Households and Migration


Friedemann Neumann, Research Fellow (Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main)

Prof. Hans Peter Hahn, Project Lead (Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Goethe University in Frankfurt am Main)

In the ethnological part of the “Mobile Worlds” project, we examine how individual migration histories are reflected in (post-)migrant households and what significance “transcultural” thing-universes have for the people living in them.

So far, a good dozen households have been ethnographically examined by people in very different circumstances and with very different biographical relationships to things, places, family, friends and events. We are interested in the meanings the objects have in these contexts and the role they play in everyday practices, encounters and cultural interactions that cannot simply be reduced to mere opposites.

The everyday order of things is neither homogeneous nor can it be regarded as the mere expression of the horizons of meaning, values and norms of its inhabitants. Instead, objects in a household are part of a negotiation process: Their significance is controversial and their use changes. In other words, relationships to things are always being redefined. Thus a particular piece of furniture or décor may seem completely unspectacular in one social context, for example, and be perceived as an offensive boundary or affront in another. In such cases, those within households have to negotiate and navigate between different realities.

In short, people and things stand in a relationship of movement and change. Whether and to what extent objects are associated with “migration,” for example, is less dependent on whether they appear particularly “exotic” or “foreign.” Instead it is the individual stories, perceptions and everyday practices that also link a very inconspicuous and everyday thing with migration experience, and thus can turn it into a “migrant object.” Such references can be so common that they are difficult to recognize and we often only become aware of them when they become confused.

For example, consumer goods such as shampoo, hygiene products or light bulbs that serve(d) as a gift(s), for example, can be associated with important transnational family relationships and events. The supposedly small, symbolic content of these things as universally recognized objects of representation makes them no less significant for the people and contexts that relate to them.

As already suggested with this example, households are interfaces and hubs of personal but also broader social references. Things mean establishing oneself within certain circumstances—whether precarious or comfortable, self-imposed or imposed. They help to preserve and create relationships and thus (re)locate themselves in society. Such processes can be productively traced from an ethnographic perspective. The study of households offers a rich source of information, enabling a more complex idea of transcultural life in Germany that repudiates simple dichotomies and reinforces (post)migration as a fundamental condition of living together.

Since previous research on material culture has focused primarily on prominent or exceptional objects that have been singled out, and the everydayness of things has often been neglected, hardly any suitable methods are available for such a research perspective. Thus the aim of this subproject is also to develop a methodological instrument that not only takes into account the complexity of the domestic thing-universes, but also documents the life situations, everyday problems and expectations of present and future in our society.