Have you ever thought about the way that language is used to frame our understanding of ourselves and other people? It wasn’t many years ago that public transport systems moved from calling people ‘passengers’ to ‘customers’ – a transition that reflects the privatisation of these services, and the now primarily economic nature of the relationship between the service user and provider.
On a global scale, we principally use the language of nation-states to frame self and other. These are not empty frames, but full of meaning, rights and responsibilities. Nation-states ascribe citizenship, enact power, arrange economies, provide healthcare and education (to varying degrees), determine freedom and influence (consider the power of a British passport over, say, an Iranian one), and control the movement of goods and people.
But what happens when people challenge this nation-focused way of divvying up the world? How do we see the nationally non-compliant, and how does that influence how we ourselves are then framed?
When I was asked to write a blog to accompany my Identities article, 'The most cosmopolitan European city: situating narratives and practices of diversity in Marseille', I was asked to provide a suitable image. This faced me with a dilemma that cuts to the heart of my argument: how to choose a picture that symbolises cosmopolitanism in Marseille without falling into stereotypical representations of what and where cosmopolitanism is, and who represents it?
Searching the Internet for images of 'cosmopolitan Marseille' in English and in French ('Marseille cosmopolite') brought up quite different results. In the English language search, the majority of photographs showed shots of Marseille intended for international tourists: terrace cafés, well-known landmarks and generic promotional images from restaurant chains, bars and rental apartments. There was just one picture of a busy multi-ethnic market street. In the French search, similar touristy images also came up, alongside images that felt both more everyday and more ‘local’: interiors from different shops displaying open bags of spices for sale and a photograph from the municipal website of local politicians receiving international delegations from Marrakesh and Dakar, accompanied by a title describing Marseille as coloré et cosmopolite ('colourful and cosmopolitan'). There were, in addition, several references to specific impoverished neighbourhoods in the city-centre that are often taken as the embodiment of Marseille’s ‘cosmopolitanism’ while at the same time are the target of local and national urban renewal programmes that seek to attract a different - less ethnically-marked - population into the city centre for many decades now.
In short, carrying out this search for images of cosmopolitanism in Marseille illustrates the extent to which cosmopolitanism is a slippery notion that can mean so many contrasting things, depending on who is doing the talking, with whom, where and when.
In my article, I draw on ethnographic fieldwork in a part of the city that is not usually included in narratives of Marseille’s cosmopolitanism. Over nine months, as Marseille was preparing for its year as European Capital of Culture, I took part in a neighbourhood cultural project with a group of people who could seem far removed from the image of well-travelled cosmopolitan jet-setters and common sense understandings of the ethnically-marked bodies generally taken as the embodiment of cosmopolitan spaces. And this is one part of the story I tell in my Identities article. Beginning with an arts project that was marginalised from mainstream cultural policies, I explore how different ways of framing of social and cultural relations in Marseille, including in terms of Marseille’s cosmopolitanism, have variously included or excluded individuals and groups from material and symbolic aspects of the city.
Drawing on the critical cosmopolitanism literature, the second aim of the article was to think about how to describe and analyse social relations relations in ways that move beyond top-down narratives and policies that attempt to describe and organise difference. The image that I have finally chosen was taken by the Finnish photographer Lena Malm, who came to visit to Marseille in 2017 as part of a project exploring how different places around the Mediterranean Sea were given meaning and value.
This photograph is taken near the busy market that was brought up in both the English anad French the Internet searches for Marseille’s cosmopolitanism. As mentioned, this largely impoverished area has been targeted for decades by political leaders, part of a campaign to ‘reconquer’ the city centre. Informal street traders and people begging are regularly moved on and the area is surveilled by closed-circuit television. The bollard in the centre of the image is a material sign of these efforts to clean up and eventually ‘gentrify’ this part of the city. Behind the corrugated, graffiti-tagged barrier, the city council has given the go-ahead for the conversion of an Haussmanian apartment block to be transformed into a luxury hotel. Who knows how the social relations of this part of the city will be changed as a result.
