Austerity Diasporas – Portugal and Migration

Lisa Rodan continues our “Austerity Diasporas” series, with a second post related to her ongoing PhD research into the experiences of Portuguese migrants affected by the 2008 crash and ensuing austerity. The first post focused on social changes leading up to the 2011 Austerity measures. In this post, Lisa describes the influence of migration on Portuguese culture and history, sharing some of the main messages emerging from her fieldwork with migrants in the UK.

Mass migration is a concept that has shaped Portugal since the 15th century. The cultural sentiment of saudade for that which is missing or lost echoes within literature, discourse and the very soul of the Portuguese. According to any Portuguese you will ever meet, saudade is untranslatable to those whose country has not been shaped by chronic partings and longings to return.

So what’s different now? Throughout my research, my respondents have all been quick to point out the answer. Of the 110,000 Portuguese who left their homeland in 2013, a third now had degrees. Graduate migration was double what it was 10 years earlier. According to Joana, 35, a molecular biologist who did her PhD in Spain before moving to London where she has just had her first child, this was a structural problem born during the golden years of early EU membership – “that explosion of university education was short-sighted,” she says, “the labour market couldn’t cope with all the graduates. For me, I love my country but what would I do there? There is nothing for me there professionally.”

“The middle class is dead” says the father of another of my respondents. A 60-year old doctor with two jobs and three children studying and working abroad, in his opinion it all started going wrong with the Euro. “This is no longer a localised crisis, where you can just migrate and establish new communities, it’s a global one and where is it felt most? In the same countries who only a generation ago were welcomed into the European ‘family’ with open arms.”

Levels of cynicism vary according to the individuals behind those statistics. Carrying values inherited from post-EU prosperity, they don’t talk of ‘migration’, which is associated with rural, uneducated movement, but ‘adventure’, ‘opportunities’ and ‘choice’. In some cases, historical class divisions are noticeable- about a quarter of my respondents claim “no-one had migrated before”. Further probing revealed they meant “no-one like me”. These are the descendants of factory owners, landowners or the long-standing urban middle classes. In other words, a section of Portuguese society that had generally left travelling abroad for work to poorer country folk. For most of my respondents however, migration is a vibrant part of their family history. Many have parents or grandparents who had travelled to work in French hotels or Swiss construction sites, often commuting between there and their families back in the villages of (mainly) northern Portugal.

Regardless of family background, what the current generation have in common is the expectation of a standard of living based on the model their parents were able to provide for them growing up. Plentiful opportunities for work, eating out, travel. “Not luxurious, but a good life” is the common refrain. The Erasmus university exchange scheme is often mentioned as a rite of passage, following a childhood of holidays around Europe. “We are children of the EU” says Nuno, 32, an architect with an Italian wife, “it feels more natural to make a life here in London than anywhere else.” He presents the crisis as a positive thing, facilitating his decision to leave.  Susana, 34, a nurse, agrees. “I didn’t have to come, I had a job. I just wanted a better one! One where I could grow, start my life. It’s not like it was in my father’s day, he had no education and had to leave just to find work so he could support us.”

Dancing around claims “it’s not about work” however, professional success is the narrative that dominates and is interwoven with frustration at the lack of opportunities to progress and have a comparative standard of living back home. Despite initially being firm to differentiate their experience of migration as distinct from earlier generations, as I got to know my respondents I began to note a continuity of experiences. Many people referred me to a cultural concept known as desenrascar– another of those enigmatic Portuguese expressions which is variously described as ‘getting by’, ‘making do’ or ‘hustling’. Nearly three quarters of the people I spoke to had parents who had worked outside of Portugal at some point in their lives. Of these, many of them were also the children of retornados– the name given to the three quarters of a million Portuguese who were repatriated from Portugal’s African colonies after her empire crumbled in the 1970s. “Angola, Mozambique…those countries were all part of Portugal at the time,” they tell me, “so it wasn’t really migration. It was just going somewhere else in Portugal to try your luck.” Even Joana with her PhD and criticism of Portugal’s unrealistic expectations of the 1990s later tells me about her family’s route from Guinea-Bissau and her siblings now scattered around the world, adding “that’s just the way it is in my family, you are expected to migrate…it’s more unusual if you don’t!”

I did not meet a single person who came to the UK without knowing of someone already here. Sometimes a distant cousin or a long-lost childhood friend, reunited through Facebook, but in several cases a close family member. The social, financial or practical support of existing communities in both London and Portugal established a form of transnational movement equally, or perhaps even more, connected to each other than at any time in the past. Digital communications, a product of the same raging technological progress that crippled economies and crushed social systems have enabled deeper continuities with home and more extensive local networks in the latest chapter in a long history of movement out of a periphery country towards the global centres of power.

Lisa Rodan is a third year PhD student in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent where she is working with three colleagues on an ESRC funded project entitled Household Survival in Crisis: Austerity and Relatedness in Greece and Portugal.

For the past 12 months Lisa has been carrying out ethnographic interviews with university educated, Portuguese people in their 20s, 30s and early 40s in London, supplemented by time spent in Portugal where she has been lucky to meet some of their families. In a series of posts Lisa will share her initial analysis of some key themes arising from her fieldwork data, which she began to collect in June 2016 just after the Brexit vote. These encounters have ranged from one-off interviews to valued friendships and time spent with each other’s families. The content of the series will be a very close reading of  fieldwork notes in their raw form. Lisa welcomes any input and suggestions from interested parties.

Thinking Differently About Peri-urban Infrastructures

In today’s post, Valeria Gaurneros-Meza dn Steven Griggs report on the results of a two day workshop on peri-urban infrastructures hosted by CURA at DMU on May 2017.

