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The changing nature of space and place

Discussions on “space and place” have evolved in recent years to inform a wider breadth of interdisciplinary research, going far beyond the basic question of who lives where. Indeed, spatial thinking now plays an integral role in fields ranging from economics to race, gender, and sexuality studies.

With this in mind, three fellows in Northeastern’s Humanities Center presented their research related to “space and place” on Thursday at Renaissance Park. The event—titled “Home and Away: Mobility, Space, and Place”— represented this year’s second installment of the Humanities Center’s Space and Place series.

Here are some takeaways from the presentations:

Making it ‘out here’

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Len Albright, an assistant professor of sociology and public policy, discussed his ongoing book project, for which he studied people in motion. He focused his research on people living in an affordable housing complex in a New Jersey suburb.

Many of the residents originally lived in cities such as Trenton and Newark, according to Albright, and then moved to the suburbs for one reason or another. Albright wanted to find out why they moved and how they described their new living experience. An urban sociologist, he spent two years interviewing and interacting with residents of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, many of whom described where they were currently living as “out here.”

“It was clear this kind of dichotomy of ‘out here’ and ‘there’ was meaningful for people, and not just in how they felt about themselves but how they interacted with others,” Albright explained.

He hoped that his research would shed light on how people develop their ideas about where they came from, where they are now, and where they’re headed. “My question, then, is how place factors into the mobility narrative,” Albright noted. “We are talking about people’s stories. People are taking account of their life.”

Removed from home

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Emily Artiano, a doctoral candidate in the English department, is currently studying colonization by way of language, particularly in colonial New England. For her part on Thursday, Artiano discussed a specific chapter of her dissertation, in which she analyzes the 1618 captivity narrative by Mary Rowlandson, who was held captive by Native Americans for 11 weeks.

Artiano explained that Rowlandson’s text strategically uses Algonquin words to establish the differences between her own community and the community of her captors. Furthermore, she noted that Native American language plays an integral role in the text, establishing a distinct Native American kinship network in linguistic form.

“We can see how colonial encounters like those described by Rowlandson’s narrative produce a mutual need for one another’s language and language acts,” Artiano said. “They’re not solely for commutative purposes but also for the purpose of understanding one’s own culture and identity in a constantly changing space.”

The philosophy of forced migrants

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Serena Parekh, an associate professor of philosophy, is studying the philosophical critique of refugee camps and the migration of people in search of a new life due to economic hardship. Her research focuses on forced migrants, those who have been displaced by disasters, conflict, and development.

The foremost question on the minds of human rights philosophers, Parekh said, one that the experts have debated since the 1970s, is whether a wealthy nation like the United States has an obligation to admit refugees. In Parekh’s view, the discussion is too narrowly focused on how many people to accept and doesn’t include what happens to those who are justifiably excluded.

“Because we focus so much on resettlement, the majority of people who are in fact refugees are invisible,” said Parekh, noting that 72 million people were living as forced migrants in 2012. “I also don’t think philosophers take seriously the unique harm from being stateless or being a refugee.”

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