Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Urban, National and Transnational/Global Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists
Primary Theme: Immigration/Migration/Citizenship
Secondary Theme: Ethics
For some time now, anthropologists have been extending and enriching the understanding of movement beyond the mere physical by re-envisioning it as a psychological, affective, temporal, spiritual, political, and moral act. “Going forward” often invokes advance, progress, and—by extension—the better future and modern identity. The synonyms for “going back,” in contrast, include recede, revert, and regress—which connote decline and degeneration. But going back does not always equal becoming backward. “Return,” for instance, can evoke a complex web of affects through a claim for one’s roots, an image of pure original state, and nostalgia for the distant past. Mobility, or the limit and lack of thereof, is thus fraught with aspirations, anxieties, and ambiguities that are in turn shaped by the structures of family, market, and citizenship, among others. Such structural factors, or “regimes of mobility” in the words of Glick Schiller and Salazar, however, never completely extinguish people’s drive for choice and freedom as they envision such virtues in their specific cultural milieus.
It is in this human persistence on freedom, no matter how frustrated it can be, that this panel locates a fertile ground for theoretical discussions. In fact, the two growing subfields of anthropology—that is, the anthropology of mobility and the anthropology of ethics—can productively meet with one another at this conceptual intersection that we call “the morality of mobility.” James Laidlaw notes that anthropology has traditionally functioned as a “science of unfreedom”: “Invoking ‘the social’—or ‘ideological state apparatus’, ‘the global system’, ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘colonial discourse’, or whatever—can be supposed directly or straightforwardly to explain why people do one thing rather than another only insofar as their experience of freedom of decision is deemed illusory (2014, 3-4). This panel, following the works of Laidlaw and other scholars of morality, attempts to counter the paradigm of “unfreedom” in the study of mobility to draw critical attention to how people craft their cultural space for freedom no matter how structurally limited such an endeavor can be. To this end, we have assembled scholars who work on diverse migrant networks and can ethnographically tease out the relationships between structure and agency.
The questions the panel investigate include: Why do so many Brazilian migrants choose to stay in or repeatedly migrate to Japan even when many feel trapped in unskilled manual labor and experience limited occupational mobility there? Why do some of such Brazilian migrant workers convert to Pentecostal Christianity in Japan, and what can their conversion tell us about the relationship between the economic, the subjective, and the ethical? What subjectivities do local researchers and organizations inscribe onto the Filipino migrant families in Japan with their own research designs and notions of "culture"? How do Chinese senior migrants in the Boston area mobilize their nostalgia for Maoist China to envision their future and belonging in the United States? Put together, these case studies will shed critical light on the challenges and hopes of im/mobility in today’s increasingly interconnected and yet diversifying world.