Skip to navigation | Skip to content

Reflections on temporariness

[Author’s note: This article emerges from an EU comparative research project entitled Mobile Identities that focuses on temporary migration programmes and the impact of each system on migrants and their well-being.[1] These programmes are said to carry a triple win. The host gets a labour force tailored to current needs and without long term integration challenges; individual migrants gain marketable work experience while earning money to support their families at home; the sending country gains from remittances and gets its citizens back with internationally recognised skills. Inevitably the realities are not so tidy. We have found that the length of “temporariness” is not consistent within any single country at any given time. The effect of this on policy, administration and the anticipated triple win is too rarely acknowledged. Nor is it consistent for the migrant. This article leaves the bureaucrat’s problems to one side to focus on the experience of temporariness. How does it affect the migrant’s decisions and sense of self?]


It is not only migrants who identify themselves by temporariness. For me the word evokes a line from Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman. A character says: ‘I still feel – kind of temporary about myself’ (Miller 1987:69). I identified with this on first reading and all these decades later I quite often hear it in my head. Miller goes on: ‘When I wrote the line it hadn’t yet occurred to me that it summed up my own condition…throughout my life. The here and now was always melting before the head of a dream coming toward me or its tail going away.’ The nub of this is that the present and present identity are for him incidental, mortgaged to the past or the future.

Surely not everyone feels temporary in quite the way Miller describes. But there are contexts in which temporariness affects everyone’s thinking and behaviour.  One is Recreational, the other Eternal. We can learn from both.

The Recreational one happens when we travel abroad; as tourists we are the ultimate temporary migrants. We’ve all been there: that precious weekend or fortnight or even a rare sabbatical year in which we are away from normal concerns in the normal place, where we allow ourselves to eat different food, drink rather more wine, flirt a little – most importantly, to play with a different identity. “Away”– temporarily of course – the self is suspended (Wagner 1977). The film Shirley Valentine shows it well: the tourist “reinvents” herself on holiday, but takes little more than memories and a few souvenirs back to normal life. Whatever has happened belongs and stays in that specified, time-limited slot.

The Eternal version of temporariness is imposed on us all by mortality. This life is temporary. Many religions justify the suffering of it because the present is ‘only’ a pause on the way to a future ‘after life’.

From there it is an easy step to the specifics of temporary migration.

Temporary Migration[3]

Economics research shows that migrants will put up with often appalling work and housing conditions in the host country exactly because their condition is temporary and their identity is elsewhere. They will assess wages, consumption, housing options and the like against conditions in the home place.  Low wages away are higher than anything available at home; the migrant consumes frugally because any money made is to finance current remittances or future projects on return. Hence the complaint that migrants ‘spoil the market’ by ‘undercutting’ home-grown workers (Dustmann 1996).

The minute a person’s perspective changes to permanence he starts to consume like his hosts, needs higher wages, better housing, good schools, friendly neighbours. The switch is not straightforward. Migrants may keep a temporary or more-or-less-temporary perspective even when officially entitled to permanence, and their stance will not be consistent. A longitudinal study of migrants with residence in Germany (Wagner et al 2007) shows that their temporary-permanent identities may teeter back and forth throughout the life cycle, affected by marriage, another child, considerations of education and health, the presence or absence of elderly parents, the approach of retirement… Daily life can continue as usual: inside the head there may be turmoil, but on the outside little or nothing changes.

Ethnographic examples

In depth ethnographic studies enrich the picture. The first follows Hausa pilgrims heading to Mecca; the second describes circular migration between Lesotho and the South African mines. In both cases temporariness makes the present a limbo-like interlude. But notice how the shapes of time and temporariness differ.


This is the story of Hausa pilgrims from West Africa whose present life plays out in the Sudan (Yamba 1992; 1995). In their mindset the present is a temporary stop between past and future. The past has happened and is fixed in the once home place (Nigeria) as well as in time. Likewise the future, which is fixed in Mecca; Mecca is a time to come as well as a place to reach. Time is integrated with space; in some sense it is the same as space. The pilgrim’s time-space map is in three distinct parts: past Nigeria; present Sudan; future Mecca. The three parts are integrated by the continuity of his pilgrim identity.

The future is unlike the past because it is – not ‘it is in’, another place, and it is another state of being. Past and future are permanently fixed in space as well as time; the present, in contrast to both, is fluid and uncertain.  Most important, the here and now present in Sudan is felt to be temporary however long it may last.

