Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Migration Systems

In my migration studies the theory that I liked (loved, actually) the best was migration systems theory.  I thought it captured the complexity and interdependence of migration in a wonderful way and one of my first papers was about the migration system that I thought existed between Quebec and France.

General systems theory goes back to the middle of the 20th century.  Since then it's been applied to a lot of other fields.  It argues that a system is a set of interconnecting elements that create a specific  environment that is much greater than just the sum of its parts.  In 1970 a fellow named Akin Mabogunje  (a Nigerian professor of geography) applied systems theory to internal migration between rural and urban areas.  And then it was applied more broadly to international migration.

What do I like about it?  It's a more holistic approach  In order to understand a migration flow you have to look at the whole picture:  sending AND receiving countries and the links between them be they formal or informal, economic or cultural.  In migration systems theory people are just one element among many others and it's the interaction of the elements and the creation and maintenance of links that make up the system. Furthermore, the history of those connections matter a lot; with Quebec and France I went back 400 years and traced the always evolving links to the present day.  

Evolution is the key word here.  Systems are dynamic in the sense that elements in it change and so do the links.  The demographics of Mexico, for example, or the strained circumstances of Americans on fixed incomes will change the migration system between those two countries.  The thirst for native English speaking teachers in Japan could change as could the number of Anglophones from the US, Canada, or Great Britain with university degrees willing to migrate and provide that service. Culture, science and economic ties matter, too.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, Americans came to France and Germany to study medicine. In 17th century French urban dwellers went to Canada to become farmers. In the 21st century migration system between France and Quebec a common language is still a driver of reciprocal migration between the two - a good example of how migration between two developed countries (sometimes called north-north migration) has elements very similar to migration between developed and less developed countries.  

In 1989 James Fawcett published a very good paper that attempted to define the basic elements of a migration system. He identified four categories of linkages: State to State Relations, Mass Culture Connections, Family/Personal Networks and Migrant Agency Activities. A Mass Culture connection could be a common language or history.  State-to-state relations could be formal agreements to recognize each others professional and academic credentials.  Networks of people are another type of link where, for example, one person migrates because of marriage and other members of the family follow.  The most interesting to me are the Migrant Agency Activities which still exist and not just in the Philippines.  I think many Americans, Canadians and others would be very surprised to learn that Japanese companies in the education industry have a presence in countries outside of Japan and recruit young college graduates in major cities.  ECC. a language school in Japan is actively recruiting now in Australia, Canada, the US, and the UK. This is an important, though often overlooked, migrant recruitment that is very active and drives temporary and permanent migration from Anglophone countries to Japan.  

I find that migration systems theory a very elegant and comprehensive way of looking at migration flows.  For instance, with a systems approach to migration between the US and Mexico would look at all the links between the two and what is happening in Mexico is just as important as what is happening in the US.  It would consider how the flows are reciprocal:  Americans migrating to Mexico, for example, as well as Mexican nationals coming to the US.  These flow are not disconnected from each other or from the other cultural or economic links. With that in mind, many migration flows look more like an exchange of people as opposed to a unilateral exodus.  Granted, one flow may be numerically greater than the other but they are still linked and in very interesting ways.

On a personal level all of us who live outside of our countries of origin can use this theory to start asking a different, much broader question then the usual "Why I moved to [insert country here]." The better question is:  How do I fit into this broader migration system between Canada and Japan, the US and France, Mexico and Spain or any other combination of countries?  An American academic, for example, in Japan will find there is a long history in Japan of importing foreign academics.  He/she might also learn that US citizens do not pay a fee for getting a Japanese visa (State to State agreement).  The contract and terms under which a foreigner was recruited for the position is a Migrant Agency Activity.  The position itself may be known to him or her because of a personal and academic network.  And it may be (something to investigate) that this migration system was kicked off (or perhaps only greatly encouraged) by war and occupation, though it is not sustained by these things today. 

Now I am not saying that there actually are migrations systems between the countries I have mentioned - that argument would require much more research than I have done in this short blog post. However, I invite you to consider your own migration experience in  light of the links between your home and host country and to consider how your own migration may have been facilitated and shaped by being part of a larger system.  It was quite a revelation to me, for example, how a sister city association between Nantes, France and Seattle, USA was the French/American link that led to my own migration to France.  So follow the links and see where they take you.

The truly fascinating aspect of migration system theory for me is that "[e]ach migration system is unique in the sense that the combinations of links between two countries will be different from one migration system to another." (Quebec and France - A Dynamic International Migration System by V. Ferauge, 2016.) That means that every migration system can be analyzed by its links but when they are taken together every migration system will be singular. For that matter, individual migration experiences are, I argue, a result of different links in different contexts which makes comparisons between migrants and flows possible, but also allows each migrant to be unique thanks to different combinations of links as well as different personal life trajectories and levels of social or economic capital. This, I find, is quite familiar to me in that it very closely resembles Amin Maalouf's take on identity and individuality: "Thanks to all my adherences, taken separately, I have a certain relationship with a large number of people like me; thanks to the same elements, taken all together, I have my own identity, which can never be confused with any other."

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Boundaries of Belonging

I went to lunch the other day with Ellen and as always we had a fine time and a good chat.  I am happy to report that wherever we went we spoke French and everyone spoke French right back at us without blinking an eye.

That pleasant experience brought up a theme that I return to often which is the idea of belonging.  I had some negative reactions to a previous post where I described the same situation in two countries: the non-native tries to speak the local language and the native adamantly replies in the foreign language. I construed this as a negotiation where one party tries to assert that he or she belongs and the other contests that assertion.  Some of the critics made very good points so I thought I would revisit the topic today and try to do better.

Belonging has two sides.  The first is the sense of comfort and safety we feel when we belong.  We are part of something larger than ourselves.  It can be a nation or a neighborhood. It's the ability, even the right, to say "we" and to speak and act as a member.  The other side is the acceptance of the group. The other members have to acknowledge our claim and that is contingent on our meeting the requirements for membership.

As migrants we are usually (but not always) from a place where we take our belonging for granted. Perhaps we have those "primordial ties" to a culture or a community: we were born here; we speak the language; we are citizens because our parents were citizens.  Belonging to a political community was our birthright which Ayelet Schacher in The Birthright Lottery likens to inherited property and privilege.

This is the base upon which we go out into the world.  And what do we find there?  Places where we don't just belong as a matter of course.  Rather, we must negotiate our right to stay and belong.

My sense is that we underestimate the kind of existential crisis we go through when we are confronted with how out of place we really are. Through not fault of our own we are not like the people in our new place who were born there and have their own sense of taken-for-granted-belonging.  In the beginning of our settlement, our claims to belonging are very weak or even nonexistent.  We reach for anything that links us to the new place however tenuous: marriage to a national, language studies, professed love for the country and culture.  Over time we can point to other things like mastery of the language and culture, success in our chosen profession, children, how long we have lived in the country and perhaps our citizenship status.

Nonetheless, our claims to belonging on those and other grounds can be contested because we weren't born here, our parents were not citizens, this language is not our first language.  And where the boundaries to true belonging contain one or more of these things, our efforts to achieve the taken-for-granted-belonging that we had where we came from will be frustrated. It is perhaps unachievable, anywhere; even in the home country once many years have passed.  How many times I have heard return migrants talk about how their former country no longer feels like home and how they don't really belong there anymore?  Many, many times.

I think that many of us have this deep sense of insecurity in our host countries: a constant need to signal that we really truly belong here.  It manifests itself in comparisons. Some of us hold ourselves up as models of integration: we live in the "real" [insert country here] while those others live in an expat bubble and make grammatical errors when they speak the language. Over the years I have become very suspicious of this distancing and dramatic assertions of belonging.  What would happen, I ask myself, if I talked to their neighbors, spouse, co-workers and friends?  What would be the group consensus about their/our degree of belonging? How many of us, however long we have lived in our host country, would be comfortable being subject to such scrutiny?

Something like that happens when we are in public and a native refuses to speak the local language with us or when someone consistently refers to us as their [insert nationality here] friend (even if we have citizenship).  I agree that it is not necessarily nefarious.  But what it does is burst our bubble (if only for a moment) about finally getting to a place where we are again able to take belonging for granted.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Flophouse Garden

Taking a few weeks off to play in the garden.  A little pruning; a lot of weeding.  The biggest project was dethatching the lawn, removing the moss and putting down some fertilizer.  Here are a few pictures.  Hope you are having as pleasant a month of May as I am.