Hannah Jones & Emma Jackson: Creeping Familiarities and Cosmopolitan Futures

Stories of Cosmopolitan Belonging_book coverCreeping Familiarities and Cosmopolitan Futures


by Hannah Jones & Emma Jackson

What does it mean to belong in a place, or more than one place? In our new book, Stories of Cosmopolitan Belonging: Emotion and Location (2014), we bring together chapters from a range of contributors to argue for greater attention to how feeling and emotion are deeply embedded in social structures and power relations, and how transnational connections constitute local places, by paying attention to everyday artefacts and experiences in empirically-based theory-building.

The project grew out of our own research interests, working alongside a group of scholars and friends sharing developing ethnographic work through the NYLON network (http://ipk.nyu.edu/working-groups/nylon) and Goldsmiths PhD community over the last decade. While the ‘affective turn’ seemed increasingly to be becoming a cliché, disparaged (sometimes unfairly) for resorting to internal psychological indulgences that neglect structures of power, we were interested in the ways that feeling, emotion and affect are precisely important because of the ways they reinforce or disrupt social relations of power. We were noticing these themes emerge in different ways in much of the work that our contemporaries were producing, but it wasn’t necessarily named or brought together in this way. In particular, the importance of feelings of belonging or exclusion in work that crossed disciplinary boundaries between sociology, geography, cultural studies, urban studies and anthropology was a rich source for reflection on such connections. We were especially keen to build on the traditions of building theory from empirical research and encounter which was an important part of what we shared with these working groups. With a very positive response to a panel we (with Alex Rhys-Taylor) organised on this theme at CRESC’s conference on “Framing the City” in 2011 (http://www.cresc.ac.uk/events/framing-the-city-the-cresc-annual-conference-2011) we invited some of the researchers and writers whose work influenced or connected with ours to contribute to this volume.

Approaching our writing as an empirically driven project means grappling with the realities of differential experiences of mobility, belonging and power, and of citizenship, for different people as they reside and travel. For us, cosmopolitanism is ordinary. Our book draws on experiences of cosmopolitan belonging in the sense of ‘belonging’ – or not – to different places at different times, or to several places at once, and to how this belonging – or not – remakes places as well as people. But the strict sense of ‘cosmopolitan’, as ‘citizen of the world’ is not quite right for our project.

Others have attempted to develop and use the concept of cosmopolitanism in ways closer to what we mean here, moving beyond ‘methodological nationalism’ (Beck and Sznaider 2006) in order to recognise that the nation-state is rarely the most useful unit of analysis for understanding interconnected social processes. But while Beck and Grande call for a ‘methodological cosmopolitanism’ which ‘takes the varieties of modernity and their global interdependencies as a starting point’ for thinking and research (2010: 412), this has been critiqued, for example by Paul Gilroy, for a residual Eurocentrism of focus which must be defeated in order to ‘enrich European sociological understanding by folding the way it has been understood by its Others back into its operations’ (Gilroy 2010: 622) and thereby produce the ‘planetary humanism’ of a ‘cosmopolitanism from below’ (Gilroy 2004). Such ‘planetary humanism’ has in turn been critiqued by Tariq Jazeel (2011), with the argument that some form of closed universalism is inherent in cosmopolitanism, if this is equated with ‘planetary consciousness’ where the planet has a closed-off edge and is seen with a ‘view from nowhere’ (after Haraway 1988). Jazeel’s problem with cosmopolitanism is that he sees this as synonymous with a call for ‘living together’ and ‘toleration’, which assumes a privileged agent doing the ‘tolerating’ (2011: 86). This contrasts with the way we are using ‘cosmopolitan’, which is not about a normative descriptor of settled or desired multicultural relations, but about a way of understanding the ongoing relations between people and social formations which make one another up, across distance and time.

