Looking for ideas on home and migration at the ISA World Congress of Sociology
Luis Eduardo Perez Murcia
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people from nearly everywhere bringing diversity to the already diverse and multicultural Toronto. Dozens, if not hundreds, of panels in a single week, and some of those thousand running from one panel to another in the huge Metro Toronto Convention Centre. That seems to be a common picture in every international conference. It was not, however, just another international conference. That was the XIX ISA World Congress of Sociology which is celebrated only every four years. It was indeed a unique opportunity to see together, in a single panel, internationally well-known sociologists such as Margaret Archer, Michael Burawoy and Piotr Sztompka. Honestly, I am still trying to understand what they actually said but it seems they brought some insightful/provocative ideas to reflect on the challenges of sociology as discipline in a very changeable, mobile, and for some, very often, hostile world.
With 57 research committees and several working and thematic groups on issues as diverse as conflict, poverty, inequality, development, environment, and migration, it seems nearly impossible for delegates not to find something that matches their academic interests. As a HOMInGer, I mean someone interested in the migration and home nexus, I attended the conference primarily searching for conceptual and empirical debates which link home and migration. After a closer examination of the committees and working and thematic group’s activities, my first thought was ‘there are neither research committees nor working groups on home’. A quick overview of the very extensive programme showed me, however, that it was not necessary at all. Panels addressing ideas of home seemed to be everywhere.
Of course scholars interested in the idea of home may expect to find some inputs on panels on migration or housing and built environment. The panels on ‘Migrant Home-Making in the Era of Fortified Borders: Reproducing the Past, Resisting the Present, Redefining the Future’ organised by Pierrette Hondagneu-Sotelo and Paolo Boccagni; ‘Refugees and Gender: Challenges for Travel, Border-Crossing and Security in the 21st Century’ organised by Manashi Ray; and ‘Researching Home: More Choices, Challenges and Opportunities’ organised by Maggie Kusenbach, Paolo Boccagni and Janet L Smith are only three worth examples of the large and diverse research agenda on home. Several papers in these panels addressed not only the meanings of home as a physical location or territorially bounded place and space. They also addressed home as a real, imagined or remembered repository of feelings and emotions (Blunt and Dowling, 2006). Despite the tendency of privileging positive feelings towards home, some papers highlighted what is so-called in the literature the ‘dark sites of home’ (Moore, 2000; Brickell, 2012a and 2012b; Perez-Murcia 2018).
To begin with, Nathanael Lauster provided an insightful discussion on the links between theories of home and theories of attachment. Drawing on a study of home in Vancouver and Nunavut, Canada, his account illustrates the conceptual overlaps and points of disjuncture between meanings of home and attachment to people, places and things. Paolo Boccagni introduced the notion of “homing” as a set of social practices displayed by migrants and non-migrants to ‘make themselves at home in their life circumstances […]’. More broadly, Boccagni introduced the idea of ’homing’ as a way to understanding how migration affects meanings, feelings and practices towards home and advances a framework to empirically investigates migrants and non-migrants’ search for home.
By exploring the relationship between people, place, house, and home, multiple papers highlighted the complex forms in which home cannot be only lost but also remade (Korac, 2009). The inspiring paper of Bree Akesson, Andrew Basso, Esther Herschberger and Patrick Ciaschi ‘The Place Where We Lived: A Typology of Extreme Domicide’ is just an incredible example of how experiences of violence led displacement and the loss of housing/home. Based on eight case studies of what the authors label as ‘extreme domicide’, including the expulsion of Chechens within the Soviet Union starting in 1944 and the destruction of the shelters of the Rohingya minority group in contemporary Myanmar, the paper provided an in-depth understanding of how the loss of a house, a term often conflated with home, affected families and communities. Concerning the process of remaking home, Chrysanthi Zachou discussed how despite experiences of violence, separation of family, and exclusion, female refugees in Athens have been able to symbolically and physically recreate homeland and ‘home’ in their reception facilities. The recreation of everyday social practices and routines from the places left behind in the new places, as well as the celebration of rituals, religious ceremonies, and the display of material artefacts in their domestic spaces, showed to be central in the migrants and refugees home-making practices (Taylor, 2015; Perez-Murcia 2018).
