HOMInG, as an ERC grant, is two years old by now. Not enough to be mature, yet. Well enough, though, for some preliminary findings to be shared, out of the ongoing (or recently ended) fieldwork of the first generation of homingers. Most of these points are only a part of broader conversations and arguments, to be turned into formal publications soon.
Homing as a concept invites to follow a variety of day-to-day emplaced needs, feelings and practices over time, whatever the category people would use to name them. How individuals or groups wish and can make themselves at home, however, is fundamentally affected by their relational resources, by the temporality of their stay in any place or dwelling, by their material circumstances and affordances. This calls for comparative research not only between groups (ethnic or otherwise), or through the “usual” variables, but also along different lines. Much depends, for instance, on the territorial space (if any) people can appropriate or privatize; on the temporality of their access, use and control of any place(s); on the balance they work out between all that home evoked before migration, and the imaginaries, desires and needs it elicits now, given the opportunities available to make it real. That home is overburdened as a category of practice, and that homing is “only” an analytical category with no practical resonance, does not eliminate the lure of, and need for, investigating the shifting interplay between them.
Method-wise homingers, myself included, have gained quite an experience in reconstructing people’s views, feelings and practices about home. Depending on the informant and the circumstance, all that has to do with home can be approached in different ways: through more or less explicit questions but also in different ways, related for instance to the emplaced use of the senses, to key domestic routines and objects, or to material or virtual connections with specially significant people and places. Generally speaking, it is not a good rule to start a conversation or an interview with an explicit focus on home, even less so an essentialized one (What is home… for you?).
Even more insightful and stimulating questions – Do you have a place you would call home? When, where, with whom would you feel at home? – will likely provoke different answers, all else being equal, depending on their position: whether they are articulated at the early steps of the interaction with an informant, or following a more extended and meaningul engagement with them. In the latter case, informant reactions tend to be more reflexive, accurate and reliable when it comes to their life stories, lived experience, dilemmas and aspirations. Instead, asking “what home is” initially, almost out of the blue, is a more risky and awkward option. We would not recommend it, unless in interactions that are bound to be short-term anyway. Nevertheless, it opens up a window on people’s emotional and normative ways of positioning themselves against different places and reference groups, and of articulating their most urgent needs and claims. The same goes, interestingly, for participant observation. You reach closer to the home, or even into it, only at a certain point. And while some research constraints and traps can be navigated, other dilemmas will be there to stay. In any case, no way of starting from home, either as key analytical focus or as research setting. Arriving there takes time, rapport, trust – and a degree of good luck.
Last, but far from least for the PI of an ERC grant, is an organizational finding that is also, and fundamentally, a fieldwork one. There is nothing obvious or straightforward in advancing in collaborative ethnographic research, in a comparative fashion and even in multiple sites. Even when the resources available are enough, the rationale for collaboration and comparison is strong enough, and the mutual benefits for researchers are promising enough. No ready-for-use rules here; and no just matter of team-building, or of socialization into the same theoretical framework. More pragmatically, shared fieldwork has a pace and rhythm of its own, which can hardly fixed up from a desk. Finetuning takes its time, both for the division of ethnographic labour and the development of a common ethnographic gaze. The closer we get to people’s meanings, emotions and practices of home, particularly under disadvantaged circumstances, the stronger the need to tread gently – and the learning of it in practice, while doing fieldwork together. Nothing new in this argument, perhaps, for whomever has a strong record in collaborative and comparative team fieldwork. Much new, however, when it comes to adjust this delicate relationality to a research field that is hyper-sensitive in itself, such as domestic cultures, views of homes, and struggles for homing.
A central theme that emerged throughout my fieldwork in Milan, Madrid and Amsterdam relates to the ways in which a sense of familiarity is produced in the context of migration. This issue has to do with a degree of predictability, intimacy and knowledgeability that people develop by taking part in different activities. I call it ‘sense’ because it is simultaneously a faculty, a feeling, an attitude towards a context, as well as a way of expressing a situation. More generally, a sense of familiarity is a crucial dimension of feeling at home. But as Duyvendak reminded us during his visit in Trento, familiarity is not feeling at home in itself. I find that migrants’ discourses about how they may feel at home or not tended to simplify the various ways through which they achieve so. And this is why analysing the strategies and mechanisms through which people produce a sense of familiarity is a way of going beyond the question if people feel at home or not under specific circumstances. What’s more, not everyone is seeking to feel at home (especially under conditions of uncertainty and ontological insecurity) and feeling at home is not inherently a positive value—despite what many people say during interviews. Neither feeling at home nor producing a sense of familiarity are essentially positive.
My second point deals with the shifting boundaries between private and public. The exchange and complicity between the activities that take place in these spaces can be well exemplified and further analysed through smells, food preparation and consumption, the disposal and anxieties around rubbish, and how my informants establish different degrees of publicness or privacy in their own domestic spaces. I see telling examples of the maintenance and transformation of thresholds in several of our posts, some of our presentations and in a few publications that we are currently preparing.
