Chronotopes and Migration
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Chronotopes and Migration

Language, Social Imagination, and Behavior

Farzad Karimzad, Lydia Catedral

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eBook - ePub

Chronotopes and Migration

Language, Social Imagination, and Behavior

Farzad Karimzad, Lydia Catedral

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About This Book

In Chronotopes and Migration: Language, Social Imagination, and Behavior, Farzad Karimzad and Lydia Catedral investigate migrants' polycentric identities, imaginations, ideologies, and orientations to home and host countries through the notion of chronotope. The book focuses on the authors' ethnographically situated research with two migrant populations – Iranians and Uzbeks in the United States – to highlight the institutional constraints and individual subjectivities involved in transnational mobility. The authors provide a model for how the notion of cultural chronotope can be applied to the study of language and migration at multiple scale levels, and they showcase a coherent picture of the ways in which chronotopes organize various aspects of migrant life.

This book is a critical contribution to the conversation surrounding the sociocultural-linguistic uses of the chronotope, demonstrating its applicability not only to theorizing migration but also to theorizing language and social life more broadly.

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1 Language, Migration, and Sociological Imagination

The Book in Space and Time

Down the street from the building where our graduate department was housed, there was a popular coffee shop. For those faculty who had attended graduate school in the same university decades ago, they also had nostalgic memories of it once being a bar. For those in our cohort, it had always been a coffee shop with somewhat old chairs. There were also different contemporary understandings of the place: as the location where our advisor held his office hours, as a place to pick up coffee before class, or as a place to work on projects. While there were some general norms there, such as throwing away your own trash when you left, other norms depended on the day of the week, such as two-dollar lattes on Wednesdays, which was appealing to regulars. It was a good place to work because, even though you were expected to buy coffee at the beginning of your time in the shop, you were allowed to stay and continue working even after you had finished your drink.
Many of the ideas for this book were at some point discussed in this place. One time, in particular, we were sitting side by side and staring at the same computer in order to draft some of these ideas, when the head of our department stopped by our table. He made a comment on the fact that we were “always there”, and in response to our explanation of what we were working on, he joked, “You are literally co-authoring!”. Our increased time at the coffee shop had made us a recognizable feature of the place from his perspective, while our collaborative writing in the same place at the same time was what made it a ‘literal’ co-authorship. Writing ‘at the same place’ and ‘at the same time’ has continued throughout most of the work on this book – although the particular times and places have varied. Now, writing this introduction, we may not be together in the strictest sense – as one of us is in Maryland and the other in Hong Kong, one writing at night and the other in the morning. However, in another sense, we are writing within the same time and place of an online interaction facilitated by various types of new technologies. This points to the complexity of what we consider locality and synchronicity – that even though we are writing together ‘in real time’, there are multiple times and places that are relevant in the interaction. For example, one of us will say ‘Good morning!’ while the other will say ‘Good evening!’, and based on what one person can observe in the other’s background during the video call, we might comment ‘Oh you are back at home’ or ask ‘Where are you?’. At the beginning of each meeting before starting to write in earnest, we often also discuss more broadly ‘what is happening’ in the U.S., Hong Kong or Iran, in relation to relevant news across time – not to mention that this is never an optimistic way to start writing, given the events of 2019 and 2020 during which most of our focused writing took place. We also often discuss our job environment; particularly when we were both new faculty members at our respective institutions, we talked about our experiences in learning and adjusting to new practices and values. We have thus interacted across different times and places (coffee shops, Maryland, Hong Kong, and online spaces such as Zoom, Facebook Messenger, and Google Docs), while also discussing other times and places (i.e. through our talk about world events and workplaces).
Similarly, the data in this book were obtained from various places and times, while also consisting of talk about other places and times. That is, we collected data in different cities in the United States between 2013 and 2017, and not only in different cities but also in relation to more specific times and places – e.g., meeting a participant for dinner at a restaurant, speaking with another at their house in the morning while getting ready for the day, or meeting a number of people at gatherings during social events and holidays. In these meetings, our participants spoke from these various spaces and times in the U.S. about other times and places, e.g., post-soviet and independent Uzbekistan and post-revolutionary Iran, the particular neighborhood in which they grew up, or the events at school that they remembered. In these ways, our writing process, our lives, and the lives of our participants involve many different times and spaces in a number of different ways. Some are the times and spaces from which we speak, some are the times and spaces we speak about, and at any particular moment, these different times and spaces may become more or less relevant. All are linked to particular normative practices and values (e.g. buying coffee, greetings, using particular languages, talking about specific topics), and there may be interactions between these different times and spaces – particularly as a consequence of mobility.
While mobility can be as simple as moving from a university building to a nearby coffee shop, it is transnational mobility – the movement of people across national borders – that has made the interaction of these multiple times and spaces, and its impact on identity and discourse more salient to scholars. This mobility is both horizontal and vertical in that when people move across geographical boundaries, they also cross social hierarchies. For instance, for one of our participants, their geographical move from Uzbekistan to the U.S. also meant a change in their occupation and social status, as they went from working as a physician in their home country to working as a home care assistant for an older Russian woman in the U.S. The social mobility is not always downward as can be seen from the examples of other participants who came to the U.S. to study, and in so doing, were seen as raising the social status through obtaining education and professional qualifications abroad. These different histories people have before and after migration impact how they imagine and navigate their day to day lives. Regardless of the specifics, theorizing migration is a complex task, and attention to the intertwined nature of time and space has been shown to be useful in describing and understanding these diverse experiences. As is shown by our brief description of the process of writing this book, and some references to our own and our participants’ experiences of mobility, time-space is both complex and relevant to all aspects of social life. Thus, what we aim to discuss in this book is time-space configurations theorized through chronotopes, and what this can bring to understandings of subjectivity and language in contexts of contemporary migration. We start with a discussion of key notions in scholarship on transnational mobility.

