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Fare insieme: making and doing things together in Milan – by Shireen Walton

ShireenWalton6 November 2018

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

In Italian, the word fare, means to do and to make. Doing and making appears to be a fundamental aspect of community life here in this inner-city neighbourhood in Milan’s zone 2, which constitutes the locus of my fieldwork. A number of activities, events and organisations I am involved in entail inter-generational and cross-cultural mixing, including retired Italians from Milan and the south of Italy, and foreign migrants and their children. These interactions centre around the sharing of skills and knowledge; from Italian language learning to a variety of artisanal crafts, and forms a subtle yet significant part of how social capital is shared and acquired here.

One particular hub for this is the Centro Multiculturale; part of a non-profit organisation, La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter, established in 2009 to support the wider community life of the state school in Parco Trotter, with which it is associated.

The school-community in Parco Trotter, Milano. Image: La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter

The Centro Multiculturale is run by community volunteers and teachers, envisioned and operating, year in year out, as a social space (‘spazio socialità’) for women, including mothers of children of the school and the broader neighbourhood. Housed in a small unassuming building in a corner of the park next to a main railway line, the Centro runs Italian classes for foreigners, a weekly sewing group, as well as a weekly open drop-in meeting where women of all ages and backgrounds participate in a range of activities, do exercise, drink tea, and learn about a range of bureaucratic aspects pertaining to life in Italy such as medical facilities and healthcare.

Centro Multiculturale, Parco Trotter. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

The ethnographic make-up of the Centre sees a blend of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities (mostly Egyptian, as well as other nationalities such as Peruvian, Indonesian, Pakistani, and Tanzanian), including retired, middle-aged and more senior Italian women volunteering as Italian language teachers, sewing instructors and exercise class instructors, shifting between roles as facilitators, teachers and participants. The general spirit is one of fare insieme – making and doing things together.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Through the Centro, the different women experience a blend of social and personal purpose, including, notably the passing on and sharing of skills. Anna (70), Italian, retired, explained how the social make-up of the group and being around younger people in such a dynamic environment at her age ‘keeps me young and alive – it gives me a good feeling’. Coming to the Centro twice a week comforts Anna in her retirement, where she lives alone and her children are grown up and are busy with their own lives. Dahlia (35) from Egypt explains how the cucito (sewing) group at the Centro is a significant event in her week. ‘It means something for us to be together here. Many Mothers are at home all day with young children alone. It can get terribly lonely. Here there is the chance for us to meet and be together, practice a skill and share our time. Of course we are also here to get better at Italian!’ The issue of language learning and usage is a fundamental element underlying all the activities at the Centro.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

All this is not to paint either a rosy or otherwise picture of integration in Italy; in some instances this kind of cross-cultural social care flourishes despite challenges, while in others it struggles to contend with deep-rooted political resistance and paradoxical and problematic logics. Anthropologist Cristina Giordano addresses these kinds of tensions exquisitely in her 2014 monograph Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy based on long-term ethnographic research in Turin[i]. Giordano’s work describes complex relationships of care between Catholic nuns and foreign female sex workers from Eastern Europe and Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for the different womens’ personal alignments and institutional ideologies, caught between religion-inspired notions of altruism and social care, discourses of purity, and moral judgement.

At the Centro in Milan, older Italians share craft-based practices like needlework to younger people, who appreciated the care and attention involved.  This is especially pertinent given the current, xenophobic and populist political climate. What is most interesting here is how the different ages, life and technical experiences of the women work together, in the present context, while laying social and cultural foundations for the future.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

References

[i] Giordano, C. (2014). Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy. University of California Press.

Living alone vs. loneliness: Notes from a Milanese neighbourhood

ShireenWalton1 September 2018

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

One of the key features of living in Milan are the characteristic apartment buildings (pictured below). Built in the early 20th century, these buildings, known as ‘palazzo’ (palazzi pl.), have housed generations of families, groups and individuals over the decades; Italian and non-Italian, working and middle-class.

