Version classiqueVersion mobile

Vulnerable Solidarities: Identity, Spatiality and the Contentious Politics of Migration

Anna Finiguerra

2. Theoretical Framework and Research Design

Texte intégral

2.1 Solidarity through Vulnerability

1Against the pervasive and capillary forms of marginalization that intersect in regimes of mobility control, resistance has increasingly coalesced around the concept of solidarity, redrawing communal boundaries based on a shared conception of humanity (Squire 2018; Rygiel 2012; Sandri 2018). Activist discourses have long included solidarity as a rallying cry to action. The use of such a term in the context of the activism on behalf of and together with migrants, refugees and sans-papiers has become so crucial to the self-understanding of such mobilizations that it has prompted activists to adopt the name ‘solidarians’ (della Porta 2018). However, some questions remain unanswered. What meanings are attached to solidarity in this context? How is it translated into political practice? What role does it play in the formation of resistant alternatives? To answer these questions, it is necessary to have an overview of what solidarity can entail more generally, and how it can be translated into action.

2The concept of solidarity has a long and varied history, and its usage in everyday language has generated new and wider shades of meaning (Sholz 2015). One tenet at the very core of the concept is its mediating power between the individual and the community. While solidarity might mean different things at different points in time and in different contexts, there remains a relational dimension to the concept that usually calls individuals to action on the basis of common moral commitments, or as Sholz (2015, 725) puts it ‘the obligations of a moral relation’. Similarly, Wilde (2013, 1), while providing what he calls a normative definition of solidarity, claims that it entails a ‘feeling of sympathy shared by subjects within and between groups, impelling supportive action and pursuing social inclusion’.

3This twofold definition breaks solidarity down into two moments. The first revolves around the recognition of a common feeling, which might entail empathy, compassion or even pity. The second instead entails a call to action to address the wrongs that have been identified in society. Understood as such, solidarity assumes both the recognition of a pre-existing sense of fellowship with strangers, or the creation of such a sense of commonality, and the definition of a political project to which one might aspire as a form of ‘supportive action’. Many a definition of commonality is built on claims to a common humanity, however poorly or thinly defined, and this can sometimes run the risk of creating an essentialist, universalist, equally exclusive fiction (Wilde 2013). Moreover, the ‘recognition’ of humanity is as much the invention and production of a certain definition of humanity, which is contextual and contingent, usually highlighting certain characteristics as those that truly make one human.

4Recognizing the danger of defining solidarity solely on the basis on a predetermined human essence, Rorty (1989) argues that it is not the recognition of a pre-existing similarity that prompts people to act on their feeling of solidarity, as if similarity and difference were two opposing poles with no intermediate ground. Rather, it is the recognition of certain contextual similarities, and the downplaying of differences – which seem in the historical moment less salient – that triggers the acting out of solidarity. The contextual, salient similarities to which he refers are to be found in humans’ vulnerability to pain and suffering (Rorty 1989, 192), providing the necessary grounds for the process of identification, and lying at the basis of the concept of human solidarity.

5Putting vulnerability at the centre of any conception of humanity has serious implications for the ways in which we think about agency and political subjectivity. In particular, by recovering the agency of the suffering body and the status of the victim figure as the site where any relationship of care is first established (Vaittinen 2015), it is possible to restructure completely, not only the terms of humanitarian protection and the figuration of its subjects/objects, but also the possibility of lending full political agency to their claims. Rather than viewing the suffering body as a new homo sacer, heedlessly sacrificed (Agamben 1995; Edkins and Pin-Fat 2005), this conception of humanity leads us to re-evaluate the value of suffering as a trigger for meaningful political action.

6Vaittinen (2015) effectively argues for moving the starting point of the politics of care away from the act of caretaking and back to its origin, the suffering body. However, Vaittinen (2015) recognizes that the suffering body is powerful only when considered legitimate in the sense of being mournable (Butler, 2004 cited in Squire 2018) and thus being discursively legible as non-expendable. Being grieved becomes another condition for the recognition of shared humanity (Butler 2003), which sits beside the recognition of a mutual vulnerability to suffering. No action is possible without the reading of violence as illegitimate, and that in turn is not possible without the affirmation that the victims of suffering are not expendable lives, as they often are determined to be in the processes of humanitarian protection (Fassin 2007).

