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Returning to a Better Place: The (Re)assessment of the ‘Good Life’ in Times of Crisis

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - BETLIV (Returning to a Better Place: The (Re)assessment of the ‘Good Life’ in Times of Crisis)

Reporting period: 2019-08-01 to 2021-01-31

This project is concerned with people’s (re)assessment of what makes for a ‘good life’ and of where such a good life may lie as a result of experiences of ‘crisis’, notably economic crisis. Its contribution rests on a multi-sited, empirically grounded study of the imaginaries and experiences of ‘return’ of Ecuadorian and Cuban men and women who migrated to Spain, are dissatisfied with their lives there, and envisage/carry out the project of going back to their countries of origin.
With this in mind, the project consists of three closely interrelated subprojects with a strong collaborative dimension, including visits to each other’s field sites and reciprocal access to research participants and findings. Subproject A, in Spain, focuses on Ecuadorian and Cuban migrants and the ways they articulate experiences of crisis with projects of return and imaginaries of good living. Subproject B, in Ecuador, and Subproject C, in Cuba, focus on migrants’ return experiences and their (re)assessment of good living in light of their migratory trajectories.
At a theoretical level, the project aims to bring together and contribute to three main areas of enquiry in the social sciences, which are 1) the study of morality, ethics, and what counts as ‘good life’, 2) the study of the field of economic practice, including its definition, value regimes, and ‘crises’, and 3) the study of migratory aspirations, projects, and trajectories. To do so, it treats situations of ‘crisis’ as generative moments in which visions of the good life, and of where such a good life may be, are explicitly debated, articulated, and compared.
Seeking a better life is arguably the goal of many migratory projects and an issue at the core of public and political debates in present day Europe. While much attention is paid to the influx of migrants into Europe, often underpinned by assumptions about the ‘better living’ conditions there, the issue of ‘return’ is less prominent in public debates, as is a more profound discussion of what such a ‘better living’ may look like. Accordingly, the project aims to contribute to debates on these matters.
Since the start of the project in February 2018, a total of nineteen months of field research, including recruitment of over ninety research participants, have been carried out in different towns and cities of Spain, Ecuador, and Cuba.
The empirical material gathered so far sheds light on several research foci addressed by the project. Bringing together and expanding on current scholarship on migration, economic practice, and ethics, the cases of Ecuadorian and Cuban returnees elucidate the connections that exist between migrants’ experiences of economic crisis in Europe, the decision to return, and their reassessment of what makes for a ‘good life’. Migration-related expectations and obligations help explain the pressures felt by returnees and the tendency to assess a better life in terms of ‘economic success’. In-depth ethnographic engagement with key participants, however, also points to the possibility of important shifts in values and aspirations, and for alternative delineations of what constitutes a ‘good life’. Innovatively integrating a feminist lens, preliminary analysis of cases of Cuban and Ecuadorian migrants in Spain suggests that they downplay the economic dimension of their migratory trajectory, foregrounding instead individual desires and self-accomplishment. In all three subprojects, migrants’ articulation of what is valuable and worth aspiring to, and of the places that are more conducive to achieving a better life, are strongly informed by the situations in which they currently find themselves.
The empirical research has been partly disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with research in Spain relying on digital methods to complement participant observation and post-March 2020 fieldwork stays in Cuba and Ecuador postponed. In the meantime, knowledge transfer efforts continue via conferences and workshops, the project’s website, and outputs in public news outlets. Also underway is the preparation of collaborative events with scholars and publics at the crossroads of several disciplines in the social sciences and humanities, notably in the fields of migration and Latin American studies. With four outputs published so far and several articles and book chapters in progress, the study is making significant contributions to the areas of scholarship addressed in the project.
The research is already making contributions beyond the state of the art, to be further consolidated and expanded by the end of the project.
One area of contribution interrogates lay notions and experiences of living conditions – frequently articulated as country-specific ‘context’, ‘place’, and ‘system’ — and their importance in shaping people’s aspirations and life choices. To move beyond taken-for-granted views of crisis and migration as sources of discontinuity in people’s lives, the project empirically grounds the occurrence, extent, nature, and perception of such change. Focusing on (dis)continuities in people’s visions of the ‘good life’, we are thus able to ascertain whether, and how, experiences of crisis and migration lead people to either change their views and aspirations, or to reassert them, looking for other ‘places’, ‘contexts’, and ‘systems’ to fulfil them.
A related and promising axis of exploration concerns notions, experiences, and effects of ‘comparison’. This includes the use of comparison in social science research more generally, but also of the ways it finds expression in the lives of our interlocutors. Research is lacking on how people evaluate, compare, and put into perspective different meanings of good living and their socio-cultural anchorage. By uncovering both the mechanisms and contents of such comparisons, the project provides unprecedented clues on the formation of diverging and converging ideas about good living. This enables us to uncover how narratives of the good life circulate transnationally and globally, helping to surpass the more frequent but ultimately limited anthropologically informed insight and advice (including in public policy and debates) that ‘local differences matter’.
Another emerging area of contribution relates to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on our interlocutors’ lives, their notions of ‘crisis’, and how this leads them to (re)imagine and (re)assess their migratory trajectories and plans for the future. The evidence gathered so far indicates that the Covid-19 pandemic is amplifying preoccupation with, as well as reflections and controversies on, the very meaning of ‘living’, ‘living well’, and ‘living better’, with people reassessing, for instance, the relative importance of material goods, family, spirituality, or economic opportunities. Further exploration in this direction promises to expand the project’s theoretical contribution and societal relevance.
Additional inter- and cross-disciplinary initiatives in the form of written outputs as well as workshops, conferences, and events, are planned for the remainder of the project. In particular, an international conference for 2022 on the migration experiences of Latin Americans in Europe is in preparation, targeting members of the academy, students, civil society associations, and the interested public more broadly. Writings for public media and the policy world are also foreseen as the project nears completion.
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