Typical apartment buildings in the Milan fieldsite. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton.

Living here, in an inner-city, multi-ethnic neighbourhood in Milan, I am struck by how many people I have come to know who live by themselves. My findings reflect official figures on single-person households, which are increasing exponentially within Europe [1] (a majority being in northern European countries), as well as globally, as witnessed in countries such as Japan, China, and Brazil [2]. In 2016 in the EU, single-person households accounted for almost one third (32.5 %) of private households, with a higher proportion of women (18.4 %) living alone than men (14.1 %) [3]. In Italy, the national average for people living alone is 31%, while in Milan, 52% of households consist of one person [4]. Among a number of explanations for people living alone through choice and/or circumstance are; a number of socio-economic changes over the last 60 years, shifts in work and lifestyle patterns, higher separation and divorce rates, evolving gender roles, and a potent legacy of 1970s Italian Feminism in challenging normative expectations of nuclear family models.

In light of this increasing trend, ethnography can help question some common assumptions about people who live alone – namely, that such people are alone in their lives. In her monograph (2015) on the subject of Italian women above the age of 45 living alone in Milan, Sociologist Graziella Civenti, based on a sociological study of 250 women, found that through a variety of collective ties, practices, and networks, such women establish intricate care and exchange networks that carry out many of the social and economic functions traditionally carried out within and by the nuclear family structure. In so doing, they are able to establish a functional sharing economy that is mutually sustaining and nurturing based on the premise of solidarity, mutual assistance, and attending to common problems [5].

Civenti’s findings resonate with my own unfolding research here in Milan, on ageing and smartphones amongst Italians and migrants, where among my informants who live alone, there is a similarly strong emphasis on the role of networks, of various kinds, on- and offline, in offering care, comfort, and physical/virtual participation in various contexts. To take two brief examples to illustrate:

Claudia (Italian) is 54. She originally moved to Milan from a nearby northern Italian town to study, work and to ‘escape her family and close-knit life’. Claudia lives alone in a palazzo building in a central part of the neighbourhood. She is separated from her husband, and has no children. She works full time at an administrate job in the city. Her Mother (late 70s), who she duly visits every weekend, lives in another northern Italian city. Claudia’s next-door neighbour is a female widow, Clara (84) whose two children live in other cities across Italy, and who she sees infrequently due to their busy lives. What once started out as a co-sharing of responsibility of watering each other’s pot plants on the balcony of the floor in which they live, eventually blossomed into a friendship over the 15 years the women have lived side-by-side. Claudia describes Clara as her ‘go to person’ for many things:

“If one day I was to have a fall, or pass out on the floor, it would be Clara who would notice first. She would notice my absence; my leaving for work in the morning, my coming home at night… family/friends wouldn’t notice for days, even weeks. Clara would go around to check on me. I’ve given here a key of course. I also have hers.”

The relationship between the two women now constitutes a kind Mother-daughter one; one that has been gradually crafted through a mix of neighbourly goodwill, as well as a cross-generational female bond nurtured through mutual care giving and receiving.

For other women in the neighbourhood, such as those living alone away from their home country, the issue takes on different dimensions.

Zaina (35) is from Tanzania. She lives alone with her two-year old daughter in a small apartment obtained through the help of social services. Zaina left her country two years ago in the hope of what she envisaged to be better economic opportunities in Europe. Her husband (also Tanzanian) is currently working in another African country. She is in contact with him, and her Mother back home, via WhatsApp. As an outsider to many of the social and ethnic groups here in Milan (most of the Tanzanian people she knows in Italy are in Naples – she is connected with them via a WhatsApp group), Zaina explained how she can feels lonely sometimes. With a young daughter that she has been told is too young to attend some of the local nurseries, searching for a job proves challenging. However, due to various on– and offline practices, Zaina described how she is ‘never really alone’. Her smartphone, providing she has credit on it, keeps her company. It connects her to family back in Tanzania, and to siblings living in other European countries. From time-to-time, Zaina attends community events at the public school in the park near to her apartment, where she can be around other Mothers, celebrate festivals such as Eid, and connect with the wider community, including attending Italian language classes. Unlike Claudia, for Zaina, it is not the apartment building space that provides the community feeling she finds so comforting, but the exact opposite – it is through her reaching out beyond the confinement of the apartment – to wider spaces in the community, and online to social media – that she feels she and her daughter are present and to varying degrees, cared for, both in Milan and back home in Tanzania.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