7Once certain lives are seen as non-expendable, the ontological reality of the suffering body becomes necessary to even speak of care, and as such, it renders vulnerability the more politically meaningful and powerful ground for discussion (Vaittinen 2015). Furthermore, a focus on relatedness and on degrees of neediness, which belong as much to those commonly identified as vulnerable as to everyone else, makes it possible to rewrite the identities and roles of the care recipient and caregiver. By putting care and neglect on a continuum that takes into account the vulnerability of the care recipient and the finiteness of the capabilities and resources available to the caregiver – both emotional and material – Vaittinen (2015) opens up a path to mediating the inequality present in the exchange, and to evening out the field of analysis.

2.2 Practicing Alternatives

  • 1 These spaces will be hereafter referred to as ‘solidary spaces’. This choice is determined by the c (...)

8Solidarity anchored in suffering and mourning, as fundamental facets of humanity, can constitute the precondition for meaningful political action. However, this is not sufficient for the realization of any resistant political alternative. The shifting identities of care-giver and care-recipient, of guest and host, of migrant and solidarian are not merely abstract notions but are performed through the practices of aid and resistance, just as they are produced in the contextual spaces and relations in the borderland. The role of space and the re-construction of space through the action of solidary initiatives is just as important as the re-articulation of social and political dynamics inside the safe spaces1 created by activists. To be more precise, the restructuring of space and the renegotiating of power dynamics go hand in hand, thanks to what authors have called ‘adversarial spatial practices’ (Feigenbaum et al. 2013, 171). By representing a material opposition between the camp and the outside, adversarial spatial practices, understood as the very existence of camp boundaries and its spatial presence, condense the internal governance dynamics of the camp in opposition to its outside. In this way, they mediate both the internal organization of the camp and its attempt to propose political and social alternatives.

9This insight, emerging from studies of protest camps – especially as a repertoire for action for new social movements – effectively links the creation of a basic form of community with the re-articulation of political processes through the practicing of grounded, contingent alternatives. Community in this sense is understood as a basic form of sociality and communitas, informed by the dissolution of difference. The latter is fostered by a shared experience of liminality and organic horizontality, which consists in the creation of an internal organization based on trust and on a modality of ‘power with’, as well as the role of a common opposition. The importance of a common opposition, namely those power structures to which the camp seeks to provide alternatives and to which it resists, is crucial in determining the boundaries of the camp, which are both material and discursive, including ‘physical barriers, legal strategies, visual and soundscapes, countercultural demarcations’ (Feigenbaum et al. 2013, 206).

10Inside the camp-space, the proliferation of resistant, insurgent identities is supported not only by outright political action, such as protests or awareness-raising, but also by attempts to reimagine social relations in a completely new way, rearticulating the status quo through an emphasis on practices of social reproduction, not only intended as cultural but also material. The ways in which protest camps blend together forms of alternative living with forms of political action, redrawing the boundaries between politics and daily life, restructure not only the power dynamics of the borderland but also the distinction made by activists between the provision of direct aid and protest (della Porta 2018; Ataç 2016).

11Rather than establishing the primacy of either direct aid over protest or vice versa, solidary spaces rearticulate power from the ground up through their practicing of alternatives, which enshrine new, reciprocal relationships in the provision of aid, while at the same time shifting the figuration of the migrant away from images of powerless victimhood lacking political agency. The establishment of horizontality in practices of decision-making, communal living and shared vulnerability to police violence in protest is a definite means of establishing forms of equality in transit that disallow both the rationale of exclusion practiced by the state and the logics of bare-life enshrined in humanitarian protection. Furthermore, the refusal, even the impossibility, to build a coherent long-term movement strategy that might be expressed outside of these spaces, in more familiar political scripts based on protest or claim-making at large, allows for their engagement with a form of ‘interstitial politics’ (Pignarre and Stengers 2011) that transcends the distinction between direct aid and formally understood political organising.

12The embodied experience of the camp is crucial for its existence as a political form, and it is the relationship between the political community in becoming, and the individual contribution, that makes it a prime site for political development. The camp form can be fruitfully analysed as a political event where the parts – whether the individual participants or the non-human structures of the camp – all participate in the creation of a space and a political figuration that is much more than their sum. This view has crucial implications for the concept of political agency, as it is commonly understood. If the camp, as a whole, is the completion (the political event) of all the different components that participate in it, the importance and the import of human and non-human agency is both more and less than what it is often portrayed to be.

  • 2 In the case of social movement analysis, the concepts of framing or narrative are very commonly use (...)

