Cartographies of hospitality: The gendered, racialised and classed politics of hosting – Fellows’ seminar by Fataneh Farahani, Yasmin Gunaratnam and Suruchi Thapar-Björkert

3 March 2020

“We see borders, dynamically, not only as reassertions of territorial sovereignty but as institutions in themselves with formal and informal functions and impacts” began Fataneh Farahani of the Department of Ethnology, History of Religions and Gender Studies at Stockholm University.  Farahani’s Wallenberg-funded study is examining the practices and policies of hospitality and hostility towards migrants, refugees and exiles. The study is especially interested in how the dynamics between hospitality and hostility are playing out in the relationships between the state and civil society. “Together with borders”, Farahani explained, “our research examines ‘boundaries’ which include everyday practices of hospitality and hostility that discipline, manage and divide populations along the intersecting lines of gender and race through processes of inclusion and exclusion.”

STIAS Fellows Suruchi Thapar-Björkert, Fataneh Farahani and Yasmin Gunaratnam

Farahani, along with Yasmin Gunaratnam of the Department of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London and Suruchi Thapar-Björkert of the Department of Government at Uppsala University, was presenting some emerging qualitative findings from their study ‘Cartographies of Hospitality’ which is being undertaken in Sweden, Turkey and the United Kingdom, and forms part of the STIAS Crossing borders theme.

Farahani explained that the project began before the so-called European refugee crisis of 2015 and some empirical changes had to be made due to the current geo-political situation. In doing so, the team underlines some of the difficulties in conducting research when the political context is constantly changing.

Paying attention to the shifting and intersecting political context, “we are examining different experiences of hospitality towards refugees in different places and against different political contexts,” she said.

What is different about the study is that rather than focusing on the experiences of individual migrants or migrant groups, the researchers’ attention is on the channels and infrastructures that regulate migrant transitions through the growing development of ‘welcome cultures’ and practices of informal hosting. The group condensed and summarised philosophical explorations of hospitality with the broad working definition of hospitality as “the giving of time and space”.  In the presentation, they contextualised these contemporary developments through different theoretical frameworks and empirical examples, which reflect the shifting tensions between hospitality and hostility.

Farahani described the impact that the fast-changing political and policy context has had on the research in the past three years; and, Gunaratnam presented some examples from interviews conducted in the UK to show the challenges of hospitality politics and ethics in everyday settings.

Drawing on scholarly feminist debates, all three began their presentations by situating their personal histories and experiences within the field of scholarship, to reflect on how this had an impact on the knowledge they produce. The three presenters shared their experiences of living in different post-colonial contexts, along with war, revolution, several displacements and the challenge of adjustment to a different society and academic life. This connecting of the personal to the research is one example of the group’s use of feminist scholarship which has long contested the distancing of researchers from their research. “Migration has both emotional and political salience,’ said Thapar-Björkert

Changing landscapes

There is no question that the changing political landscape and events as well as public opinion strongly influence the initial desire to extend hospitality and the way in which it changes over time. Examples included the Syrian Humanitarian crisis and resulting European Refugee crisis, as well as Brexit. Furthermore, the important role of Turkey as the gate-keeper of Europe, has not only given Turkey leeway to hijack refugee crises to negotiate its will in the global political arena, but also has enabled the government to put out stringent measures towards dissidents in country’s post-coup era.

The team pointed out that in situations of crisis and human tragedy, hospitality is often seen initially as an ethical responsibility – couched in a rhetoric of generosity and goodness – “our responsibility as human beings to receive and accept”. However, over time and as numbers increase, hospitality may take on a conditional aspect and questions begin to be asked about why people need help in the first place? Who is actually responsible and behind the conflicts causing the displacement? Who belongs and on what terms and conditions? How many people are enough? Who are the most desirable and deserving? Who are undesirable and thus should be disqualified?

The hierarchical relationship between the guest and host can also change and hospitality can become mired in practical concerns such as border controls, national security, personal safety, ID checks, rights to citizenship and also economic considerations.

“Landscapes that look hospitable may become inhospitable, hosts (and even former guests) may become hostile,” said Thapar-Björkert.

“Hospitality may become conditional and even minor transgressions by the guest can turn the hospitable to inhospitable,” said Farahani. “After all, assimilation must be in accordance with the rules of the house.”

In an example from the UK research, Gunaratnam described a case from her UK interviews that animated broader debates about conditional and unconditional hospitality. In the example, a teenage boy was asked to leave a voluntary hosting scheme because he had taken and driven the hosts’ car without permission.  “As a refugee you don’t get the opportunity to be a stupid teenage boy,” she said. “You have to be good and better than others – which, in a sense, is dehumanising.”

“We are therefore asking what the politics of hospitality might look like and what are the battles of inclusion and exclusion,” added Thapar-Björkert.

Gunaratnam highlighted the effect of Brexit on these issues which was mentioned by some hosts in her interviews. Although the UK has a long history of migration, in particular from former colonies “Brexit has significant historical and legal implications and xenophobia and racism were very much a part of the media and other discourses,” she said.


Thapar-Björkert emphasised that one of the theoretical frames the team were investigating was ‘coloniality’, including the coloniality of power, knowledge and being. “Technologies of domination, exploitation and violence affect all areas of our social existence,” she said. “Long-standing patterns of power have determined culture and knowledge production well beyond the limits of colonialism as an explicit political order. Political independence did not produce a post-colonial world – it produced vulnerable post-colonial nation states with a modicum of juridical freedom. Our norms are still subsumed by Euro-American epistemologies which displace and discipline alternative knowledge.”

“Coloniality of knowledge allows us to invent the exotic – the impenetrable, invisible other which is lagging behind and striving to assimilate,” she added.

‘Coloniality of Being’ elucidates the unequal division of humanity into humans and non-beings which generate anxiety, fear and rage. “Seen through this type of lens, the death of a racialised non-being is not an extraordinary affair but a constitutive feature of their life,” she said.

The group is also interested in understanding the feminist aspects and characteristics of hospitality. In most cases it is women who take responsibility for caring for the ‘guest’ and are also often involved in organisations that help refugees.

“However, women may retain a troublesome relationship with the concept of hospitality,” said Farahani. “Can we have such a thing as feminist hospitality and what are its characteristics?”

In discussion the three acknowledged the added complications that climate change will add to migration, and the need to more fully understand south/south as well as rural/urban migration and their specific complexities.

“We are trying to understand the concept by looking at different conceptual frameworks,” continued Thapar-Björkert.  “No one framework answers all the complexities.”

“I remain troubled by the concept of hospitality,” said Farahani. “Hospitality and hostility linked together is what I have experienced personally.”

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Anton Jordaan

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