The Imperative to Travel, the Stigma of "Migration"

Everywhere I turn, people are talking about their travels. My students thrill at the prospect of study abroad. Making an appointment for coffee with a colleague, the two of us juggle our respective travel schedules. The world of on-line dating is so awash in bragging about travel (“33 countries and counting!”), one site is built around the premise. They promise to set you up with a travel partner.

Why has travel come to occupy a central place in the creation of social distinction as well as in class warfare (against innocent women and children, no less. Yes, I’m looking at you Jeff Sessions!)? I think this is partly an artefact of globalization. Globalization has an identity problem. It offers few avenues of identity expression. How can people demonstrate they are modern in the globalized sense? It's not so easy, but travel offers the surest route.

It's probably because I am the odd anthropologist who is also a real homebody that I couldn’t help but notice travel has become de rigueur in some of the social circles I visit. I’ve learned nobody wins popularity points at parties by announcing, “This summer, I am looking forward to a staycation.” Least of all an anthropologist. Aren’t exotic get-aways what we’re all about?

I have also been studying men’s labor migration from Mexico, which led me to observe that not all travel gets treated the same. Travel for leisure or high-status work is a mark of distinction. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu might see it, travel is a way for people to announce their social standing. Trips to Cancún or other international beach locations have become essential parts of living a middle and upper class life, at least in the United States.

But distinctions always require their counterparts. The counterpart is a stigmatized Other against which the distinction can be compared. In the comparison, the Other inevitably comes up short, a déclassé alternative to the real thing.

When it comes to travel, it seems there are two candidate Others. The first are the people who cannot travel. These people are generally poor'; many are also rural. They have neither the means, social connections, nor the savvy to navigate foreign settings. The second group are the low-skilled labor migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. These people have no choice but to travel.

Travel as a matter of distinction is part-and-parcel of a globalized world. Social mobility in a global economy requires worldly mobility. I suspect the backlash against migration we are seeing in the last years has partly to do with the attempt to preserve travel as a status marker for elites. Unregulated flows of labor migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers can undermine the prestige travel confers. How can travel be something truly special if just about anybody can do it?

The use of travel as a status marker is important because globalization poses particular problems when it comes to identity formation. To understand why this is the case, think back to an earlier era of “economic development.” In the 1990s, economic development gave way to globalization, although I think it would be more accurate to say that from an identity perspective “developed” and “globalized” are now two, rival ways people seek to establish themselves as modern. (A topic for a possible later post.)

How does a person show they are “developed”? Mainly through education and consumerism. By achieving a high school or college education, and by translating this degree into ownership of a car, a house with indoor plumbing and electricity, etc., a person could be recognizably “developed.”

How can a person show they are “globalized”? The answer is less clear. Globalization is about interconnectedness rather than things. Globalization operates in the language of “flows” and “frictions”. Neither of these is very amenable to identity formation. Flows and frictions are difficult to translate into tangible items or actions around which people can cultivate distinction. Some of the isolationist rhetoric in the United States today seems geared to turn back the dial on globalization and re-set the terms of distinction around development with its achievable status markers.

This is where travel becomes crucial. In a globalized world, a passport filled with stamps, a travel blog, stories of your latest trip abroad—complete with new Facebook friends who post, tantalizingly, in a foreign language—offer incontrovertible bona fides. They are evidence that a person has flowed and, perhaps, come into friction with distant places. They are the diplomas of the globalized set. When small talk at cocktail hour turns to travel, and I say I would rather stay at home, the idea is unsettling because it suggests I am refusing a globalized identity.

As with any trend, the distinction travel offers is offset by its very popularity, its accessibility. Global social structures make travel an imperative for upper and lower classes alike. But the imperative undermines the distinction upper classes may claim by travelling.  

One possible response to this problem, and the one Jeff Sessions seems to take, is to create categories of movement that allow for some kinds of travel to be valued while others are stigmatized. What’s been surprising in all this is the punitive approach the Attorney General is taking. As I write this, news outlets are reporting the US government has created “tent cities” to house children taken from their immigrant parents under Sessions’s directive. The idea astounds. If I am right, in order to maintain travel as an elite privilege, Sessions has decided to incarcerate children. Even breastfeeding infants are not exempt.

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