Psychology

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    Of Cow-Bells and Homesickness
    When Home Is Elsewhere, and Elsewhere Is Not Home

    In a globalised and densely networked world where mental and physical mobility continue to grow in importance, it seems counterintuitive to continue speaking about home and homesickness. At the very least, it would seem to require an explanation. For this reason, this article seeks to show how addressing the subject of homesickness is not only philosophically, psychologically and socio-politically meaningful but also necessary in the present day.

    The German Romantic poet Novalis (Friedrich von Hardenberg) once asserted that all philosophy was homesickness. He subsequently qualified his remark by explaining that philosophy was the endeavour to be at home everywhere.

    And indeed home, homesickness, and also a yearning for foreign parts – the endeavour to find happiness outside one’s own limited province – were dominant themes in the Romantic era. However, to speak of homesickness in the modern world seems somewhat anachronistic when one considers that the duty of the modern, flexible person – most particularly in today’s capitalist brand of economic activity – is, as Richard Sennett so aptly illustrates, precisely not to have a home in the narrowest sense of the word, not to be bound to any specific place or to friends and relations, but to be completely mobile and universally deployable, in other words not to be held back by any social or territorial boundaries in one’s will to advance. At most, we permit primary school children to feel homesick, for example when they want to come home from an extended summer camp to Mum and to the home and environment they know and love. But what happens when the ‘soul becomes homeless’? When one becomes paralysed by homesickness? And how can one make a place one’s new home?

    Are we not perhaps making things too easy for ourselves by rashly rejecting homesickness as a legitimate emotional state for an adult human being? Anthropologically speaking, Karen Joisten characterises humans as a way home, as being on the way home. By describing them in this way, she is highlighting both the need for home, for a feeling of security and safety, but also for the process of being on the way to oneself. After all, humans have always been wanderers. From an anthropological point of view, humans were wanderers who became socialised throughout the course of their history. The term homo migrans – not homo sapiens – is the most appropriate term for them.

    Home as a social place

    Homesickness, however, is an expression of the lack of this very feeling of security, confidence, and existential safety, which emanates from specific places. Yet to reduce homesickness to places would be to do the phenomenon an injustice; home is not a territorial but always a social place. This is why homesickness should be understood as a backward-facing desire, as a yearning for home, for familiar places and things, but above all for people. This is quite possibly all the more true today in view of globalisation, global networking or global homelessness.

    And so homesickness is generally felt in the mode of loss, namely as a loss of beloved and familiar objects, people, and places, above all when people are in exile, on the run, or living in a certain place temporarily. Right now, for example, in view of the situation in the Middle East, it is something that is being experienced by millions of people. The feeling of homesickness always entails a depreciation of the reality in which one is living and an imagined appreciation of the past. The longer a person is removed from their home, the more stylised and distorted are the images and the myths that he or she constructs around home. In the act of homesickness, the potential for satisfaction in the present and the future is transferred to the past. ‘Back then, at home, when everything was still so wonderful...’ is an example of how people introduce narratives about themselves.

    Homesickness in history and philosophy

    It is reported that Ovid considered home to be the place where one’s native language is spoken. In other words, home is the place where one is understood in the emphatic sense and the place where one understands the world because one is familiar with it.

    Studies on homesickness are a classic theme in research into the mental health of foreigners. Homesickness has been known since the seventeenth century. Initially it was referred to as ‘nostalgic reaction’. The word ‘nostalgic’ is a compound of the Classical Greek terms ‘nostos’ (past) and ‘algos’ (pain).

    The Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in particular is considered one of the ‘modern discoverers’ of homesickness. At the very least, he is the man who presents the most interesting deductions on the subject. For him, the ‘essence of the illness’, was a deranged faculty of imagination leading to an aberration of the spirits, which, instead of moving through a person’s entire mind and fulfilling their biological vital functions, only ‘wandered along the strip of land where the notion of the fatherland is rooted’. In this way, they incessantly trigger the idea of home, making it impossible for the person to move on to other moods and states of mind. In 1688, he believed that this was the ‘sickness’ he saw in the different types of reactions of Swiss soldiers who were serving abroad and were immediately transported in their minds to their Swiss home upon hearing cow-bells for the first time.