There therefore seems to be a complex sociological relationship between living alone and loneliness that I am exploring through my ethnography. I am beginning to see how in various spaces (social, geographical and digital) of/for care, people who live by themselves co-construct wellbeing through everyday acts, through which they craft themselves into social worlds, on- and offline – from the next-door-neighbour chats, to family/culture-linked WhatsApp groups, and beyond. At a time in history when an increasing number of people are living alone, (digital) anthropological findings that emphasise everyday lives lived can help unpack societal prejudices and assumptions, such as the hyper-individualism of such people, or that living alone infers a person’s loneliness and/or alterity in society. Challenging these ideas may prove difficult in the societies themselves, but nuancing the issue further by taking into account a range of individual lives and practices, can have a number of implications for social policymakers, particularly when it comes to ageing populations such as Italy, with 28% of the population over 60, and 31% living da sola/o.

References:

[1] Eurostat, 2017: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/DDN-20180706-1?inheritRedirect=true

[2] Civenti, G. (2015). Una Casa Tutta Per Sé. Indagine Sulle Donne Che Vivono Da Sole. FrancoAngeli, Edizioni.

[3] Eurostat, 2016 report: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=People_in_the_EU_-_statistics_on_household_and_family_structures#Single-person_households

[4] Civenti, G. (2015). (Ibid.)

[5] Civenti, G. (2015). (Ibid).

[6] United Nations 2015 World Population Ageing Report

What’s the Opposite of Facebook? Err…it’s (still) Facebook – by Daniel Miller and Shireen Walton

ShireenWalton28 June 2018

Authors: Daniel Miller and Shireen Walton

Facebook as digital allotment for growing community? Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Once Facebook had become established, there developed a general consensus as to its primary social consequence: it allegedly led to rampant narcissistic individualism – people preening themselves in public, and to the decline of community and ‘proper’ sociality. The dominant motifs, much used in advertising at the time, would be of a woman posting herself painting her toenails a bright colour, or a teenager posing for a selfie. As such, Facebook was castigated by older people as something which encouraged this self-centred orientation by the young. Yet by the time the Why We Post project developed in 2012, the evidence was that the primary orientation of this social media was indeed social. The young posed with their arms around their Best Friend Forever and Facebook had become central to mother and toddler groups and the reintegration of families separated by migration and diaspora.

We work in very different field contexts; Danny within a comfortable small Irish town, and Shireen in an inner-city, multiethnic neighbourhood of Milan. Yet in both cases, the people we speak to say that the main reason they use Facebook is to keep up with the community; to share in another opportunity for being together (this time online), and to find out about events and gatherings taking place in the area. In the Irish case this might be a charity walk such as `Darkness into Light’, to raise money for the prevention of suicide, or the events associated with a weekend celebrating traditional music, or to facilitate community development in a new housing estate. In Milan, this could be to arrange and advertise a mass convening in public space one Saturday afternoon, standing side by side holding hands to form a 4km long catena umana (‘human chain’) – an act of celebrating the unity present in their community, and to contest the negative perception of the neighbourhood as a ghetto. Facebook, in both of these contexts, is the main site for local community news, community history, community photography and so forth. In the Irish site, this is especially important for local sports – of which there are a great many in this small town. For example one informant from Buan goes on Facebook several times a day. They look at two Buan sites concerned with swimming, two closed groups; one called Buan Talk and the other Buan buy/sell/swap, a Buan kayaking group, the fortnightly Buan News site, and the site of one of Buan’s cafes. In the Milan site, community Facebook group(s) are where the neighbourhood keeps together in a range of interesting ways, including where people express willingness to offer their time or a helping hand to one another. One informant in the Milan site found it remarkable, for instance, how if someone gets sick or needs help with something and posts this to the group, there will be an average of 20-30 responses each time from people willing to help them – from buying some basic groceries to picking up medicines, and so on.

