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.

Dec 16th 2014 by Luise Porst

Crossroads Studies: Mobilities, Immobilities and the Issue of Positionality for Rethinking Area Studies

On 27-28 November 2014, Crossroads Asia hosted the conference "Crossroads Studies: Mobilities, Immobilities and the Issue of Positionality for Rethinking Area Studies." For those of you who don’t already know, Crossroads Asia is a research network with a disciplinary background of area studies, which focuses on cross-cultural dynamics, change, and conflicts, especially related to human im/mobility, transnationalism, physical-spatial and social boundaries, territory, and belonging in Central Asia.

It is clear that we at TransRe are particularly interested in Crossroads Asia’s work on human mobility, especially with regard to engendering border crossings, porosity of boundaries, and ultimately transnational connections – or translocal ones. Crossroad Asia’s stance that the constructed territorial division of the world is no longer easily applicable very much corresponds with basic assumptions of translocality: People’s mobility patterns have changed, people are permanently transcending and transgressing boundaries, which renders such fixed borders obsolete.

The latest Crossroads conference’s aim was to identify empirically-based lines of spatial thinking along which space is imagined from both emic and etic perspectives, i.e. taking into account the viewpoint of somebody whose socio-cultural context is studied as well as the perception the respective observer has. Key foci were mobility and immobility, transnationalism, space and borders, as well as production of knowledge on these issues. 

Conceptualizing space

What concept of space do we apply for our research on migration and climate-related risks? Or more precisely, what does translocal space mean in the context of migration? How do we frame human mobility and social resilience using the concept of translocality? As we are constantly working on a refinement of our conceptual research framework the 4th Crossroads Asia Conference, entitled "Crossroads Studies: Mobilities, Immobilities and the Issue of Positionality for Rethinking Area Studies”, was a good opportunity to learn which stances researchers from various disciplines take at the moment and where the debate on spatial concepts beyond disciplinary borders currently is. During the conference, progress in theories and conceptualization were debated and targeted by participants (from a wide spectrum of disciplines, ranging from sociology, philosophy and history to human geography and area studies).

The Importance of Positionality and Theory in Area Studies

I participated in two panels. One focused on positioning – of the discipline, of research findings and knowledge, and of the researcher her- or himself. In that context, the construction of boundaries, including territorial ones, religious, ethnic and so forth, and the concomitant division of the world into areas with fixed borders were discussed. There were also attempts at defining socio-cultural belonging, and of course, at tackling the contested entanglement of territory and identity as well as the imaginary of container spaces, which at times seem to re-appear all too easily.

The viewpoint of intercultural philosophy enriched this panel by arguing for an understanding of migrants’ identities as moving identities. The simultaneity of betweenness and embeddedness of personalities in culture also implying that “personalities create culture”, was emphasized in that regard. From an anthropologist’s perspective, however, liminality would be the preferable notion instead of betweenness. And indeed, being somewhere in between almost automatically entails the construction of dichotomies and overly accentuated ‘otherness’ which might complicate relational thinking.

The second panel I took part in took a closer look on mid-range concepts and their potential as ‘tools’ for “emic-etic practice”, including empirical research. Different conceptual aspects were discussed, such as the meaning or obsoleteness, respectively, of ‘Grand Theory’, the utility of various societal theories as well as the need for conceptual frameworks as opposed to theoretical ones.   

Against that backdrop, attention was called to a number of concepts which might qualify as mid-range concepts and which empirical research conducted in the scope of global ethnography might benefit from. Among others, “Grounded Theory” (Strauss & Glaser), Marcus’ “following the people” approach, Long’s ‘interfaces of knowledge systems’ concept as well as Burawoy’s “extended case studies” were mentioned as qualifying as applicable mid-range concepts. Also, translocality appeared among these concepts, as it places regional processes into a global context.

Furthermore, a “social-order concept” was discussed, calling firstly for an avoidance of binaries as everyday realities are constantly being re-negotiated, which thoroughly contests binary thinking. This concept also called for an understanding of order as structure, without being institutionalized and controlled by administrative or territorial authorities. This latter call proves to be debatable, as normativity and power are inherent parts of society.

What value do mid-range concepts add considering that, in contrast to such concepts, theories have explanatory power? One could argue that, as social theories do not necessarily provide the unattainable, namely explaining cause-effect relationships, mid-range concepts at least help us get insights on how things work and what meanings everyday practices are laden with.

Useful outcome in the context of TransRe

Methodological and conceptual issues in the process of empirical studies are highly relevant with regard to the TransRe project. Defining the roles we as researchers in the TransRe team will take and which implications these respective roles have on our field study is essential indeed.

It was likewise helpful to get an insight on how translocality is embedded in area studies: on the one hand, in its practical meaning as co-presence or living “dual lives” (Schetter 2012, 12) and on the other hand, treating it as a mid-range concept and thus pointing to the function of translocality as an analytical approach.

I also see pertinence for my research in the debate on mid-range concepts, specifically regarding theories on migration. De Haas, for instance, recently (2014) highlighted the need for meta-theories embedding migration into processes of larger structural change which require more comprehensive theorization. – Hence, should we give this value instead of, or as complementary to, mid-range concepts? How does our research team position itself to the well-known criticism of empirical case study “fetishism” which area studies are occasionally confronted with? We will need to confront these questions as a research group, which has been all the more stimulated by the Crossroads Asia stimulating conference panels.