This article draws on 22 semi-structured interviews, conducted in Oslo, Norway in 2015, within a larger research project Active Citizenship in Culturally and Religiously Diverse Societies.Footnote 2 The focus of the research was on active citizenship, broadly conceived, in the context of culturally and religiously diverse societies, undergoing change among other as a result of post-migration diversification. In order to capture diverse experiences and positionalities, and as a means by which to counter pre-conceived and essentializing categories, a wide range of recruitment arenas and strategies were employed.
Research participants included more or less equal shares of men and women, in their late 20s to late 50s, the majority of which were migrants, or had parents who were migrants, whereas they themselves came to Norway as children, with mixed socio-economic and educational profiles. The interviews were semi-structured, and involved open-ended questions, starting with a mapping exercise in order to visualize spheres, geographies and temporalities of experiences. The interviews were conducted in Norwegian, with the exception of two which were conducted by the author in Polish.
The analysis has drawn on an inductive approach, where participants’ own sense-making of their experiences within and across scales and spheres, temporalities and geographies, has been a driving force. Specific details about participants’ backgrounds have in some instances been altered for reasons of confidentiality, given the politicized and sensitive nature of some of the contexts discussed.
Multiscalarity in experienced interactions of migrant transnationalism and integration
The perspectival scale
Claudine came as a refugee to Norway from Rwanda, 10 years ago and is a parent, who like many other parents, is involved in her children’s lives, seeks to ensure an adequate income for her family to pursue a good life, and wants to do her bit to contribute to the world around her. But as we discuss her professional experiences, Claudine’s story is one where different spheres, geographies and temporalities result in friction. This is reflected in the sense of urgency in her voice, the frustration in her notetaking on the mapping chart on the table.
Claudine came to Norway alone with her elder child, and later had another child in Norway. She had trained as a nurse in Rwanda, and her dedication to working in the health sector was something she brought with her. Following several years in the asylum system, alone in Norway with her young child, and trying to support her husband who was still on the way to Europe, she learnt Norwegian and was able to get work as an assistant nurse. Her ambitions and hopes for the future, to work as a nurse, were complicated by the need for documents to prove her nursing training from Rwanda, without which she would need to start from scratch; but also by the birth of her second child, her husband’s efforts to also requalify and get work equivalent to his education, confounded by the structure of the assistant nurse labour market in Oslo, characterized by part-time and temporary contracts.
Having tried hard for a long time, Claudine had nearly given up becoming a fully trained nurse in Norway. At the time of the interview she had a permanent small part-time position, and some temporary contracts. Her approach was coloured by her life story and experience in Rwanda and in Norway, but especially by a sense that there was no hope that she could achieve becoming a nurse. Claudine reflected on the fact that no one had asked her about her career plans when settling in Norway, about her ambitions and hopes, and which opportunities their might have been for her to achieve them.
For Claudine wants to contribute, to help people. The dignity of the terminally ill, of elderly dementia patients, with whom she works, are close to her heart. Even if her Norwegian skills are informally questioned by her employer, she knows she is more than able to provide the needed presence and care to her patients. But Claudine wanted to do more, yet in the sphere of working life is a story of unfulfilled hope and increasing disillusionment. There is a clear sense that the taxonomical and nested scales that the nation-state system provides, at once giving Claudine and her family sanctuary as refugees, and simultaneously from her perspective, blocking her way to become a nurse, create friction.
As reflected at the outset, Claudine is engaged in parental activities, yet her personal drive to help fellow human beings, is structurally constrained. This experience is not isolated from the rest of Claudine’s life. The realities of economic hardship in a precarious labour market are a challenge to finding your feet in a new country, and thus affect how she can engage across different spheres. The death of her husband’s mother brought on a sudden trip to Rwanda, which the family re-organized for financially, re-prioritizing, borrowing money, and taking on extra shifts wherever possible at work. The importance of her husband being present with his siblings, having the opportunity to grieve, was something which could not be valued in monetary terms, despite the very real economic costs.
Thus, the emergent scales of Claudine and her husband – deeply embedded in their migrant experience within a transnational social lifeworld, are in friction with those of a taxonomical and nested scalar logic. This renders a sense that their perspectival scales are somehow less valid than those of the taxonomical order of the nation-state in Norway, leading to an experienced friction. For Claudine and her family, a multiscalar approach to the interaction of transnationalism and integration, reveals not only friction, but also that asymmetries of perspectival scales, where transnational realities are not acknowledged or accounted for in relation to integration, which increases the sense of friction.