Such community uses are not new, but they may have become increasingly important while more individualistic uses have declined., This may reflect the way in which Snapchat has become more important for young people, while WhatsApp has taken on the primary role of linking families together in everyday communication. By contrast, Facebook with its combination of visuals, texts, unfolding events in sequences, complemented by basic information such as contact details, is now ideal for advertising the latest play, or explaining to people how to get their T-shirts to support a charitable walk. Another factor, noted by Danny in 2012 is the way Facebook is gradually migrating from younger to older people in its usage. While there is a cross-generational feel to these community Facebook groups, the people that create, use, and invest time in them are increasingly in their 40s and upwards.

In both fieldsites, creating community includes establishing what is appropriate usage. For example, politics is largely avoided since it would be divisive. In the Milan site, this is especially important given the negative views other people have of this area – here, Facebook groups project an alternative, positive image of the neighbourhood. People using Facebook in these ways create a nurturing space for their community; a kind of digital green allotment space (echoing the importance of physical community allotments in both the Milan site and in Buan), where community togetherness offers some respite from the wider noise of Facebook, and the wider web at large, and where above all, the existing altruism we both find present in our fieldsites can plant itself/be planted, collectively self-nurture, and grow.

You will still find selfies on Facebook, and plenty of interaction within families, but in our two fieldsites, what is striking is the degree to which Facebook has taken on a role which is pretty much the exact opposite of its assumed consequence – which was the development of narcissistic individualism. Today, for many people in our fieldsites, Facebook is where the offline development of community spirit is enhanced by its cultivation within a digital online space.

Milan, Mobiles, and Mobility

ShireenWalton4 May 2018

Photo (CC BY Shireen Walton)

Conversations between people meeting for the first time are often marked by the question “where are you from?”. In some cases, this may be the natural utterance of, say, a curious neighbour, while in other contexts the question may be positioned and/or received as a significant political issue. Here in Milan, questions of roots and routes (Clifford 1997) have characterised many of my daily conversations with people. On the one hand this is perhaps not surprising, since I have chosen to conduct research within a ‘superdiverse’ (Vertovec 2007) neighbourhood, where identities blur, bend, and bounce in a myriad of compelling ways. In another sense, this can also be put down to my own presence here: the ethnographer with a not-so clear nationality, with a first name that sounds foreign for some, but familiar to others. This predicament of being myself una straniera (a foreigner) is proving a socially rich point of contact and connection with all kinds of people in this part of the city, particularly within the different activities I am involved in as a ‘participant-observer’, such as attending and assisting in Italian language classes for foreigners. But there is a deeper, historical facet to questions of origins in northern Italy that is a core facet of my ethnographic research.

Many people here in Milan can be regarded in one way or another as a migrant – including Italians from the south of the country, many of whom came during the economic boom of the 1950s and 60s. In his film Rocco and His Brothers (1960),
Luchino Visconti, a pioneer of the socially conscious Italian Neorealist cinema of the post-war period, shows how migrants and their families from the south faced significant social challenges in adjusting to the different experience and pace of urban, industrial life in the north – alongside the pain and nostalgia of missing or losing one’s home.

Throughout the course of the film, the Parondi family, recently moved to Milan, struggle between their traditional values – of family duty and honour – and the more individualistic society creating its vision of a modern lifestyle in the big city (Bondanella 2001: 196-199). Ultimately, the family unravels at the seams, highlighting, among other issues, the difficulties of integration.

