Cultures of Migration

Metaphors of belonging, belonging as metaphor

Last week in class, we started talking some about authenticity. Many in the music business contrast authenticity and commercial success as though they were mutually exclusive. Part of the concern with authencity is a question of positionality. Where are you speaking from and who are you speaking to? And of course, the even trickier, who do you (claim) to speak for? Behind all of these questions lies a broader question of belonging because belonging is not just about whether you think you belong, but also whether others think you belong.

Belonging is created in part by stories, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that belonging is created largely by stories. As academics and activists have been pointing out for a long time, there’s nothing “natural” about most of our cherished “imagined communities.” Benedict Anderson wrote about the way national feeling is constructed through a shared narrative. As Gilroy pointed out in his article that we read last week (“It’s a Family Affair”), race is another community that can be constructed in different ways, depending on the narratives that are created. And perhaps one of the most powerful — and misleading ? —  metaphors is that of family. It’s a metaphor that presents itself as self-evident (we all know what a family is, don’t we?) and thus closes off questions that should be asked.

Yesim Burul’s article (“The World of Aziza A.”) provides another metaphor, that of a “third chair” between two other cultures. This is not the first time this kind of metaphor has been used. Tunisian writer Albert Memmi said in the 1950s, “Just as I sat on the fence between two civilizations, so would I now find myself between two classes; and I realized that, in trying to sit on several chairs, one generally lands on the floor.” For Memmi, there might be different chairs, but they all had fixed points, and his only option was to try to sit on more than one at a time. What’s original in Burul’s account of Aziza A is not only that she has added another chair into the mix, but that she also “changes the place of the chair constantly within a set of weblike relations” (214). This is a useful way of thinking about this because it doesn’t assume that there are already fixed places/identities that one must move between, but instead reminds us that those identities are also always shifting.


“It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at.”

I like this quote from rapper Rakim for lots of reasons. In a very non-radical way, you can read it as embracing the traditional American ideal that origins don’t (or least shouldn’t) matter. But it also points to the postmodern idea that identity is not fixed, but rather potentially always in flux. Gilroy (2004: 91) sees it in terms of “self-making.” So much of the discussion about immigration seems to assume essential unchanging identities, whether racial, ethnic or religious, that it’s useful to be reminded that identities are chosen and constructed. That doesn’t mean that you wake up in the morning and put on an identity like you might put on a shirt, but rather that daily choices accumulate and make us what we are. There are always other choices, even if our choices are constrained by the social structures that we live in.

“Where you’re from” is connected to your idea of family. And this part of the criticism in Gilroy’s piece. What do we mean by family? Is there anything natural about family? What are the advantages or disadvantages of using the metaphor of family to organize a social movement? Are families really the right model for radical contestation of the existing order? One distinction I’d like us to come back to this semester is the distinction between filiation and affiliation. Both have the same root in Latin related to the words for son and daughter. And filiation indeed refers to a family relation, to the fact of being descended from someone. But affiliation, on the other hand, implies a chosen relationship, rather than a biological one. Something to think about when it comes to the relationship between nations (often imagined as families) and immigrants.

And if we’re talking about family, we also inevitably talk about home. I’ll just raise a few questions for now, since we will come back to this issue in more detail later in the semester. How do we define home? Who has a right to enter? Who gets to decide? What’s expected of those who enter? What happens when we use the metaphor of home to talk about nations? Gilroy mentions the notion of the “hood.” Is this a better metaphor for organizing a social challenge? And finally, there is the question of authenticity. Where does it come from? How do rap artists conceive of it? What connections can we make between discussions of family, belonging, home and authenticity?


Welcome to Cultures of Migration (CULT 454/554). As participants in a research seminar, what you learn from this course will depend greatly on the quality of discussion we have in and out of class. Ideally, class discussion and blogs will reinforce each other, where comments made in one context will be taken up and discussed further in the other. To that end, each of us (myself included!) will keep a blog this semester, in which we take our ideas from the classroom and try them out in a public forum. A blog is a public journal, a record of your thoughts on any given day. Often putting your thoughts into writing is a good way to figure out just what those thoughts are. A blog is not formal academic writing. But you do want your ideas to be clear. After all, the point of a blog (and comments to a blog) is communication. Keep in mind your readers. Is your reader going to be able to understand your main point? Do you provide enough information to make your opinion clear? Do you provide examples? Do you analyze or explain those examples? Are you undermining your credibility (and irritating your reader) with careless typos and spelling mistakes?



I have marked places in the syllabus where you have the option to write blog posts related to the course materials (and I will also give you prompts from time to time). You are required to write a minimum of five posts of the six indicated (plus the shared discoveries and one about your final project) during the semester, but you are of course welcome to write more. Did you see a TV program that highlighted immigration issues in an interesting way? Tell us about it in your blog. Did you come across an interesting web site? Tell us about it. Did you have your own “immigration experience” applying for a student visa or getting your residency permit here and want to link it to class discussions? Tell us about it here. You get the idea!



As well as being a place for you to record your thoughts, at its best, a blog is also a place for discussion and the exchange of ideas. Thus I also expect you to respond to your classmates’ blogs. These responses may be only a few sentences, but please do address the content of your classmate’s post and attempt to take the conversation further. “Great post!” is a nice way to start a comment and may make the poster feel good, but is not enough in itself. Tell them what you liked about the post, what you thought they did well, or on the contrary, where you disagree with them and why. You can also simply expand on something or provide another example. You can also ask questions. For this first week, if you choose to post, you may, of course, note any questions that the articles, readings or audio and video files raised for you. But please also consider writing about your reactions to the music. Is it what you expected? Are you a fan of rap, in general? Is it an effective genre for communicating political messages? I would also be very interested to hear your reactions to the film by Can Candan that we watched in class last week. He asks some very provocative questions. When does someone stop feeling like a foreigner? When does the foreigner become an immigrant? Did this film raise any echoes of your own experiences?

Please remember to post your blogs by Sunday noon, so that you receive credit for them and everyone has time to read and respond to them.

Happy blogging and see you in class on Monday.

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Cultures of Migration


This blog was created to share thoughts and ideas about migration and various forms of culture arising out of it.