Aligning emergent and perspectival scales
Yacob has lived in Norway his entire adult life, arriving in Norway as a student, escaping war in Eritrea. His spaces of everyday life include being a parent engaged in his children’s sports activities, but also a professional career which has balanced his desire to help humans in need, with challenges in an increasingly precarious Norwegian labour market, and concerns regarding his children’s educational pathways. As a long-term resident in Oslo, Yacob is a reference point for many newly arrived Eritreans, seeking guidance in Norwegian society. Yacob remembers what it was like, back when he arrived, and acknowledges that not only has he changed, but so has Norwegian society. His engagements span parental, co-migrant, diasporan, religious and political engagements. Discussing intersections of everyday life and multiple geographies, Yacob says:
You know, it’s impossible to focus on what is needed here and now, on remembering that extra thermos flask your kid was meant to bring to school that morning, when the night before you receive a phone call that yet another young Eritrean woman has been kidnapped in the Sinai desert, trying to seek sanctuary somewhere. It’s not that you don’t care, not at all, it’s just that, well, your mind is elsewhere
Packing his daughter’s thermos flask, is a mundane activity, but one which is important to his daughter when spending the day in a Norwegian forest, and important to Yacob as a parent, confirming both his understanding of the practical significance for her, and at a more abstract level of making sure he fits in the society in which he has effectively made the decision to raise his children.
Meanwhile the phone call about the Eritrean woman kidnapped in the Sinai desert, is a concrete plea for help, and a call for action. It is a call for action that mobilizes Yacob and his extended Eritrean network in Oslo, Norway and the wider diaspora. The mobilization is triggered by a need for immediate action in order to save another human beings’ life; who is in imminent danger at the hand of brutal kidnappers. Yacob contrasts this with the mundane, every day, task of filling a thermos flask with a hot drink for his daughter.
Yacob’s reflection on physical presence in Oslo, coupled with a mental presence elsewhere, is a key trait of the migrant experience, and acutely so for many people leaving conflict-ridden contexts. As Anna Lindley writes: ‘the early morning phone call’ (2010) from back ‘there’, whether with news, a desperate plea for assistance, or a simple request for some help, cannot fail to affect everyday life ‘here’. Yet, for Yacob and others’, the separation of ‘here’ and ‘there’ makes little sense as both are integral dimensions of their lives, and there is an inherent simultaneity as events unfold in multiple locations. The simultaneity, however, also creates friction – as the very mundane and benign, runs parallel to extreme danger and inhumanity – at an emotional level, but also in efforts to align very differing perspectival scales, where emergent scales of experiences point in contrasting directions.
Transcending the logic of nested and taxonomical scales
Maria’s spaces of everyday life centre on her role as a single parent, but also as a black woman living in Oslo. As for many migrants, professional aspirations drawing on educational trajectories interrupted by international mobility are challenged by integration processes. Her neighbourhood is one where she is often reminded of her difference, foremost as someone poor in comparison to the well-off neighbourhood she lives in.
Maria’s engagements are multiscalar not only at the local levels of neighbourhood or city. Societal development for Maria hinges on a memory of the past, which is linked with an understanding of the present and a vision for the future, which acknowledges the multiscalarity of human experience. She works, part-time, in a museum with cultural heritage. Simultaneously, her interest in cultural heritage, combined with her roots in Congo, and seeing the future of her children in Norway, leads her to seek new opportunities:
it’s a project that inspired me (I…) it’s something I came up with after hearing – I proposed to study objects from Congo, because they [at a museum] were having difficulties with them. They were spending lots of money on conservation, but didn’t have a lot of information, nor documentation about the objects. And that’s when I asked if could be involved, have it like a project. It was approved, but without funds. So I do it, because I find it interesting (…) They [the museum] are interested in the project. I have been to see the archive and there are more than 4000 registered objects in their database from Congo in Norway. I have started with the project. I feel this is something useful and interesting thinking about my own history
Maria was supported by staff at the museum, supervising the conservation work and supporting her ambitions to develop an exhibition. The exhibition became reality a year after the interview was conducted, the process involving seminars with the Congolese diaspora in Norway, and positive reception. Meanwhile, Maria is supporting her little family, through her part-time job at another museum, whilst finalizing her education. This reveals a degree of friction, where Maria’s experienced and emergent scales are multiple – anchored in different spheres, geographies and temporalities. These include both recognition and a precarious work situation, leading to perspectival scales which transcend the logic of taxonomical, nested scales. Walking with Maria after the interview, she reflected:
the way I think about it, life unfolds itself and I am part of everything: my family, I am part of Congo and of Norway, and everything that happens around me. That makes me who I am. I can’t devote all my life here, and say that I will only attend church and be involved in church, no, that’s not possible, because I am a human and affected by my little family, with my child, and my child is part of sports and school and that’s how it becomes important for me to take part in that as well. And in terms of Congo, I have to be part of the diaspora, for my children as well, and then my work, this is where I make the money I need.
