Emplacement/Displacement

 Migration and diaspora studies frequently engage with questions about concepts such as emplacement, displacement, and home. In anthropology, the notion of ‘place’ has traditionally been associated with bounded locality and contained cultures, an approach which has recently been criticized (cf. Gupta and Ferguson 1997) and which gives rise to critiques of a sedentarist bias which links people irrevocably to place (cf. Jansen & Löfving 2009). In recent times, however, there has been a move toward rethinking place yet again, with researchers arguing that we cannot simply dismiss that people form relationships with certain places in concrete and important ways (cf. Tölölyan 2000, Werbner 2002, Jansen & Löfving 2009). Rather, we need to investigate relationships between people and places and consider when, how, and under what conditions they are formulated. This involves posing questions about the role of emplacement and displacement within problematic political discourses such as that of nationalism, as well as asking how both people and places might constitute each other through a “double articulation” (Massey 2005; see also Tilley 1994 on the material inscription of social lives on places). In other words, place and space should not be thought of merely as passive backgrounds for people to act upon or ‘do something’ to, but as active partners in the construction of selves. We would thus open up possibilities for studying practices and discourses of emplacement and displacement by rejecting the dichotomy of essentialist sedentarism and anti-sedentarism, and by grounding our questions in material, political, and micro-processes on the ground (Jansen 2007, see e.g. Dalakoglou 2009, Daniels 2010). In the same vein, literary and film studies can open up questions of belonging and place by questioning the association of writers with territory, or by theorising representations of home in situated cultural texts.

The aim of this short text is not to offer a full rendition of the academic work on place, space, and issues of emplacement/displacement in the social sciences and humanities. Rather, it is an overview of some of the discussions, questions, and challenges which arose from a session on emplacement and displacement at the 2013 CoHaB summer school in Northampton. The following notes thus constitute a selection of interconnected points inspired by various readings, and largely informed by the specific interests of those researchers who took part in the discussion.

Researchers within the social sciences and humanities face the important challenge of engaging multiple realities of settlement with understandings of the politics of how place and home are negotiated. Facing this challenge requires attention to multi-faceted aspects of place-making, which interdisciplinary research is well positioned to address. We can approach studies of emplacement and displacement through in-depth ethnographic studies of social practices; a focus on relationality; critical attention to the discourse of emplacement and the discourse of the nation, as well as political economies; and narratives of home, movement, and stability. The language and poetics of space are as relevant as the material dimensions of place-making, particularly in thinking how places come to be articulated as ‘home’. Some of the questions we could pose are: How do assumptions of sedentarism and rootedness obscure conflicts over space?  How do some people come to be perceived as more or less emplaced than others? How – and when – are certain objects or texts imbued with a sense of home? How is home expressed in terms other than space? What does it mean to belong to a certain place? How is home narrated, written, enacted, or performed?

These questions can also lead us to aspects of home which are seemingly indefinable or cannot be verbalized. For instance, how isthe idea of emplacement connected with the sense of ‘feeling at home’? How do people feel positively at home, or conversely, feel that they or others are ‘unhomely’? How do people know when they are at home, and can this be communicated to others?  The recent affective turn within academia has asked whether we can speak of pre-social, visceral affect, or whether affect is always socially mediated. Theorists have also highlighted the embodied nature of feeling at home or feeling like a stranger, where others’ perceptions come to shape how bodies react to place and space (cf. Willen 2007). With that, there is also a sensory aspect of feeling emplaced or displaced: the scents, sounds, sights of home or not-home, the way that culture is constructed and experienced via the senses (cf. Seremetakis 1994).

Another aspect of the debate over emplacement and displacement is the logic of mobility privileged by a number of scholars. In this vein, migration and movement are automatically linked to the question of home in the context of a broader scholarly turn toward hypervaluing mobility at the expense of taking the sedentary or the immobile for granted. The notion of mobility, particularly in the context of ‘globalization’, has often been conflated with movement, speed, fluidity, and other terms which posit an increasingly fast-paced and interconnected world, and which give way to the notion that mobility is a privileged site of progress and agency (cf. Tsing 2000 for a critique of the scholarly turn toward global mobilities). In this sense, contemporary ‘people on the move’ can come to be associated with cosmopolitanism and hybridity, in contrast with refugees, asylum seekers, and poor economic migrants, who are more often referred to with the language of displacement. Critiquing implicit assumptions about staying or moving in place can open up questions about the relative valorisation of emplacement and displacement, as well as challenging the idea that being grounded is inextricably linked to fixity, or that to be mobile means to be uprooted (Ahmed et al 2003). This is as relevant in cases where people become stateless – arguably ‘homeless’ – without ever changing location, as it is in considering how the movement of others impacts the imagination of home among those who remain stationary.

Diaspora studies has grappled with these and other questions when conceptualizing diasporic constructions of home. The idea of a ‘homeland’ is one among several aspects which informs what we might call a diasporic imaginary (Axel 2002, see also Anderson 1983), leadingdiaspora theorists to posit varying approaches to the meaning of home. Both Tölölyan (2000) and Werbner (2002) have argued for the need to study the sedentary and located nodes of global diasporas, which are necessarily materially and institutionally inscribed but may not always have a centre. In Brah’s (1996) view, studying diaspora entails being attentive to the “diaspora space” in which processes of emplacement occur, and which implicate so-called host societies as well as those who have undergone migratory trajectories. The concept of the imaginary can also be an analytical lens for studying how people perceive places as loci of possibility – or lack of possibility. What are commonly referred to as ‘ghettos’, housing areas where those with fewer resources live together and remain in positions of social as well as geographical margins, are often perceived as problematic because they are sedentary and homogenous. Yet such a view can easily obscure the politics of how ghettos come about as well as the possibilities which lie within them. Dwelling, understood as staying in place, is oftentaken for loitering, once again conflating sedentarism and backwardness – even connecting dwelling with a lack of purpose. However, the act of taking and remaining in space can have important political implications: locals hanging out on urban street corners can reformulate the margins of society into the center of their own world, just as protesters chaining themselves to trees or forming encampments can use rootedness asa political strategy countering attempts of state-sanctioned takeovers or forced displacements. 

An academic focus which acknowledges the imaginary and affective, as well as material processes of articulation of places and people, allows us to pose questions about the workings of home and belonging in interaction with diasporic emplacements and displacements. Is home always ‘where the heart is’? Do people need to feel safe to feel at home? Is home where people are allowed to forget where they are, or where they constantly remember? What are the temporal aspects of studying home, and how can we approach home and homeland in terms of transition and durability? How does the study of home-making via the media of literature, film, and other cultural artifacts interact with studying home in anthropology and sociology? These are just some of the issues facing researchers working on multi-faceted aspects of home and place-making.


References and recommended reading:

Ahmed, S., C. Castaneda, A.M. Fortier & M. Sheller (eds.). 2003. Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. Oxford and New York: Berg

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso

Axel, Brian Keith. 2002. The Diasporic Imaginary. In: Public Culture 14(2):411-428

Brah, Avtar. 1996. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London and New York: Routledge.

Dalakoglou, Dimitris. 2009. Building and Ordering Transnationalism: The 'Greek House' in Albania as a Material Process. In: Daniel Miller (ed.): Anthropology and the Individual: A Material Culture Perspective. 51-68. Oxford and New York: Berg

Daniels, Inge. 2010. The Japanese House: Material Culture in the Modern Home. Oxford: Berg

Friedman, Jonathan. 2002. From Roots to Routes: Tropes for Trippers. In: Anthropological Theory 2(1):21-36

Gupta, A. & J. Ferguson. 1997. Anthropological locations: boundaries and grounds of a field science. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press

Hage, Ghassan. 2005. A Not So Multi-Sited Ethnography of a Not So Imagined Community. In: Anthropological Theory 2005(5):463-475

Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive. London: Routledge

Jansen, Stef. 2007. Troubled Locations: Return, the Life Course, and Transformations of “Home” in Bosnia-Hercegovina. In: Focaal 2007(49):15-30

Jansen, Stef & Staffan Löfving (eds.). 2009.Struggles for Home. Violence, Hope and the Movement of People. New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books

Low, Setha M. & Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga (eds.). 2003. The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture. Malden: Blackwell

Löfving, Staffan. 2007. Liberal Emplacement: Violence, Home, and the Transforming Space of Popular Protest in Central America. In: Focaal 2007(49):45-61

Malkki, Liisa. 2002. National Geographic: The Rooting of Peoples and the Territorialization Identity Among Scholars and Refugees. In: Cultural Anthropology 7(1):24-44

Massey, Doreen. 1995. Imagining Globalization: Power-Geometrics of Time-Space. In: Avtar Brah, Mary J. Hickman & Maírtin Mac an Ghaill (eds.): Global Futures: Migration, Environment and Globalization. Basinstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 27-44.

Massey, Doreen. 2005. Throwntogetherness: The Politics of the Event of Place. In. For Space. Sage. 149-163

Naficy, Hamid. 2005.Situating Accented Cinema. In: Ackbar Abbas & John Nguyec Erni (eds.): Internationalizing Cultural Studies. An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell. 569-603

Nassy Brown, Jacqueline. 1998. Black Liverpool, Black America and the Gendering of Diasporic Space. In: Cultural Anthropology 13(3):291-325

Seremetakis, Nadia (ed.). 1994. The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Tilley, Christopher. 1994. A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments. Oxford: Berg

Tölölyan, Khachig. 2005. Restoring the Logic of the Sedentary to Diaspora Studies. In: Lisa Anteby-Yemeny, William Berthomière & Gabriel Sheffer (eds.):  Les diasporas: 2000 ans d’histoire. Rennes: Presse Universitaires de Rennes. 137-148.

Tsing, Anna. 2000. The Global Situation. In: Cultural Anthropology 15(3):327-360

Werbner, Pnina. 2002. The Place which is Diaspora: Citizenship, religion and Gender in the Making of Chaordic Transnationalism. In: Journal of Ethnic and Racial Studies 28(1):119-133.

Willen, Sarah S. 2007.Toward a Critical Phenomenology of “Illegality”: State Power, Criminalization, and Abjectivity among Undocumented Migrant Workers in Tel Aviv, Israel. In: International Migration 45(3). 8-38


Špela Drnovšek Zorko and Siri A. Schwabe