A Theoretical Analysis of the Narrative of Migration
This essay will put the narrative of migration outlined in Assignment One into a theoretical context. It will do this, first of all, by considering definitions of diaspora from writers such as Cohen (1997) and Braziel and Mannur (2003). Proposing that James’ migration can be best understood as part of a ‘globalized’ diaspora, it then goes on to consider the two main issues to arise from the narrative – firstly, the construction of diasporic identity; and, secondly, the impact of migration on the host culture and its identity. In response to the first issue, drawing on work such as Gilroy (1993) and Bhabha (2004), it argues that diasporic identity can be understood in terms of being split or hybrid, neither fully part of the host nor the home culture. Next, in response to the second issue, it considers Cantle’s proposal for ‘community cohesion’ (2008) and some of its oppositions, in relation to the narrative. It concludes by arguing that listening to the narrative allows for a challenge to Cantle’s proposal, a redefinition of what it means to be British, and a focus on the everyday lived experience of migration, which can sometimes be missing from theoretical accounts.
Diaspora, as Braziel and Mannur argue (2003, p.3) has come to encompass a wide-range of meanings, including travel, political exile and a particular state of mind, as well as the phenomenon of mass-migration. The events described in the narrative of migration can be understood in terms of what Cohen (1997, pp.175-176) defines as ‘the diaspora in the age of globalization’. The increased possibilities for movement of people between countries due to social, economic and cultural change has led to much migration of the type described by James in his narrative. Changes in global power structures such as the increasing importance of multinational corporations, along with factors such as technological change and more flexible labour conditions, have led to the loosening of borders between countries, and possibilities of movement for possible economic reward. James discusses how his family moved primarily for economic reasons, for example, rather than being forced. Financial difficulties were the main factor in leaving, and the global market offered a chance to improve that condition through moving. In one sense, migration can be seen as part of the process of globalization itself, challenging the nation-sate through the movement of people across its borders. In another sense, as Cohen argues, globalization has also benefited diasporic communities, allowing them to take advantage of new “economic and cultural opportunities on offer” (1997, p.176). James’ movement to the UK can be put into this context as part of a globalized process which is both built by and enables the formation of diasporic communities.
The two main issues that this migration raises are, firstly, the question of personal identity and, secondly, that of the identity and organization of culture in the new homeland. In relation to the first question, James’ identity can be interpreted as split or double, originating in one culture and living in another, he occupies a position in-between. Brazuel and Mannur discuss, for example, how diasporic subjects are “defined by a traversal of boundaries” (2003, p.5). Cohen discusses the memories and mythologies of the homeland that go towards constructing the diasporic identity. One of the features of this, he argues, is “the idealization of the supposed ancestral home” (1997, p.185). One exiled from their homeland, his argument suggest, may create it mythically as an ideal place, to which they long to return. These features are fundamental to Cohen’s definition of diaspora. The narrative of migration here, however, suggests the opposite. James sees himself as a British citizen ‘and nothing else’, rather than longing for a lost homeland. He discusses how he fitted in well and had no cultural shock. Although the narrative only offers a surface investigation into the migrant experience, it can still act as a challenge to the idealization of homeland proposed by Cohen, suggesting instead its opposite – a rejection of the homeland, and an idealization of the host culture, expressed through a desire for assimilation and being part of British culture. Theorists such as Gilroy (1993) have proposed that identity should not necessarily look to its roots or origins as a lack. Instead, diasporic identity can be defined positively by its very movements between cultures, which produce a new sense of identity, challenging the fixity of national identity in the host or home culture. Homi Bhabha (2004) analyses this further, suggesting that the migrant’s position between cultures can be interpreted as a positive hybrid space, where one is defined by neither culture but produces a new identity from mixing them together. This re-articulation of identity, as pointed out by Brazuel and Mannur (2003, p.5) is seen as positive in the way it challenges the fixed boundaries of national identity. The combination of James’ own narrative and its theoretical contextualization suggests that diasporic identity can be complex and contradictory.
The second issue is that of the impact of migration on the host culture. Cantle has argued, for example, for a form of ‘community cohesion’, where a number of different communities can live together in terms of “parallel lives” (2008, p.85). In other words, they are still defined by their diasporic identities rather than by the country that they live, and there is not very much interaction between the two cultures. The use of the term ‘parallel’ suggests a kind of ‘not touching’, which does not account for cultural mixing. Cantle’s proposal has been challenged by others from a variety of perspectives. Burnett (2008, p.37), for example, argues that such focus on parallel lives as cohesion can cause ghettoization and segregation rather than unifying communities, and that this can lead to tension and violence rather than harmony. He backs up this argument with examples from Bradford where ethnic tensions led to riots. Trevor Phillips has argued that US models, priding themselves on ‘multiculturalism’ have actually led to increased segregation, as was evident during the rescue operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The response to the disaster revealed the deeply ethnically segregated nature of American society, Phillips argues, and he is therefore wary of adopting this ‘multicultural’ model too strongly in the UK, “we have focused too much on the ‘multi’ and not enough on the common culture” (2005). Cantle’s argument is also challenged by the narrative of migration presented here. James does not see himself as part of a separate and parallel community but rather as fundamentally British. As Back has argued (1996, p.49), youth culture can be defined by a multiplicity of varied identities, not just ethnicity or origins. Communities may be ethnically mixed but unified through a particular local postcode, or through a type of music, for example. Cantle’s argument does not fully take the possibility of such other forms of identification into account.
To conclude, it could be argued, as does Back (2007) that analysis should be based on listening, on “interpretation without legislation” (2007, p.1). Listening to the narrative of migration here, it is made clear that some analyses of personal identity in terms of a longing for a lost homeland are misplaced. This is not the case at all in the picture to emerge from speaking to James. Listening also suggests that he wants to be part of British culture, not part of a segregated society, challenging Cantle’s ideas on community cohesion. Listening suggests, therefore, that Britishness itself must be inclusive and open to change. We need to define a form of Britishness that includes globalized diasporic identities rather than excluding them. Listening also suggests that there are other problems, which can fail to be accounted for in the theorizing of migration strategies. It allows for a focus on lived experiences of migration. The depression and victimhood he describes in relation to his mother’s life on benefits is an example of the kind of social issues that must be accounted for in the analysis of both national or community ‘cohesion’ and of the personal identity of diasporic groups.
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