Contemporary social life under the conditions of global capitalism is fundamentally determined by things. This human–thing relationship seems quasi-natural. Things are, of course, essential in carrying out necessary functions in everyday life: to communicate, to provide protection against heat and cold, to prepare food, to maintain one’s health.
Some things carry promises: emotional closeness, the promotion of self-expression, the acquisition of prestige. Bureaucratic things – a piece of paper, a passport – decide one’s fate. Things can trigger desire, despair, joy and a whole range of other emotions. Things may be functional, may have a personal value, may be charged with emotion, may be political, and they can, very often, be transformed into something else entirely. But one’s relationship to things, so often taken for granted, is challenged by the conditions of flight and migration. Firstly, people on the move need to develop new ways of living – a process that requires fundamental renegotiations of ties to people and material objects. Secondly, one’s quasi-natural relationship to things is challenged when an entitlement to them is contested. When from September 2015 increasing numbers of refugees came to Germany, calls for donations of clothes attracted a broad response. However, with the donations, debates started about the appropriateness of certain things being in the hands of refugees (Pellander and Kotilainen 2017), and these debates touched upon fundamental issues of power and boundary-drawing between refugees, migrants and citizens of a nation state (see, for example, Spencer and Triandafyllidou 2020; Gaibazzi et al. 2017; Holmes and Castañeda 2016). In other words: Who is entitled to an iPhone 7 or a pair of Nike trainers? Whose life is bare enough to receive help? What things are really necessary? Under the ‘normal’ circumstances of life, such questions are rarely asked, but they do refer to our fundamental relationship to things.
An excerpt from 'Introduction', by Andrea Lauser, Antonie Fuhse, Peter J. Bräunlein and Friedemann Yi-Neumann, Material Culture and (Forced) Migration.
Andrea Lauser is Professor in the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, Georg August University, Göttingen, Germany. Antonie Fuhse holds a PhD in social anthropology from the University of Göttingen. Peter J. Bräunlein holds an extracurricular professorship in the study of religion from the University of Bremen. Friedemann Yi-Neumann is a research fellow of the migration exhibition project ‘MOVING THINGS’, University of Göttingen.