BEYOND THE STATE
Transnational practices of welfare in the diasporic context: the case of Somalis in Scandinavia
Western traditional historiography, policymaking and realpolitik have privileged for long time the nation-state as the center of all political activity: to the point that historical writing has been associated with the process of nation-building in Europe.
As a consequence, less attention has been devoted to the destiny of the people, their culture and their histories of everyday life; especially of those people who violated borders, one of the state’s foundational attributes, to inhabit the spaces of previously alleged homogeneous nations: I am talking about migrants, today (inappropriately) referred to with a plethora of terms, like minorities, which disclose the nationalist lines along which these terms were originally formulated.
One is thus tempted to ask if is there any place for a historical narrative inclusive of those often neglected groups, and how to effectively separate nation-building efforts from the writing of history. Of course, nation-states still represent the prevailing mode of political organization around the globe, a fact that makes it likely to retain a privileged role in many analyses of contemporary affairs; yet, we shall not forget that nations are expression of a specific time, of a specific culture; of a specific geography, which cannot claim normativeness for the entire world, for the entire time: it is legitimate to postulate their obsolescence.
With this and other similar questions in my mind, I have decided to investigate the nature of the limits of some approaches used to deal with contemporary transnational migration questions: I was concerned with the inability to achieve satisfactory understandings of the life experiences of human beings, especially those of non-Western origin, whose stories seem to be in many ways omitted.
I found in the fallacious congruence between world history and westernization one of the main obstacle facing the academic study as well as the path towards the “re-integration” of other forms of political organization in a global perspective of equal dignity. This consideration has led me on a journey to dismantle the national paradigm, retrievable in many conceptualizations of migration phenomena.
In line with the cultural turn in historical thought, I broadened my view, not to see dynamics as unidirectional (from western countries outward), neither to take western assumptions on state/nation/society as normative, if not as benchmarks to evaluate the “rest” of the world. Rather, I firmly anchor culture to the explanation of specific socio-political dynamics.
In particular, I have identified in welfare provision and social security the crucial points of my research, which can explain at least partly specific migration trends or phenomena such as political participation in the hosting countries. With welfare, I intend the combination of social, cultural and political instruments used by people to cope with uncertainty and economic weakness. As such, welfare is a universalistic concept, whose attainment ensures the social security of the individual and, more often than not, the security of the individual’s family as well. However, how welfare is practiced and delivered among different political communities in the world, often sharing a common national space, is a different story and follows complex cultural paths that are frequently overlooked; in fact, there is often a preference for a one-size-fits-all model, established in the name of equality. This point generates confusion, as well as an asymmetry between state’s tasks and different community’s needs within the same state.
I am applying these concepts to my case study, dealing with THE PRACTICES OF WELFARE AMONG THE SOMALIS LIVING IN THREE SCANDINAVIAN COUNTRIES (Denmark, Sweden and Norway), starting from the idea that current government policies are having hard times formulating viable solutions for bettering the socio-economic condition of the Somalis: primarily, I argue, because these policies are not particularly responsive to the targeted group’s needs and aspirations, as they are to the state’s standards. In other words, policies treat all people equally, yet they fail to acknowledge what I will call here the “historical consciousness” of the individuals, namely the result of their personal experiences, feelings and memories.
Through this research, I hope to be able to cast light on current practices of welfare, in order to underline if these are changing by any measure, under the influence of the encounter between different ways to conceive social security. In a constantly increasing transnational world, I believe these types of questions are becoming extremely relevant. In fact, behind welfare there are culturally shaped processes and behaviours that are relevant to understand the individual’s past as much as the individual’s future.
Why Somalis, and why Scandinavian countries?
While I start from the assumption that all societies and respective cultures enjoy equal levels of legitimacy and dignity, I am intrigued by the specificity of the encounter between a stateless society as the Somali is, with the strong legacy of statism in the Nordic countries. In more practical terms, it means that welfare in the Somali society is not in custody of state institutions, but is entirely performed by the extended family, which is transnational, since Somalis in the diaspora contribute also to the social security of their kin in the homeland. On the other hand, the so-called “Nordic model” (an expression that however tends to omit differences among the three countries) entrusts the state with the task of guaranteeing the social security, the equity and the wellbeing of its citizens (another term that calls for further explanations).
Therefore, I look with much interest at the interplay between these two social security systems, with a hope to contribute to the current research in the field.