    The lost paradise of childhood

    In the philosophy of the twentieth century, it was above all Ernst Bloch, who was influenced both by psychoanalysis and Marxist historico-philosophical thinking, who at the end of his monumental work The Principle of Hope picked up the ideas of homesickness and home and developed the utopia of a home for all humanity. According to Bloch, once they have cast off the shackles of alienating capitalist economic activity, humans, who are still living in prehistory, will find themselves and create a world which ‘shines into the childhood of all and in which no one has yet been: home.’

    In psychoanalytical terms, homesickness can be interpreted as the desire for the lost paradise of childhood. In this conception, the person suffering from homesickness idealises the life-world that they consider they have lost and that seemed so familiar to them, and calls the place where they were happy as a child – and the place where they had all they needed during childhood without having to make an effort – ‘home’. In an extreme form, i.e. when it becomes a psychiatric disorder, homesickness can be both an expression of a pronounced regressive tendency as well as a protection against a psychosis, the impending collapse of the self, or suicide.

    Psychological contexts

    The question as to possible links between migration and mental disorders has existed for more than a century. As far back as the 1920s, studies were written on psychogenic disorders in ‘foreign-language environments’: psychopathological studies on uprootedness and homesickness.

    The philosopher Karl Jaspers drew attention to the link between homesickness and delinquency: his doctoral thesis from 1909 was entitled ‘Homesickness and Crime’ and explored how the fact of having been uprooted from their parents’ home led young girls, in desperation, to commit the most serious criminal acts such as infanticide and arson. Above all, early studies on homesickness focussed on the worryingly high rates of endogenous psychoses and suicide. In the early stages, research into migration was dominated by two contrasting beliefs. The first of these was the so-called ‘selection hypothesis’, i.e. the belief that people who showed signs of psychiatric difficulties in their host country had already demonstrated pre-psychotic characteristics in their home country, had been plagued by agitation, had reacted to stressful situations in a pathological manner, and had gone abroad as a way of seeking remedy. In contrast to this, in the late 1930s, Faris and Dunham put forward the theory that cultural isolation and socially unfavourable life-worlds in large cities in particular harboured the serious potential threat of mental illnesses for foreigners.

    Focussing on homesickness, it can be noted that aspects of homesickness touch on a broad range of psychological issues, such as separation and loss, bonds, etc. because homesickness is always also an expression of a loss of control: a person has to begin by appropriating the new environment and assimilating it into familiar patterns. It is possible that homesickness is also a form of escapism, the flight from the demands of everyday life as a way of emotionally coping with concrete, everyday worries.

    Homesickness is not a sickness

    Although homesickness correlates with certain mental symptoms, such as brooding that focuses on the past, fear, and increased depressiveness, it must be emphasised that homesickness is not a classic, clinical illness. Experiences of homesickness can most likely be explained within the context of changes in motivation and mood.

    In her studies about Welsh students in England, Shirley Fisher noted that in people who suffer from homesickness visual images dominate, whereby the thoughts of those who are not homesick focus more on concrete problems. She noted that the differences in cognitive activity were significant. Homesickness is, therefore, presumably also a form of escapism because daydreams and reflecting on the pleasant sides of the past help to avoid confrontations with current problems. Fisher also showed that homesickness does not depend on external factors such as age and gender and that feelings of homesickness occur more in the morning and in the evening, in other words that daytime activities and concrete, physical work had a moderating influence on the form of homesickness. Not least, or in correlation with that, feelings of homesickness occur more frequently in phases of mental passivity.

