The concept of ‘cosmology’ has a long-standing history in anthropology. Derived from the ancient Greek ‘cosmos’ – order, harmony, world – and ‘logos’ – discourse – cosmology was historically intended as the knowledge or study of the structure and shape of the world.
In anthropology, cosmologies are conventionally defined as widespread representations of the world as a hierarchically ordered whole. Traditionally associated with the study of religions, cosmologies have progressively come to refer more generally to systems of classifications, and their related moral and emotional attitudes.
My Identities article, ‘Cosmologies and migration: on worldviews and their influence on mobility and immobility’, shows that this concept can be applied to understanding the hierarchical worldviews of a diasporic population, such as Eritrean migrants and their left behinds. In particular, the article argues that these worldviews are crucial to understand why people are ready to undertake very dangerous and complex journeys to reach their their 'promised land', as suggested by the Eritrean painter Ambasager Welday in his beautiful reinterpretation of the biblical exodus (see the image above).
To escape an undetermined national service, they leave Eritrea without a permit. They face the challenges of living as refugees in Ethiopia and Sudan with limited possibilities to move (out of camps) and prospects to work. Legal avenues to move out of these first asylum countries are also extremely limited: less than 1% of the refugee population worldwide manage to resettle in a third country. If Eritreans manage to reach southern Europe, usually Italy, they have a hard time finding decent housing and jobs that would allow them to achieve some socio-economic and existential stability. Due to the Dublin Regulation, however, many cannot easily move to other European countries. There are huge risks for those who attempt to cross the borders, including detention and harm, but being returned to Italy is often the most feared option among Eritreans.
The idea of cosmologies of destinations point to the specific moral prescriptions about where a migration journey should end and what the person that arrives there should do. The narratives of the many Eritrean refugees whom I met in Italy between 2008 and 2014 well represent these moral prescriptions. While survival in Eritrea becomes increasingly dependent on resources from abroad, Eritreans leave their homes not only to flee political oppression, but also to provide for those left behind. The journey, thus, should end where the migrant is able to fulfil his/her family obligations. ‘We are here for our families, not only for our own sake’, as one refugee living in a shanty town of Rome told me. He had already tried twice to seek asylum in Sweden and was on the verge of trying again.
In this context of transnational obligations, moral worthiness is judged by families and local communities on the basis of the support that migrants are able to offer in many different aspects. The comparison between migrants settled in different countries reproduces not only a hierarchy of moral worthiness among migrants – it also shapes a hierarchical shared imaginary in which some countries are pictured as transit places, such as Italy, and others as desired destinations, such as northern European countries.
Cosmologies of destinations represent crystallised hierarchies of geographic preferences widely shared by the members of a group. Building on previous literature on cultures of migration and geographic imaginaries, cosmologies of destinations point to the connection between imaginaries of places and the moral and symbolic values attached to living there. In doing so, it facilitates the understanding of how migrants can place their desired destinations in a hierarchy of value that motivates them to move on from the good to the better destination.
Blog post by Milena Belloni, The University of Antwerp, Belgium
Read the full article: Belloni, Milena. Cosmologies and migration: on worldviews and their influence on mobility and immobility. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1748357
On 25 February 2020, the Danish newspaper Berlingske had a main story showing how leading party members of the Social Democrats have put pressure on experts critical of the Party’s politics. Both while being in opposition and now forming the minority government, leading politicians have contacted organisations and independent experts (Holst 2020). The newspaper reports how experts and researchers have been contacted by people working for the Social Democrats or from people within the ministries and given warnings. The issues at stake do not all relate to migration research, but some do.
The story therefore connects well to my analysis presented in my Identities article, 'What makes an expert? Doing migration research in Denmark'. In the article, I outline four different types of migration experts who in different ways and with different weight have to navigate within a nexus of academia, the policy arena and the broader public. The first of these types is a positioning of the migration expert as one not offering any real solutions. This discussion stems from an internal debate within academia where a well-esteemed professor argued that a large part of research is becoming decoupled from ‘real politics’ and ‘reality’. The implication for him is a situation where the research community has created a ‘vacuum’, and in the absence of asylum and refugee researchers who can assist the decision-makers the politicians have begun to look for advice elsewhere.
