The End of Belonging: A Study of “Existential Migration”

This week, I’m going to talk about a rather „fancy-sounding“ topic – that is, „existential migration“. “What’s that?” you may ask. Actually, I hadn’t heard about this novel concept, either, until author Greg Madison kindly provided me with a review copy of his book, The End of Belonging: Untold Stories of Leaving Home and the Psychology of Global Relocation. He thought that his study of “existential migration” could be of great interest to some InterNations members, and with this in mind, I sat down to explore the book.

The writer’s own background is in psychology, with a strong focus on counseling and a keen interest in philosophy. He now works as a registered psychotherapist in the UK, and since he moved over the “Big Pond” from Canada and has traveled extensively, he is an expat himself. His personal background, his university credentials, and his professional practice all inform his research.

InterNations Expat Blog_Existential Migration_Pic 1The End of Belonging is definitely an academic work, and it may not be exactly easy reading for your next beach holiday. However, although I am unfamiliar with the disciplines of psychology and philosophy, I found the book clearly structured and the general train of thought not hard to follow. Still, the ideal audience for this publication would probably consist of other scholars in these fields, or of those expatriates who might identify with the author’s “research subjects” – the group he calls “existential migrants”.

In the course of his studies, he conducted in-depth interviews with about 20 people most of whom had one thing in common: They left home and moved abroad for no clear-cut, discernible reason. They just wanted to go, and they sought for a “pretext” or external motivation – a university course, a job, a sabbatical, etc. – after deciding to relocate as soon as they could. The interviews revolved around three main questions:

• When did they leave home, and why?
• Do they ever think about returning home?
• Which emotional reactions does talking about their experience cause, and why?

After delving into the participants’ family and background, their definition of “home”, their attitude towards their origins, and their feelings about their decision, the author uses their explanations to construct an “ideal type” of their various narratives – the characteristic journey in life, both physically and psychologically, that these people share. Goldfish emancipation

In his own words, existential migration arises from an early felt “desperate need to explore the world” and “to defy sameness”. The interviewees all seemed to “experience their homeworld as oppressive […] and boring”, and the very “act of leaving create[d their] freedom and independence”. However, “being rootless also makes [them] feel insecure and fragile” and they thus “think about returning home every day” – an idea which usually evokes rather mixed feelings.

Existential migrants always have to reconcile “being-at-home” with “feeling not-at-home”, but they would make the same choice again, if they had to. According to the author, this is due to their common “need to live consciously, not automatically”. They left not specifically to pursue an international career, or to build a family with a partner from another country, etc., but to “follow potential as an end to itself”.

In the second part of this book, this narrative of existential migration is put into context, contrasted and compared with different philosophical and psychological theories. The scholarly background includes works as diverse as essays by Freud and contemporary contributions from intercultural communication or tourism studies, but also literary perspectives and autobiographical accounts, from The Lord of the Rings (yes, really) to the reminiscences of post-colonial philosopher Edward Said.

I think it’s far beyond the scope of a blog entry to go into detail on these approaches. I’d merely like to emphasize that the author connects these particular cases of expatriation to existential philosophy, especially that of Martin Heidegger. Never fear – I won’t start lecturing about Heidegger here: Existentialism is – to put it flippantly – really deep stuff, dude.

InterNations Expat Blog_Existential Migration_Pic 2In brief, existential migration can be a “reminder of the radical groundlessness of human existence”, a response to this unsettling insight in order to live more consciously –an almost spiritual experience, and a fundamental part of the human condition.

This definition of existential migration may offer new impulses for research on the psychology of expats, immigrants, refugees, or global nomads. If you, too, occasionally suffer from mysterious wanderlust, the strong longing to travel or relocate, you might want to have a look at this book.

You needn’t be a psychologist or philosopher to think about the question it raises: Do you recognize yourself in the description of the existential migrant?

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9 Responses to “The End of Belonging: A Study of “Existential Migration””

  1. Thanks for sharing. I’ve found many answers in this simple statement: “need to live consciously, not automatically”.

  2. This is great !

  3. @Fernanda & Cia:

    I’m glad to hear you find Greg’s book inspiring!

  4. I’m not sure I’d fully agree with what I’ve understood… at least the idea that going global stems from the original ‘home’ being perceived as ‘oppressive’ or ‘boring’ – far from it in my case at least!

    I’ve always felt exceptionally lucky to have such a rich base from Winnipeg that in many ways was the ‘spring board’ which made embracing life outside of Canada so comfortable and possible. Suppose I need to read the book to know if I’d actually fall into the definition of an “Existential Migrant” 🙂

    Do like the phrase “need to live consciously, not automatically”.

  5. Hi Carissa,

    Thanks for your feedback! Obviously, I can’t speak for Greg, but as far as I understand his book, he identifies “existential migrants” with this attitude as a distinct sub-group of people who relocate. Not everyone who moves abroad thinks or feels that way – maybe I should have made this clearer in my review.

  6. This is a perfect blog for me. I’ve been away from my home country for the past 13 years. Due to hardships in life I remain single and earn every drops of penny to send back home. That’s why when being ask about my experiences abroad, ’twas so emotionally hurting. Though, I still want to stay because life is incomparatively different in terms of financial security.

  7. @Vanessa:

    I’m sorry to hear that life abroad has been so hard for you, especially emotionally. Hopefully, things will start looking up for you one day soon…

  8. Awesome! That’s all I can say about the Blog!

  9. Thank you! I’m glad to hear that you like our blog.

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