Human Mobility and Cultural History: The Italian Case as an Explanatory Model

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Medieval & Modern Languages Fac


Within the social sciences, mainstream migration theories have been criticised for their insufficient capacity to address the complex nature of the phenomenon. The necessity to bridge history and migration theory through a cross-disciplinary approach has also been welcomed among migration historians. On another front, cultural historians have recently advocated an approach to migration capable of transcending the limitations of a dualistic notion of 'native' versus 'migrant' cultures. Finally, there is general agreement that research work on migration and human mobility needs to question traditional notions and definitions of communities and 'native' cultures.

Following these premises, the proposed research activity will establish a network of international scholars who will define the theoretical tenets of a future project on the impact of migratory flows crossing the Italian peninsula stretching back to the first millennium BC. The more general goal is to develop new interdisciplinary interpretive lenses which can provide a model for the study of socio-cultural transformations generated by human mobility in every society and context in a broad global perspective. The activities will specifically focus on the case of Italy, a geographically well-defined peninsula, which from ancient times has been at the crossroad of demographic movements. We will look at the impact of mobility on the human landscape of the peninsula, without assuming the long-term existence of an extant local or 'Italian' culture at any given period. The history of Italian mobility is already well studied and documented for specific periods and this will bring established expertise and research data to our project.

This proposal is innovative for the following reasons:
1. Human mobility is considered here as the independent variable and we focus instead on its impacts, effects, and perceptions. In this way, we aim to investigate how this approach can refine our understanding of the reciprocal effects of human mobility and the transformations/response of a society at any given historical time.
2. By positioning the concept of place within a framework of constant mobility, we recognise it both as a geographical location and an issue of culture, identity and belonging, thus exploring the extent to which concepts like place and migration are cultural constructs.
3. The initiative comes from a core group of social, political and cultural historians who will work on the elaboration of theories and concepts in a dialogue across disciplines. All participants and particularly the two PIs and and Research Facilitator (who has played a central role in the definition of this project), share the conviction that 'bridge building might best proceed through the development of interdisciplinary research projects on a series of common questions to which scholars in different disciplines could bring distinct insights drawn from their particular epistemological frameworks' (Brettel and Hollfield 2000: 16). The aim is to create an upstream influence through shared ideas which will ensure that the resulting work is more than the sum of its parts.
4. The timespan covered by the prospective participants will stretch back to the first millennium BC, providing an unprecedented diachronical perspective in which approaches and methodologies will be discussed and tested.

Planned Impact

The impact of this research project will be twofold. On the one hand, as already highlighted, the definition of a theoretical platform for a diachronical study of the impact of human mobility will provide scholars and researchers in the field with an innovative, cross-disciplinary approach. Once published in an international peer-reviewed journal, we are confident that its content will raise considerable interest and a scholarly discussion about possible developments and implementations of our model.
Secondly, we strongly believe that this project will have an impact in a concerted 'turn' within migration studies towards an appreciation of the cultural as much as economic benefits deriving from human mobility. Migration is currently a most hotly debated topic, often generating simplifications and generalizations which influence public opinion and political choices. Particularly in the Western context, there is a tendency to forget the radical importance of human mobility in the creation of the social, cultural and economic texture and wealth of a so-called first-world country. Our research project, especially once it finds its implementation in the in-depth research work that will follow, will play an important role in setting the model for such a wide-ranging re-evaluation. We also intend to create a forum in which the public will be involved and we will ensure that the findings are also presented in an easily accessible way to both policy makers and the wider community. This will be done through public lectures and presentations via other media channels such as radio and internet.

Findings will feed into workshops and direct engagement activities carried out by individual researchers, as for example the Beyond Text Follow on Funding scheme applied for by Isayev, on issues of migration and place, as well as for her connections with the Centre for Migration Policy Research at Swansea University; and the Leverhulme-funded network, Destination Italy, co-ordinated by Bonsaver, on the representation of immigration in Italian literature/cinema and the media.

Individually and collectively, the P.I. and Research Facilitator will seek to discuss issues related to the network's activity in non-specialist media channels already open to them: i.e., BBC World Service; La Rivista dei libri; other radio stations such as Phonic FM in Devon, RAI Radio Broadcasting Service in Italy.

Finally, our project will find the interest of Italian scholars and the media for two reasons: first of all, the public debate on the impact of recent migration is currently rather intense in Italy and its likely that an independent contribution from abroad will raise substantial interest; secondly, in 2011 Italian institutions will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Italy's unification and this will certainly create added interest to the debate on national identity in a historical context.


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Bond E (2015) Destination Italy

Description Thanks to the grant, we organised two international workshops which addressed the study of cultural change as a result of human mobility. Both workshops were successful in facilitating a fruitful discussion of the theoretical and methodological framework. Various aspects of Italy's long durée history were explored from the viewpoint of different fields of expertise, from history, to sociology, cultural anthropology and sociolinguistics.
Another topic of our discussion concerned the need to find ways of creating and sharing knowledge beyond the conventional remit of academic conferences and publications.
The co-PI's main challenge was to elaborate a theoretical and methodological approach which could be shared across such a multi-disciplinary group of scholars and subsequently be opened up to non-academic institutions and individuals.