Whether we are travelling to work on a train, flushing a toilet, turning on a light, or sending an email, our daily lives depend upon repeated interactions with multiple and complex systems of infrastructure. Yet few of us regularly stop to consider our reliance on such infrastructure and how it shapes our daily life – unless it is one of those days when these complex systems break down and we are immediately exposed to the costs and frustrations of their absence.

But, as we are only too aware, many communities pay such costs every day. Some live next to airports or under flight paths, or experience the ‘threat’ of development to their quality of life. Others live without access to water or sanitation, often forced to develop their own informal practices to substitute for poor or lack of provision. In fact, it is often these very communities that pay the costs for the provision of infrastructure, as they are uprooted to make way for the likes of international airports, or suffer the environmental costs of the new mining practices upon which infrastructure development relies.

This unequal politics of infrastructure provision has been widely recognised. Infrastructures are far from neutral tools or technologies. They are governing instruments that shape collective and individual behaviour. They are the products of social struggles, exercises of power and forms of resistance. Their governance cannot therefore be divorced from questions of democracy, citizenship, social justice and economic equality, as well as rival claims to knowledge and expertise.

With this in mind, shouldn’t we all think a little more about the infrastructure that inhabits our everyday lives? And if so, how? How do we think beyond the debates over the economic and engineering value of infrastructural investment that abound?

These questions formed part of the agenda of a two-day workshop held in May 2017 on governance and conflict in urban and peri-urban infrastructures, sponsored by CURA and the British Academy. Of course, many have grappled with such questions. Here we set out the potential avenues of inquiry that emerged in the course of discussions between participants at the workshop.

Learning from difference

The two-day workshop brought together scholars based in Britain and Mexico to exchange their experiences of researching in and around infrastructure projects in Europe and Latin America. Its starting point was the importance of comparison and exploring how we might learn by comparing difference – how different scales, contexts, histories and framings of issues may shed light on what we take for granted or force us to reconsider our ways of thinking.

Recognising complexity

Much of our discussion underlined the need to grapple with complexity. Complexity comes in different shapes and forms. It was identified in the varied relationships between citizen groups and state agencies which cut across different levels of government and local and international non-governmental organisations and social networks. It comes with different histories and the need to understand legal and other institutional traditions (such as ethnicity and identity) in shaping the forms taken by contestation and resistance. Finally, it is to be found in the mechanisms and strategies used to withhold power by elites and by grassroots groups in challenging those centres of power. Grappling with complexity has to be intrinsic in any understanding of communication mechanisms (i.e. dialogue, consultation, diffusion of ideas/knowledge, resistance), where simultaneous practices are undertaken by individuals and groups to maintain or fight domination without recourse to coercion and repression.

Exploring conflict

The study of conflict through its myriad forms exposes critical junctures in the investment in new infrastructures. We need a broad understanding, from the development of knowledge and expertise as a form of control to the barbarism of violence and repression prompted by state actors in collusion with big national and transnational corporations. Indeed, the role and value of legal knowledge was foregrounded not only as a vehicle to study conflict between capital elites and local communities, but also the capacities of resistance, the redistribution of power in infrastructural investments (if any), and their broader interrelationship with the environment and climate change.

Investigating spatial geographies

The spatialisation of politics is widely recognised. Processes of infrastructure development bring into being new political spaces. But to what extent does infrastructural investment enhance or blur the linkages between the rural-urban divide? Although there have been important debates on land use, production, and circulation of goods and services to define urbanism, one pressing area of inquiry is the interrelationship between urban-rural actors in their contestation and resistance to landscapes impacted by urbanisation.

Everyday practices

Infrastructures can provoke moments of conflict and crisis. But we should not ignore the everyday practices that surround infrastructures or compensate for them. These practices impact upon changes in production, consumption and the political institutions of localities experiencing major infrastructures. This focus on everyday practice and knowledge may well open up alternative opportunities for local tiers of government to challenge national decisions that have been overridden by global economic interests and for social mobilizations to potentially connect with broader environmental and social justice demands vis-à-vis economic compensations.

A new research agenda: infrastructures as political objects

Each of these new directions or avenues suggest the importance of viewing infrastructures as ‘political objects’ (to borrow from the recent study from Cole and Payre of ‘cities as political objects’). ‘Seeing’ infrastructure investment in this way leads us to spend time exploring the political discourse of infrastructures to understand: the contextualised rationales behind ethics, corruption and illicitness; governmental decisions and the simultaneous use of informal arrangements alongside expert knowledge; and the type of relationships and spaces built between social mobilisations, the state and the private sector. This offers us a future research agenda that cuts across global north and south dichotomies – an agenda that this network of researchers would like to pursue in the next few years.

The Workshop Participants

Vanesa Castan-Broto (Sheffield University)

Mercè Cortina-Oriol (DMU)

Dan Durrant (Bartlett School of Planning, UCL)

Jonathan Davies (DMU)

Adam Fishwick (DMU)

Armelle Gouritin (FLACSO-Mexico)

Steven Griggs (DMU)

Valeria Guarneros-Meza (DMU)

Graeme Hayes (Aston University)

Ibrahim Has (DMU)

David Howarth (Essex University)

Ernesto Isunza (CIESAS-Golfo)

Marcela Torres (FLACSO-Mexico)

Gisela Zaremberg (FLACSO-Mexico)

This blogpost was written by Valeria Guarneros-Meza and Steven Griggs, CURA members. The authors are grateful to the workshop participants for their contribution to the ideas developed in this post. All interpretations are of course the responsibility of the authors.