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Mobilities, Boundaries, and Travelling Ideas

Philipp Schröder
Manja Stephan-Emmrich

Afterword: On Transitive Concepts and Local Imaginations — Studying Mobilities from a Translocal Perspective

Barak Kalir

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1Translocality as an analytical concept appears to have ignited the imagination of many scholars who are considering and reconsidering multiple mobilities in space and time. In different academic quarters, there is a perceptible increase in the scope of social issues and the breadth of geographical locations that fall under a translocal magnifying glass. The conceptual appeal of translocality, I believe, has much to do with its transitive character. The seductiveness of transitive concepts was explained to me in a particularly convincing fashion by the late Gerd Baumann, an outstanding anthropologist, a gifted musician, and an inspiring teacher. ‘Transitive concepts are good to think with’ Baumann enthusiastically advocated, ‘because they put the finger on processes and they capture the cadence of social change’. Indeed, a cursory view of the great contemporary and classic works that have had a lasting effect on the social sciences reveals the dominance of transitive concepts in shaping analytical frameworks. From the booming field of transnational studies to the importance of translation, and from transactional theories, transhistorical accounts, transborder movements, transcultural education, and transgender controversies, to all sorts of intriguing deviant transgressions, and to the divine evocations of the transcendental, one is easily left with the idea that all ‘great transformations’ are intimately linked to the vital prefix ‘trans’.

2Some of the most obvious advantages of using transitive concepts can be found in the ways they sensitize us to alteration and movement rather than to fixity and preservation. They pay heed to borders and boundaries precisely because they focus our gaze on their permissiveness and on the things that move across them (Kalir and Sur 2012). Transitive concepts foreground the condition of being betwixt and between (Turner 1975) when it comes to the identities, locations, and positions that actors occupy, embody, and enact in their everyday interactions with others. Transitive concepts, thus, make us attentive to potentialities and to creative processes that continuously make and remake our social as well as our material world.

3Translocality, in particular, is a powerful analytical concept because it invokes the transitive features of locality. The notion of locality is intuitively and romantically associated with fixity, boundedness, tradition, and conservation. By adding transitive dimensions to the notion of locality we whimsically highlight and inventively break open the intricate links and productive tensions between mobility and motion on the one hand, and place and community on the other. Much of the budding literature on translocality in recent years has carved an large niche for the translocal (Brickell and Datta 2011, Freitag and von Oppen 2010, Greiner and Sakdapolrak 2013). It suffices here to recall how Freitag and von Oppen (2010:5), in their introduction to what is by now a seminal volume on translocality, dedicated a section to ‘Translocality as an object of inquiry and as a research perspective’. This is understandable, as translocality seem to be the ‘new kid in town’, recently joining the much older and more established debates around processes of globalization and the omnipresence of transnationalism as an analytical framework for studying mobilities and flows.

4There is something stimulating about the contributions in this book, which undoubtedly has to do with the exciting analytical originality and richness on offer, as scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds use a translocal magnifying glass to inspect very different empirical case studies. Yet this collection adds something else to the existing literature by revealing a compelling sense of maturity within the field of translocal studies. This refreshing sense of confidence in translocality as an established field of inquiry is demonstrated throughout this volume and is plainly proclaimed in the introduction, where the editors attest that all the contributions ‘tackle “translocality” as a social reality’ (p. 31).

5By bringing together the work of scholars with very different disciplinary, empirical, and thematic approaches in an unapologetic manner, the editors make the merits of studying translocality instantly apparent to the reader. In what follows, I would like to highlight three major analytical advantages of working in a translocal vein, which are made evident in this book. The first has to do with the prime role of imagination in inspiring our interlocutors as they creatively contemplate and investigate translocal mobility. Since working with the imagination can (fortunately) be contagious, contributors to this volume appear to have been inspired to pursue their own ‘sociological imagination’ (Wright Mill 1959) in their analysis of translocal dynamics. The second advantage of a translocal approach is methodological in essence: the protracted engagement with localities as crucial research sites that register changes, which results from a concern with mobilities, immobilities, and the intersections between them. Finally, the role of emotion is central to many of the chapters, which causes me to ponder a possible link between a translocal perspective and the recent ‘affective turn’ in anthropology and other disciplines. Translocality can illuminate in its full colors the intimate and fascinating role that emotion can play in inducing motion.

