Transnational Family Ties, Remittance Motives, and Social Death among Congolese Migrants: A Socio-Anthropological Analysis

Article excerpt


In empirical research (1) amongst Congolese (2) migrants in Johannesburg, the majority of respondents consider remittances as constituting a strain on their livelihoods in host settings and as cause of a major setback to the realization of their initial migration projects (e.g., start or expand their businesses, further their studies, travel to other destinations, etc.). They allege that remittances contribute not only to protracted migration, but also to inability to invest material and social resources for local integration or onward movements (Landau and Kankonde, forthcoming). However, a significant number of respondents who feel that remittances cause a setback still remit, and do so despite circumstances of economic hardships in the host society. What is the social and familial significance of remittances explaining such a social pressure? To answer this question I propose a socio-anthropological analysis of remittance motives disentangled from their economic utilities.

Indeed, while primarily embedded in, and informed by familial membership negotiations, most research on remittances explores the remittances of labor migrants and their economic effects in their country of origin (de Bruyn and Wets, 2006; Muteta, 2007); much less is known about migrants' socio-cultural dynamics and effects of remittances in host settings. The research on which this article is based investigates how transnational family ties and socio-cultural dynamics shape migrants' remitting behavior and inform their familial relationships. It shows that influenced by an economic utilitarian conception of money, most research on remittances fails to capture migrants' personal and familial significance of remittances embedded not only in their transnational social relations, but also in cultural contexts. Drawing on quantitative data from a survey in Johannesburg among 200 Congolese, 200 Somali and 200 Mozambican migrants as well as 200 South Africans (as control group), and furthermore new qualitative research amongst 60 Congolese migrants in Johannesburg, the study's argument is that migrants remit primarily in a bid to foster familial belonging in order to escape social death and at the same time buy and sustain social status. It argues that socio-cultural influences and internalized stereotypes about economic effects of emigration shape migrants' awareness of their role expectations in communities of origin and exercise on them such a social pressure that migrants often feel a compelling need to be perceived as financially "successful" as well as "valid" and "good" family members not only in their communities of origin but also among other migrants. In such a context, remittances become fundamentally the measures and criteria shaping migrants' sense of familial belonging or exclusion.

I argue that in each society there are designations or identities attached to individuals who possess socio-cultural values or valued goods. Such acquired social designations or identities, as social objects (Med, 1994: 218 as referred to by McKinnon and Langford, 1994), not only have social market value, but are also established and sustained through participation in familial relations and the display of expected behavior (McKinnon and Langford, 1994: 218). Thus leaving a family or social class involves crossing the "gulf of belonging and such an act often involves marginalization as social sanction (S.I.R.C., 2007: 11). Any functioning society, somehow and depending on the specificities owing to local characteristics, distributes its members into social positions on the basis of birth, occupation or performed behavior, and induces them to perform the duties of such positions (Davis and Moore as referred to by Lin, 1999: 468). Families in Africa as elsewhere are goal directed and have tacit codes of conduct transmitted to children through cultural education, which define their family roles and expected behaviors. Thus, showing one's life skills or contributing towards the socio-economic uplifting of other family members, etc. …


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