    In terms of the psychology of learning, homesickness can be predicted on the basis of the discrepancy between a person’s home environment and his/her new environment (dissimilarity between where they live now and where they used to live). In this way, it can be assumed that people who move from rural agricultural environments to big cities will experience greater homesickness than people whose previous life context was also an urban one.

    Difficulties in adapting and stress

    People from provincial settings, who have grown up in a restricted, modest, remote and simple environment and consequently had a different work rhythm, a different relationship to time, and a different perception of human and social spaces, and whose socio-cultural habitus has made them less able to adapt to new life circumstances, have always been considered predisposed to homesickness and difficulty in adapting to a different culture. This aspect is particularly relevant for people who have emigrated from Turkey to Germany: Kürsat-Ahlers & Ahlers assume that about two-thirds of the first generation of this group come from villages in the provinces of Anatolia.

    In this context, it is relevant whether they emigrated voluntarily or whether they were forced to do so by family or economic circumstances or pressure. After all, voluntary migration makes it much easier for a person to appropriate and accept their new environment as their new home than forced migration. Those who make a conscious decision to move away are probably more likely to engage with their new environment and to accept it as their new home. The situation for many migrant labourers was compounded by the fact that this change was not intended to be permanent but actually turned out to be so.

    In addition, there are concurring findings that show the people who move with their families are better able to cope with the situation in their new home than single or divorced people. People who have previous experience of moving from one place to another in their native country also cope better with the situation in their new home.

    When it comes to explaining homesickness, stress theory approaches seem to offer the best answers: when immigrants are confronted with demands such as the organisation of everyday life in a modern society, integration into a majority society without giving up their own convictions, and coping with the deficits in modernity of their own culture, coming up against the limitations of their own abilities in the process, then this situation is perceived as being stressful. The challenge of mastering life in a foreign country, in a new home, then gives way to the feeling of being overwhelmed. Lazarus and Folkman, two renowned theoreticians of stress, said that stress occurs when people do not have sufficient resources for coping with challenges that arise in areas that are important to them, such as family, career, or social relationships. According to this concept, stress can be understood as a process of multiple stages, at the start of which are the perceived situational demands and the appraisal of resources. These determine whether a concrete event or a concrete situation is deemed a challenge, a threat, a loss, or a benefit. This is followed by attempts to cope with the situation, which on the one hand seek to change the problematic situation for the better or to improve the emotional state of mind. The degree of stress – and consequently of homesickness – can be reduced by social and personal resources. Personal resources include individual characteristics such as self-efficacy and self-esteem, but also formal education. Social resources include social networks such as relationships with family and friends that a person either has or of which they are able to avail themselves. These help the person to reduce the unpleasant and negative consequences of threatening requirements. Only if the demand and the available resources are comparatively assessed and found to be unequal does stress occur, i.e. a fear of being overwhelmed develops.

    The socio-political dimension of homesickness

    To conclude, the homesickness of people who have emigrated from Turkey to Germany will be considered on the basis of the brief theoretical outline above. So why this group in particular? Are people from Turkey the only ones who get homesick?

    First of all, it is important to remember that homesickness and the significance of home are always felt when one is elsewhere, which is why immigration, emigration, and exile are a constituent element of homesickness. Secondly, there are three million people of Turkish origin in Germany, which means that they constitute the largest single group of immigrants in the country. The third, but by no means least important, justification for focusing on this group is the fact that, by their own account, suffering from homesickness is one of their most striking mental states of mind, especially for older people of Turkish origin in Germany. In the case of immigrants of Turkish origin, how long they have already lived in Germany rarely plays a role, i.e. homesickness is not an acute emotional mood that can be traced back to the recent change in environment: rather, it is their soul’s constant companion, just like the famous quote from the fourteenth-century Turkish mystic and humanist Yunus Emre: ‘I am not elsewhere: elsewhere is in me’.