6But allow me to begin with what is probably the most arresting tension in this volume, namely the proclaimed openness that comes with a translocal approach and the regional focus of the collection. As the editors justly claim, the findings in the different chapters ‘strikingly reveal the benefits of a translocal perspective for studying movements, transfers, and exchanges in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and beyond’ (p. 30). It is ‘and beyond’ that saves this statement from becoming an oxymoron. As becomes apparent in many of the contributions, the vitality of a translocal perspective renders impossible a geographical focus on Central Asia and the Caucasus. For example, following the trajectories of Kyrgyz traders has taken Philipp Schröder all the way to south China as well as to the middle of Russia; the study of Tajik middlemen and students has taken Abdullah Mirzoev and Manja Stephan-Emmrich to Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; and tracing the making of a new Kyrgyz ‘globalizing ethno-nationalist’ history has led Svetlana Jacquesson’s account to the heart of Europe.

7While a geographical focus can understandably provide coherence to a volume such as this, the editors are the first to point to its potential limiting effect. In situating the volume in the tradition of ‘new area studies’ the editors attempt to bring elasticity to the notion of an ‘area’ and to conceive of it as an idea rather than as a concrete territorial space. Notwithstanding this effort, one of the major achievements of this collection, in my opinion, is the wealth of connections — imagined and real — that are drawn by mobile subjects in making (sense of) their movements, circulations, and exchanges within trajectories that do not lend themselves neatly to any (political?) attempt at zoning.

8This leads me straight to one of the palpable gains I see in translocality as a creative and critical approach that treats imagination as a crucial ingredient in understanding the role and experience of mobility in localities around the world. Although it is impossible to quantify the influence of the imagination on people’s decisions, almost all of the contributions in this collection heed its importance in shaping people’s aspirations for, and practices of, mobility: from Muslims moving within an imagined overarching global community of believers (umma) in the past (Abdullaev, Chapter One) and in the present (Mirzoev & Stephan-Emmrich, Chapter Three), to imaginings that relate to the past glory of a re-emerging Silk Road (Alff, Chapter Five, Fehlings, Chapter Seven, and Schröder, Chapter Eight), to an imagined global ethno-nationalist history (Jacquesson, Chapter Six), and sacred ancient lineages (Malikov, Chapter Three). Furthermore, Dungans in Kazakhstan seem to be under the spell of the (at least partly imaginative) promises of Chinese modernity (Alff, Chapter Five), while post-Soviet men in Kyrgyzstan are enchanted by reveries of Islamic purity (Nasritdinov, Chapter Ten), and hypermobile Tajik student travellers entertain imaginings of ‘pious endeavours’ (Stephan-Emmrich, Chapter Nine).

9It was C. Wright Mills (1959) who argued for the importance of the ‘sociological imagination’ in tying everyday subjective experiences to social structures and historical developments. Following his cue, many scholars have since elucidated the pertinent role of the imagination in swaying the energies of individuals and groups towards the realization of major projects, for example, the fermentation of nationalism and the formation of nation states (Anderson 1983), the invention of traditions and histories (Hobsbawm and Ranger 2012), or the consolidation of geography as in the ‘imagining of the Balkans’ (Todorova 2009). More specifically, in relation to mobilities, the ‘American dream’ has (falsely) fuelled the imagination of millions with respect to socio-economic mobility (Hochschild 1996), while going overseas to promising destinations has always been a dominant image in metaphors of mobility (Cresswell 2006) and in propelling migration worldwide, not always in rational or predictable ways (Alpes 2014, Kalir 2010, Massey et al. 1999).

10Translocality, being actor-centred and sensitive to the everyday nature of particular localities, causes the researcher to consider closely the agency of the researched. The translocal point of departure is therefore often the aspirations and inspirations of our interlocutors as they imagine, plan, and undertake different types of mobility in interaction with other relevant mobile and immobile subjects. The openness to the trajectories of our interlocutors, with no preconceived territorial parameters for what is to be considered meaningful mobility, appreciably distinguishes the creative potential of translocality from run-of-the-mill migration studies and from transnationalism in particular. Migration studies and transnationalism concentrate our attention on specific geographies (mostly international mobility) and prioritize certain subject of study (such as integration). Whether focusing on those who settle down elsewhere or those who move across national borders, these approaches to mobility are primarily informed by the researchers’ ideas or paradigmatic analytical frameworks regarding the type of moving that matters (Kalir 2013).