Theoretical Notions

Mobility, Nationalism, and Transnationalism

The focus in the study of mobile populations has shifted away from notions of discrete nation-states toward an analysis of the links across and between home and host countries in the theorization of transnationalism (Glick Schiller, Basch, & Szanton Blanc, 1992; Kearney, 1995; Vertovec, 1999). In other words, scholarship of migration goes beyond focus on either ‘sending’ or ‘receiving’ societies and, instead, studies how “immigrants forge and sustain multi-stranded social relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement” (Basch, Glick Schiller, & Szanton Blanc, 1994, p. 7). This shift goes hand in hand with increased scholarly attention to the mobility of people, discourses, cultural products, and information that maintains these links (Appadurai, 1996). While mobility has always been a feature of the social world, the intensity of this mobility in terms of speed and frequency, as well as its facilitation through the increased use of new communication technologies has brought greater attention to these issues (Vertovec, 1999). Following this scholarship, work on language and migration has also adopted more transnational approaches to the study of mobile populations’ sociolinguistic behaviors (e.g., Blommaert, 2010; Dick, 2010; Koven, 2007, 2013a,b; Lo & Kim, 2011; Mendoza-Denton, 2008).
The relationship between language and nationalism may also undergo change, become more complex, or intensify as a consequence of transnational mobility. This relationship can be understood through the paradox that while language constructs the nation, the nation also constructs language. What is meant by this first part is that it is through socially situated discursive practice that national identity is created and sustained. Silverstein (2000) argues that the process of imagining the nation is a distinctly discursive, linguistic, and narrative one. In making this argument he draws from Anderson’s (1991) notion of an imagined community – i.e. the idea that citizens imagine the nation-state as a real community, notwithstanding the fact that they never meet or interact with most of its members. Silverstein highlights how this imagined community is created through the standardization of a national code, narratives in mass media, and the discursive establishment of a national and collective ‘we’. The nation is also maintained through discursive practice as Park and Wee note that it is not enough to construct national identity, but that this identity must in fact “be constantly maintained and revitalized in the face of multiple kinds of diversity” (2017, p. 48).
Globalization and transnational mobility bring about precisely these types of diversity against which the nation-state is communicatively defined, and this has implications not only for the discourses and practices of national governments but also for those who cross national borders. Scholars have described the multitude of ways in which those who move abroad encounter new types of diversity while continuing to discursively and linguistically reconstitute their national identities from a distance (De Fina & Perrino, 2013; Eisenlohr, 2006; Marques & Koven, 2017; Sorensen, 1998). As speakers reconstitute these national identities, they also discursively construct a broader sociological imagination (Mills, 1959), that is, they (re)imagine ways in which the homeland relates to their transnational trajectories, their individual positionings, and their country of residence, for instance. All of this construction is accomplished through language. If as Appadurai argues, the work of the imagination is ‘a constitutive feature of modern subjectivity’, which is itself informed by mobility (1996, pp. 3–4), then we can understand discourse or linguistic practice as the constitutive feature of this imagination (cf., Blommaert, 2018).
The second way in which language and nationalism are connected is that national ideologies determine what counts as a legitimate language, acceptable ethnolinguistic identity, and linguistic competency. Nation-states may attempt to reduce sociolinguistic complexity (Blommaert, 1996) by engaging in various types of erasure (Irvine & Gal, 2000) in order to present a clear and idealized image of the nation as a homogeneous collective formed by the links “between territory, ethnicity, and language” (Park & Wee, 2017, p. 48). At other times, the nation may be less concerned with managing its multilingualism, so to speak, and more concerned with how its citizens are speaking. For instance, the way in which the women of a nation speak is often seen as a reflection of the moral and political state of the country as a whole (Inoue, 2006). These linkages between homogeneity, monolingualism, gendered speech, and the nation-state are presented as iconic (Irvine & Gal, 2000), and it is through these iconized linkages that the nation legislates what counts as legitimate ways of speaking, thereby constructing language as a sociopolitical and symbolic object.
In transnational contexts, some scholars have noted how national ideologies continue to determine the legitimacy of linguistic practices (Maryns & Blommaert, 2001). Others have argued that one of the impacts of mobility is the reconceptualization of language as an individual skill, rather than a national symbol, and the corresponding replacement of national ideologies with the hegemony of neoliberalism (Cameron, 2005; Heller, 2010; Park & Wee, 2017). Both understandings of linguistic competence as a reflection of national identity and as an individual skill are situated in relation to the destabilized indexical meanings and values that accompany migrants’ deterritorialized experiences (Blommaert, 2003; Hall, 2014; Jacquemet, 2005). Thus, understanding language within a transnational context requires attention to the multiple centers of authority and different orders of indexicality (Blommaert, 2005; see also Agha, 2007b; Silverstein, 2003) that guide and constrain linguistic practices and ideologies. This has been theorized in terms of polycentricity, which can account for complex meaning-making processes in transnational experience.


