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Toronto Professor Shams Discusses the Interconnectivity of Geopolitics and Immigration In Book Talk

Widener Library is located in Harvard Yard.
Widener Library is located in Harvard Yard. By Michael Gritzbach
By Audrey M. Apollon, Contributing Writer

University of Toronto Assistant Professor Tahseen Shams argued that conventional methods of analyzing immigrants’ conception of themselves have neglected to consider the influence of places located beyond the home and host land in a Zoom webinar Wednesday.

Shams spoke about her book “Here, There, and Elsewhere: The Making of Immigrant Identities in a Globalized World” in Harvard’s Immigration Initiative speaker series. She asserted that international migration scholarship has failed to factor in a third place known as “elsewhere” in analyses of the immigrant experience.

“Immigrants’ identities are shaped by geopolitics, not just in the immigrants’ receiving countries but also in those places located beyond the homeland and hostland, places I conceptualized to be called ‘elsewhere’,” Shams said.

During the webinar, Shams discussed the multidimensional structure of immigration while presenting her fieldwork. She used ethnographic data, in-depth interviews, and content analysis to study 60 South Asian Muslim Americans in California. She discovered they were not only identifying with the culture of the United States and South Asia, but also of the Middle East.

“The Middle East is arguably the religious and political center of the Muslim world, and as self-identifying Muslims, these immigrants subscribe to the various conflicts and people’s histories in the Middle East that sustained their Muslim identities,” Shams said.

When conducting her research, Shams said she was inspired by her curiosity as a migration scholar and personal experiences as a first-generation immigrant. She added if she could repeat her research, she would consider the role of social media in her participants’ lives earlier.

“Halfway through my fieldwork, I discovered that I failed to consider how the participants were using social media communications as a way to form their day-to-day identity,” Shams said.

Shams also explored how her participants reacted to sociopolitical events, such as the heightened Islamophobia during the 2016 presidential election and how it impacted their sense of identity in the United States.

“The participants, regardless of their immigrant generation, evaluated mainstream U.S. politicians based on their attitudes towards Palestine among other issues,” Shams said.

Participants of the webinar thought the concept of elsewhere is “useful.”

“I think it is a very useful framework that really expands our understanding of the nodes of transnationalism in which migrants are embedded,” Roberto G. Gonzales, the director of Harvard’s Immigration Initiative, said.

“I thought the talk was wonderful,” Ramon Garibaldo Valdez, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale, said. “It adds a much needed layer to how we understand immigrant identity in relation to religion and globalization.”

Correction: October 9, 2020

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Professor Shams asserted that the International Migration Review, a prominent social science research magazine, failed to factor in a third place known as “elsewhere” in its analyses of the immigrant experience. In fact, Shams referred to international migration scholarship broadly.

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