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The Road to Belonging is Paved with Charity

Catherine Trundle’s recently published volume Americans in Tuscany: Charity, Compassion, and Belonging explores the lives of American female migrants to Italy, and follows a collection of women as they navigate Tuscan society in an attempt to integrate. The author discovered that these women have used charitable acts as a road map to guide their quest to belong. Following, the author provides more information about her background and how it led her to share the stories of this migrant group.




What drew you to the study of American female migrants in Italy and their quest for inclusion?


I had conducted previous ethnographic work on American migrants to rural New Zealand, and was fascinated with what it meant to be an American abroad – how one’s sense of nationality and citizenship gets transforms through engagements with the stereotypes that others have of the migrant self, and how ‘culture’ gets characterized and sometimes essentialized in the process.


I knew that there were many well-established American expat groups in Italy, and that Florence has some of the most long-standing and active groups, and I wanted to be able to really participate in the daily activates and relationships within these groups. I was also fascinated by the stories of marriage migration that I kept hearing, these whirlwind romances that lead many women to settle in Italy, often without much idea of what life would be like as a migrant, or as part of an Italian family, and often with my of a strategy for how they would build up a life for themselves in a new country.



Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?


I had not anticipated the significance of the role of charity in my participants’ lives. For many, it was a real source of self-esteem, motivation, personal development, social connection, a way to stay busy and pass time productively, and an insight into Italian social issues. I think it’s one of the most overlooked aspects of lifestyle migrants’ worlds, considering the number of these expat charity groups that there are in many countries. I also became fascinated with the view of charitable giving that you get if you look at it over time. I had (probably naively) expected a degree of constancy in my participants’ stances to charity. I was surprised that if you traced people’s daily engagements over 15 months, as they oscillated between hope and idealism, cynicism and mistrust, from the start of a project to the end, how emotionally tumultuous the daily work of charity is, how my participants’ expectations and desires, and attitudes to recipients were often changing and shifting. They could never get comfortable, coast along, settle into a routine. They constantly had to be reflexive of their actions, both in terms of what charity should be and do, and in terms of how they hoped it might transform themselves into good givers or morally virtuous migrant citizens.



Do you think there are aspects of this work that will be controversial to other scholars working in the field?


My treatment of compassion and empathy might seem to go against a lot of intuitive assumptions people have of these ideals. I explore how in building, sustaining and motivating empathetic and compassionate responses to need, charity givers depended on building virtuous relational modes of disinterest, detachment and distance. Throughout this project I’ve been interested in challenging the idea that distance and detachment are states that charity givers need to overcome to allow their compassion to flourish. I have also become increasingly suspicious of the analytical stance that charitable compassion is just a smokescreen for deeper forms of class interest and a way to maintain the status quo in an unequal society.


While I do understand that charity is tied up with forms of inequality, I think this stance doesn’t allow us to really get at the complex motivations that underpin charity work or the subjective transformations that occur as charity work is enacted. In treating charity as a cultural, historically situated process, I’ve been interested in understanding the productive quality of detachment, cynicism, hope and the loss of it, not just as ideologies to uphold a social system or as reflective of particular modes of power, but as the means to sustain a complex and at times deeply committed moral project of selfhood.



What are some areas of interest or questions, that hasn’t necessarily been the focus of much attention, which you feel is especially pertinent to your field today and in the future?


I think ethnographies of migration haven’t focused enough on the interaction of diverse migrant groups, at the day-to-day level of interaction and practice (not just the discursive level), and the importance of this to migrant identity work. I was fascinated by how migrants with financial resources, who came from wealthy countries and who were used to mobility, interacted with other migrants from more precarious social backgrounds. Florence is a small and compact city that contains a diverse range of groups, from, for example, western tourists and undocumented migrants from Northern Africa, to Romani from Eastern Europe and Florentines whose families have lived in the city for hundreds of years.


I wanted to know how these daily interactions shaped American women’s sense of their migrant subjectivities. In carrying out charity works, it was usually to other migrants that they offered goods and support. This meant they were often debating issues of migration, thinking about the differences between themselves and those they served, drawing up contrasts or downplaying differences, and ultimately relying on this ongoing interaction to assert particular gendered and class-based notions of being an expat migrant in Italy.



What aspect of writing this work did you find most challenging? Most rewarding?


Knowing when to stop tinkering! My ideas on these topics and questions keep evolving, and writing a book I think is about accepting that it is in many ways an archeological or genealogical record of your thinking up to the present. It also signposts the intellectual questions that remain, so it’s also a map of fresh starting points for one’s future scholarly work.





Catherine Trundle gained her PhD from Cambridge University in social anthropology, and is a Lecturer in cultural anthropology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. She is the co-editor, with Brigitte Bönisch-Brednich, of the book Local Lives: Migration and the Politics of Place (Ashgate 2010). Her research focuses on migration, charity and exchange, medical anthropology, and aging.


Series: Volume 36, New Directions in Anthropology