In reality, over time, the majority of internal Italian migrants settled, secured jobs, got married, and begot future generations. Today, these are the elderly Italians that I meet, and who live side-by-side with newer generations of foreign migrants, who have themselves come to Milan in recent decades seeking work, following their families, and pursing economic stability.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

In several instances in everyday life, such as at the local Friday market, all of these peoples can be seen sharing economic and social space, while in the political sphere, questions of identity continue to divide groups and foster allegiances.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

This history of various mobilities has been described to me here as follows: “there is no Milanese – we are all foreigners!” Or, a similar sentiment put in the reverse sense, “no one is a foreigner” (see image below).

In my school, no one is a foreigner. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

These expressions appear to emphasise the community’s general attitude of respect for the co-existence of many cultural and ethnic groups here. Their term ‘Milanese’ however is clearly not the same reference point as it is, say, for the wealthier, noble families who have been part of the city’s political and cultural life for centuries – including the family of Luchino Visconti. So while the framework of my study might have been positioned to compare the experiences of Italians with migrants, in effect I am unearthing the deeper historical issues of rupture and rearranged family structures, as well as the wider interplay between mobile phones and mobility, that affect all of these populations. The task, therefore, is to explore and illustrate precisely how these processes have as much to do with the different historical experiences of the various Italian populations, as they do between Italian and foreign others.

References

Bondanella, P. (2001). Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, 3rd edition, Bloomsbury.

Clifford, J. (1997). Roots: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Harvard Universtiy Press.

Vertovec, S. (2007). ‘Superdiversity and its Implications’ in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 30, Issue 6: New Directions in the Anthropology of Migration and Multiculturalism.

The Sandwich Generation: Mobile Views from Multicultural Milan

ShireenWalton17 March 2018

(CC By) Shireen Walton

In countries such as Italy, where there is an ageing population and a decline in birth rates, a crucial question is how respective generations are coping/will cope in the future with expectations for care? A key issue is the ‘sandwich generation’. This refers to middle-aged persons caught between, or ‘sandwiched’ by caring for both ageing parents and their children simultaneously.

In Europe, including Italy, academic research has highlighted the sandwich generation issue as a health concern, as well as a socio-economic one – particularly for women, whose roles as primary caregivers stem from deeply entrenched societal and familial expectations (Brenna & Novi 2015). For example, the (mental) health effects that this ‘in-between’ or bridge-like status has on women (daughter) carers (Amirkhanyan AA, Wolf DA. 2006, Coe N., Van Houtven CH., 2009), and the potential for anxiety and depression, relating to the emotional strain, lack of personal time, financial burdens and the general conflict created by carrying out multiple care roles (Barnett RC, Marshall NL, Singer JD. 1992).

Within my project, which focuses upon domestic and international migration, these issues are complicated by having to also take into account human mobility, and what happens when forms of care diversify across time and space, perhaps incurring physical remoteness, but also in some cases, new found digital intimacies?

Deidre McKay’s work (2012, 2016) is a compelling example of the complexities of care practices in transnational/migrant contexts. Within the global networks of Filipino migrant care workers studied over a number of years in the UK, McKay discovered what she terms an ‘archipelago’ (2016) of care practices taking place on– and offline. The concept helps explain how people create a sense of stability for themselves and their loved ones through practices of care exchange and co-operation within the acute circumstances of uncertainty that accompany migration.

With the communities I am working among in a ‘superdiverse’ (Vertovec 2006) neighbourhood of Milan, I am similarly exploring transnational webs of digital caregiving, particularly with respect to smartphones. I am seeing how people routinely traverse physical and digital attention, presence, and care, through social practices – from videocalling parents and grandparents in the park, to negotiating school or hospital lifts, to ordering home-delivered food. All of this is providing much food for thought as I slowly peel back the layers of the sandwich.

(CC By) Shireen Walton

References

Amirkhanyan AA, Wolf DA. (2006). Parent care and the stress process: Findings from panel data, The Journals of Gerontology Series B-Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 61(5): 248–255.