The second positioning of experts has to do with the inclusion of experts outside academia. This tendency perhaps can be related to the first type of expert role, but also has to do with politicians seeking to legitimise policy plans beforehand by drawing on their own understanding of experts. In Denmark we see how the Social Democrats’ immigration plan was developed by a private consultancy firm hired by the Social Democrats and later praised in the media for offering easy understandable and realistic solutions. The consultants have all been working on policy-making in immigration but are not academic experts in a traditional sense. Their recommendations were disputed by experts within academia. Nevertheless, the report serves as a knowledge base for the Party now forming the government and thus in control of developing future migration policies.
Thirdly, I identify a position claiming that we are all experts. This position indicates that some decisions are better taken on gut feelings rather than being based on scientific evidence. This has been a trend in Danish policy-making for at least two decades. It makes it possible to ignore other research out there that might or might not speak against political ambitions and motivations and implement more ideologically-driven policies. The much debated ‘ghetto’ policy in Denmark is a good example of this tendency. Although we have strong research indicating what works and what does not, politicians have mainly ignored this research and argued that we sometimes just need to do what feels right.
Lastly, I describe a fourth type of positioning, referring to the non-recognition of experts, especially academics. It is an anti-elitist position, which claims that academics have no idea what reality looks like or what the ‘real’ problems are. Many of those of us working on immigration policy and politics have met this accusation. One journalist who criticised Danish migration research, for instance, wrote a piece arguing that ‘the analysis of the refugee crisis is more true at the sausage vendor than at the university’ (Jespersen 2017).
The article in Berlingske can be seen continuing these forms of questioning what makes an expert. It is a potential problem, which we need to address within academia and bring to the public. If policy-makers – and politicians – want evidence-based research how can we as researchers contribute to this, if our position at the same time is delegitimised?
I will end with the same question that I pose in my Identities article: What is my obligation as a migration researcher? It is using my knowledge and position to engage in critical reflexive knowledge production which may help improve the rights and conditions for the people I study and collaborate with.
Holst, H. K. 2020. Topfolk i Socialdemokratiet har presset kritiske eksperter af partiets politik: »Jeg vil bare advare dig. Christiansborg kan være en krigszone«. Berlingske. 25 February 2020.
Jespersen, N. 2017. Analysen af flygtningekrisen er mere sand ved pølsevognen end på universitetet. Ræson. 11 November 2017.
Blog post by Martin Bak Jørgensen, Aalborg University, Denmark
Read the full article: Jørgensen, Martin Bak. What makes an expert? Doing migration research in Denmark. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1725311
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on 26 April 1986 in the Soviet Union. Children born before and after 1986 were at risk of developing different health conditions. For example, instances of thyroid cancer increased 40 times due to release of radioactive iodine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, borders opened and many Western charities offered recuperation to affected children in host families abroad during summer. The idea was to take children out of contaminated territories and provide them with an environment free from radiation. Belarus was the most affected, having 23.5% of its territory contaminated with radioactive cesium and strontium. Italy was the most active in these recuperation programmes; it has hosted more than half of all affected children from Belarus.
The goal of my Identities article, 'Kinning as intimate disaster response: from recuperation in host families to educational migration of the Chernobyl children from Belarus to Italy', was to uncover what happened to these children and their host families over time. I demonstrate that one of the unexpected outcomes of Chernobyl children’s recuperation in Italy was their educational migration to Italy for further education as they grew up (some went on to attend high school in Italy; the majority of these went on to do their Bachelor and/or Master’s degrees in Italy, as well). I argue that educational migration became possible due to kinning – strong emotional bonds developed between the Belarusian children and their Italian host families over their repeated encounters during the humanitarian programme of child recuperation abroad. The concept of kinning has been used in the studies of transnational adoption (by Signe Howell) and domestic and institutional care work (by Loretta Baldassar and colleagues). My article applies kinning to the studies of disasters, migration and humanitarianism.
