Connecting the spots

Notes on migration and environment from a geographical perspective

Luise Porst

Luise Porst

Luise Porst is a research associate and PhD candidate at Bonn University. She did her master’s programme in spatial planning with a special focus on developing countries and she also holds a degree in human geography. As a member of the TransRe junior research team, her academic work is particularly focused on internal migration in Thailand and its effects on resilience to environmental risks in sending areas.

Nov 27th 2014 by Luise Porst

Notes from the Field: Multi-Cultural, Multi-Lingual Research Makes for Some Learning Experiences

This summer, the TransRe team travelled to Thailand for site selection purposes. Our aim was to find suitable sites in which to research migration’s impact on resilience in the face of environmental change. As one of TransRe’s team members, I’d like to share some experiences I made during our interactive tour within what we refer to as a “translocal field”.

Empirical translocal research: part I

Navigating our research through “translocality” involves different things. Translocality not only refers to a theoretical concept, but also describes a tangible phenomenon in ‘real’ life. Indeed, during our exploratory trip, bits and pieces of translocal living existed in every other situation.

Being “translocal” entails living in multiple places at the same time—often connecting these spaces through constant interactions and communications. Thus, people’s everyday life in one place is inherently influenced by practices and occurrences in other, and often distant, places. Uniquely, being a translocal researcher means taking these nuances into account in the field, while also at the same time becoming an example of a translocal actor.

Multi-lingual research

When conducting development geography research, certain obstacles are sure to come up. In our case, most of our team members, including me, had the limited ability to speak and understand Thai. Additionally, socio-economic and cultural differences often created a gap in mutual understanding. However, although practices and underlying mindsets seem to be embedded locally, they are not place-bound – but translocal.

Such variances were at times also perceptible within our research team itself. As a group of American, Thai and German fellows working toward one common goal, we had to get closer to an understanding of each other’s approaches of studying certain phenomena. Finding a consensus on which questions to include in the interviews and how (directly) to ask them, how instantly and comprehensively to interpret during an interview or which definitions to use for remoteness or rural places in a Thai context, are but a few such examples of this. Discussing research methodologies and preferences obviously involves plenty of opportunities for reconciling interests – although not everything appears to be negotiable, and mentality and mindsets are “carried around” by people, instead of being tied to a certain physical-spatial context. As a matter of fact, this is one part of working with(in) a multi-national research team doing research in a place which a few team members are familiar with and the rest is not. As each one’s cultural background travels along with oneself, everybody’s ideas how research should be conducted, travels along with her or him as well. 

Another case of translocal identity was apparent in an everyday context while in rural villages. In almost every village, my American colleague was mistaken as Thai. Because she was embedded in this local context, her appearance was taken for granted as Thai. Although she is of Asian heritage (Chinese and Japanese), she identifies as mostly American. Therefore, ‘puud tai mai dai’ (I don’t speak Thai) was the most used and useful sentence for her. This particular barrier will be interesting to navigate as our research wears on. There can be certain advantages to being seen as a local, but there will inevitably be obstacles too.

Multi-sited research

Being a mobile research team also created a translocal space. As we roamed around the countryside, talking to village chiefs and local government representatives; wandering around villages, along rice paddies and through community forests, we ourselves created some kinds of connections between those places. This was a “connecting of the spots”, if you like.  Of course, these connections were not perceptible for people in the villages we visited, but we constantly compared these villages and created links between them – from our point of view and regarding our research interests. Each site we went to and each interview we conducted there contributed to an extended understanding of our study’s subject matter. Relating these sites beyond their immediate context, generated part of the translocal space we were traversing.

Multi-cultural research

There were a few different situations that were especially memorable and indicative of translocality. One involved the concept of “ghost children”– which meant the children of migrants who are sent back home in order to be raised in one of their parents’ household of origin, usually by grandparents. This marks a common translocal practice encompassing both reverse (social) remittances, namely child rearing, and the intention to raise children ‘at home’, not only for practical reasons, but for identity building as well.

There were also instances of what Brickell and Datta (2011) coin “translocal imagination.” This means the visualization and imagining of linkages between places. For instance, in one village a village head posed the simple question, “Is there poverty in your country as well?”, and somebody else asked, “Is agriculture big in your country?” I saw that they were projecting their own life experiences onto those of Germany, a place outside of their world and context, in order to make mental linkages between them.  

During our trip, translocality helped us understand each other, our interactions, and our research sites better. More than that, it allowed me to take a step back and see how our translocal life experiences and connections can also limit our work. For instance, translation between Thai, English, and German made for some difficulties in understanding and even led to missing information. Indeed, our Thai interpreters could never use the word “migration” because it was seen as a negative phenomenon and as an “escape”. Therefore, our conception of our research was subtly changed. Additionally, translocality can help us see the mental and physical embeddedness of the people doing research and how this sometimes can cause an “othering” of, or separation from, the sites and people that are included in the research. Post-colonial studies show us that these actions are problematic. Translocality, however, contributes to scrutinizing these obstacles in a more nuanced way. Indeed, translocality can help us to understand embeddedness while at the same time allowing us to mentally disentangle ourselves from one geographic anchor.

Empirical translocal research – to be continued…

Last but not least, I also had the chance to get an idea of what doing research on translocality can mean – being highly mobile, among other things. People’s mobility, for me and one of my colleagues pursuing a “follow the people approach”, means our research will be mobile too. Studying translocality hence means having to embrace mobility, as it is mobile people whose connecting (and/or disconnecting) practices are an essential part of getting closer to an understanding of translocality as a whole.