Within the annual conference of the Association of Social Anthropologists of UK and Commonwealth, held in early September 2019 at the University of East Anglia, homingers Sara Bonfanti and Aurora Massa convened a panel session on home and vulnerability. Under the title Shaking grounds: Strategies for urban resilience when homes make no safe heavens, the issue at stake was deconstructing the linkage between the ideas of safety and home. As the convenors put it, “home” often exerts a halo of opacity which inhibits the perception of many emerging and different kinds of social vulnerability. During the discussion, the panelists’ contributions as well as the questions posed by the convenors illuminated several challenging key points in this field.
Kelzang Tashi (Australian National University) illustrated the unpredicted or unpredictable consequences of a land reform in Bhutan, giving equal access to the land to all sons and daughters regardless of sex and role. The reform, while trying to counter the inequity of the traditional system, results in increasingly precarious housing conditions among older women. In this sense, Tashi’s work helps to understand how the link between “home” and “safety” does not pertain either to the qualities of housing or to a special “psychology of being at home”. It basically rests, instead, on a process of social construction.
Shuhua Chen (University of Edinburgh) brings the results of an ethnographic research work she carried on in Shantou city (China) among the workers of a toy factory. In a context of pervasive internal migration, which entails the uprooting of millions of people from the agricultural provinces and the re-establishment of urban macro-aggregations in which manufacturing industry is concentrated, the idea of home seems to be scattered over time. While the present, due to the dramatic working and housing conditions of internal labour migrants, is permeated by a sense of homeawayness, “home” tends rather to exist in the past, related to the places and the relatives who have remained in the place of origin, or the future, as (a desire of) an imagined emplacement of a better life.
Beth Collier (Wild in the City) explores the racial dimensions of the emotional relation with nature. More specifically, she explores the reasons why black people seem to have severed that link. Starting from a psychotherapist’s perspective, she carried on an ethnography that shows how the absence of black people from green spaces is not only a self-limitation but seems to be a cultural response to historical and current traumas connected with racism. This is why for blacks (and Asians) the emotional bond with what we call “home” has more to do with concrete spaces than with natural ones.
Carmen Pérez del Pulgar (Barcelona Lab for Urban Environmental Justice and Sustainability) presented a research work dealing with the socio-material conditions and the political processes affecting space production. The research, which takes as case studies two green play spaces in Barcelona, reveals how deep-rooted environmental inequalities could be overcome through green spaces. That’s why these spaces produce socio-natural and relational wellbeing in ways that affect social relations and ties.
The presentation by Santiago Leyva del Rio (Birkbeck College) stands as a radical critique to neoliberal housing regimes. The history of the current tenure regime in Spain is revisited along these lines. Home property is neither “natural” nor the “safest” housing tenure, as the 2008 crisis has demonstrated. Within this framework, Leyva del Rio focuses on cooperative housing, not only as an alternative to current tenure regimes, but as a new community constitution. That’s why the impact of this project is not limited to de-commodification of housing but is extended to space design and management. Yet, cooperative housing entails not only a new kind of “home” but also the raising of a new kind of inhabitants.
Joana Catela (University of Lisbon) presented a study of the nexus between housing policy, home and vulnerability in Portugal. Based on the analysis of a massive rehousing programme (PER) which involved several thousand households, the study carried on by the “exPERSts” project team is focused on the residents’ experience. It essentially shows that the programme succeeded in providing new homes, but often failed in addressing the vulnerability associated with living in informal neighbourhoods.
Enrico Fravega (HOASI – University of Trento) presented the visual ethnography he is currently conducting, together with Massimo Cannarella (University of Genova). This is about the social consequences of eviction and displacement after the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa (14.08.2018). People had to move away from home and from much of their personal belongings. They have also gone through the rupture of social ties (due also to the distribution of displaced people in different urban areas). In practice, what has gone lost for them is far more than a house. In between the tension for their downgrading to “aid beneficiaries” and the birth of informal and horizontal social networks for help and advocacy, a new sense of belonging has emerged. Such a sense of belonging goes beyond the “ordinary” sense of place.