In fact[4] only one pilgrim in a thousand gets through to complete the haj. It can take a lifetime, even generations to reach the goal. It may never happen. To be devout, a man needs only to cherish his pilgrim identity[5], always ‘facing’ Mecca and doing his practical best to get there. Whatever it takes. This effort is the obligation of the pilgrim. So is the acceptance that however hard he tries it will be the will of God that decides whether or not he actually gets there.

Temporariness infuses everything. Pilgrims live apart from the Sudanese hosts in villages that are not built to last; there should be no brick houses because bricks look like permanence. Even the place of the home is temporary; the pilgrim moves between local geographic spots in search of always holier places – towards a sheikh with more Baraka, into a dwelling closer to the mosque – because any such move brings him spiritually closer to Mecca.

The pilgrim is defined by his commitment to pilgrimage – by being ‘on the way’ to the future – not by what happens in the temporary present or by what he must do to survive it. So no task is too demeaning and every humiliation can be endured as a step in the journey.[6]

This ideology affects what the pilgrim thinks and how he lives in much the way temporary migrants into the EU will put up with appalling conditions of work and housing in the present precisely because their condition is temporary and their goal is the future in another place.

Circular Migration  

The Lesotho case suggests connections between temporariness and non-development which challenges our win-win-win assumptions (Wallman 1965; 1977). Lesotho is a poor country where there is no work. Work is accessible in the rich country next door. Migration to it is the obvious option.  At the time of fieldwork consistently 45% of men were absent on nine-months-on, three-months-off contracts in the South African mines.

This massive exodus has non-material side effects. Repeated experience of a highly developed environment changes perspectives on the home place. Compared to “away”, “home” can never match up. A huge and hopeless gap between home and away builds an ideology of the home country as a non-starter, not a place that can compete. Don’t talk to us about cottage industries and small is beautiful. We’ve seen mines and traffic and factories with smoke coming out. We could never achieve that here so what’s the point of small improvements? 

So migrants make no effort at “progress” in their periods at home[7] Yes, working away allows an injection of cash which brings a family over the subsistence line or buys a new piece of furniture, but that money doesn’t go into productive change (Schneider et al. 1972). Indeed the migrant’s absence can make matters worse. It takes away manpower which is an element of the poverty that makes migration necessary. It upsets demography and traditions of responsibility. The man is home three months out of twelve. No surprise that his stance at home is temporary, or that his wife has taken over in ways which undermine his authority – and which she can’t or won’t switch off and on. After all the man is only passing through…

Repeated migrations also change consumer preferences. There is evidence that migrants regarding themselves as temporary match their consumption patterns and expectations “away” to standards of affluence at home. But not in this case. Here, repeated exposure to the bright, bustling city, the heaps of consumer goods and diversions, the food, even the clockwork organization of a mine, gives the migrant the tastes and aspirations of an affluent urbanite.

Local commerce suffers. Most goods are available locally, but people complain of poor quality and range. By contrast, things coming from South Africa are semate (a corruption of the English word ‘smart’). It’s common for even large items of furniture to be carted hundreds of miles by bus and donkey when the same is available ‘at home’.

This version of circular migration has bleak side effects: depression, lethargy and hypochondria are common; so are alcoholism and drunken brawls. Protracted litigation and accusations of treachery and sorcery are characteristic of everyday life.


In all versions of it, circularity changes the shape of time. It is no longer linear; no past, present, future arrow – as we saw with pilgrimage. Nor is it focused in a bounded one off interlude – like a cruise or a package holiday. Time is a continuous cycle, same again, round and round. In Lesotho, except for the eighteen-year-old’s first trip to the mines – his initiation into migrant status – no new state of being is involved: only temporariness repeated on both sides throughout the working life. I don’t claim to know that this makes a miserable life, only that present perceptions of self and place affect expectations and possibilities for the future of both. In this case, the outcome of temporary/circular migration is far from the triple win everybody hopes for.


These are very different examples. But the crucial link between pilgrims and circular migrants is the common fact of their temporary present status and the extent to which they identify with temporariness as a state of being.  It may also be significant that both appear to choose the condition – although of course among limited options; surely the forced movement of refugees has a different meaning. Do these migrants identify themselves with temporariness exactly because they’ve chosen it?  And is it important that the boundaries of it – of the present temporary state – are set and certain?

If this is what makes for good temporariness, the bad kind must be about uncertainty and lack of choice: you don’t know who or where you are, and you cannot fix yourself. Think of temporary housing, zero hours work contracts, the insecurity of no contract or contracts always running out. In these kinds of circumstance it makes sense for me to picture myself elsewhere – to identify with the next port of call in a transnational sequence, with an imagined future state or after life. Best that I don’t commit to this place or to the present identity of myself.

