MATERIAL LIFE OF THE DISPLACED: CATEGORIES, BELONGINGS, SOLIDARITIES 19th-20TH CENTURIES
5-6 DECEMBER 2023
CENTRE FOR HISTORY, SCIENCES PO, PARIS
Organisers: Owen Coughlan (University of Oxford), Sibylle Fourcaud (CHSP), Isabelle Linais (CHSP) et Abel Solans (CHSP).
Scientific committee: Angelos Dalachanis (CNRS-IHMC), Nicolas Delalande (CHSP), Delphine Diaz (Université de Reims), Isabelle Grangaud (Centre Norbert Elias, CNRS) et David Todd (CHSP).
With the support of the Centre for History at Sciences Po, the Center for History and Economics in Paris, and the Institut Universitaire de France.
Many representations of migrants, refugees, or exiles during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries place great emphasis on the possessions that displaced people brought with them. A great diversity of objects, from the baskets Italian migrants carried onto Ellis Island in the late nineteenth century to the rags and livestock brought by Muslims fleeing India in 1947, offer glimpses into the many differences between displaced people: of departure and arrival conditions, of national and local identity, of class, of generation, and of gender. What place did these possessions occupy in their transnational trajectories or in their economic strategies? To what degree did displaced people’s material identities relate to their senses of belonging, or the categories imposed upon them? How could this material dimension of belonging bring about forms of solidarity, or conflict, between displaced people or with their host societies?
These questions demand a reflection on the relations between population displacement and material conditions of existence. The mobility turn (Roche, 2003) has prompted historians to question the distinction between migrants and refugees (Elie, 2014). Economic and imperial competition in the nineteenth century and the effects of world war and decolonization in the twentieth underpinned and shaped protean and variegated practices of migrant categorisation (Gatrell, 2013; Zahra, 2017). As such, we adopt a broad definition of “the displaced”, to capture all forms of “forced mobilities”, defined as “the result of structural imperatives and an intentionality, an agency” (Diaz, 2014). The importance of the economic both in push-and-pull factors and in decisions taken by displaced persons justifies this questioning of the distinction between migrants, refugees, and exiles. But economic and social capital alone are not the sole determining features. Labour historians have highlighted the great diversity of factors weighing on migratory situations, including class, gender, age, and race (Green, 2008). Engaging with the economic history of the displaced and with labour historiographies that link material life, belongings, and solidarities, this conference seeks to shed light on forms of mobility that have hitherto received less attention.
By material life, we mean living standards, labour, housing, and consumption practices, including food, clothing, objects, and tools (Braudel, 1961). Through the lens of cultural history, historians of forced displacement have focused on the symbolic value of these (also displaced) things (Auslander, 2018). However, the economic, cultural, and political values and meanings of certain objects depend less on their inherent nature than on the ways in which people use them (Lefebvre, 1974; Certeau, 1990). For this reason, this conference invites researchers to consider how displaced people’s possessions and their uses of them participated in the construction of social stratifications and hierarchies, or the accumulation of wealth.
Studying the history of the displaced through their material life opens a dialogue on the role of economic factors in processes of identification or belonging. In turn, this enables us to go beyond binary analyses of assimilation or not to grasp the complexity and dynamism of these relations. Moreover, examining the material life of the displaced sheds light upon the superimposition of identities and belongings throughout transnational trajectories as well as the reconfiguration of social hierarchies that may result from these mobilities. Writing the history of the social and economic life of mobilities implies investigating logics of solidarity and competition that develop between the displaced – at different scales, from the local to the transnational – or between the displaced and the host society. By the same token, these forms of solidarity play an important role in the transformation of the living conditions of the displaced. This is the case, for example, with migrant associations or national and transnational networks of solidarity.
In sum, this conference seeks to engage with the history of economic life and the history of mobilities to study how mutual-aid, belonging, and categorization of the displaced stemmed from and interacted with the very material dimensions of their lives. This set of considerations covers the nineteenth and centuries, and we encourage studies that take into account a range of scales, chronologies, and places: from the ways in which the economic and social capital of the displaced shaped their displacement, to what became of their possessions after their death, via the relationship between productive and reproductive activities undertaken. Because the period under consideration was marked by an increase in flows of capital, labour, and consumption in regional, national, imperial, and colonial frameworks, papers investigating transnational and trans-imperial solidarity between the displaced are particularly encouraged. Contributions are welcome on, but not limited to, the following sets of questions: