Building Italian Regional Identity in Toronto: Using Space to Make Culture Material

By Harney, Nicholas | Anthropologica, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Building Italian Regional Identity in Toronto: Using Space to Make Culture Material


Harney, Nicholas, Anthropologica


In this paper I examine several ethnographic examples that locate the ideas of flow and deterritorialization in recent anthropological work within the lived experiences of Italian immigrants and their descendants living in Toronto, Canada. Italian immigrants and their descendants negotiate identity in locally specific circumstances in the greater Toronto area within the context of state-sponsored multiculturalism in Canada nad multiple diasporic discourses linking peoples in Italy and Canada. A central means of expressing this complex constellation of identities is through the construction of physical places of identification. I argue we need to pay closer attention to the reterritorialization and materialization of identity and culture to refocus work by scholars who have emphasized fluidity and movement at the expense of analysing the constitution of identities through locally-specific physical spaces (Appadurai, 1990; Hannerz, 1996; Rapport and Dawson, 1998). Further, these sites created by Italian Canadians shed light on the way people as actors work within larger structures of power to create meaningful worlds. Over the last decade governments, both in Canada and Italy, have undertaken activities and programs to adapt to the movement of people, money and ideas across borders. The Italian national and regional governments and different levels of government in Canada respond to the challenges of transnationalism by practising a kind of governmentality, a "flexible sovereignty" (Foucault, 1991; Ong, 1999, 214-216) through the support of the projects studied here. As such these projects help to discipline and regulate the behaviour and identity of Italian immigrants engaged in transnationalism.

Anthropology, transnationalism and diaspora

Anthropologists have forcefully critiqued the place-focussed concept of culture that binds cultures and peoples to specific territorial locations. This approach to understanding culture and its production is linked to Western nationalist discourse that binds nations to defined spaces or territories. Cultures, ethnic communities and nations are, however, neither clearly bounded nor unchanging (Gupta and Ferguson, 1992). As part of this critique some anthropologists have begun to examine cultures and social relations that transcend state borders (Basch et al., 1994). The great migrations of people in the last half century linked to decolonization, changes in global labour markets, financial arrangements and new communications and transportation technology have encouraged anthropologists to examine the movement of peoples as a central feature of social life (Clifford, 1997, 1988). Anthropologists seeking to find a vantage point to address the impact these changes have had on conceptualizations of culture and a manageable unit of study for face-to-face ethnographic fieldwork have turned to the study of displaced or deterritorialized migrant peoples. Some have examined the ambiguities of identity and belonging for expatriates, professionals and the managerial classes bound up in the new financial economy (Amit-Talai, 1998; Hannerz, 1996). Most anthropologists, however, are exploring the conditions of more traditional labour migrants. A major focus of work seeking to understand transnationalism has concerned the circulation of migrants, or transmigrants, between home villages in Mexico and the Caribbean basin and communities of settlement in the United States (Glick Schiler, 1992; Kearney, 1995; Rouse, 1991). Proponents of the transmigrant view suggest the era of late capitalism or Post-Fordism (Featherstone, 1990; Harvey, 1989) has created something socially and culturally new to understand because these changes permit far greater intensity of contact between people in different geographic locations within these transmigrant circuits. This intensity and diversity of contact through jet planes, the internet, fax, phones, videotapes and satellite dishes create new spaces for cultural production, making the physically distant, emotively near.

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