As is revealed in what Maria says – the emergent scales of her everyday life are not nested and taxonomical, yet they are grounded.
In Khiem’s descriptions of the spaces of his everyday life, his roles as a parent and husband, a Catholic and as someone enjoying football, as a Norwegian citizen and as someone identifying with the Vietnamese diaspora, as employed in the health sector and as a human rights activist, all came across. The location of Khiem’s everyday life was predominantly in Oslo, Norway, although he traveled all over the world, in connection with his transnational political engagement.
As we started the interview, Khiem apologized for being late, he came straight from a parent meeting at his son’s nursery, where, as is customary in Norway, towards the end of the meeting a representative for the parent’s council is appointed:
what happened (laughing) … Well, I am sure everybody had valid reasons not to volunteer … it was all quiet and I didn’t think anyone would do it. Then I thought that I have more than enough to do, but I am sure I could do a little more. And then I also thought that this is a nice way to get involved in my son’s day-to-day life
Khiem’s motivations for what he does, are spatially anchored in multiple geographies, and there is a temporal and familial interplay, where a nested approach to scales in a taxonomical sense appears insufficient:
I am going to live in Norway for the rest of my life and this despite of my involvement for Vietnam, and I wish to contribute in Vietnam and if I have the opportunity to, I would like to travel to Vietnam and help out there. But I think the rest of the family wants to live here in Norway. Let’s say, if I went to Vietnam for a short time, but I am going to be here [in Norway] forever… With that I think it is important that I establish myself in working life and within society, and be socially involved and with work, and try to be involved and help out if possible
For Khiem his political engagements are clearly transnational, and oriented towards Vietnam. Yet, he does not travel to Vietnam, but to other diaspora hubs, and to him these geographic locations, together with locations in Vietnam and in Norway constitute a meaningful spatial unit, where his life plays out. Not long ago, Khiem said:
we had this thing, a memorial for all the refugees who came with boats was to be set up, this was in collaboration with the municipality of Oslo. Then the embassy [Vietnamese] wrote a formal complaint to the municipality of Oslo and told them to stop this monument, if not there would be repercussions
The memorial indeed caused diplomatic stir, and was delayed for several years, but was finally unveiled in 2015.Footnote 3 Meanwhile, the multiscalarity of transnational politics becomes evident from this example, pointing not only to the roles of Khiem and others who were actively in favour of the memorial, but also to dividing lines among the Vietnamese diaspora, as well as the ways in which politics in Norway became integrated with Vietnamese politics through the embassy’s involvement. Here the taxonomical, emergent and perspectival scales interlock in varying ways.
Unpacking the interactions of migrant transnationalism and integration
Returning to theorization of interactions between migrant transnationalism and integration, and what constitutes an experience of membership ‘here’ and ‘there’, the above experiences offer some key insights. On the one hand, it is not straightforward to disentangle the ‘here’ and ‘there’ of where life is anchored: is it conditioned on physical presence? Or on mental presence, as indicated by Yacob’s story of his daughter’s thermos flask and the transnational mobilization for an Eritrean woman kidnapped in the Sinai desert? The simultaneity – and inherent friction in this story – are two key elements in taking the theorization of interactions of migrant transnationalism and integration further. It is necessary to not leave the focus on the locatable and measurable activities here and there, but also to give equal weight to those things which a focus on emergent scales allows us to grasp.
On the other hand, it is possible to point to instances of interactions from the above experiences which are locatable in a ‘here’ and a ‘there’, and which might be typologised as additive, synergistic and antagonistic examples of interactions of migrant transnationalism and integration (Erdal and Oeppen 2013). Starting with potential antagonistic interactions, Yacob’s example of a physical presence and mental absence is relevant. Because of something happening elsewhere, Yacob might (theoretically) be assumed to be distracted from practices ensuring his membership of society, in everyday life in Oslo. By contrast, had he not focused on the elsewhere, his membership in the transnational community of Eritreans in the diaspora, closely connected to people in Eritrea itself, could be seen to be at risk. At the face of it, the combination of physical presence and mental absence ‘here’, with a physical absence and mental presence ‘there’, might be assumed to work in an antagonistic way, although this would assume a zero-sum approach to belonging, which there are good reasons to question.
