Representing Transnationalism beyond the Ethnic Lens. Anthropological Perspectives

Representing Transnationalism beyond the Ethnic Lens. Anthropological Perspectives

Sonderforschungsbereich 640: “Repräsentationen sozialer Ordnungen im Wandel”; Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
From - Until
28.04.2008 -
Andrea Meza Torres, Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin

Since the two last decades the academic discussions about migration, diaspora and transfer have been heavily influenced by the transnational approach. Studies on transnational migration in different disciplines brought new challenges in anthropology and led to rethinking notions of home, place, locality and ethnicity. This perspective was in the focus of the workshop “Representing Transnationalism beyond the Ethnic Lens. Anthropological Perspectives”, which was organized by TSYPYLMA DARIEVA and SANDRA GRUNER-DOMIC as a joint venture between the Sonderforschungsbereich 640: “Representations of societies in transition” (“Repräsentationen sozialer Ordnungen im Wandel”) and the Institute for European Ethnology, Humboldt University, Berlin. The workshop offered a platform to discuss different applications of the transnational approach towards migration, diaspora, transfer and globalization and so look beyond the ethnic lens and its focus on ‘ethnic groups’, transnational ‘ethnic communities’, ‘ethnic politics’ or ‘ethno-national ties’.

Key discussant was NINA GLICK SCHILLER, from the Centre for Cosmopolitan Studies of the University of Manchester, UK and the Max-Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle/Saale. Six participants contributed to the workshop and opened three main discussion blocks. TSYPYLMA DARIEVA (Humboldt University Berlin) and RIINA ISOTALO (University of Helsinki) addressed the topic of “homecoming projects” in their presentations “Diasporic Homecomings beyond the Ethnic Eye? Encounters in post-Soviet Armenia” and “Politicizing the Transnational: On Implications for Anthropology and Development”. The topic of “religious networks” was discussed by KRISTINE KRAUSE (Humboldt University Berlin / Oxford University) and GERTRUD HÜWELMEIER (Humboldt University Berlin) in their contributions “Transnational religious networks - beyond an ethnic lens?” and “Mingling with Communists and other transgressions in Vietnamese Pentecostal networks”. SANDRA GRUNER-DOMIC (Humboldt University Berlin) and AGNIESZKA HALEMBA (University of Leipzig) addressed the topic of “cosmopolitanism” in their presentations “Women’s cosmopolitan lifestyles“ and “Transnational Virgin Mary?”.

The aim of the workshop paved the way to a sometimes paradox discussion in which the existing scholarships and epistemologies on “migration”, “diaspora” and “globalization” were questioned while at the same time social phenomena closely related to those concepts were analyzed. On the overall, the workshop offered alternatives to re-signify social phenomena and discussed possibilities to transcend concepts, theoretical frames and research methods which part from dichotomies. All three thematic blocks were discussed in relation to US-imperialism, global governance, neo-liberalism and development, and were looked at from the perspective of globalization, power and the management of migration. Constructions of “ethnicity”, “diasporas”, “communities” and “cosmopolitism” were discussed as processes of social, economical and political empowerment. The presentations offered different anthropological insights into the representation and contextualisation of localities which are being articulated through transnational modes of life. The methodological perspectives and research designs gave critical approaches toward an exposition of ethnographic data, which could show the diversity of migrants’ pathways of local and transnational incorporation. At the same time, the fact that ethnographic research still approaches migrants as ethnic groups and the question of the possibility to leave out the ethnic “lens” was graphically discussed in the discussion block concerning “religious networks”.

The workshop’s first thematic strand highlighted the relation of homecoming projects with development programmes and new power constellations. In the opening presentation of the first block, Darieva showed the use of different theoretical frameworks – trans-national, cosmopolitanism, global networks – to analyze empirical material, and gave way to discuss the application of the term “long distance nationalism” as an alternative category to ethnicity. In the second presentation, Isotalo complemented the first one by putting emphasis on the extent to which kin relations between transnational diaspora members can be politicized in the context of return migration and repatriation processes and, further, be linked to economic and social development programmes (the remittance market) and issues of international security. In the closing discussion, Schiller remarked that the terms homecoming and return migration should be re-thought in the context of the new geopolitical situation and neo-liberal development.