Educational migration of Belarusian children to Italy was chosen over other unintended recuperation outcomes (e.g. being adopted by the Italian host family, meeting a life partner in Italy, changing religion from Orthodox to Catholic, choosing a profession related to Italy, or coming to Italy in adulthood with children of Chernobyl children), as it revealed how important a triad relationship between children, their biological families in Belarus, and their host families in Italy was in deciding to study in Italy as these youth came of age. I therefore argue that disaster migration occurred, not because of the damage done by the disaster, but due to the human relations formed between people involved in disaster response.
On the basis of ethnographic interviews I conducted with the grown-up Chernobyl children from Belarus, I examined the relational consensus and conflict between children, their biological parents in Belarus, and their Italian host families, which evolved around frequent contact, material and emotional support, family obligations, co-residence, over-parenting, etc. Educational migration of grown-up children as disaster survivors was not just about aspirations to improve their future career prospects and socio-economic statuses, but was also shaped by social relations with family members in both host and home countries in the negotiation of a simultaneous sense of belonging to different places.
In practical terms, formally recognising and supporting kinning in humanitarian assistance for disaster survivors would do great service to those who have already developed kinning and to those who are restraining themselves because of organisational rules. Kinning as a form of a long-term social support can be beneficial for children in overcoming prolonged consequences of a humanitarian crisis.
Blog post by Ekatherina Zhukova, Lund University, Sweden
Read the full article: Zhukova, Ekatherina. Kinning as intimate disaster response: from recuperation in host families to educational migration of the Chernobyl children from Belarus to Italy. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1686877
‘I hear people compare the immigration debate with the climate debate, and it does not fit quite well, because climate researchers are not faced with the same threats and the same hate as migration researchers, where the hate is very existential and often very personal’. This experienced migration researcher compares what researchers may experience in two fields of polarised social debate.
Climate change and migration are among the most polarised fields of public opinion and political mobilising; however, both fields depend on scientific knowledge for argument. Political adversaries refer to opposite research results as the 'truth' of the matter, and describe the same research results as either politically skewed or totally objective.
Interviews with different generations of migration researchers in Norway about their research communication show that they often are interpreted as 'being political' when disseminating their results to the media or taking part in public debates:
Motivations for research
Researchers engaged in migration and diversity research choose this field for many different reasons. For some, the lead motive is to provide solid ‘objective’ knowledge to help produce good policies in a field of vital importance to the future of Norway. Others list personal reasons, such as earlier work in asylum camps or having close friends of migrant background. Many note that this field exposes researchers to tough ethical dilemmas, and some state that emotions like anger and compassion were important to their initial interest in this research field. All find the mix of normative and descriptive arguments in the field challenging, but they have different solutions to solve this dilemma.
Credibility contests among researchers
The formative years of Norwegian migration research, the 1990s, were characterised by tough debates among researchers about the relative importance of specific research themes (e.g. racism or gender oppression) and the best theoretical perspectives for analysing them. Young researchers entering the field around the Millennium described such debates over the ‘implicit normativity’ of the research field as hard to navigate. When established researchers were marked as either ‘naïve and politically correct’, or as ‘daring and doing important research’, depending on the point of view, it was difficult not to take sides. Such debates could diffuse to the general public debate about migration, where major newspapers could develop stories about how some researchers were ‘politicised’ and untrustworthy knowledge bearers.
Later on, when the research field matured and migration and diversity became more established, research and teaching themes in the university sector and internal debates among researchers over normativity became less tense. In this period of the 2000s, researchers increasingly became aware of the many debates involving research evidence taking place on blogs and different social media platforms outside of the Academy.
The growth of external critique
Concerns about the explicit normativity or political interpretation of migration research grew with the spread of blogs, web-newspapers and social media platforms. On these platforms, specifically those representing anti-immigration or anti-Islam viewpoints, researchers were regularly ridiculed and accused of being apologists for the ‘naïve’ left-wing. Whereas many had previously joked about being listed in so-called ‘traitor lists’ on the Internet, the terrorist acts in Oslo and Utøya in July 2011 made researchers more wary.