This version of temporariness works well for the pilgrims, less well for the circular migrants.  Concepts of the future are key. The condition of temporariness seems to be “better” with a future end point. I know where I’m going because I know who I am. It works the other way as well: I know who I am because I know where I’m going. Personal identity is tied to a personal future. Arthur Miller describes the rupture of a sense of identity with his brother as: ‘I could no longer imagine his idea of the future, either for himself or the country’ (Miller 1987:249).

Images of the future affect what happens in the future and, significantly here, they constrain the present – what happens in it, how I feel about it, how I identify with it. Future time and present identity are interdependent. Again it goes both ways: “the future” will be different at different points in personal time; and my take on the present – on “temporariness” here and nowdepends on its relation to other times and places.


In all this there are two key points: one is the variety of the temporariness experience; the other is the link between time and identity.

Go back to the tourists. For them temporariness enhances the present. Identity is focused in it with no thought of the past or the future. ‘The real me is here and now.’

Next the pilgrims. In their case temporariness eclipses the present – forgives it, so to speak. Identity is focused in the future. The real me is in or at least on-the-way-to Mecca.

Now the circular migrants. This one is harder. It is as though temporariness is for them a perpetual state. The real me is permanently nowhere. Identity is focused in the cycle itself. It is what I do; what I do is who I am.

Finally the Arthur Miller version: ‘I still feel kind of temporary about myself’. This is temporariness as possibility.  The identity focus shifts across time – past, present, future – not randomly, driven – probably – by curiosity.  The real me is a work in progress.

I finish with a suggestion about the link between time and identity. In the matter of ‘Who am I?’, where I’m situated in time is at least as significant as where I am in space. To make sense of ‘Mobile Identities’, we try to know what drives the aspirations and behaviour of the temporary migrant.  Locality of course is a factor. We take account of it in studies of people moving between countries. We call them ‘Trans-national’ migrants. But place is only one dimension of their identity: we should also pay attention to the implications of temporariness. The difference that makes a real difference to aspiration and commitment is the time perspective – the past-present-future balance of identity focus. We must learn also to acknowledge the ‘Trans-temporal’ dimension.


Dustman, Christian, 1996, “Return Migration: The European Experience”, Economic Policy, Vol. 11, No. 22, Apr. 1996, pp. 213-250.

Miller, Arthur,1987, Timebends: a life. London: Methuen

Schneider P., J. Schneider & E. Hansen, 1972, ‘Modernisation and Development’ in: Comparative Studies in Society & History, 14[3]: 328-50.

Wagner, Gert; Joachim Frick; Jurgen Schupp, 2007, The German Socio-Economic Panel. [GSOEP] Berlin: German Institute for Economic Research

Wagner, Ulla, 1977, “Out of Time and Space — Mass Tourism and Charter Trips.” Ethnos 42.1–2 (1977): 39–49.

Wallman, Sandra, 1965, Take Out Hunger. London: Athlone for L.S.E.

Wallman, Sandra, 1977, “Conditions of non-Development’  in  Sandra Wallman (ed.), Perceptions of Development, Cambridge: University Press

Yamba, Christian Bawa, 1992, ‘Going there and getting there: the future as a legitimating charter for life in the present’, in Sandra Wallman (ed.), Contemporary Futures.

Yamba, Christian Bawa, 1995, Permanent Pilgrims. Edinburgh University Press for International African Institute.

  1. [1]Five countries are involved: Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and the UK. For a full account see: Mobile Identities: Migration and Integration in Transnational Communities, HOME/2012/EIFX/CA/CFP/4201.
  2. [2]Earlier versions of this paper were presented to the Social Anthropology Seminar in the University of Stockholm, and to an EU Mobile Identities forum at  IPRS [Istituto Psicoanalitico per le Ricerche Sociali] in Rome.
  3. [3]This section builds on personal communication with Dr Christian Dustmann, Professor of Economics and Director of CReAM, the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at UCL.
  4. [4]…at Yamba’s time of writing.
  5. [5] The same applies to women. I use “he” because the great majority of lone pilgrims on this route are male.
  6. [6]This is true fatalism – not sitting passively by the roadside waiting for God’s decision, but ‘facing Mecca’, actively trying to reach the goal, identifying as a pilgrim on the way. Then there is a chance that God will provide.
  7. [7]The ethnographic present here is fifty years old. Certainly some conditions will now be different. But recent communication with a UN Development technician charged with explaining the local ‘lack of entrepreneurial spirit’ implies continuity.

Please join our mailing list to receive notification of new issues