    For this reason, some findings in the ‘culture shock hypothesis’ must be called into question. A large number of studies were conducted on this in the 1990s. These studies show that the frequency of mental illnesses does not, as the culture shock theory assumes, increase in the first three to eighteen months; it tends instead to increase with the duration of the stay.

    In addition to the health aspects, however, focusing on homesickness also has some socio-political implications. It also concerns the ability and willingness of immigrants in Germany to integrate. Homesickness must probably be understood as a decisive obstacle on the road to successful acculturation, an appropriation of cultural orientations. After all, those who still feel a strong mental bond to their home, their place of origin, will have greater difficulty engaging with the place where they now live, opening up to it, putting down new roots, and assuming responsibility for this place where they now live and reside. It must be assumed that homesickness could lead to a lack of involvement in the new home, to hesitancy in establishing contact with new neighbours and others, which in turn leads to greater homesickness and yearning for familiar places and people in the person’s region of origin.

    Even the fact that some immigrants of Turkish origin have already taken on German citizenship and count as Germans does little to change this fact. After all, changing a passport and taking on a new citizenship is not the same thing as acquiring a new home, as sober realists might perhaps assert. This is especially evident in older, first-generation Turkish immigrants. However, it is important to note one critical point: in many cases, the imagined warmth and security offered by the original home turns out to be an illusion. Many repatriates are very familiar with this phenomenon. They sense the dwindling of the stylised feeling of security in their original home: suddenly, home becomes an ordinary biotope, stripped of all its valency, a dismal place just like any other. And so with time it often happens that, for people of Turkish origin, their home becomes foreign without the foreign becoming home at the same time.

    As we have been able to establish in our own investigations, it is above all those people of Turkish origin who have a low level of education who experience strong feelings of homesickness. It is to be assumed that the complex, obscure life in a big city is particularly strenuous for them and seems overwhelming, thereby triggering in them all the more strongly the desire for familiar places, people, and contexts. Presumably, they also experience a stronger self-depreciation in German society, where formal education is an elementary status characteristic, because other strengths that they have, such as social skills, solicitousness, and loyalty in interpersonal relationships are not considered as important in German society.

    Religion as a crutch

    We have also noticed that religious or more devout Muslims experience less homesickness. How can this be explained? One might expect these people to experience greater homesickness because of the more strongly perceived cultural and religious distance between the two societies.

    The possible reasons for this are twofold. Firstly: together with their faith community, people with a strong bond to religion create a ‘symbolic home’ for themselves, often feel ‘in good hands’ in their faith abroad, and often have a dense network of social relationships within their own religious group, which is why they suffer less from homesickness. In these cases, religiosity acts like a personal resource. Secondly: it is possible that many devout Muslims for whom the practice of their faith is a characteristic feature of their identity and their idea of a ‘good life’ are able to live out this faith in a much freer manner in Germany than is the case, for example, in Turkey. Presumably this is the reason why their desire to go back is less pronounced.

    Finally, it is essential to ask how Germany can become a new home for immigrants. First of all, we should recognise and respect the fact that immigrants have much more complex development tasks to overcome than both native Germans and their former compatriots who have not migrated. They have to develop a bi- or multicultural identity; they have to rearrange their family relationships; they have to assume new career and social roles; and they have to mourn – and be allowed to mourn – what they have lost in an appropriate way, i.e. everything that they left behind in the native country, such as part of their family and their social networks. To this end, in addition to the concrete strengthening of equal, societal opportunities for their participation, an emphatic attitude on the part of the host society could be helpful. Such an attitude would also grant them the regressive free space they need, without reminding them at every turn of the ‘integrative added value’ of their actions and attitudes.
    Haci-Halil Uslucan was born in Kayseri, Turkey, in 1965, and has lived in Germany since 1973. He studied psychology, philosophy, and general and comparative literary studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. In August 2010, after gaining both a doctorate and a post-doctoral teaching qualification in psychology, he became the academic director of the Centre for Turkish Studies and Integration Research and the University of Duisburg-Essen.

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2014
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