Claudine’s story of her husband’s sudden travel to be present at his mother’s funeral is an example that might be counted as an antagonistic interaction of activities ‘here’ and ‘there’. Financial priorities ‘here’ were re-organized, in order to attend to familial obligations ‘there’ (Carling et al. 2012). However, it is perhaps more of a leap to argue that this has clear adverse implications ‘here’, in the long run, although in the short term this was the case. ‘There’ implications would have been more adverse perhaps had Claudine’s husband not travelled, in the sense of upholding a sense of remaining a member who belongs ‘there’.
Both of these examples, as many other above may, however, be interpreted in alternative ways. For, in the lives of Claudine, Yacob, Maria and Khiem, instances of interactions between transnationalism and integration, may simultaneously entail antagonistic aspects, as discussed above, but might also be seen in additive terms, running parallel and to some extent following logics isolated from one another, such as in the case of Yacob and his daughter and the woman in the Sinai desert. Claudine’s husbands travel to his mother’s funeral might also be seen in additive terms, whether for him or them as a family, there were simultaneous activities in Norway and in Rwanda, which in some ways simply added to the level of activity, not necessarily directly affecting each other so much. Possibly, there could be a synergistic interpretation, whereby because Claudine’s husband could travel to his mother’s funeral, he felt more fulfilled and later invested more intensively in gaining his qualifications, having gotten the possibility to say a proper farewell, and experience some shared closure with his siblings, confirming membership and belonging ‘there’.
Yet, these are only fragments of two of the stories, and such a reading of interactions between migrant transnationalism and integration, tries to categorize migrant experiences in ways which run counter to the multiplicity of their lived experience. As the stories reveal, there are instances where their sense of membership of societies, may entail an additive interaction, a synergistic one, or an antagonistic one. Meanwhile, the fact that multiple locations, scales and spheres overlap and clash, necessitates an analysis which allows space for friction beyond a geographic ‘here’ and a ‘there’. In order to extend the theorization of interactions of migrant transnationalism and integration beyond a focus on the ‘here’ and the ‘there’, two dimensions merit further analytical scrutiny: simultaneity and friction.
First, we must pay closer attention to the salience of simultaneity in lifeworld’s that are spatially anchored in multiple geographies. Geographies in the sense of specific locations of presence and of absence; usually tied to relations with other people. The relevance of different locations in migrants’ lives, suggests that their interplay and the very simultaneity thereof, is a key element of what is being experienced, and thus contributing to emergent scales of interpretations of one’s own life but also of the world around.
However, acknowledging the fact of simultaneity is not enough: simultaneous membership (partly or fully) in two societies, necessarily comes with friction. In Waldinger’s (2017) terms a dissimilation from the societies of origin, paralleled with the experience of xenophobia (and xenophilia) in societies of settlement, results from a two-sided cross-border friction.
Therefore, and secondly, we must pay attention to friction. Friction, as discussed by Anna Tsing (2005), is caused and revealed through interconnectedness and a crucial aspect of migrant experience. Different spheres, geographies and temporalities, which come together in migrant transnationalism and integration, inevitably result in friction. Yet, whilst such friction may be seen as inherently problematic and inevitably untenable (Waldinger 2017), or in relation to globalization referred to in terms of a ‘clash of civilizations’ (Tsing 2005), an alternative reading is possible.
For friction is not only a result, rather friction may also produce movement, action and effect, reflecting conflicting social interactions in an interconnected world (Tsing 2005). Theorization of the interactions of migrant transnationalism and integration cannot ignore friction – yet interpreting this necessarily as a sign of an antagonistic relationship, or of an additive, rather than a synergistic one, is reductionist, and ignores the possibility of productive friction.
Analyzing interactions of migrant transnationalism and integration through a multiscalar approach, which foregrounds the roles of nested and taxonomical scales, but equally of emergent and perspectival scales, across time, space and position, prompts the realization that friction may be experienced both as productive and as destructive. The simultaneity of perspectives and experiences which are grounded ‘here’ and ‘there’ – avails migrants who are engaged both ‘here’ and ‘there’ with opportunities, but also challenges – financially as well as emotionally. Analyzing these opportunities and challenges from the perspective of nested, taxonomical scales – where membership simultaneously in two geographically distinct and distant societies is impossible, because you are either ‘here’ or ‘there’ does not grasp the totality of migrant experience, as evidenced in the above extracts. Instead, including – also – the possibility of multiple emergent and perspectival scales, allows for a fuller rendering of migrant experience, where friction may be experienced as both productive and destructive at different points in time.