11Conversely, translocality is a creative approach that enriches our understanding of a changing world by exploring movement in ways and places that matter to those who engage in or experience mobility. Whether people move to a neighboring village, cross national borders, or take a flight to another corner of the world, translocality treats all these movements as equally meaningful and significant, both for the localities themselves and for those within them who move or stay put. The potential long-lasting contribution of translocality to the social sciences might very well be its ability to capture, and consider as meaningful, any movement that is conceived as such within a locality by our interlocutors. In this sense, translocality is neatly wedded to the creative capacity of ‘grounded theory’ (Glaser and Strauss 2009). Translocality allows our understanding to be directed by the experiences of those involved in movement and change, rather than by a top-down imposition of analytical schemes and methodological standards. There can therefore be little doubt that the gains of a creative bottom-up translocal perspective are maximized by studying movement without a geographic barrier, that is, without setting territorial limitations on our potential object of study.

12There are obvious methodological and epistemological implications of approaching translocality as a bottom-up, actor-centered approach, which dovetail with longstanding debates about the production of knowledge in the social sciences and the humanities. Focusing on non-elite actors’ accounts in rewriting history (Jacquesson, Chapter Six) or on narrating subjective aspirations for and experiences of historical mobilities (Abdullaev, Chapter One), calls to mind Spivak’s (1988) disconcerting question about the ability of the subaltern to speak. Engaging in close encounters with interlocutors to co-produce our accounts of mobility (Schröder, Chapter Eight) invokes challenging discussion about the ownership of the text and the ‘poetics and politics of ethnography’ (Clifford and Marcus 1986). While these are important debates to be had when crafting translocality as a programmatic approach, I would like to highlight here another methodological aspect that has to do with its long-term engagement with specific localities.

13The ‘mobilities turn’ (Urry 2007) has been widely welcomed as an overdue and updated way of doing research in a world that is increasingly in motion (Massey et al. 1999). Methodologically, the study of mobilities has contributed to a dominant social scientific inclination to move away from the anthropological tradition of studying neatly defined units: places, communities, sectors, and so on. Following people and commodities, studying flows, and capturing global encounters (Appadurai 1996, Burawoy et al. 2000, Tsing 2011), have become — methodologically and thematically — the order of the day. We are now at a point, I believe, when it is worth considering whether the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Do we too often study mobilities in ways that eclipse the intimate and patient examination of localities?

14It appears that nowadays, ‘deep hanging out’ (Geertz 1998) with a certain group in a certain locality is increasingly considered by many researchers as limited and limiting (Wogan 2004). Bucking the trend, translocality thrusts our scrupulous inspection back to localities not simply as nodes in a wide network of mobilities, but as important research sites in their own right. Locality, then, is not simply a point of departure to study mobilities, nor is it a point of arrival in the sense of measuring the impact of economic and social remittances (Levitt and Schiller 2004) or of return migration (King 2015). Locality, rather than regaining its importance from the ‘mobilities turn’, has arguably always been a site where change is felt constantly and is registered in people’s shifting practices, beliefs, and imaginations. In light of the contributions to this book, I would suggest that paying attention to the stationary should not be confused with entertaining a conservative perspective about fixity and permanence.

15There are two exemplary contributions in this volume that illustrate the outstanding quality of a translocal perspective in capturing mobilities within a changing locality: Henryk Alff‘s (Chapter Five) examination of the changes in villages around Shortobe in southeastern Kazakhstan that result from Dungan relationships with China, and Emil Nasritdinov’ s (Chapter Ten) exploration of changes in Botanika in Bishkek. These fresh contributions are so telling about the potency of a translocal perspective because they root their detailed accounts of change in a long-term engagement with a particular locality. Both accounts take the reader on a trip across time that spans more than two decades and captures a transition from Soviet times to a new articulation of post-Soviet meta-narratives (religion, modernity) and everyday practices (pious deeds, consumption, trade, education). This long-term engagement with a locality is a rarity in much contemporary social scientific research, which is increasingly geared towards ‘going with the flow’ or is otherwise limited in its engagement with a single research site, not least due to budgetary and time constraints that have to do with the neoliberal restructuring of academic institutions (Holligan 2011).

