Project detailed summary: ‘The Paradox of the Gulf as a Space of Freedom and Aspiration’.

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. Previous work done by Caroline Osella, with Filippo Osella, has been part of breaking down and parsing the category ‘migrant’. Working at micro ethnographic scales has opened up a more diverse range of migrant narratives, including: success; ambivalence; appreciation of various aspects of life in the Gulf beyond mere economic gain (infrastructural, religious, gendered, lifestyle, juridical, reputational, educational and more); a sense of belonging; ambivalent evaluations of the homeland.

Ethnographic work in the Gulf to date has recorded, analysed and untangled migrant narratives; this project builds upon that work, returning to Caroline’s existing past respondents (Mavelikkara and Calicut areas) for more detailed conversations and interviews, while also engaging with new and differently situated respondents for deep life and migration ethnographic narrative work.

If you are, or have been, a Malayali Gulf migrant, and would like to think about talking to Caroline – in complete anonymity and a promise of confidentiality and safety – please come here to find more…….

Caroline’s project is for a six month ethnographic study, building on existing complex ethnographic narratives and connecting outwards towards larger scale work on policy and structural factors, to help us 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.

Caroline’s preliminary work among migrants from Kerala state, India (which sends many skilled, technical and professional migrants) has found that the Gulf is sometimes experienced as a space of relative liberation and as offering a good life or liveable life.  

Conceptually, the project takes off from these earlier findings and does three things:

  • Complicates dominant narratives placing Gulf migration as always exceptional, hyper-exploitative and necessarily productive of unhappy relationships and lives
  • 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’.  This body of work is re-writing from the ground up, by listening carefully, what ‘freedom’ or ‘rights’ might mean in practice and in people’s aspirations and hopes
  • Engages carefully 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 be legible in straightforward and predictable fashion

While Caroline is taking as her special focus the folks who might report that they experience some positive experiences, the project’s investigation will 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 also with a view towards a necessary contextualisation by other REALM projects  – which may tell less optimistic stories.

You can find out more about all the projects at the REALM main page.