My Identities article, 'Boundary work and normativity in research communication across time', analyses how debates over implicit and explicit normativity develop as a new and politically contested research field evolves, in a period when the Internet becomes more important for societal debate.
Blog post by Mette Andersson, University of Oslo, Norway
Read the full article: Andersson, Mette. Boundary work and normativity in research communication across time. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1688953
Many Western expatriates are routinely exposed to being labelled laowai (老外 in Mandarin, literally ‘old foreigner’) in mainland China. According to a 2007 report in People’s Daily, Chinese users of the slang term laowai feel it shows their respect and intimacy for Westerners (‘Is 'Laowai' a Negative...' 2007). This Chinese interpretation was empirically verified by a 2015 research article (Mao 2015).
But some people on the receiving end feel that laowai is a stereotype-laden form of ‘othering’, defined as discourses that create a boundary between insiders and outsiders. Why are these interpretations so different? Why do Westerners feel resentful when they are addressed as laowai?
In order to address these questions, we focused on American expatriates living in mainland China, often regarded as prototypical ‘Westerners’ there. We conducted in-depth interviews with 35 American expatriates who ranged in age from 19 to 36 years, varied in sojourn length from six months to ten years, were in different occupations and of diverse racial categories (White/Chinese/Latino/African Americans). By inviting these Americans to reflect upon their intercultural experiences in mainland China, we explored their interpretation of the term laowai.
Our research, as discussed in the Identities article, 'Laowai as a discourse of Othering: unnoticed stereotyping of American expatriates in Mainland China', revealed that it was the ways that Chinese people employed laowai, instead of this label itself, that contributed to the discomfort of American expatriates.
First and foremost, our informants who were generally called laowai were those who did not look Chinese, so Chinese Americans and other Asian expatriates were not generally labelled in this way. Our interviewees who were called laowai felt this term conveyed a variety of negative ideas about Westerners.
For example, some said it assumed they were incapable of speaking Mandarin and understanding Chinese culture; as one interviewee put it, ‘You don’t understand it because you are laowai’. The term implied that Westerners are essentially different from the Chinese: ‘[They say]: “We Chinese people are physically not capable of drinking cold water; our DNA is different”’. Furthermore, interviewees told us Westerners were assumed to be morally corrupt and badly behaved, qualities one informant summed up thus: ‘[They think]: you must have five girlfriends, because laowai are very kaifang [sexually promiscuous]’.
From American expatriates’ perspective, these othering practices reflected Chinese users’ motivations, including constructing Chineseness as an identity based on bloodline descent, justifying their assumptions that the West and Westerners were essentially different from China and the Chinese, and attempting to maintain the superior and positive Chinese self by stigmatising Western others during intergroup encounters. Ultimately, these American expatriates experienced Chinese people’s habitual use of laowai as a way to separate them as permanent outsiders, a form of what some scholars have termed ‘Occidentalism’, involving non-Western individuals’ othering of the West in a reductive and misrepresentative way (Buruma & Margalit 2005).
Our research indicated that othering was deemed unacceptable by those subject to it, even when the specific term employed was seen as positive by users from the dominant group. We did not intend to make a value judgement on Chinese people’s habitual use of laowai, but hoped to arouse the attention of Chinese scholars, educators and institutions to the impact of othering of expatriates on the Chinese mainland, considering the increasing number of these migrants in this region.
Buruma, I. & A. Margalit. 2005. Occidentalism: the West in the eyes of its enemies. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
‘Is 'Laowai' a Negative Term?’ (2007). People's Daily Online, December 21 2007. Available at http://en.people.cn/90001/90780/91345/6325229.html.
Mao, Y. 2015. Who is a laowai? Chinese interpretations of laowai as a referring expression for non-Chinese. International Journal of Communication 9: 2119–2140.
Blog post by Yang Liu, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China; and Charles C. Self, University of Oklahoma, USA
Read the full article: Yang, Liu & Self, Charles C. Laowai as a discourse of Othering: unnoticed stereotyping of American expatriates in Mainland China. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1589158