Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Simon Alexander Peth

Simon Alexander Peth

Simon Peth is a research associate and PhD candidate at the University of Bonn. He studied Human Geography, Agricultural and Development Economics, and Anthropology. Simon has more than five years of research experience focusing on climate change adaptation, human mobility and migration theories. He has conducted empirical research in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and recently focuses on Thailand, Singapore and Germany CONTACT

Feb 4th 2015 by Simon Alexander Peth

Are we all translocal now?

Is translocality a new phenomenon, a new reality of the 21st century or is it just another fancy concept that we try to force onto everything we see and observe? Is everything translocal just because it is connected to other places? What is translocality and what does this concept helps us to do? These and many other questions were raised at the Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) conference “Translocal Spatial Practices, Urban Transformations: Migration and Mobile Urbanism in South and South-East Asia”.

The very inspiring and thorough talks presented during the conference, such as the key note lecture by Ayona Datta on translocal cities, illustrated that we shouldn´t restrict translocality to migration only. On the other hand, the different talks during the conference also made clear that the term translocality is used in a very broad sense with many different meanings. Are we all translocal now? Asked Stefan Rother in his conference summary, or “Is translocality everywhere?” was how Susan Thieme put it in her discussant comment. These questions resonated most with me and it reminded me of an ever present slogan we hear these days.

Are we all Charlie now?

Recently, we all became witnesses to the attacks on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Is everything translocal now?

This was an expression of the global age where different norms and values converge, and where we get almost real time information from all over the world. In various livestreams and TV channels we all could follow the persecution of the assassins of the journalists of Charlie Hebdo in Paris – not to mention others victims from a Jewish supermarket.

Maybe because of the ubiquitous availability of information this event suddenly developed a wider dimension. It seemed that everyone became Charlie that day (#JeSuisCharlie). On Twitter and Facebook, many accounts have used that slogan. In Germany, the right-wing nationalist movement PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident) suddenly changed its view on press and media (formally negatively viewed as ’Lügenpresse’, or literally translated as ‘liar press’), making use of the huge wave of solidarity and holding mass demonstrations in support of freedom of speech and press. In turn, many thousands of Germans marched against PEGIDA to show their solidarity with the families of the victims of Paris. A few days later, the Yemeni wing of al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and the Islamic State (IS) that is operating in Syria and Iraq launched a social media campaign to “to capitalize on the Paris massacre”. In Paris and many other European cities, solidarity marches were held and many heads of state joined these demonstrations (or were criticized for not attending). In Belgium and Germany, copy cats tried to use the mounting public attention to plan additional terrorist acts. During resulting raids by security forces, two people were killed and several suspects in Germany and other countries were arrested. At the same time in Germany, the Muslim community felt under pressure. In response, the vast majority condemned the assassins as not being Muslims, and visibly endoresed the rejection of Islamic extremism. 

There is the danger to use the term translocality inflationary

One week later Charlie Hebdo released with financial help from the Guardian (UK) its first issue after the attacks, and looks set to increase the print copies from 30,000 to 7 million.

The issue was translated into 16 languages and in many European countries sold out few minutes after shop opening. On the cover is an image of a crying Mohammed stating “Je suis Charlie”. This again led to a wave of outrage in many Muslim countries. A Turkish court ordered a ban on access to websites showing Charlie Hebdo's cover; while in Nigeria and Pakistan, thousands of people demonstrated on the street and several even died.  Much more details and interrelations could be pointed out; however, I think the case is clear.

To what extend should we use the term translocality?

The example of Charlie Hebdo shows that nowadays the world is increasingly interrelated. Events at one place, such as Paris, can have immediate effects on other places with many implications for different groups of people on various levels (even leading to very severe consequences, such as the death of people). In parallel, this example shows that national as well as international politics aren´t immune against such events. That’s what many scholars working on translocality have been trying to point out. Translocality takes place at different intersected, nested, but also fragmented, levels.     

'Translocal' shouldn´t replace terms like international, global, transnational 

However, should we frame everything that is interrelated and that takes place at different places as being translocal? As I pointed out in a previous blog post, that’s a difficult task, as there is no one generally accepted understanding of what translocality means.

This openness is, on the one hand, the strength of the concept because it helps us to capture the various dimensions of place, space, and relationality, as many papers during the FRIAS workshop in illustrated. On the other hand, this openness also represents a big problem for the translocality debate because it can be argued that it’s quite arbitrary in nature. I argue that an excessive use of translocality leads to the meaninglessness of a meaningful concept.

How should we deal with the given example of Charlie Hebdo? There could be two perspectives. First, one could argue that the case is an example that illustrates that translocality is not always linked to migration. Different mediating factors, such as the exchange of information, the clash of norms, values, and symbols, can lead to this combination of incidents and actions, with its source somehow related to globalization. The attacks, the resulting expressions of solidarity, the protests against a repeated caricature of Mohammed, this all seem to be an expression of something, much like how translocality understands belonging or value.

The second perspective could be more cautious. Even though the example shows different layers of interconnectedness of different actors at different places, it’s still debatable whether we can call it an example of translocality or rather an expression of the blurred field of global interconnections. In this vein it is essential that we define more specifically what we mean by translocality.  

From my point of view, translocality is more than an interconnection across places – which terms like international or global interrelations can satisfy. Translocality, in my understanding, is about close interrelations between different places and people that are simultaneously embedded in a way that leads to web of specific (not diffuse or abstract such as I would see in the example Charlie Hebdo) interrelations that influence actors at different localities and places themselves at the same time.      

It is through such invaluable conferences, like the one held by FRIAS, that we can continue to bring forward nuance and understanding of translocality. Thus, the question shouldn’t be “Are we all translocal now?” but rather “To what extent are we all translocal now?”    

Picture Credit: G. Casper, T. Ehrmann, and K. Lembcke under CC BY 2.0