Barnett RC, Marshall NL, Singer JD. (1992). Job Experiences Over Time, Multiple Roles, and Women’s Mental Health: A Longitudinal Study, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62: 634-644.

Brenna, E., and Novi, C, D. (2015). ‘Is Caring for Elderly Parents Detrimental to Women’s Mental Health? The Influence of The European North-South Gradient.’ Healthy Ageing and the Labour Market (HALM) Working Paper 1.

Coe N., Van Houtven CH., 2009. Caring for Mom and Neglecting Yourself? The Health Effects of Caring for an Elderly Parent, Health Economics 18: 991-1010

Chisholm, J. F. (1999). The Sandwich Generation. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 8(3), 177-180.

Riley, L, D and Bowen, C. (2005). ‘The Sandwich Generation: Challenges and Coping Strategies of Multigenerational Families’. The Family Journal: Counselling and Therapy for Couples and Families. Vol 13., No.2. Pp.52-58

Rubin RM, White-Mean SI. (2009). Informal Caregiving: Dilemmas of Sandwiched Caregivers. J Fam Econ Iss 30:252–267.

McKay, D. (2012). Global Filipinos: Migrants’ Lives in the Global Village. Indiana University Press.

McKay, D. (2016). An Archipelago of Care: Filipino Migrants and Global Networks. Indiana University Press.

Vertovec, S. (2007). ‘Superdiversity and its Implications’ in Ethnic and Racial Studies, Vol. 30, Issue 6: New Directions in the Anthropology of Migration and Multiculturalism.

Caring about Ageing in Multicultural Italy – By Shireen Walton

ShireenWalton12 January 2018

Photograph Shireen Walton

Italy has a rapidly ageing population, with 28% of the population over 60 – the second highest percentage globally after Japan [1]. Changing work patterns, and external youth migration following the economic crisis, has left behind a generation of ageing parents and grandparents without traditional structures of family care. Since the 1990s, a significant presence in the care sector in Italy have been migrant carers. Often referred to in Italian as badanti (singular badante), migrant care workers constitute an important form of elderly care not provided by a family member [2]. As a consequence, a transformation has been observed from a family to a ‘migrant-in-the-family’ model of care [3]. In these circumstances, it has been suggested that migrants help Italian families to maintain valuable traditions of family care [4].

All the while, the nascent relationship between Italian elders and badanti raises some notable contradictions within Italian politics and society concerning care and migration. As the indispensability of informal migrant care becomes ever more apparent, the country continues to debate immigration policy, in the run up to a general election in March 2018.

As an anthropologist I am seeking a wide-angle view of ageing and caring in multicultural Italy. This requires a suspending of categories – of migrant, refugee, asylum seeker or badante – in order to engage with Italy’s various mobile and transnational populations who are themselves ageing – often away from their homelands. Who cares for who and how? How are everyday ailments dealt with? And what forms of communication are involved – for example, how do smartphones and Googling affect traditional health/care practices and notions of wellbeing? These are just some of the issues I will be exploring, in public and private spaces, on- and offline, in a multicultural neighbourhood of Milan where I will be living for 16 months.

– Shireen Walton

References:

[1] United Nations 2015 World Population Ageing Report

[2] Van Hooven (2010). ‘When Families Need Immigrants: The Exceptional Position of Migrant Domestic Workers and Care Assistants in Italian Immigration Policy’. Bulletin of Italian Politics. Vol. 2, Issue: 2, pp. 21-38.

[3] Bettio, F., Simonazzi, A. and Villa, P. (2006), ‘Change in Care Regimes and Female Migration: the “Care Drain” in the Mediterranean’, Journal of European Social Policy. Vol. 16, Issue 3, pp. 271-85.

[4] Rugolotto, S., Larotonda, A., van der Geest, S., (2017)., ‘How Migrants Keep Italian Families Italian: Badanti and the Private Care of Older People.’ International Journal of Migration, Health and Social Care. Vol. 13 Issue: 2, pp.185-197.