13The concept of non-sovereign agency (Krause 2013) allows us to highlight the fact that, when departing from a sense of identity belonging to a human actor, and the diagnostic capacity that that sense of identity often provides,2 agency is often a fraught and incomplete process that never comes to completion unless inserted into a wider political context. In this case, the action of a single individual often has meaning in the way in which that action interacts with other human and non-human actors, bouncing off their own existence and intertwining with it. Agency then is less an individual possession than it is an intersubjective phenomenon that draws complex ties between identity and political events. This is compatible with the relational understanding of care and vulnerability, not only as a spectrum, but also as an agentic component of political practice. The refusal to identify a privileged subject/object of political discourse or agent of political action evades the creation of that same hard boundary of selfhood and community (Ashley, 1989), a hard boundary that supports and justifies the securitization of migration, the paternalistic logic of humanitarian protection and the dehumanisation of mobile people.

14This refusal can constitute what Stengers et al. (2010) terms ‘minor key’ thinking, or an ecology of practices as a thinking tool, for both theoretical and political activism. An ‘ecology of practices’ as a mode for thinking means thinking through the middle in the sense of:

Both the middle and the surroundings or habitat. ‘Through the middle’ would mean without grounding definitions or an ideal horizon. ‘With the surroundings’ would mean that no theory gives you the power to disentangle something from its particular surroundings, that is, to go beyond the particular towards something we would be able to recognise and grasp in spite of particular appearances. (Stengers 2013, 187)

15As a political praxis, an ecology of practices thrives on ‘hesitation’ (Stengers et al. 2010), the process of questioning contextually the validity of accepted and pre-existent norms and rules, as opposed to ‘obligation’ – formulations that imply and require obedience.

  • 3 Stengers (2013) in particular refers to non-humans as both ideational and material matter that caus (...)

16The practice of ‘hesitation’ as a political tool leads to ‘giving a situation that gathers the power to force those who are gathered to think and invent’ (Stengers et al. 2010, 21). The value of situational and environmental material for enabling political creativity and a form of political enactment that eschews identity and identification, substituting it with a sense of becoming in togetherness between humans and non-humans3 in the situational milieu, has been articulated as ‘minor politics’ (Rose 1999; Squire and Darling 2013) and a ‘politics of cramped spaces’ (Walters and Lüthi 2016; Thoburn 2016). Walters and Lüthi (2016) make special mention of the localized spaces of borders and borderlands produced by migration flows, as both situationally and materially ‘cramped spaces’ that give rise to new political forms and creativity.

  • 4 Here I refer to social reproduction in its widest sense possible: both activists and migrants in Ca (...)

17The activists involved in these projects refuse to be cast as privileged caretakers of their less-able charges, taking on the name of ‘solidarians’ (della Porta 2018), living in the camp-spaces along with the migrants, cooperating with them in carrying out basic daily activities of social reproduction4 as well as management of the solidary-spaces. The role of solidarity in particular seems to set this specific form of activism off from other forms of humanitarian mobilization based on forms of pity and compassion. Rather than reinforcing privilege by hardening the boundary between carer and object of care, activists seem to attempt to navigate those spaces of inequality and difference with a grounded, practical mind-set that allows them to position themselves materially and ideationally beside and with migrants.

2.3 Ethics of Care and the Persistence of Gendered Dynamics

  • 5 The problematisation of the realm of social life or more precisely of social reproduction, understo (...)

18One feature that is common to all camp-spaces is the way in which they break down the boundary between politics, the democratic public sphere, and the domestic dimension of the home and of social reproduction. By being equipped with necessary ‘re-creation infrastructures’ (Brown et al. 2017), camps successfully politicize the process of care-taking and social reproduction5, making it part of the political project rather than an obscure, invisible precondition to political action (Ataç 2016). However, gendered power dynamics with respect to the status quo of the wider society often risk remaining unchanged. Authors have suggested that the endurance of such unequal structures points to the ways in which caring for the well-being of subjects is outsourced though oppression (Feigenbaum et al. 2013), while the threat of internal violence and insecurity often generates gendered mechanisms of masculinist protection and feminine vulnerability.

19Gendered dynamics enter solidary spaces in two forms: as a structuring force for relations of care and the division of emotional labour, and as a productive lens through which (in)security is articulated. As described above, the performance of humanity through solidarity practices is anchored to a mutual sense of vulnerability and a ‘moral duty’ to care. However, the ways in which such care work is distributed may, under certain circumstances, reflect a gendered division of labour though which women are distinguished as the primary caretakers. This is often due to an understanding of care work as intimate, subservient and nurturing, leading it to be constructed as ‘naturally’ feminine. The feminization of care work has been shown to be dependent on both the number of women who take up such work in many sectors, and the ways in which the female ‘touch’ is constructed socially as caring, as opposed to a masculine touch which might instead be considered predatory (Cohen and Wolkowitz 2018).

