Sara Bonfanti: Houses, Homemaking and Diasporas @EASA 2018

EASA 2018 Conference took place in Stockholm 13 – 17 August, under the auspices of Emeritus Professor Ulf Hannerz, an old-timer theoriser of transnational cultural processes. This year’s theme echoed the structure of a rite of passage: ‘staying, moving, and settling’, whose tripartite tempo is as much illustrative of doing fieldwork as of multifarious human movements, migration at the forefront. While mobility is evermore a wide-net for anthropological research, a dozen laboratories, book exhibitions, documentary film screenings, and over 150 panels displayed the endless possibilities for a discipline that engages with the present history: from refugee streams and labour migration, to pilgrimage, tourism and transnational leisure shifts, in facts and fictions. Shahram Koshravi, a former Iranian refugee now Professor of Social Anthropology at the homonymous Department of the Swedish capital, delivered the inaugural lecture arguing over the current fetishism in building (and transgressing) border walls. Two more plenaries dwelt with the riddles of ethnographic production vis-à-vis narratives, regimes and governance of mobility, and with the role of public anthropology in addressing migrants’ and refugees’ exits, transits and moorings. No wonder that the metaphor of home and the progressive nature of home making (especially in highly diversified urban contexts) recurred in plenty of the event’s happenings and debates.

Among the many, Ester Gallo (from Trento University) and Henrike Donner (from London Goldsmiths) convened a panel on “Houses and Domestic Space in the Diaspora: materiality, sense and temporalities in migrants’ dwellings”, which brought together eight anthropologists working on the home-migration nexus in different areas and with remarkably diverse perspectives.

M. Obeid analysed the flexible widening of Palestinian refugees’ dwellings in London: how does a ‘tight house’ by definition come to accommodate a rapid succession of families in transit (eventually running a community café in a home basement?) H. Donner traced transnational domesticities among Indo-German migrants who invest in the thriving real-estate for NRIs (non-resident-Indians) in Kolkata; are these properties second homes or rather return havens, and for whose generations? M. Vilar Rosales revealed the unexpected transfers of Portuguese former middle-classes who shifted to Brazil in the last recession: Ikea cargoes literally shipping home-furniture from Lisbon to Rio. Narrating the practices of cooking and food sharing among Tamil diaspora women in Singapore, R. Ragunathan enhanced her exquisite ethnography with poetry reading and photo eliciting: how does one’s sense of self is cultivated (or estranged) in the home? A. J. Knudsen retraced genealogies of displacement in Beirut, linking the material and relational dimensions in the Gaza buildings, a borderline hospital turned into informal housing settlement since the Eighties: social hierarchies among occupants being reproduced on vertical floors. Aware of gender and generation variants, A. Massa explored the material inadequacy of Eritrean refugees’ dwellings in Rome: missing rooms to accommodate one’s kin or comply with family planning might heavily disrupt a migrant’s desired trail. M. Rogat developed an inventive sensory ethnography seeing the analogues between migrants’ homemaking practices (not the least language acquisition) and modular homes (as designed by Le Corbusier): temporary housing solutions resonates with temporary habits. E. Gallo and I recounted the jet-lag of our respective researches with Sikh diasporas in Italy: private homes and houses of worship became the backdrop of alternative ways of displaying a minority religion, between open social recognition and covert partisan belonging.

As a discussant, Michelle Obeid (Manchester University) closed the two sessions with inspiring comments which interlaced all contributions. First, the diasporic angle adopted in the panel compels researchers to study the house not just as a unit in its own right, but in relation to historical contingencies and social transformations, also allowing us to weave these with individual journeys. Then, the cluster of words we adopted “house, home, household, domestic space” are overlapping analytical concepts overcharged in the anthropological tradition; two issues seem newly at stake: the changing binary between public and private, and the move-away from a mainstream feminization of domesticity. Last, all presentations engaged with the temporalities in the home; this focus on time allows us to play with scale – to show how dwelling practices are shaped by shifting contexts, whether in political environments, austerity whiles, internal family dynamics.

Once and again, the nexus between home and migration left me struck for the many and diverse ideas it led to, emerging from radically different projects, and yet, for the constant possibility of making them converge into fruitful comparison and discussion. Paraphrasing Ingold and Vergunst (2008), homemaking within mobility conditions might well be seen as a way of ‘thinking in movement,, a capacity for attuning (at times sounding fine, others off-key). Likewise, the debate on home and migration calls us not to lose sight of our higher goal, to sift through case studies and extract meanings relevant to the public dissemination of knowledge, so to reconcile the imaginative and the real, the ivory tower of academia (of which the EASA is a niche indeed), and the less conceited but much more complex home planet we all inhabit.