My last point has to do with how home can ‘occur’ in several places at the same time. Let’s start with the obvious: migrants’ life trajectories have to do with shifting accommodation. A less obvious point, however, is that during these shifts home becomes a more or less fragmented process. I have found that investigating home as a process is not so much about where home is located, but rather about how it unfolds as a set of relationships. In the words of my informants, it is not so much about where home is, but with whom home happens. In spending time with Ecuadorians and Peruvians living in Milan, Madrid and Amsterdam, I realised that what we call ‘home’ among the members of our research team is rather named ‘hearth’ among my research participants. Home is about hogar, and not merely about casa. The difference is that a casa (house) is a thing and an hogar (hearth) is a process. A participant once told me that ‘un hogar está hecho de momentos y experiencias’ (‘a hearth is made of moments and experiences’), by which she meant that her houses in Milan and Lima were a sort of background, a canvas for the ongoing painting of her relationship with significant others. For this lady, as for many other informants, home constituted a fragmented, emotional, economic and temporal investment. An investment that is not located in a singular geographical location, but that spreads across locations, entangled with the passage of time.
I did not choose the three following “most exciting findings” according to their scientific relevance, but according to the key role they played in my research path, as they helped me in comprehending the importance of practices, senses and spaces.
The first finding comes from the fieldwork I conducted during the eviction which took place last year in Rome. My focus was on the domestic practices that evicted people put on stage when they suddenly found themselves living in a small garden. I was particularly fascinated about the ways people organized the empty space of the garden reproducing room-like sections, and arranged the indistinct flow of time through their daily practices. Ordinary practices – such as eating, sleeping, praying – were adapted to those peculiar spatial conjunctures and, thanks to their performative character, contributed to shaping routines, forms of intimacy and complicity. In my view, this process of collective (re)production of domesticity allowed ex-squatters to temporarily tame the painful experience of losing home.
The second finding is about the role of food smell in recreating a sense of being at home, in eliciting memories and feelings of security and protection and, at the same time, in building invisible social boundaries with the rest of society. Smells prompt me to consider the impalpable and unaware dimensions of the homing process and to pay attention to the interlacement among private and public space: in order to avoid to smell in the public space, people reshape their homemaking practices even in the intimate sphere, producing a renegotiation of the boundaries between the two.
The third finding is about space and materiality. I wonder, what if the materiality of domestic spaces acts as an obstacle to migrants’ enactment of the relational and symbolic values of dwelling? Job insecurity, deficiencies of the housing system, rent prices and discriminatory attitudes of landlords towards African people leave little room for Eritrean migrants to choose their accommodation in Rome. Instead, they force them into squatted apartments, shared flats, and makeshift shelters. I am trying to understand how bad housing conditions hamper migrant ability to perform social roles (getting married, having children, hosting family members) to which – according to their age, gender, and migrant condition – they are expected to adhere. I aim then to explore the consequences on migrants’ positioning within their social and family networks, the tensions in kinship relations and the reconfigurations in gender and generational subjectivities.
South Asian migrant experiences in the European diaspora match and differ across an intersection of variables, according to destination contexts as well as times and types of migration, thus bearing an array of displacement, reproduction, and contestation of home-spaces, at once symbolic and material, personal and communitarian. All fieldsites considered, in Italy (Brescia), the UK (London and Birmingham) and the Netherlands (Amsterdam) host significant Indo-Pakistani minorities (albeit different in sizes and time-lags), with as many diverse backgrounds as prospects. Besides making a distinguo among migrant generations (much elder in the case of the UK, due to its post-colonial past), and between ever steady labour migrants (esp. Indian Punjabis and Gujaratis) vs. newer asylum seekers (mostly Pakistanis), there are a few linkages that connect the three-countries selected in the lived experience of such migrants.
South Asian migration is essentially male led, women are most of the time dependent on spouses to move out and resettle; all my interlocutors conceive of their ‘culture’ as family-oriented, and the salience of kinship (close-knit and wider) is not only avowed but in fact essential to sustain one’s migratory project. While Pakistanis still tend to ‘marry back home’ matching cousins through a paternal genealogical line, Sikhs and Hindus opt for exogamic marriages, and yet within their regional ascription. Intermarriages are still a relative exception (and can cause discord if they occur).
Religions remain crucial in a diaspora context: Sikh, Hindu and Muslim networks provide a spiritual repository, but more importantly a ‘circle of support’ – material and emotional – that eases one’s accommodation elsewhere. Despite being generally well received as hard-working migrants, south Asians do feebly complain of being discriminated in the labour market as much as in the everyday: a mix of ‘race relations’ reasons and mean Islamophobia may target them.
Last, while Britain is a second home for most south Asians (only new migrants find it hard to settle in, due to more restrictive immigrant policies and a renewed rage on the last arrived), Holland is a temporary workplace for white collar expats, and a fairly appreciated host-land for all the rest. That same generation and low-skilled migration populace has inhabited northern Italy for a good time (approx. 15-20 years), so that now Italian Indo-Pakistanis (often with a new EU passport in hand) plan to move further north, leaving the shores of the Mediterranean and keeping in tune with the drive for a ‘mirage middle-class betterment’ (notwithstanding clashing attitudes exhibited by first generation parents, second generation youngsters, and grandparents often left behind). Gender disproportions are ubiquitous and impossible to play down, but they also seem to be rapidly evolving, though women’s bereavement, imposed arranged marriages and (occasional) honour killings are recurrent enough. The Border between India and Pakistan is not a historical bloody event gone by, but an ongoing remembrance of the frontier between faith-based belongings and imaginations of political life which get re-staged in the diaspora, and is paradigmatic of the many social bridges and hierarchies still actively sore in people’s daily life, and well visible in both households and temples.