For us, these arguments between social and political theorists over what could and should be the way we think about a concept are just one example of the limitations of theory divorced from empirical engagement. A more promising model for the way we are trying to engage with theory, materiality and political intervention may be found in the work of Rosi Braidotti on ‘nomadism’. For Braidotti also rejects the ‘methodological nationalism’ of academic disciplinarity, which limits understandings of the social world by trapping habits of thought within one set of traditions, rather than gathering resources from wherever available, this latter move being what she calls ‘nomadic theory’ (Braidotti 2011). She also argues that the social world we study is inherently ‘nomadic’ (or what we are calling cosmopolitan) in the sense that it is in movement and without fixity, that each element is not separate but connected, relational and constantly being remade – that, following Deleuze and Guattari, we should conceive of the social world not as ‘things’ but as ‘processes’ (Braidotti 2011: 15). And finally, she applies this nomadic perspective of rejecting fixity to the mission of the scholar – to produce knowledge, but not to imagine this is an intellectual process separate from existence and intervention in material relations (Braidotti 2011: 19, see also Keith 2005).

When we use the term ‘cosmopolitan’, it is largely in parallel with Braidotti’s ‘nomadism’. However, where ‘nomadism’ is a useful term for Braidotti because of her emphasis on movement and on rejecting fixity, its suggestion of a lack of ‘home’ is not quite right for the stories explored in our book. Our different projects focus on ‘belonging’ to a place, or the idea of a place, which might be close to an idea of home – even where that home is changing, is far away, has never been visited or never existed. We want to take that sense of openness rather than fixity, of becoming rather than being, of pragmatism and eclecticism, of critical thinking as well as material and political engagement, of seeing the connections with the global or distant in the local and specific, as what we mean by cosmopolitan stories, cosmopolitan belonging, and cosmopolitan sociology.

As a group of authors, we think it is important to pay attention to the everyday interactions where people live, work, choose and feel, to hear and see with and through the experiences of others, as well as through our own. This is one way of pursuing the sociological mission espoused by C Wright Mills (1959 / 2000), to link ‘private troubles’ to ‘public issues’. Both sides of this equation are important: to understand the minutiae, the daily moments of feeling, what engenders feeling and what action feelings inspire; and to consider where these feelings come from, what power relations they reflect, reinforce or undermine. The personal is the political; equally, the political is personal.

In order to explore this further, let us take two examples from the book – the mango and the bridge.


Mango and Bridge

The everyday sharing of space with memories and attachments of far-away places and times is evoked poetically and materially in our collection through Alex Rhys-Taylor’s focus on the mango as a simultaneously shared and differentially experienced artefact of cosmopolitan urban becoming in an east London street market. While food and its consumption are very often invoked as central to exchanges of cosmopolitanism, foodstuffs are more usually treated as symbols of an existing culture to be shared, learned of and consumed by ‘others’ (hooks 1992, Hage 1998), or the fusion of foods as a symbol of new hybrid cultures (Cook 2001). For the people Rhys-Taylor meets in the market, however, the mango is a shared everyday object of desire, yet evokes specific and different memories, feelings and attachments through its smell, taste and touch, relating to migratory histories from across the world. The mangoes themselves are cosmopolitan objects, and Rhys-Taylor shows their cosmopolitan provenance and their importance as national symbols to nations across continents. In this market, they are part of a quintessentially London environment, in part because of how they invoke and overlay these transnational connections and memories.

Alex Rhys-Taylor’s mangoes embody perfectly the phenomenon of how being ‘from somewhere else’ can be felt as exactly what people have in common in ‘being here’. The consumers of mangoes in his market each savour a taste with pungent associations, yet those associations are intersemiotic and resonate in both the local-ness of the shared mango and the distant places and times it recalls. The mangoes, bought in a street market in London, hold different associations for those who buy them and represent different migration histories. But the coalescing of particular tastes and of histories in a particular place remakes a specifically local cosmopolitanism. This challenges definitions of multiculture that figure it as about population flows that remove a sense of place, or claim that transnational connections have led to ‘omnivorous cosmopolites with little emotional investment in anything specific’ (Rhys-Taylor). Rather the local is remade through the remaking of transnational tastes while places become linked through these new emerging connections, in which to be ‘different’ is to have something in common.