The second thematic strand gave way to a discussion about the paradox of trying to go beyond the ethnic “lens” while at the same time looking at migrants as ethnic groups. Both opening presentations of the second block approximated transnational frames of research to the „lens“ of classical anthropology. Krause focused on the situational positioning of „African“ churches in Berlin and London and, by observing how and when the churches claim to be “African”, she explored the methodological necessity of an anthropological “boundary drawing perspective” - from which the „ethnic“ cannot be left out. The second presentation gave rise to a discussion concerning the contrast between a de-ethnicizing research design and the use of the category “Vietnamese community”. Here, Schiller questioned the use of this category, for it blends the differences between “Vietnamese communities” which vary enormously depending on their situational positioning. The discussion focused on the moments in which concepts like “ethnic” or “community” become important when making situational analysis of transnational networks.

The third and last discussion focused on the articulation of cosmopolitan identities and on the new power perspectives which this complex identities give rise to. The last presentations of both the first and the second blocks of the workshop presented different case studies which were connected in the final discussion. Gruner-Domic closed the first part of the workshop by reconsidering representation and identity in debates on transnationalism. She presented three case studies of Latin American women who identify with the “openness” of cosmopolitan lifestyles and gave way to a discussion about the fact that cosmopolitan identities are part of ideological and political projects. Schiller raised the issue of the new power perspective which these identities could present. This issue was further discussed in Halembas presentation, where it was visible how the migrant and cosmopolitan religious symbol of Virgin Mary turned out to be constantly adopted by nationalist and ethnic movements. Due to the fact that the flexibility of this religious symbol raises new questions about power configurations, the discussion centred again on the importance of the contextualization of locality: how do the concrete apparitions of Virgin Mary shape the power of her meaning in the cults? How do transnational actors articulate cosmopolitan identities in successful ways? Both presentations approached the problem of the ethnic “lens” through complex representations of cosmopolitan identities and offered alternatives for ethnographic writing.

After all, it seems that it is most important to contextualize locality looking closely at the “wheres” and the “whens” do social phenomena emerge. As Schiller stressed, we should focus on where/when does the “ethnic” become primary within any homeland claiming project; or where/when do power structures open toward “ethnic” and “national” constructions to create complex religious networks, as well as where/when do cosmopolitan or transnational identities present new power perspectives. At the same time, she stressed the positioning of research perspectives and methods in the contexts of global processes and power to be able to go beyond the ethnic lens and methodological nationalism. She made emphasis in the importance of comparative perspectives and stressed on the need for new theoretical approaches and frameworks, new ontologies and key concepts to create an alternative kind of scholarship on migration and so move away from the traditional lenses which dominate the discourses about immigrants: development, sociology, politics, neo-liberalism, global governance and imperialism.

The closing statements proposed that questioning migration scholarship and its concepts from their roots would be the only way to transcend the ethnic “lens”. Here relied Schiller’s critique toward the presentations, as some of them discussed that it is not always possible to leave the ethnic “lens”. The question remains open to whether research must be articulated from interdisciplinary spaces which transcend dichotomies from the start or if it has to establish a scientific dialogue with existing categories. As a result, the workshop showed that, by methodologically stressing locality and contextualization, dichotomies and concepts can be transcended, and frameworks opened to give way to complex ethnographic representations.

Conference Overview

April 28, 2008

9: 30 Welcome

9: 45 Tsypylma Darieva (Humboldt University Berlin)
“Diasporic Homecomings beyond the Ethnic Lens? US American Aid Programmes in Armenia”.

10: 30 Riina Isotalo (University of Helsinki)
“Politicizing the Transnational: On Implications for Anthropology and Development”.

11: 15 Sandra Gruner-Domic (Humboldt University Berlin)
“Gender and Cosmopolitan Life Styles”.

12: 00 Lunch Break

13: 00 Kristine Krause (Humboldt University Berlin / Oxford University)
“Transnational Religious Networks. African Migrants in Berlin and London”.

13: 45 Gertrud Hüwelmeier (Humboldt University Berlin)
“Mingling with Communists and other Transgressions in Vietnamese Pentecostal Networks”.

14: 30 Agnieszka Halemba (University of Leipzig)
“Transnational Virgin Mary in Eastern Europe”.

15: 15 Final Discussion
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