Serial Migration

'Why not simply consider them to be cosmopolitans? They nearly unanimously refuse this label as too elitist and too abstract; for most, the purview of the 'cosmos' seems too wide ranging. The paths they have taken have led them to be wary of claims of an emerging global subject'.

by Susan Ossman

Animated conversations about the intensification of mobility and its relationship to emerging political forms and programs have circled around figures of the immigrant, the cosmopolitan and the nomad. Yet these discussions often seem rather abstract and unconnected to the actual study of how particular forms of mobility might lead to the creation of new social categories or shape political subjects.

By following the pathways of serial migrants, I seek to develop a better understanding of how different forms of movement are shaping emerging social and political distinctions. Rather than studying a population based on culture or ethnicity or class, I explore how particular ways of moving across the world might lead people to have something in common. Immigrants are defined as those who leave one homeland to settle in another. Oppositions of host to home countries shape discourses about immigration. Standard modes of categorizing people who come from elsewhere to settle do not recognize that someone might have several homelands in the course of a life.

By following the paths of serial migrants -people who have lived in more than two countries for significant periods of time- I break with the double bind that characterizes how we think of migration. By taking an interest in people whose lives include several countries I explore how modes of settlement and mobility shape particular ways of conceiving of life and wonder what repeated experiences of immigration might lead people to have in common. Listening to serial migrants life stories and spending time in their homes and offices has led me to suggest that in addition to culture or points of origin, we must also consider how patterns of movement influence what people have in common. It is not simply a comparable trajectory over space but similar way of structuring the story of one's life that is encouraged by particular patterns of settlement.

Serial migration involves confronting different versions of the self as they are elaborated in distinct cultural, political and social settings. The experience of 'being' Asian or Arab or American in successive homes is something serial migrants share. In telling the stories of their lives, they tend to highlight the way that they must negotiate these diverse, sometimes contradictory conceptions of who they are or might become. Indeed, they often take pride in their ability to do so effectively. Some say they move precisely in order to work out new ways of 'becoming' oneself through coming to terms with diverse modes of identification and subjection to various social and political regimes. People who have lived in several countries tend not to be concerned with integration or assimilation. They might participate in transnational networks based on the country of origin, but are just as likely to do so with respect to their second or third homeland. Why not simply consider them to be cosmopolitans? They nearly unanimously refuse this label as too elitist and too abstract; for most, the purview of the 'cosmos' seems too wide ranging. The paths they have taken have led them to be wary of claims of an emerging global subject. This does not mean that they are disengaged or indifferent. Indeed, many explain that what has motivated their moves is not economic gain or hopes for social mobility but the possibility of pursuing projects that give a large place to ethical and political commitments.

Serial migrants lives are fascinating in themselves. But the study of their pathways is connected to a broader project to explore how particular forms of mobility and settlement produce particular kinds of subjects. Ways of moving are related to where people might go and to who they can become. A middle aged housewife in Casablanca might hesitate to go downtown; she shapes her ideas of the world in close proximity to where she lives, meeting friends at home, in the local shops or perhaps a beauty salon. A young office worker living in the same neighbourhood might favour meetings the more anonymous areas of the town center. Her ways of judging things and interacting with others shaped by notions of abstract space and time and value she learned at school. These two women live in the same social milieu and share a religion and culture, but their moves within a single city lead them to engage in profoundly different kinds of places and shape their expectations of themselves and the world following quite different modes of judgment which I describe in detail in a study of beauty salons (Three Faces of Beauty: Casablanca, Paris, Cairo, Duke U Press, 2002).

Serial migrants are labelled as immigrants wherever they live and they are often categorized as belonging to a culture associated with their place of origin. But as in the example of the two women from the same neighbourhood, using these identifications to guide our study might lead us to ignore crucial differences. Instead, we need to attend to how particular patterns of movement or settling encourage ways of shaping the self and coming to terms with the world. Problems of shifting among social worlds are highlighted in the lives of serial migrants, but they are not absent from the lives of those who never move. By developing accounts of how different kinds of people are produced by different patterns of movement and stasis, we might progressively come to develop a finer understanding of how power and subjectivity are intertwined with the gestures of settlement. The Places We Share: Migration, Subjectivity and Global Mobility (Lexington Press, 2007) offers reflections on this topic from scholars and writers who are themselves serial migrants. In an upcoming book, I follow up on the ideas that emerged from this project as they developed in the course of research over the past five years. The study involves people of varied educational and class backgrounds and citizens of thirty different states.


Susan Ossman's current research explores the relationship of forms of mobility to emerging forms of social life. Her books include Picturing Casablanca, Portraits of Power in a Modern City (California 1994), Three Faces of Beauty, Casablanca, Paris, Cairo (Duke 2002) and The Places we Share, Migration, Subjectivity and Global Mobility (Lexington 2007). She has held positions in France, Morocco, Belgium the UK and the USA. She is currently Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Program of Global Studies at the University of California, Riverside.




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