20The identification of care work as intimate and feminine, even when performed in a space that undercuts the usual boundaries between the public and private domain, is accompanied by the development of gendered mechanisms of masculinist protection (Young 2003), where it is the duty and privilege of men to protect their vulnerable charges, such as children and female kin. This mechanism, which structures the private and public divide in liberal societies, as well as gendered constructions of the state and security in international relations, also informs the management of protection and (in)security, as well as exploitation in the borderland. In this situation, women are put in a subservient position, abdicating their agency to their male protectors, while men play the role of both heroes and villains, representing the hope of protection and at the same time the threat of violence.

  • 6 Although these dynamics cannot be ignored, as they play a crucial role in defining relations in the (...)

21Regardless of the attempt to build inclusive solidary spaces that could serve the needs of all of its denizens, in addition to an organic dialogue on gender issues in the borderland, the lack of any formal and informal measures to enforce security in these camp-spaces have driven relations of (in)security to become dependent on organic, gendered structures of kinship. These relations, based on trust and personal connections, although they represent a vehicle for the construction of a baseline sense of belonging to the community of the borderland, can ultimately end up mirroring the same gendered dynamics structuring patriarchal households, exposing women to gender-based and sexual violence as well as exploitation. Furthermore, racial tensions often offset the coming together of these spaces, when organic horizontality have failed to make an appearance as a levelling force of difference. Awareness of difference and privilege has informed much self-reflection on the part of activists and migrants, sometimes succeeding in creating a viable, equitable community, and sometimes failing in the view of many, contrasting and interlocking the dynamics of difference and power that structure life in the borderland.6

2.4 Some Notes on Methodology and Ethics

22Ventimiglia, like other migration hotspots in Italy, has seen a constant flow of transit and temporary settlement of migrants attempting to cross the border into another European country. It has become a crucial node along the migration routes connecting the African continent and the Middle East to Europe. Like other localities in proximity to securitised borders (such as Calais in France, Idomeni in Greece and Ceuta in Morocco), the presence of migrants, rarely successful in the crossing, has sparked the creation of several solidary initiatives to address the immediate needs of people in transit (such as food, shelter and medical attention). These initiatives are both representative of volunteer humanitarianism by grassroots organizations, and of professional humanitarian actors such as the Red Cross or the UNHCR. Furthermore, Ventimiglia, like Calais, which has been the focus of a large portion of scholarly literature on the matter, has seen not only formal and informal humanitarian organizations working on the ground, but also several waves of mobilization of volunteer humanitarianism. As such, Ventimiglia offers the possibility to analyse some trends that are comparable to other sites in Europe, and also to contrast forms of resistance among themselves, given the variety present across time in the same place.

23In Ventimiglia, activists have built and seen destroyed several distinct camp-spaces, in addition to other initiatives, which, while not sharing the material form of the camp, fulfilled the same function of opening up solidary spaces that resisted power dynamics in the borderland. This is the reason behind my insistence on the term ‘solidary spaces’, identifying my unit of analysis not on the basis of their material form, but their process of formation as well as their function. This contingency has allowed for the internal comparison of their respective governance structures and relationships between migrants and activists, revealing differences that further shed light on how understandings of solidarity and humanity, shared by all waves of mobilization, were translated into practice differently, and had equally different outcomes.

24My empirical analysis consisted in qualitative, semi-structured interviews and a short period of participant observation. Interviews were carried out in a period between February 2019 and March 2019, in English and in Italian. I contacted interviewees first through the public Facebook pages of the organizations to which they belong, and later though referral by other volunteers. Interviews were recorded and later transcribed and translated. I obtained permission to record and to later quote excerpts in my final work. I also offered to have volunteers read through the transcript and have the final say on what could be disclosed in my work, however many refused or accepted without offering any feedback. Quotations and references were anonymised, with specific locations and names being either undisclosed or changed.