In general terms, polycentricity is the notion that “in every environment for social action, multiple sets of norms will be simultaneously present” (Blommaert, 2018, p. 33). This idea was originally developed in a study by Blommaert, Collins, and Slembrouck (2005) where they demonstrated how the multiple centers of a neighborhood determine the “different codes and norms as to what is accepted as ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘marked’, ‘unexpected’, ‘normal’, and ‘special semiotic behavior” (2005, p. 207). Polycentricity is observed in language use when a speaker shifts between different types of linguistic behavior or when multiple speakers engage in divergent discursive practices in order to orient to different centers. These centers can be compared to similar theoretical notions, such as authorities or ‘superaddressees’ (Bakhtin, 1981; Blommaert, 2007), or distinctive linguistic marketplaces (Bourdieu, 1991; Park & Lo, 2012).
The polycentric nature of social life becomes particularly salient for those who undergo transnational migration because of how they are simultaneously orienting to both the country of origin and the country of residence (cf., Smith & Guarnizo, 1998). In addition to this, speakers may also construct and orient to multiple, polycentric images of the same nation (Davidson, 2007; Pietikäinen, 2010) in those moments when different historical understandings of the homeland come to play simultaneously, for instance. Because of their normative power, the multiple centers of authority to which migrants orient become microhegemonic ‘moralized behavioral scripts’ (Blommaert, 2018; see also Billings, 2013) that contrast with one another, shaping (but also being shaped by) migrant discourses and ideologies.

Instability and Morality

Polycentricity and the conflicts between multiple centers have consequences not only for language and norms of use but also for subjectivity. More specifically, scholars have highlighted the instability and hypersubjectivity as well as anxiety and insecurity that is experienced by those who move transnationally as a result of having to manage and relate to these multiple centers (Hall, 2014; Hiramoto & Park, 2014). Describing the moral nature of migrant experiences of polycentricity, Dick notes that, “as processes such as migration bring people into literal and virtual contact with social worlds very different from their own, their lives come to involve the regular negotiation of conflicting visions of ethico-moral life” (2017, p. 224). These conflicting visions are sometimes resolved when those embedded in transnational networks discursively construct images of life abroad as immoral and images of the homeland as moral, or vice versa (Dick, 2010; Hofmann & Buckley, 2012; Isabaeva, 2011; Koven, 2016). For instance, in Koven’s (2016) work on the positionings of Luso-descendants in France, she shows that the ‘modern’ moralities associated with the country of residence are salient in shaping the identities of those who orient transnationally, while the norms associated with the country of origin may be perceived by these same participants as outdated and old-fashioned. Furthermore, there may be multiple norms associated with either country, and these norms intersect with other socially relevant categorizations (i.e., g...

Table of contents

Citation styles for Chronotopes and Migration
APA 6 Citation
Karimzad, F., & Catedral, L. (2021). Chronotopes and Migration (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2021)
Chicago Citation
Karimzad, Farzad, and Lydia Catedral. (2021) 2021. Chronotopes and Migration. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Karimzad, F. and Catedral, L. (2021) Chronotopes and Migration. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Karimzad, Farzad, and Lydia Catedral. Chronotopes and Migration. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2021. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.