HOMInG’s Paolo Boccagni has been invited to give a talk at the Institut für Ethnologie, University of Hamburg, within the Ethnologisches Kolloquium series, next June 21 at 6pm. See the title and abstract of his presentation below.

Should refuge(es) be clean? On the politics and shifting boundaries of clean and dirt in an asylum centre

Paolo Boccagni (University of Trento and ERC HOMInG)

All housing infrastructures demand forms of material care from at least some of their inhabitants. This holds also for asylum reception centres such as the Italian one, mainly hosting young West African males, in which I have done participant observation over the past four years. By delving into the lived experience of the centre, behind the external image of an empty and motionless waiting place, I realized that cleaning is much more than a matter of social reproduction – one that may be equally contentious in any (over)crowded shared housing space. Cleaning is also a field of practices where questions of care, order, decency and mutual obligations are negotiated between service providers and residents, and among the latter. Is worth taking in earnest, as a research topic, in light of how people relate to the built environment and of the meanings and subtexts this articulates. The division of cleaning tasks among residents, and their variable compliance with top-down prescriptions, do not simply reflect the conditionalities on which hospitality rests, the balancing acts between rule adherence and transgression, or more or less interiorized expectations of mutual respect. More fundamentally, the diffusion and reach of residents’ cleaning practices is revealing of the social configuration of the space they perceive as theirs, and of their ways of coping with ‘waithood’. Drawing on the anthropological tradition on the meanings and understandings of clean and dirt, or pure and impure, I explore how the centre residents negotiate their own position in the spectrum of what is necessary and appropriate to clean – from the basic scale of their own bodies, to everyday belongings like mobile phones, clothes and shoes, potentially scaling up to broader portions of space, private (bedplace), semi-private (room, kitchen) or communal (elsewhere in and around the centre). Whenever cleaning invests only the smaller scales, living in untidy and possibly dirt environments is seen by caseworkers as a sign of little commitment to “integrate”, in awkward resonance with stigmatizing representations of refugees in the public discourse. It is however discarded by people themselves as an irrelevant development. In fact, cleaning has a whole range of prevalence and meanings. More often than not, cleaning the centre to some extent is simply a way to meet the basic requirements associated with one’s status as a welfare-dependent guest. For some, however, frequent cleaning is more of a habitus, and possibly a way to exert some control over space, based on their own tastes and habits. For still others, escaping cleaning unless under external pressures articulates different and contradictory meanings – that is, resistance to asymmetrical and apparently racialized power relations; reluctance to engage with a built environment that is not home; more fundamentally, an embodied sense of alienation from one’s dwelling-and-waiting circumstances. All these stances go along with the reproduction of gendered and age-related scripts, whereby cleaning is no (young) male work. In all these respects, what might appear a mere functional requirement for everyday life in shared housing is a meaningful entry point into the (dis)alignments and expectations of young asylum seekers, relative to the place they live in, the people they engage with and the ideal life they fancy about – as opposed to the material and living conditions accessible to them. Ordinary practices of material care, as reiterated or resisted over time, have a political and even an existential dimension that should not go unnoticed. 

(Image: Talk to me finding a new Namibian language, by Urte Remm

Source: https://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/ethnoscripts/article/view/1574/1357)