continuously done through practices and relations, and it qualifies as the prime site for different projects of family making (possibly contested from the outside, or from inside members), which shift along temporal lines (embarking lifecourse and societal changes). If diasporic items circulate among migrant communities and enter their domestic spaces, which are thus often described as transcultural, these appear to be quite ‘ordinarily’ inhabited. Yet, the dominant narrative on migrants’ homemaking still depict private home places as sites of resistance (hooks) and public ones as sites of alienation. In most papers, there seemed to run a tacit division of enquiry:  private homes and wider ones were often treated as separate loci of belonging, while the ability to cross thresholds needs to be better addressed. Despite being an anthropologist, I found that geographers had a more ‘scalar’ approach to home places and their perspective should be amply voiced.  

Regarding our HOMInG meets the Critics session, the intellectual generosity of discussants (and audience) gave me specific insights, urging me to scale down my preliminary fieldwork (also searching ‘communal homes’ other than worship places), to remain aware of class distinctions in migrant and non-migrant homemaking, and to make explicit the social boundary work of those who will be my respondents.  

Final wrap up comments were decisive in turning the pitfalls of our premises into new tracks. What was missing? If there was emerging consensus on home as being multidimensional and an ongoing process, still some relevant issues lag behind: the need for applying intersectional analysis, for considering not merely neighborhoods but neighbors at different scale levels, for recognizing the macro-historical backdrop of home-making projects, included their socio-political advocacy stance. Which mistakes to avoid? We ought to resist the temptation to overstretch the concept of home, to submit to its implicit normativity as haven and to flatten its historicity on the extant time. Giuseppe Sciortino’s closing remarks echoed but twisted around the opening keynote: could mobility be seen as a home-weakening process, thus home itself not being an endpoint but the starting place of our stories?  

Alejandro’s comments

The ‘Researching Home and Migration’ International Workshop created an intellectually engaging space for debate and interaction. In general terms, the discussions centred on the material, social and symbolic dimensions of home under conditions of displacement and extended mobility. Home was very often approached not simply as a place, but rather as an ongoing construction, as an open-ended experience and set of relationships. This processual perspective was often discussed using different conceptual repertoires. While the keywords that participants used varied greatly from presentation to presentation, this diversity appears to be a good sign: home-migration studies are attracting scholars from multiple intellectual traditions, creating favourable conditions for the development of this field.   

Home appeared as a special attachment to place, as well as dwelling, inhabiting cities, relating to materials or neighbours, cooking, making music, protesting, or owning houses ‘there’ while working ‘here’. A few times I heard from participants that practically everything could be homing. To be an analytically useful term, homing could continue with its focus on complex social relationships while seeking to unpack its different facets. A new vocabulary on home and migration seems to be emerging – see, for instance, Brun and Fabòs, 2015 and Boccagni, 2017 –, but there is much more to explore on this front. Some key themes were almost absent on this occasion – think of gender or historical processes, for example. There also seems to be necessary to extend the debate on methodological issues.

But there is more to a conference than presentations and conversations. There is also work on the self, on what we take with us to enrich our projects. And of course, there is also the promise of future collaborations and exchanges.

Aurora’s comments

Back home after the International Workshop “Research on Home and Migration”, I am trying to put the reflections, the perspectives, and the methodologies I noted down during the two days of thrilling and challenging discussions in order. In a few days, I will start my ethnographic research that, in the next months, will take me to investigate the ways of emplacing home of Eritrean and Somali refugees in three different European countries. The workshop has enriched my questions, fuelled my enthusiasm, refined my theoretical knowledge, but has also increased my epistemological doubts and my analytical uncertainties. In the impossibility of offering a comprehensive and exhaustive account, here I want to focus on two interconnected critical points which particularly have resonated with the research I am about to conduct.

The first point had continuously lingered throughout the workshop, and has been well synthesized by Catherine Brun during the interview we (The HOMInG Team) conducted before she returned to Oxford Brooks University: “We need to make sure that we have a critical perspective of home, and we never take it for granted. It’s very difficult because home is so close to us”. Recalling Didier Fassin words, the strength, but also the weakness, of ethnography compared to other humanistic disciplines, as for example philosophy, is to produce a non-prescriptive but descriptive knowledge. But what does it mean to be descriptive? How can we not give home for granted? As in the case of kinship and of the health-disease processes, the study of the home-migration nexus implies a double effort of denaturalization. On the one hand, we have to denaturalize what is taken for granted in the experiences of our research participants; on the other hand, we have to critically address the ethnocentrism that is embedded in our categories of analysis – an effort that is particularly hard since “home is so close to us”.

The second point concerns the conditions of displacement, where home is the place people are forced to leave and cannot go back to. For refugees, both inside and outside Europe, legal statuses and institutional regulations play a key role in defining the housing conditions as well as the experiences of temporariness and precariousness, which shape their (practical and emotional, embodied and volitional) ways of constructing home-like relationships. Focusing on marginality and inequality helps us to problematize our concept and our sense of home, shedding light on the “dark side” of the domestic spaces and making room for the analysis of the embryonic and emergent ways of homing.