SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

REALM Project

REALM project exec summary – Spring 2017. Portfolio of projects will run September 2017 – August 2020. This is Caroline Osella’s project.

Executive summary

The Gulf is sometimes presented as space of exception, Gulf migration as necessarily problematic. The abject – highly gendered – figures of ‘labour-camp man’ and ‘domestic worker woman’ overdetermine public imagination. Breaking down the category ‘migrant’ and working at micro ethnographic scales opens up a more diverse range of migrant narratives, including success, ambivalence and appreciation of various aspects of life in the Gulf beyond mere economic gain (infrastructural, religious, gendered, lifestyle, juridical, reputational, educational and more), along with ambivalence about the homeland .

This project is for a six month ethnographic study, building on existing complex ethnographic narratives and connecting to larger scale work on policy and structural factors, to help understand:

  • what makes migration work for some people;
  • whether we can identify some of the factors at play in producing those narratives which are not marked simply by drudgery, misery, exploitation and painful dislocation;
  • the place and definition of ‘rights’ in migrant experience and evaluation.

The PI’s preliminary work among migrants from Kerala state, India, which sends many skilled, technical and professional migrants, has found that among Indian Muslims, divorced or widowed Indian women, and among many Indian men – the latter (sometimes tacitly) seeking escape from normative Indian life-cycle rhythms, social judgement and stringent lifestyle norms – the Gulf is often experienced as a space of relative liberation and safety, with migration as a relief from home. Conceptually, the project does three things:

  • Complicates dominant narratives placing Gulf migration as exceptional, hyper-exploitative and necessarily productive of unhappy relationships and lives;
  • Takes issue with the now-popular model of ‘intersectionality’, whereby identity parts are identified (Asian, woman, unskilled, migrant) and wherein privilege or disadvantage is then assumed to accumulate in straightforward, predictable and agglutinating fashion;
  • Contributes to emergent literatures on quality of life and freedom in the Middle East and India which are challenging and proposing re-workings of political science categories such as ‘freedom’.

Preliminary life history, migration story and long-term narrative work – including the PI’s own work, which this augmentation project proposes to build upon and develop – makes for complex and nuanced migrant positionings. This project’s investigation, however, is to be done without letting go of the hope for some kind of understanding of the various factors which might be feeding into negative or positive experiences for migrant workers, and with a view towards a necessary contextualisation by other REALM projects which tell less optimistic stories. Ethnographic work to date has recorded, analysed and untangled migrant narratives; this project builds upon that work, returning to Osella’s existing past respondents for more detailed conversations and interviews, while also engaging with new and differently situated respondents for deep life and migration ethnographic narrative work, which will result in a range of academic and non academic (public engagement and impact) outputs. The project thereby moves towards collecting more detailed and more longitudinal stories, with the specific intent of searching within ‘migration process stories’ for commonalities and potential causalities, while simultaneously contributing to contemporary critical thinking in anthropology, development studies and political science around questions of rights, freedom, well-being, happiness and aspiration.

You can find out more at the REALM main page