Paolo Boccagni: “On Imiscoe 2018 – How and why to make oneself at home, once per year, once per place”

Paolo Boccagni: “On Imiscoe 2018 – How and why to make oneself at home, once per year, once per place”

I felt quite at home in Barcelona, for three days, in a place I’d never been before – the Ciutadela campus of Pompeu Fabra University. The Annual conference of IMISCOE took place there in early July, gathering together several hundred colleagues from all over Europe and beyond. Out of a rich variety of topics in migration studies, some of the discussion had specifically to do with home&migration. A few presentations were dedicated, for instance, to home-related care practices, life routines and material culture among returnees and elderly migrants [see a few tweets on the @erchoming account]. There is however another aspect of the conference which made it remarkable for a “hominger”, and could suggest a novel entry point into academic conferences as social events in themselves. This has unsurprisingly to do with home – more precisely, with routinized ways of reproducing some sense of it to the benefit of a relatively homogeneous public, through periodical events wherever located.

The more I attend conferences over time, the more I see a promise in appreciating them ethnographically. There is much more to these social events than informal networking, social life in the corridors, and – of course – the formal production, circulation, and hopefully advancement of knowledge. All of this may not account fully for the participation of so many people, at all career stages, even when ICTs could provide a roughly equivalent and dramatically cheaper service.

On my first day at campus, entering a crowded reception hall and being almost unable to move around without encountering colleagues and friends wherever, I got the point. My ex-post writing contribution, as a hominger, could focus on the event itself as a research object: a form, venue and elicitor of homemaking.

I was feeling at home in that moment and kept feeling so throughout the conference, although with decreasing emotional engagement. Not a surprise, for a big, intensive but ultimately volatile and disembedded event. There was more to that feeling than my own research interests, a decade-long involvement with IMISCOE, or my familiarity with both English and Spanish. More important, there was more than a personal feeling in it. There were rather, as the conference was in progress, all of the ingredients which I see as constitutive of the social experience of home. There was security, of course, but also familiarity with people, routines, expectations, implicit rules and assumptions; all of this facilitated by the good organization of the conference, but also by its being part of a cumulative engagement that renovates itself year after year. And while I had almost no formal role in the event, I still felt a sense of control over it, as long as I was able to navigate my way through the programme, in an ongoing balancing act between formal sessions and informal meetings.

All of this matters because, I suspect, it is more of a social and shared experience than of a personal one.

A conference can be appreciated not only for what it is about, but also for what it does; and the latter is much more than a setting for showcasing, self-displaying, or networking. It is also, for those who engage with it, a lever for translocality: a venue in which particular life styles, values and tastes – some might say: the hegemonic ones! – are reproduced and enhanced through copresent interaction. In fact, this involves the style, value and tastes that community – including myself – feels at home with. An annual meeting between akin and often mutually acquainted researchers, such as the IMISCOE one, is then a case in point for the reproducibility of a home-like experience; on a periodical basis, through specific sets of practices, based on roughly similar (i.e. familiar) environments – ways of organizing place and routines, but also less tangible atmospheres – whatever the host city or university.

I’m not arguing, here, for a metaphorical affinity with a domestic environment, depending on how cosy and warm it is made, and on the typically gendered and ethnicized ways of keeping it orderly and tidy. More fundamentally, the point is that forms and processes of homemaking are distinctively reproduced in settings like this one, through systematic interactions of peers – in job condition, research interests, probably in class, and in mutual acquaintance – based not just on shared research concerns, but also on emplaced emotions, rituals and practices.

Transnational periodical events like this one have a major role not only for instrumental purposes – asserting and circulating knowledge, displaying achievements, enhancing personal networks. They also have an appeal in reproducing periodical, necessarily ephemeral forms of feeling-at-home among participants. None of these forms is so important, central or even tyrannical, quoting A. Heller, as one’s dwelling place tends to be. Yet, it means something of its own, symbolically no less than pragmatically. There is a merit in studying, even within a relatively advantaged population, the mechanisms and conditions for a place and event to be perceived as more or less homelike, and to the benefit or disadvantage of whom. This is interesting for the study of relatively lucky minorities of professionals, wherever located. At the same time, it illuminates research into the lives of all those migrants who can afford to re-establish a home-like experience only on periodical, ephemeral and transitional bases – possibly thanks to a religious celebration, an international festival, or a “home” visit (i.e. intermittent return to the country of origin), or anything else.

All of this argument does not entail that all people there feel at home, or wish to. In fact, and just like a closed domestic space, an intensive conference tends to be exhausting after a while. All homecomings are a mixed experience, as migration students know. The projects cultivated towards a forthcoming conference, or the reminiscences of the previous editions, may well be better than the real thing. Yet, the variety of feelings, routines and practices that make it home-like, to the eyes of a more or less well-focused audience, are there to stay. They will never make for a too demanding or exclusive home, but still for a home-like timespace, as long as it does not last too much.

The more one’s life is mobile and marked by a variety of fragmented commitments, identifications and affiliations, the more the need to make oneself at home nonetheless. Transnational gatherings matter also for this – to study migrants’ search for home, while making better sense of one’s own.