In a contrasting example, Kristina Grünenberg’s chapter engages with subjects of more violent and extreme displacements, as she reflects on her ethnographic work with Bosnian refugees in Denmark. By considering fieldwork both in the new place of settlement in Nykøbing in Denmark, and with returnees to the places from which they have been exiled, Grünenberg uncovers complex relationships between belonging, place and power. Like many diasporic groups, many of the stories in this chapter are of a feeling of not being at home either in the former or current place of dwelling. But she also shows how some elements of new and old belongings reconfigure through specific moments, interactions and resonances between the two places, particularly through everyday routines – as the resemblance between a bridge in the new home creates a connection with the old place which enables new paths to be taken: “this bridge is just like the one in Visegrad!”

Grünenberg uses Vinciane Despret’s (2004) idea, more famously elaborated by Bruno Latour (2004), of ‘learning to be affected’ to explain how “Nedžad’s everyday routine, the bodily, material and spatial practices described, brought a sense of temporary unity and taken for grantedness into his world”. She quotes Sara Ahmed (2000, p.89): “Being at home suggests that the subject and space leak into each other, inhabit each other” – facilitated here by the power of the banal everyday routine of the journey to work or the view of a bridge in the town centre as they become familiar by becoming part of an existing, and constantly modifying, framing of the world.

What cosmopolitan futures are hinted at in this kind of work? Stuart Hall’s (1999) concept of ‘multicultural drift’ can be used to describe the creeping ordinariness of a place that slowly reworks feelings towards a new place of residence or towards the changing population or circumstances of a long-familiar place. But these processes of the formation of new tastes and the remaking of place over time are not always smooth, and particular places can become symbolic of uncomfortable change. Places can evolve into a version of local cosmopolitanism that can be difficult for those who are left feeling as if they do not belong. As a collective work our book reveals tussles over what is imagined as legitimate and positive cosmopolitanism, or about how much cosmopolitanism is too much.

While some of these examples point to the closing down of versions of cosmopolitanism, within other chapters changing configurations of place open up new opportunities for belonging. Nedzad is one of the Bosnian refugees now living in Denmark, interviewed by Kristina Grünenberg. He recalls the worry of his colleagues waiting for him at their work Christmas dinner:

The Christmas lunch was to be held in a restaurant where I had never been before.

It was cold, the snow was quite heavy … I lost my way… I arrived about 45 minutes late. When I finally arrived they were all concerned about me, waiting for me, outside in the cold … at that moment I felt I had been accepted. I was very moved…

This memorable and emotionally charged moment represents for him the possibility of belonging, of carving out a place for himself in a new place; the visible invention of new traditions, new familiarities, and new belongings. It shows how Doreen Massey’s (1994) concept of ‘power geometry’ can unfold differently throughout such cosmopolitan lives. How moments of belong and disconnection are both local and transnational, both individual and social, both intimate and political… and ordinary.


Ahmed, S. (2000) Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post Coloniality, London: Routledge.

Beck, U. and Sznaider, N. (2006) ‘Unpacking cosmopolitanism for the social sciences: A research agenda’, British Journal of Sociology, 57 (1): 1–23.

Beck, U. and Grande, E. (2010) ‘Varieties of second modernity: The cosmopolitan turn in social and political theory and research’, British Journal of Sociology, 61 (3): 409–43.

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Hannah Jones is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Warick. Her book Negative Cohesion, Inequality and Change: Uncomfortable Positions in Local Government (2013) won the 2014 British Sociological Association Philip Abrams Memorial Prize. She is the co-editor of Stories of Cosmopolitan Belonging: Emotion and Location (2014).

Emma Jackson is Research Fellow in Urban Studies at the University of Glasgow. As well as having recently published articles in Sociology and the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research she is also the co-editor of Stories of Cosmopolitan Belonging: Emotion and Location (2014).

On the 23rd of September there will be a book launch seminar to discuss the key issues covered in Stories of Cosmopolitan Belonging: Emotion and Location (2014). For details see the event website.

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