Not Your Grandmother’s Immigrants: Susan Ossman on Serial Migration

July 7, 2013   •   By Gareth Stanton

AS AN ANTHROPOLOGIST working on Moroccan subjects, I knew Susan Ossman's Picturing Casablanca (1994), in which she sought to redefine how the discipline might more effectively engage technologies such as television, as well as her Three Faces of Beauty: Casablanca, Paris, Cairo (2002), a study of globalization based on in-depth study of beauty salons in three cities. Ossman was my colleague at the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London from 2005 to 2007, when she had just been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study people who have lived for extended periods in several countries, people she called serial migrants. She traveled extensively for that work, but rather than focusing on a place, her fieldwork was focused on a certain life-path. In 2007, Susan moved to California, but we have seen each other since in London, Paris, Rabat, Montreal, and Los Angeles. Now I realize that my discussions with her over the years have themselves mirrored in some small way the themes that she addresses in her new book, Moving Matters: Paths of Serial Migration.

In Moving Matters, Ossman attempts to move beyond a description of the migrant condition based on the simple dyadic relationship of home and abroad. Paths of migration are related not only to conceptions of self, identity, and action, but also to what she calls the “choreography” of politics. We recently spoke about this at a workshop that brought serial migrant artists, dancers, musicians, and writers to the Culver Center of the Arts in Riverside, California, to offer a creative response to Moving Matters.


GARETH STANTON: Can you tell me what is special about the “serial migrant”?

SUSAN OSSMAN: Perhaps what is special about the “serial migrant” is that anyone can become one. But immigrating is never easy. Serial migrants are people who have immigrated once, then repeated this experience. I am not talking about diplomats or ex-pat professionals transferred from one location to another by their companies: the people I write about in Moving Matters relocated without that kind of institutional milieu. Some of the individuals and families I met in London or Dubai or Cairo originally left their birthplace to further their education, or for a job. Others fled war or famine or were exiled due to their political opinions or religious beliefs. Almost all thought they would remain in their second, adopted homeland forever. But then something happened: they fell in love, found out about a job or educational opportunity or had a downturn in their fortunes, their children grew up and moved out or they got divorced and decided to start a new life in a different place.

Much has been written about the travails of the immigrant who is “caught” between his two countries. But what happens when the immigrant moves on? Worries about immigration in many countries stop us from asking this question. We assume all immigrants want to come to the US, and that citizens of a place like this one want to stay put. But this is not the case. Similarly, return migration is sometimes simply an interlude, a time to regroup before heading elsewhere.

The third move enables people to escape the “betweenness” of the immigrant, but new problems arise. One might sum these up as a problem of accumulation. How do you reconcile so many ways of life, habits acquired in diverse settings? Notions like hyphenated identity or hybridity or the fragmentation of the modern subject don’t help them to make sense of themselves. Indeed, adopting such ideas can increase the difficulty of making sense of their experiences. They struggle with the “accumulation” of the many diverse versions of themselves they encounter in each homeland.

GS: Is this a matter of identity? You suggest that the experience of serial migration is not tied to ethnicity in any determinate way. Perhaps you could elaborate a little here?

SO: Politics is increasingly “choreographic.” Power involves encouraging as well as restraining certain patterns of movement and ways of life, directing some to move, others to stay put. So it is important to develop the study of different paths and forms of settlement — within a single city and around the world. This can be hard. Many of our methodologies work with snapshots or confined spaces. How do we identify serial migrants from statistics? There is no particular place they gather. One has to learn about someone’s story to determine whether to interview her.  And that requires time and patience and a willingness to talk with many people who are only peripherally involved in the fieldwork.

Focusing on paths leads me away from ethnicity, a concept that has tended to structure studies of migration. I do not study a community or a diaspora or an ethnic network, but how the experience of serial migration shapes a certain way of conceptualizing and telling and living one’s life. There is no common denominator when it comes to the “content” of what serial migrants share, yet they have much in common.

Migrating a second or third time changes the way the subject conceives of ethnicity, because he or she confronts alternative systems — different ways of ordering ethnic groups, different ways of maintaining boundaries. Is Hamid Kabyle Moroccan because he was brought up in Rabat, or Arab, as he is often called in Canada? Anyone can ask these questions, but the serial migrant is especially aware of the way diverse political and social systems and historical circumstances encourage one or another answer to them. This is not an academic matter — nor is it a question of a distanced, cosmopolitan perspective. These are vital issues for those who have experienced living in several homelands.

Ordinary borders are essential to the definition of the serial migrant. They serve as punctuation marks for those who turn countries into chapters of an individual life or family history. So rather than borders dissolving due to globalization, serial migration highlights the ongoing role of the state with its defined territory, its laws, and its diverse manner of rendering migrants as subjects and citizens.

GS: What about class? Work?

