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The Very Human Experiences of the Other

If the search for self was a game, migrants would be more than a few chips down. Having to overcome physical and cultural displacement in addition to psychological uncertainty makes the search, for those who are transient, a complicated quest. Below, in an excerpt from the Introduction of Being Human, Being Migrant: Senses of Self and Well-Being, published in October, editor Anne Sigfrid Grønseth addresses the difficulties of migration and asserts that these hardships are of larger breadth than simply issues of movement.




This volume is as much about being human as it is about being a migrant. It takes as its starting point from the proposition that migrant experiences tell us about the human condition, on the basis that senses of well-being, self, other and humanity are challenged when people move between shifting social and cultural contexts. Our contemporary world is characterised by an increasing degree of movement that highlights how societies and cultural units are never separate but overlapping, rapid changing and engaged in repeated processes of fission and fusion.


Migrants, being people who move between places, times and conditions, can be seen as an archetypical example. This book underscores how migrant experiences accentuate some general aspects of the human condition by exploring migrant’s movements not only as geographical movements from here to there, but also as movements that constitute an embodied, cognitive and existential experience of living ‘in between’ or on the ‘borderlands’ between differently figured life-worlds.


Current issues regarding multiculturalism have developed into some of the most heated debates between both politicians and academics. These debates tend to focus on relations between distinct groups of migrants and majority populations. Although this volume does not aim to engage in this important and pressing debate as such, it offers an emphasis on an easily overlooked perspective, namely the examination of migrants’ individual narratives and experiences in everyday life. By exploring individuals’ stories and life-experiences, it is recognized how migrants’ engagement in cultural practices, meanings and values are related to their pasts, while highlighting the human disposition to create and become involved in new cultural, social and climatic contexts. All chapters present migrant narratives and ethnography from European countries. While not stressing the politically derived social structures of inclusion and exclusion as such, the volume presents experiences of alienation and discrimination as they are perceived by individual migrants to and within Europe. The aim in including narratives that display experiences of both voluntary middle-class and forced refugee migrants is to highlight how, across and beyond significant differences, there are similarities that illuminate shared and equivalent experiences as humans as much as migrants.


Migrants carry a unique and vital experience of habituated and familiar life-worlds that are figured socially and culturally, while also being challenged by crossing over to other life-worlds that are both similar and different. Inspired by phenomenological perspectives, a life-world is a horizon of all our experiences that creates a background against which identity and meaning emerge and are decided upon. Such life-worlds are not static and unchangeable, but the dynamic horizons in which we live, and which ‘live with us’. This implies that nothing can enter or appear in our life-world except as lived. As such, the life-world is always intimately linked to the individual person’s historicity, though not to such an extent that it is purely individual. Rather, the life-world is inherently intersubjective in terms of the possibility of communicating and sharing meaning, while also necessarily being personal and individual. This perspective emerges in all the volume’s chapters as in their different ways they all highlight individual migrants’ experiences as they are shaped in the intersection of individual historicity and social environmental structures.


Furthermore, examining migrants’ life-worlds confronts us with a tension between what we can conceive as differently constituted life-worlds and single human life-worlds. Instead of taking a fixed position, this volume explores the land in between, recognising differences both among individuals and groups, while also acknowledging aspects that are common and mutual based on an understanding of a shared humanity. This position is reflected in the concern with how migrants carry with them fragments of the familiar and known, while simultaneously being confronted with new and unknown life-worlds. Thus, migrants can be seen to live their everyday lives on the borderlands in between differently constituted, though mutually human, life-worlds.


I argue that this volume will contribute to an anthropology that illuminates the diversity and mutuality in the human experiences of self, well-being, emotions and consciousness in everyday life. Exploring migrant everyday life by engaging these concepts, the volume sheds light on social and existential conditions related to the migrant experience as it is uniquely human. In investigating both social and existential conditions, together and individually the chapters illuminate complex relationships between migration, self and well-being which acknowledge how experiences of illness and health are embedded in structures and power-relations, while also transgressing these by acknowledging migrants’ positions as being both within and in between. By emphasising the position in between, the volume addresses a crucial embodied agency that acknowledges that migrants, however they may be categorized, are intentional agents who create lives for themselves within day-to-day living.


From this perspective, I suggest that the volume demonstrates how illness, health and senses of self and well-being are closely interwoven with experiences of being recognised – or in various degrees not recognised – as fully and equal human beings. This relates to how the different chapters illustrate self and well-being as emerging in embodied, intersubjective and agentive moments and spaces. In adopting this perspective, I argue that senses of self and well-being are inter-related to experiences of intersubjectivity and agency. As intersubjectivity arises in the borderlands between self and Other in a broad sense, the study of migrants provides vital occasion for investigations of self and well-being. Thus, this volume suggests that the migrant condition is a human condition.




Anne Sigfrid Grønseth is an Associate Professor in Social Anthropology at the University College of Lillehammer, Norway, where she directs the Research Unit of Health, Culture, and Identity. Her recent publications include Lost Selves and Lonely Persons: Experiences of Illness and Well-Being among Tamil Refugees in Norway (Carolina Academic Press, 2010) and Mutuality and Empathy: Self and Other in the Ethnographic Encounter (co-edited with Dona Lee Davis, Wantage: Sean Kingston Publishing, 2010).