Collaborative Research Project USC-Paris 8

The importance of mobility in pre-modern societies no longer needs to be established. The scholarship of the past two decades has shown that the idea of mostly sedentary populations, closed and stable until the industrial revolution, which was influenced by earlier analyses in historical demography, is no longer valid. Though the most innovative works concern mainly the early modern period, the new approach to migration also constitutes a “migratory turn” for the study of all the pre-modern societies. In the case of ancient societies, the renewed analysis of archaeological, epigraphical and legal sources generated a new world of investigation, which researchers have explored from various perspectives: demographic, technological, cultural; social and political; economic and ecological.

Our project draws on this historiographical renewal, in which some of the present authors have participated, and resonates with current and tragic events over the globe. Yet we propose an important shift by focusing on the migrants’ point of view. In order to understand better the migration phenomenon, our aim is to develop a historical phenomenology and anthropology of migrations along the following three axes:

– the first axis has a practical dimension and concerns the experience of mobility on land and sea, as well as in host places: how do migrants organize themselves, what sort of documents and objects do they bring with them? What are their emotions and fears? And more broadly, what sort of precariousness and insecurity do they face and what kinds of solutions are brought forth? Notably, how do they develop trust relationships with foreigners?

– The second axis has a cognitive dimension: does one develop a specific knowledge through mobility? Does mobility shape how one thinks and conceptualizes his/her environment? What is the mental and spatial horizon of migrants?

– The third axis has a reflexive dimension: how is mobility perceived? What are its values? How does the migrant reflect on his own experience and how does he/she express it? Finally, what is the place of those on the move in a given society?

The answers to these questions vary according to time and space: can we be more specific about these variations? Where do we see ruptures? With what kinds of categories can we approach the different levels of the migratory experience? Is the nature of insecurity, for instance, the same in ancient societies as nowadays?

Our project focuses on pre-modern societies in order to assess whether there is a unity in this problematic over the long term, yet we will at times go beyond and explore these questions in modern societies. Our aim is to understand what has changed with the transition to nation-states and to globalization, beyond technological changes — but also how technological changes have an effect on experiencing mobility. This comparison over time will help us to construct a genuinely historical anthropology of movement; indeed, the migratory patterns reflect diverse conceptions of the world and of mankind — for example the tension between xenophobia and hospitality, the perception of space, or the relationship between mobility and family structures. The analysis of practice is intertwined with that of representations, which in turn determine population movements and migratory policies.

Such an approach in terms of representations and practices requires the collaboration of literary scholars, anthropologists, historians and legal historians.

This project regroups members from various departments at USC (Classics, History, USC Gould School of Law) and at Paris 8 (History).

For questions, please contact Claudia Moatti (Paris 8-USC) at moatti<at> or Christelle Fischer-Bovet (USC) at fischerb<at>