At the end of HOMInG’s mid-term symposium, last June, a roundtable took place, involving P. Hondagneu-Sotelo, G. Sciortino, N. Harney and P. Boccagni. In the format of an open conversation, drawing from the Symposium itself, the panelists raised a number of fascinating points and challenges to advance the debate on home and migration… see below!
After two days of presentations, I am again convinced of migrant and refugees’ incredible efforts directed at striving and struggling to make home, often in impossible conditions. Homing and homemaking remains a dynamic and imaginative window for analyzing and thinking about migration. So clearly, I am still a fan of homing, or homemaking, as a lens for understanding migration. We heard many rich ethnographic presentations, based on close-up fieldwork, and I did not hear any romantic vision of home. Clearly everyone has gone well beyond a focus on the domestic dwelling.
My self-disclosure is this. I am a fan and proponent of the homemaking lens in my research, and in the US debate. I use a version of this perspective in my forthcoming book on race and place in Los Angeles. But with myself included, I think we must all answer the big question— “So what?”
What is our individual or collective research in the service of? Who is our audience? What debates and projects are we connecting to, out of this room? I fear we are at risk of becoming too insular. My own aspiration is to reach a wider audience and have a broader political engagement and impact. But how to do this?
It’s not enough for us to be aware of public discourse. We need to use our research to reshape the public narrative on migration. There is no one right way to do this. In fact, we may try multiple routes, writing editorials or OpEds, working together with allies and community based organizations, and cultivating broader publics for our research. We may fail at times. Michael Burawoy’s outline of public sociology reminds us that our first audience is our students, and that is one place to start.
Another thing we need to do is to connect with the big issues of our time. I began our discussion yesterday morning by underlining the historical moment of racialized nationalism and xenophobia that we currently see in the US and Europe. There are two other urgent issues. One is the increasing concentration of income and wealth, particularly in the US. The other big force that we cannot afford to ignore is climate change and the looming threat that an increasing number of places around the planet will soon no longer host human homes. We may all become climate change refugees in our life time.
And can we imagine a utopian vision of home, rather thank looking only at the deficiencies? What might a utopian home look like?
The papers I heard were illustrative of humans’ ability to create some social organization under whatever condition, including the most extreme ones. Even when you would expect chaos and disarray there are processes of meaning-making and of creating spaces with some partial aspect of home. This is not particularly new though – think of Street Corner society in the first place.
Moreover, most papers presented at the Symposium move from normative definitions of home as good. Most scholar would define it likewise, but aren’t we missing something? This has not just to do with domestic violence etc. – there is much literature about that.
Rather, there is a positive contrast between cultural and social definitions of home as a social space.
You can think of the film The Warriors, one of the final scenes: a gang leader looks around the turf you would call “home” and says: did I do all this for this thing only? Or, think of novels such as Molnar’s The Paul street boys: there are gangs of boys claiming to get their own turfs. At the end of the story, after one little boy died, they wonder: did we do all of this for this little courtyard full of mud or garbage?
There is something in human beings that results in them to make home out of anything, but this is just a provisional and partially achieved condition.
Home is an incredibly elastic term, which is part of its virtues! Thanks to the ability for it to be used as an analytic lens across many scales from intimate details of objects to small places in corners, under bridges in parks, and then to the larger scales of houses, neighbourhoods, regions or nations whatever that be, we can see this connection between human sociality and the material environment, and we can see why it is so important.
Surprisingly then, there has been little discussion of belonging and the nation in this Symposium though. Why is that? Perhaps ‘home’ allows us to address the nation from the side, or the backdoor. Maybe for some there is exasperation or fear of the politics, out of the current debate? I would like to hear more on the ways of scaling up and down home, even considering the contradictions that stem from the interaction between different levels.
Second, and what of the risk of assuming home as yet another totalizing framework on migration – such as “mobilities”, which tries to integrate all sorts of movements, human and non-human actors? Or, “apparatus”? Or “infrastructures”? Is home going to be one of these concepts?
Moreover, we often forget to say that people cannot go home when they are refugees. Their home is just gone, burnt, or destroyed, the familiar landscape and people destroyed. They will keep it in their memories, but it will be no more the same place, if and once they return to it.
Now, what has come to me from this wonderful variety of papers on the various ways people make home material in the most common or difficult ways has been thinking of James Scott’s famous book Seeing like a state (1999). In this book, Scott addresses the gradual process by which the state is seen as a homogenizer, which standardizes its territory for a readable grid of surveillance. But instead, I am inspired by James Ferguson’s critique Seeing like an oil company (2005). Now, clearly, the experiences and freedom of mobile global capital through the lens of an oil company is different than that of a poor and powerless migrant, but Ferguson’s approach forces to challenge the notion of homogenization and standardization of global systems.
Like oil companies I think of migrants and their abilities to jump across spaces, develop their own cognitive maps, with their networks looking for opportunities, although with far less power, these seek to defy the grid like surveillance of the migration securitization system. What if we catch the view of migrants to see the world from a different scale? HOMInG, following the parallel, has the merit to bring back the study of migrants’ views and agency.
I saw some remarkable progress in research on home and migration over the last few years, as both a literature review and this symposium would testify. We may wonder why, and why now, but still this is a social fact we can appreciate.
A first point I got out of the Symposium is that the experience of living in all sorts of places can be helpfully revisited through a home lens, in a variety of research settings. At the very least, even for those with little interest in home as such, this lens helps us to recognize, collect and visibilize migrants’ own voice, hence their perceptions and constructions of their life conditions in any particular place. Another key aspect across the presentations is dwelling, in temporary, provisional and transient settings, with all of the forms of place attachment, appropriation and claims-making associated with it.
At another level, a way to move beyond the criticism of home as a necessarily good place or thing is to use the analytical category of ambivalence, and appreciate its relevance here. Much of the complexity of the home experience, even when it is associated with violence, abuse or oppression, is precisely a matter of ambivalence: the same place, and people in it, elicit opposite reactions at the same time. The challenge of coping with issues of domestic violence is not just related to privacy, secrecy, of the protection of closed doors from an external gaze. More than that, there is an issue of ambivalence: home-like and unhomely, or uncanny, at the same place.
As for the ways ahead, I was impressed by the pervasive use of home as a metaphor to represent all kinds of home-related conditions, in a more or less metaphorical guise: the material home, the spiritual home, the public home, and so forth. It would be important, all the more so in a homing optic, to move beyond an emphasis on the things, or the state of things, as such. There is a need for critical investment in unpacking, understanding and systematizing the underlying social processes.
Last, a call for reflexivity: how do our own views and elaborations on home affect our ways of doing research about it, the research setting, and our research findings? While our views, emotions and values about home may say something interesting on ourselves, or on our self-representation, it would be important to better understand how they affect our ways of doing research in practice.