SO: Opportunities to migrate are related to market forces, but they can’t be reduced to economic pushes and pulls. Serial migrants often insist that too much emphasis is placed on economic betterment as a motivation for migration. They told me stories of resettling that entailed a loss in earnings or status. They cited political or religious reasons as motivating their choices about where to live or where to move next. They were especially aware of the variant ways hierarchies of citizenship are conjugated with one’s cultural or financial capital. Why did Maria work as a housekeeper when she held a BA in English from a university in the Philippines, while with a similar degree from the UK, Lawrence was a teacher and administrator? Some people’s moves were motivated by the quest to obtain a “good” passport or collect a second or third one, just in case.

Most serial migrants have changed profession one or twice or more than that.  For a few, a stable professional identity or some kind of artistic activity enables them to find continuity even if they change jobs. Teachers become taxi drivers, nannies become housewives, tech workers become consultants, and engineers sell cars temporarily while they wait to obtain certification to practice their original profession in their new country. As with ethnic identifications, they explain, the status of kinds of work changes from place to place, and what it takes to be rich or poor does as well.

GS: How has this research been informed or determined by the trajectory of your own life?

SO: In the late 1990’s when discussions about cosmopolitanism came into vogue, I recall that I felt oddly troubled after meeting an old friend who referred to me as a “cosmopolitan.” I seemed to fit the bill. I’d spent many years in the United States, France, and Morocco and held a PhD by that time, so why didn’t that word describe me? Like many serial migrants, I felt that something of the actual experience of making one’s way through several languages and ways of life was erased by a term that implied a certain ease of motion, an elimination of the snags in a life that borders make.

I was writing Three Faces of Beauty. In that book I explain how the figure of the modern woman was conceived as an “En-lightened” figure by distinguishing her from the heavy ground of cultures or traditions. This then is taken up in talk about the opposition of local to global, and in discussions of cosmopolitanism and globalization. I saw this dualism — man/woman, local/global, traditional/modern as a subject for analysis, not its basis. In Moving Matters I elaborate on this, looking at the figures of the cosmopolitan, the nomad, and the immigrant. And as in my earlier work, I notice how the introduction of a third term enables a critical approach to this modern Manichaeism.

Three was the magic number when it came to developing my fieldwork and analysis of beauty and the way it is defined by Casablanca and Paris and Cairo. I thought: might it not be worth attending to how the move to a third country transforms the immigrant? The introduction of a third country makes all of one’s countries part of a series. This is the transformative movement.

GS: The serial migrant has a different relationship to objects. Traveling light they need to embody a different relationship to the material world. How important is this?

SO: Interviews were only part of my research. I was also interested in how people set up their homes, what they talked about at the dinner table, and how they said it. So I stayed with serial migrant friends, attended events or hung out in workplaces or cafes where they interacted with one-time immigrants. I noticed that many of the serial migrants’ homes were uncluttered — most preferred a pared-down, modernist aesthetic. As I said, most were not wealthy — they did not always have the means to hire an international moving company when they moved. Yet, most had a few special objects they carried with them everywhere. For some it was a religious text: the Bible or Qur’an. Most had a few carefully preserved photographs of loved ones. I was most fascinated by the people who had difficult-to-move attachments: collections of books, for instance, or, in a case I write about in the book, an amazing collection of vinyl records.

Some might think that people who move lose a sense of attachment to other people or things. I found that on the contrary, what I call a “poetics of attachment” was central to their lives. Bachelard writes beautifully about the house in his Poetics of Space. But that house is empty save for memory. Drawing on my research, I suggest that it is not space, but attachments that we should become more concerned with in our analysis. Internet and cheap telephones have changed how immigrants maintain connections, but our concepts for understanding the nature of these connections have lagged behind our willingness to recognize that they exist. The study of serial migration leads me to propose some of the ways that we might embark in new directions, ways to understand how the places we go are important, the ways they involve us in social life. Our notions of culture and socialization need to be renewed. It’s not enough to simply to recognize that things move. It’s necessary to develop a more mobile way of researching and thinking.

GS: Your writing is very rich and expressive. Do you feel we need to move to more artistic forms of expression to capture experiences such as those of serial migrants?

SO: I call this an ethnographic essay, a term that plays on the French word that means to try or attempt. A painting I made in the course of research is on the cover of the book as is some of my poetry. It is not unusual for ethnographers to provide some sense of how they are related to the subjects they encounter during research, but analyzing one’s own artistic production is less common. Of course, I am one of the subjects, in this case, as well as the writer. My writing could be seen as related to a long tradition of crafting ethnographic texts to be both evocative and analytic. As I write in the book, this text differs from other, often beautifully written accounts of a place or time or people, in that I have no particular landscape to describe, only stories to tell. And the stories are never of splendid rituals that unite an entire community or other staples of the ethnographic genre.

I have a stake in the answers to the questions I ask — not simply as a serial migrant, but as a writer — because I really do think that moving matters, including for the act of writing. Is a sentence a breath or a gesture, the choice of a word a labor or a moment of grace? Actually, I am not sure I could write otherwise. 


Gareth Stanton teaches media and communications at Goldsmith’s College, University of London.