The presentation of Veronica Montes, who experienced herself the loss of home when clandestinely crossed the US/Mexican border in the late 1980s in the search of family reunification, and who only experienced the sense of going home when landing in Philadelphia several years later, demonstrated the value of symbolic things in migrant’s home-making practices. Her paper discussed how by gardening, Latino migrants not only created a sense of home and community in the US but also affirmed their ‘individuals’ right to claim space and belong in the new society’. Drawing on the experiences of Filipino migrant communities in South Korea, Bubbles Beverly Asor explored the role of religious practices in carving ethnic identity and recreating a sense of home in both secular and sacred spaces. By taking part in religious rituals, her paper showed how Filipino migrants perform identity and the feeling of being at home in public spaces in South Korea. The role of food in migrants’ home-making practices was well illustrated by Celia Huang in her account based on first generation Chinese immigrants in Toronto. Cooking and eating Chinese food was not only a way of recreating familiar tastes, childhood memories and spaces of comfort and belonging to China while in Canada. It was also an opportunity to create cultural spaces for heritage preservation – language and Chinese recipes – and above all reproducing a sense of home in new settings. The more emotional, spiritual, and existential relationship between ‘home’ and ‘humanity’, specifically the relationship between the sense of ‘being at home’ and the sense of ‘being human’ was explored by Luis Eduardo Perez Murcia. Drawing on the experiences of internally displaced people in Colombia, his paper suggested that losing one’s sense of home may deprive some individuals of their humanity. This is not just because the loss of the shelter but primarily because of what Heidegger (1971) and Appadurai (2013) denote as the symbolic value of the shelter for being recognised by others and, more importantly by ourselves, as ‘ordinary human beings’.
Conceptual reflections on meanings and experiences of home however were not only found in panels on migration, housing, culture and identity. Insightful discussions directly or indirectly related to home were also found in a wide range of thematic panels including family and gender studies, social psychology, child development, tourism studies, and methods. One of the most inspiring presentations I attended during the entire congress was given by Faime Alpagu. Her paper, which explored the kinds of relationships that ‘guest’ workers established with family members and other workers in sending and destination countries, and which did not make any promise of contributing to the study of home, illustrated the power of visual material, in particular photos and letters, to investigate ideas of home. Drawing on a single photo taken back in 1976 and a ‘simple’ question to a migrant ‘when you look at this picture, I mean what do you think’, the narrator brought about ideas that can be traced through the lens of home. ‘Today, I remember my memories. I remember my past…for instance, the friends I lost’.
When I heard that quote and saw the picture of man dressing a tie as he aspired when migrating to Austria, I just wanted to be there; I mean, in the place the interview was conducted. I wanted to explore the value of such a photo in his memories and present experiences of home and also in the ways that man imagined his home in the future. It is not possible now and perhaps never but after hearing Alpagu’s conceptual discussions on the complex and even contradictory relationship between photos and memory, I find myself much more skilled to take advantage of the ‘photo-interviews’ sessions I have been conducting with some Ecuadorian and Peruvian’s migrants in Manchester since last April. Following the conference, I have the feeling I am more conceptually equipped to engage with the incredible visual material research participants are sharing with me. At the end, a photo is not just a photo. It is a powerful ‘device’ to capture the migrant’s changing memories and stories of home.
Appadurai, A., (2013). Housing and Hope, in: The Future as Cultural Fact: Essays on the Global Condition. Verso, p. 336.
Blunt, A., Dowling, R., (2006). Home. Routledge, London and New York.
Brickell, K., (2012a). Geopolitics of Home. Geography Compass 6, pp. 575–588.
Brickell, K., (2012b). “Mapping” and “Doing” Critical Geographies of Home. Progress in Human Geography pp. 225–244.
Heidegger, M., (1971). Building Dwelling Thinking, in: Poetry, Language, Thought. Harper & Row, London.
Korac, M., (2009). Remaking Home: Reconstructing Life, Place and Identity in Rome and Amsterdam. Berghahn Books. New York – Oxford
Moore, J., (2000). Placing Home in Context. Journal of Environmental Psychology 20, pp. 207–217.
Perez Murcia, L.E., 2018. “The sweet memories of home have gone”: displaced people searching for home in a liminal space. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 0, 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2018.1491299
Taylor, H., (2015). Refugees and the Meaning of Home, Migration, Diasporas and Citizenship. Palgrave Macmillan UK.