Blog post

Emotions, Affects, and Care Migration

A blog post from Marek Pawlak about emotions and migration research – and differences between Polish and Norwegian nursing homes.

By Marek Pawlak

I was waiting for Joanna at the front door of a nursing home on the outskirts of Oslo. It was late afternoon and I was about to start my first ethnographic ‘shift’ in Hjerte. The idea was to follow a Polish nurse in her work place, chat about care, and observe nursing practices.

Although I am an experienced anthropologist, I felt nervous. I didn’t know what to expect.  More importantly, I had no clue how to behave in these new surroundings. I felt like an outsider about to disturb the nursing home’s routines, habits, and caring relationships. Before researching the contexts of care as part of the WELLMIG project, I always thought of a nursing home as a rather restricted and isolated place. And even though my ethnographic ‘shift’ has been agreed upon and scheduled, I believed I was trespassing.

Yet, the longer I hanged out in the nursing home, the more productive my awkwardness and discomfort became. After all, by reflecting upon my emotions and feelings in the field, I have realised how strongly they derive from my ‘Polish’ understandings of what is a nursing home and what constitutes care. The feelings of awkwardness and discomfort resulted not only from what I perceived as trespassing and violating the privacy of a nursing home, but also from wider contexts of care and caring services in Poland.

The common understanding of care in Poland, especially when it comes to the elderly, is often framed in terms of a private conduct and family obligation. Further, in many local communities in Poland, sending your parents to a nursing home continues to be condemned and stigmatised as a careless and selfish practice. In other words, for a large part of Polish society, it is ‘you’ and not the state, who should take care of your parents.

This is obviously a rather complex issue, but it also reflects public perceptions of the healthcare system in Poland, which is often poorly organised, underfunded and understaffed, and where patients are treated in a rather instrumental way. Hence, when I was waiting for my first ethnographic shift in a sykehjem, it was the ‘Polish idea of caring’ that occupied my mind and induced the feelings of awkwardness and discomfort.

Emotions and Migration Research

Reflexivity and positionality constitute an important part of migration research, but so do  emotions and affects. As Maruška Svašek, an anthropologist working on affective aspects of migration, reminds us: it is through emotions that people give meanings to the ‘changing world’ and ‘shape their subjectivities,’ while constantly positioning themselves in relations to other people, objects, and circumstances.

However, emotional and affective ‘Self’ is not merely ‘a closed container of passions’ or ‘an entity that simply reacts to forces from outside’. Rather, the understanding of ‘Self’ includes ‘a mobile, multiple, relational being-in-the-world that is captured by his or her surroundings, engaging with past, present and future situations’. In other words, emotions and affects induced by migration are not only simply individual feelings. Even though, they originate in individual bodies, they also impact and are impacted by societal understandings.

Individually lived experiences of migration are thus largely related to the wider contexts of public discourse, social and cultural imaginaries, and political and economic circumstances in both sending and receiving societies.

Migration is obviously about movement.  However, the very verb ‘to move’ has a rather ambiguous, emotionally induced meaning. Depending on the context, it concerns either physical movement between places or the idea of being affected and moved by something or someone. To put it differently, migration always involves lived experiences, in which the familiar intertwines with the novel and the unknown.

In an edited volume on Emotions and Human Mobility, Svašek also argues that there are two basic emotional contexts of migration practices. The first one involves encountering ‘Otherness,’ which is not only embodied in people, but also in multisensory experiences of different landscapes, events, images or things. Encountering ‘Otherness’ might stir either feelings of excitement and fascination or fear and even anger.

The second context concerns physical absence of somebody or something, which might lead to nostalgia and longing. It is often through transnational ties that migrants deal with the feelings of loss and absence. Hence, transnational communication between migrants and their families and friends invokes a sense of ‘presentness’ – as being together, not only ‘now’, but also ‘here’.

In her other work, Svašek interestingly points out that emotions are not only felt, but that they also reside in ‘discourses’, ‘practices’ and ‘embodied experiences’. Their discursiveness unravels the ways, in which cultural understanding of emotions impacts social relations and identities.

Practicing emotions concerns their performative nature and shows how emotions are habituated as well as controlled. And finally, emotions as embodied experiences give subjectivity to the body, thus constructing its social functions, meanings, and political roles. In other words, emotions combine the physical (passion) with social (relations) and the cultural (knowledge).

Caring as Emotional Practice

Caring means different things to different people. However, its meanings are always culturally constructed, socially communicated, and driven by economic and political factors. Yet, caring also takes a form of emotional labour and involves different feelings, ranging from affinity and empathy to frustration and even anger. This kind of affective mixture might be experienced even stronger in case of care migrants, who while taking care of ‘others’ might feel guilty of not taking care of relatives in need.

But caring as emotional practice might also show differences in organisational context of care between sending and receiving countries. For example, by focusing on affective contexts and lived experiences of Polish nurses in Norway one may stumble upon many differences in caring practices and thus problematise not only the very notion of care, but also the healthcare system itself.

Kasia, a Polish nurse working in one of Oslo’s nursing home, shared with  me the following emotional recollection:

“Few years ago, I was visiting my mother in a hospital in Poland. She was after her surgery and needed to go to the  toilet, so I wanted to help her. She had an IV, so I went to a nurse to ask for a drip stand. And of course she yelled at me that they don’t have drip stands for everybody, just one for the whole ward. On another occasion, I was visiting my uncle and came five minutes earlier, so the nurse started to yell that I’m too soon and have to wait. A nurse could never behave like this in Norway. But OK, I waited and when I finally saw my uncle, he was unwashed, the bedding was dirty, so I thought, ok, maybe they didn’t have time to take care of him, so I went to a nurse and asked for a basin and some water and said that I would wash him. And of course, once again I was rebuked. I really don’t know why it is like that in Poland. It was hard for me and took me some time to adjust to Norwegian ways.”

Emotions and affects are inscribed in our strategies, actions and ways of experiencing the world. Ian Skoggard and Alisse Waterston, in their introduction to the special issue on anthropology of affects and evocative ethnography, posit that parsing emotions means moving beyond traditional binary conceptualizations about the body and mind, reasoning and feeling. On the contrary, emotions and affects introduce the dialectics between the individual and the collective, habitus and identity, imagination and ideology.

As a result, they enable to ‘capture lived experience, emotionality, and perception’ as well as problematise ‘small and large-scale interactivity; intimacy; and sociality, power, politics, and ever-changing material conditions of social life without reducing one to the other’.