Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Imaginary Friends: Migrants' Emotional Accounts about Friends outside Australia

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Imaginary Friends: Migrants' Emotional Accounts about Friends outside Australia

Article excerpt

Introduction

It has been argued that modernity and globalisation have led to the dispersal of social relations as individuals become increasingly mobile and friendships become more flexible (Giddens 1991; Allan 2008). However, friendships continue to be a key social support throughout the life-course and in the face of challenging life circumstances (Vaughan 1986; Beck & Beck-Gernsheim 1995; Spencer & Pahl 2006). In view of these societal trends, there is a need for a greater understanding of the emotional impacts on friendships following migration, particularly as numbers of permanent and temporary skilled migrants to Australia continue to increase (Khoo et al. 2011; Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship 2012). Unlike migrants in the family visa stream, skilled or professional migrants usually migrate alone, and many are without co-present social support once they arrive (Kennedy 2007: 359). Existing research about migration and friendship has explored the extent to which friends can assist with economic aspects of living in a new country such as finding a new job (Kennedy 2007; Scott 2007). However, fewer studies have analysed the role or function of old friends, that is, those left behind in the migrant's country of origin, also known as the home country.

This article contributes to awareness about the ways that migration affects friendship over distance and highlights some of the emotional impacts for migrants to Australia, and their coping strategies. Based on the argument that face-to-face contact is key to maintaining a friendship, it explores the extent that migrants experience emotional consequences such as sadness or loss following friendship rupture due to a lack of co-presence. It draws on semi-structured interviews to explore the emotional impacts of leaving old friends behind after migrating to Australia and develops a typology of accounts that migrants constructed to cope with the emotional effects of leaving old friends behind. Specifically, the article explores the impact of visiting home as an emotional trigger on migrant's memories of old friends, drawing on Hochschild's (2003) concept of emotion work. Hochschild coined the concept of emotion work to refer to the ways that individuals attempt to control their emotions according to social norms and hence what they consider they should be feeling in a given situation. To this end, in order to generate the expected and relevant emotion, they engage in emotion work, which is the outward manifestation of the appropriate emotion. Emotional responses of migrants varied according to structural factors such as geographic and temporal distance. The research findings show that migrants actively engaged with their imaginations about past and future friendship scenarios in relation to the emotional responses that they articulated during interviews.

Understanding friendship

Research on the role of friendship has demonstrated that a friend means different things to different people. Friendship is complex and ambiguous because the concept is historically and culturally situated, and subject to approximate and normative use (Lewis 1978: 61; Giddens 1991: 87; Derrida 1997: 231; Pahl 2000: 34; Spencer & Pahl 2006: 49-50). To elaborate, friendship as a concept has varied over different epochs, and from one culture to another. There is also variation within cultures about the application of the term friend. For example, social norms can require that someone be described as a friend when they are better understood as an acquaintance. Hence, the word friend can encompass relationships with a broad spectrum of emotional intensity, ranging from very close to more distant. This is particularly the case when individuals choose a friend that becomes emotionally close, like a family member (Weeks et al. 2001; Spencer & Pahl 2006). Indeed, friends and family can be similar, and can sometimes blend, meaning that these relations can seem to be one and the same, however, there are still differences between them that need to be taken into account (Weeks et al. …

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