Alejandro Miranda: “Slow, small and insightful: on the Mobility and Migration Research Day in Oxford”

Like many other colleagues working in the social sciences, I have ambivalent feelings towards academic events. Exciting and disappointing, congresses, symposia and workshops are archetypes of the bittersweet: fantastic places for learning about and sharing the latest work in our field, for receiving feedback and exchanging ideas, for meeting colleagues and friends in an amicable environment. But we all know how ritualised these events can be, with their stale protocols, bureaucratic procedures and clumsiness of the code. There are, however, some academic events that are all about excitement, learning and sharing. I have the impression that they tend to be slow and small, just like the Mobility and Migration Research Day that I attended last January at COMPAS, University of Oxford, organised by Nick Van Hear and Ilka Vari-Lavoisier. 

The day started with lunch and informal introductions. There were then generous forty-five minutes for presenting and discussing each paper, followed by fifteen minute breaks in between the presentations. COMPAS’s premises feel somehow like a house, producing an ambiance that leads to the conversational and casual. Mette Louise Berg (UCL) started off with a series of reflections on Migration and Society, a new journal that she, Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh (UCL) and Johanna L. Waters (UCL) are editing with Berghahn. This journal seeks to bring humanities and social sciences together, linking migration and mobility to speak about broader issues. Nick Van Hear opened up the discussion that brought up a series of reflections from the attendants: if editors and publishers are different species, how to deal with them? and how to deal with reviewers? Open access is great, and many agree that journal publishing should move into that direction, but who is supposed to bear the cost of publishing? We academics are already working ‘for free’ when it comes to publishing in journals… The conversation could go on, but we rather moved to the following intervention.  

Melanie Griffiths (Birmingham) presented ‘Go home or face arrest: reflections on the hostile environment in the UK’. This was a detailed account of how recent immigration policies of the UK government aim to prevent undocumented migrants from accessing to an ‘ordinary life’. Institutions are forced to do checks. Griffiths described how these measures are also contested in everyday interaction. Still, many undocumented migrants are refused jobs, accommodation, and their bank accounts are frozen. Landlords renting to undocumented migrants risk heavy fines or even going to prison. Do these policies work? Griffiths detailed how undocumented migrants become poorer and more vulnerable. Their driving licenses are revoked, and people avoid going to hospitals. There is an ambiance of racism and xenophobia, discrimination and profiling. Who is illegal? Griffiths reminds us how this category is problematic and malleable. There is also a conflation between immigration rights and documents. Is the target the electorate, instead of migrants themselves? What are these strategies for? This paper reminded me much of the current situation in continental Europe and elsewhere. 

I was next, presenting ‘Temporalities of homemaking’. This paper was a way of testing out the argument of a chapter that is part of a forthcoming book co-written with Aurora Massa and Sara Bonfanti. Much of the literature frames home as a special type of place. This emphasis on spatiality also resonates with much of the literature on migration, since it often portrays the process of migrating as a type of movement that involves re-location. It would be impossible, of course, to approach homemaking or migratory processes without referring to their spatial dimensions. But we can’t deny that space and time are intimately associated (see, for instance, Schatzki 2009). My argument is that experiences of home in migratory contexts are ‘besieged’ by timing; that is, by the need for judging and controlling when certain activities have to be done. I illustrate this point through the routines and ordinary activities of an Ecuadorian family in their flat in Madrid. I analyse how waiting and proceeding punctuates the experience of making oneself at home in its provisional guise.  

Yali Chen (Geneva/COMPAS) presented on the subjectivity online within transnational migration. Her paper analysed how Chinese migrant women in Switzerland use WeChat (a social media platform). Chen described how her informants did family at a distance and communicated in public online spaces. This account gave interesting insights on how the private domestic lives of migrant women became part of the public online space, pointing at questions of the sort of publicness that this produces and the emotional dimensions of bringing the public and the private through online platforms. 

Tom Western presented ‘Listening with displacement’, a fascinating account of using and attending to sound to investigate people on the move. In examining the concept of sonic agency, Western illustrated how sound is always moving; sound as a metaphor of mobility and change. His ethnographic work in Greece captures the soundscapes of the so-called refugee crisis. He argued, among other points, that there is an artificial split between the visual and the sonic. Overdoing the split between the acoustic and the visual is one of the methodological pitfalls of researching mobility and migration. 

The last intervention presented a research project and book by Dan Hicks and Sarah Mallet called ‘Lande: the Calais “Jungle” and Beyond’. Hicks and Mallet are involved in the emerging field of archeology of the present. This project documents the ‘jungle’ in Calais as an archeological site, revealing it as a material site of conflict where social processes are made visible. 

As I had brought a small, traveller’s guitar from home, we wrapped up the event with three musical pieces and a glass of prosecco. Among many other things, this visit to COMPAS gave me hope in the potential of (small and slow) academic events. Its absorbing conversations, casual atmosphere and unhurried pace gave plenty of room for insights and valuable feedback to emerge. 

Cited works: Schatzki, T. (2009), ‘Timespace and the organisation of social life’, in E. Shove, T. Trentmann and R. Wilk (eds), Time, Consumption and Everyday Life: Practice, Materiality and Culture, 35–48, Oxford: Berg.