What I like about this photo, and what caught the attention of Lena, is the contact between the woman begging and the person who stops to talk to her, the smiling face and the friendly, open hand gesture. Despite the different social positions, there seems to a moment of shared humanity, beautifully emphasised by the triangle of light coming out from woman standing. It is this idea of shared humanity, a sort of fellow feeling, generosity and humaneness that can transcend – albeit fleetingly - perceived social or cultural differences that, it seems to me, is often elided within accounts of Marseille’s ‘cosmopolitanism’. My Identities article attempts to draw attention to some of these relations of openness that, along with often very violent forms of othering and displacement, participate in the shaping social interactions in and beyond the city; although of course, always in very unequal relations of power.
Blog post by Claire Bullen, University of Tübingen, Germany
Read the full article: Bullen, Claire. The most cosmopolitan European city: situating narratives and practices of cultural and social relations in Marseille. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1688952
Being international, open and cosmopolitan is ‘cool’. This is specifically true for students at elite universities, where values such as multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism are promoted and enhanced by diversity-related activities and spaces. But what do students actually mean when they self-identify as cosmopolitans or global citizens? Do they all mean the same thing (probably not)? And what role does cosmopolitanism actually play in their lives?
My research, as explored in the Identities article, 'Exploring disjuncture: elite students' use of cosmopolitanism', is based on 24 interviews with international students at a global university in the UK. Its main finding is a typology of four different ways in which students use the idea of cosmopolitanism.
To fill this typology with life, I introduce the reader to Jing, Shigeki, Faisal and Anna. Each of these four students represents one of the four ways in which my respondents made sense of cosmopolitanism.
Jing found herself deeply inspired by the university’s cosmopolitanism and decided to change her life. She said she wanted ‘to make more impact’ and work for the betterment of society (as for an NGO). Jing thus used cosmopolitanism to form a new strategy of action.
Shigeki used cosmopolitanism in a different way. He actively examined his life and carried on a complex, intense conversation with himself about whether his thinking and acting was actually cosmopolitan. He thus used cosmopolitanism as a moral guideline to evaluate his ways of going about things and to examine his daily life.
In contrast, Faisal seemed to use cosmopolitanism ‘only’ rhetorically to defend his established life strategy. Faisal seemed to be oriented towards doing well on the job market and maximising his individual marketability. Within this strategy, he referred to cosmopolitan values to make particular choices. For instance, he mentioned that he was planning on donating money to charitable causes. However, he did not use cosmopolitanism to actively interrogate experience (as Shigeki), or set out new life goals (as Jing).
Anna was a cosmopolitan by socialisation. Having grown up in an elite transnational family, she had internalised cosmopolitan skills, habits and styles from a very early age. She had friends around the world and found it easy to immerse herself in different cultures. For her, it was just natural to be cosmopolitan. However, Anna’s elite cosmopolitan strategies of action were not complemented by self-consciously expressed cosmopolitan aspirations. Accordingly, she neither used cosmopolitanism to actively interrogate experience, nor to ‘remind’ herself of how to act.
How can we explain these different ways of making sense of cosmopolitanism?
Drawing on cultural theorist Ann Swidler, I argue that individuals, who find themselves in an unsettled phase of their life, may mobilise cosmopolitanism either to set themselves new life goals (Jing) or to closely examine their lives (Shigeki). In settled lives, cosmopolitanism may be integrated in established strategies of action (Anna) but it may also be used to (rhetorically) defend a stable orientation (Faisal).
Who will find this paper an interesting read?
First of all: Researchers who are interested in students’ and young people’s ways of using cosmopolitanism and the ambivalences of students’ engagements with cosmopolitanism. But also: Everyone interested in elite students’ thinking, feeling and sense-making. The article offers vivid descriptions to Jing’s, Shigeki’s, Faisal’s and Anna’s approaches to life, and I would not be surprised if you felt yourself reminded of someone you know when reading the article.
Blog post by Eunike Piwoni, University of Göttingen, Germany
Read the full article: Piwoni, Eunike. Exploring disjuncture: elite students' use of cosmopolitanism. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1441691