16Among other things, a protracted engagement with localities is effective in sensitizing us to the intricate relations between the mobile and the immobile. In recent years, attention has been increasingly drawn to ways in which mobile and non-mobile subjects are entangled in a web of connections that shape the possibilities for mobilities and the meanings they assume in different contexts (Kalir 2009, Porter et al. 2010). Adding to this growing body of literature, the contribution by Susanne Fehlings (Chapter Seven) exposes the increasingly restricted mobility of female petty traders in Georgia, and highlights a negative correlation between physical mobility and socioeconomic mobility. Given that structural market circumstances have changed in ways that disfavor petty trade, mobility either becomes immobility for some or leads to increased poverty for others. In her contribution, Elena Kim (Chapter Four) fixes her gaze on one village to account for the mobility-related impoverishment of already poor families who are made increasingly dependent on changing irrigation schemes. Both accounts demonstrate how a translocal perspective — with its attention to mundane changes in localities; to flows of ideas, subjects and objects; and to the interplay between mobile and immobile people—can reveal retrogression and stagnation as well as advancements in people’s lives. This is a sharp correction to an implicit assumption about the positive effects of movement that underlies many migration and mobilities studies (Glick Schiller and Salazar 2013). Translocality can thus highlight the ‘dark side’ of mobility that affects millions of people who, although not necessarily ‘on the move’, are experiencing mobility in ways that spell disaster for their basic livelihood, family structures, and emotional ties.

17Emotions are present in different contributions in this collection. This points us, potentially, in an exciting direction for the study of translocality. Emotions are clearly and intimately linked to the motivations that propel people to undertake mobilities, as well as the ways in which mobile and non-mobile subjects experience mobilities and their material and cultural consequences. It is less clear, however, whether there is a direct relationship between a translocal perspective and an awareness of the role of emotions. While the jury is still out, the contribution by Stephan-Emmrich (Chapter Nine) convincingly introduces the term ‘emotional geographies’ in examining how mobile Tajik students consider emotion in their experiences of ‘good or bad Muslim places’. For his part, Philipp Schröder (Chapter Eight) recalls his interlocutors’ and his own emotions of shame and embarrassment as crucial in the delicate negotiation of access to intimate spaces and moments in a translocal field(work). Many of the other contributions, although they do not discuss emotions directly, make recurrent references to desires, longings, nostalgia, pride, and other feelings in their investigations of interlocutors’ dealings with (im)mobilities.

18Hence, translocal studies can tap into a burgeoning debate about emotions among scholars who are swept up by the recent ‘affective turn’ in the social sciences (Clough and Halley 2007). Rather than thinking of feelings as ‘autonomic processes that take place below the level of conscious awareness and meaning’ (Leys 2011:437), translocality can show the value of ‘ethnographic accounts that are specific about how humans’ perceptions are social all the way down’ (Martin 2013:157). In other words, translocality is positioned at a strategic spatial and temporal crossroads, allowing it to demonstrate that emotions — emanating from an individual sense of belonging or displacement, yet feeding collective negotiations of communal identities and traditions — are socially produced in particular contexts to manage tense and potentially jolting constellations of mobility and change. To this we can add the invaluable intersection between emotion and imagination, as well as the manner in which objects can produce feeling. Taking our cue again here from Stephan-Emmrich, the usage of iPhones by Tajik students is not simply a new medium to document and communicate their spiritual progress as they move between ‘pious endeavours’. Instead, it is the very consumption of prestigious goods that largely produces emotions among these young and aspiring mobile subjects: a sense of progress, excitement and pride.

19To conclude, the promise of translocality as an exciting conceptual framework to analyze mobilities is tremendous. Translocality provokes us to reconsider our study of mobility as an examination of an ongoing process of em-placement as well as of re-placement. It is a process in which ideas, goods, and people are changing places, moving from one location to another, transforming, and being transformed by both mobile and immobile actors. Crucially, translocality highlights and analyzes these processes of re-placement from a perspective that is grounded in the everyday and emotional experiences of those who are affected by (im)mobilities. A translocal perspective is vital because it allows us to interrogate mobilities without privileging physical movement between places as the thing that matters most. In other words, movement from a translocal perspective is measured not in meters but in matters.



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Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of Amsterdam (the Netherlands) and co-director of the Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies. His ethnographic work on migrants from Latin America and China has been published in leading journals including International Migration, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Social Anthropology, and Sociology of Religion.


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