In 2015 one of the two coPIs (prof. G. Bonsaver) was successful in securing funding for a pilot project concentrating on cultural change in 20th Century Italy. See below for further detail and the link to the project's webpage.
Exploitation Route The two PIs have opened their collaborative partnership to a Renaissance scholar and together they have elaborated a new theoretical platform and a two-phase project. In order to get the necessary funding for the first phase, they have submitted an application to Oxford University's John Fell Fund under the project title: Cultures on the Move: the Italian Case. The project entails the preparation of six Case Studies related to key developments in Italy's long durée cultural history, involving three postdoc researchers and an international panel which will advise the research team. The aim is to bring forward the expertise and experience accumulated thanks to the AHRC grant and develop it into a major research project (phase 2). For this, we are envisaging an application for either a Research Project Grant from the Leverhulme Trust or a Research Grant - Standard Route from the AHRC. The major research project will combine academic research and outputs with a dissemination plan involving secondary schools and a documentary series.

The above-mentioned application to Oxford University's John Fell Fund was not successful. However, the following year (2015), one of the two PIs (prof. Guido Bonsaver) decided to concentrate on the study of cultural change and mobility during the C20th and reapplied to the same institution. The application was successful and now the PI plus a team of two PostDocs are working on a pilot project called 'Cultures on the Move: Italy and the USA'. The aim of this project is to help produce a cultural history of the interaction between Italian and US culture during the 20th century. The transnational phenomenon of Italian migration to/ and return from/ the USA together with the influence of US culture on Italian society are at the centre of this study. This pilot project aims to coproduce three article publications, organise a conference to be held in September 2016 and develop a major application for an interdisciplinary research project on cultural change in C20th Italy to be submitted in the winter 2016-2017. For more details please see the project's webpage at the URL link provided above.
Sectors Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description The discussions held during the two workshops have informed my writing of a chapter on migration and Italian cinema which I have written for a book to be published by Peter Lang (Oxford) in December 2014 (see publications). Furthermore, as described in the Key Findings section, together with my Co-PI, we have decided to develop our project with a renewed theoretical platform. If we'll be successful in securing the necessary funding we aim to expand our project and develop its academic dimension with a dissemination plan involving secondary schools and a documentary series. The above-mentioned application to Oxford University's John Fell Fund for a pilot project called 'Cultures on the Move: the Italian Case' was not successful. However, the following year (2015), one of the two PIs (prof. Guido Bonsaver) decide to concentrate on the study of cultural change and mobility during the C20th and reapplied to the same institution. The application was successful and now the PI plus a team of two PostDocs are working on a pilot project called 'Cultures on the Move: Italy and the USA'. A more detailed description of this project is provided in the Key Findings section. We are currently in the process of preparing an AHRC application for an International Network which will allow us co-ordinate the multi-disciplinary expertise necessary to develop a study of cultural change with a particular focus on Italy and the USA. In the meantime, together with the two Postdocs we have submitted an article to the "Italian American Review" for publication. The article presents a cross-disciplinary model which, we hope, we'll facilitate dialogue on cultural change across disciplinary boundaries. Moreover, in collaboration with two post-docs, we are about to submit a co-edited collection of essay entitled "Cultural Change Through Language and Narrative: Italy and the USA" which will be published by Legenda (Oxford) in the latter part of this year. Finally, in relation to the expertise acquired in this area, in the last twelve months I have been invited to give public lectures in Cork (Ireland), Brighton (GB) and Milan (Italy).
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description John Fell Fund
Amount £26,955 (GBP)
Organisation University of Oxford 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2015 
End 10/2016
Title The Dynamics of Cultural Change 
Description Following the AHRC project 'Human Mobility and Cultural History', together with two post-docs, I was successful in receiving funding from the John Fell Fund at Oxford University towards the development of a cross-disciplinary theoretical definition of cultural change, with particular reference to the relation between Italy and the USA. We have since organised an international conference which took place in Oxford in September 2016. A selection of papers from the conference have been cohesively organised by us in a book proposal which we are currently discussing with the publishing house of the Modern Humanities Research Association, Legenda. We have also produced an annotated theoretical model for the study of cultural change which we have turned into an essay entitled: 'The Dynamics of Cultural Change: Italian and U.S. Relation in a Theoretical Frame'. Prior to submission for publication, we are about to circulate the theoretical model amongst the members of the Advisory Board of the already mentioned AHRC project. 
Type Of Material Model of mechanisms or symptoms - human 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact As mentioned above, we are currently at the stage of circulating our theoretical model amongst members of the Advisory Board.