25The same process of anonymisation was applied to the information gathered in my field notes. During my stay in Ventimiglia, I was hosted by the group Kesha Niya in their campsite, helping out with their daily activities at the frontier. The working languages during my stay were the result of an overlapping mix of Italian, French, English and Arabic, which I attempted to carry to the page as undiluted as possible, although my role in putting together this work should make anyone wary of believing themselves to be reading anything other than a (re)presentation of the borderland in Ventimiglia. Much of the crucial information I gathered was the result of my experience as a fellow volunteer on the frontier. I was unable to obtain verbal permission to report several of the exchanges or events that I witnessed due to contextual circumstances, although my role as researcher was disclosed to all activists with whom I worked and to anyone with whom I interacted at length. However, I decided to use some of them in my research regardless, with the proviso that they have no foreseeable negative implication for the safety of the people involved. My choice was informed by the general ethical aim of not only harming none but also attempting to have a positive impact on the dynamics I studied (Schrag 2011; Wolf 1994). Silencing those realities could have no positive implications that I could imagine.

26This commitment opens up a number of different questions. Firstly, it poses the question of reasonable expectations for the effects that a Master’s thesis can possibly have on a very specific and fraught policy area. Secondly, it poses the question of whose good should be struggled for, and what good actually means in the contextual environment of my research. Assuming that I will be able to affect more strongly those with whom I have come in contact with and vice versa, I believe that asking questions and possibly sparking debate and reflections in people who are on the frontlines of these issues is the best possible – or reasonable – outcome that I can strive for. To this purpose, I was asked, and agreed, to circulate the final text of my thesis to the activist groups with which I interacted.

27If research is intended to spark conversations beyond the boundaries of academia and possibly become useful for practitioners (Ackerly 2008), then it must be written so that it is accessible to them. Far from emptying it of value as knowledge production, it gives back to knowledge a more engaged and practical purpose. Rather than the researcher having differing and conflictual responsibilities to his or her respondents and audience (Wolf 1994), the researcher’s interviewees and collaborators can become the primary audience of a scholar’s analysis, in view of the relevance it could – maybe should? – have for their lives. Of course, this seems much truer for some research topics rather than others, but I feel that it is especially relevant to research on activism. In my case, I intend to share my analysis with my interviewees in the most complete manner possible, hoping to have written a final product that will make sense to me as much as to them, while also striving to bring something new to the table.


1 These spaces will be hereafter referred to as ‘solidary spaces’. This choice is determined by the context of my empirical analysis. In Ventimiglia, some of these initiatives had the form of camps, however, not all of them did so, regardless of the fact that they fulfilled the same function of re-articulating the power dynamics in the borderland through alternative practices of care-taking and aid.

2 In the case of social movement analysis, the concepts of framing or narrative are very commonly used to mediate the connection between subjective identity and political action (Daphi 2017; Dietz and Garrelts 2014). The two concepts have been articulated in different ways, but they both provide a theoretical framework for the analysis of how political identities mobilized by a group might allow its members to ‘read’ political situations; identifying issues, attributing blame and proposing solutions, as well as positioning their own action in a wider context of past and present mobilizations. Solidarity, as described above, can be construed as a frame steering political action, however that is not the complete story. While solidarity has guided mobilization in this sense, its translation into practice has just as many implications for the form that political activism has taken, and its outcomes.

3 Stengers (2013) in particular refers to non-humans as both ideational and material matter that causes humans to think. It is interesting to consider how the process could be conceptualized as a sort of ‘becoming human’ (again) in the case of migrant activism. To this end, it is useful to consider the discursive opposition between abject victimhood and being human in virtue of mutual vulnerability. Thanks to the politically creative environment of the camp-space, migrants are able to become human again, in a process that is totally situated and ‘entangled’ with its material and social milieu.

4 Here I refer to social reproduction in its widest sense possible: both activists and migrants in Calais for instance were in charge of running Children Centres offering schooling to migrant children; activists in Sarajevo offer English courses; activists and migrants in many camp-spaces cooperate in cooking meals, building shelters and keeping facilities running.

5 The problematisation of the realm of social life or more precisely of social reproduction, understood as the re-production of bodies through the fulfilment of basic needs as well as the re-production of subjectivities through education and knowledge production, as a political arena is a core contribution of literatures that tackles ‘protest camps’ as forms of resistance (Feigenbaum et al. 2013; Brown et al. 2017; English et al. 2019). Indeed, the political dimension and transformative potential of these modes of political organising is considered to lie exactly in their capability to foster the practice of alternatives in localised spaces through the creation of new internal social and political organisations.

6 Although these dynamics cannot be ignored, as they play a crucial role in defining relations in the borderland, it would be a mistake to consider the above discussion complete or exhaustive. Due to the limited scope of this study, it was impossible to delve more deeply into the gendered structures that pervade solidary spaces. However, at the same time it seemed equally impossible to entirely exclude a discussion on these issues. Therefore, this might constitute an interesting starting point for further study, rather than a conclusive analysis of the subject.


Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search