Adventure Capital: Migration and the Making of an African Hub in Paris by Julie Kleinman was published by University of California Press in 2020.
Julie Kleinman is an urban anthropologist working on migration in France and in West Africa. She is assistant professor of anthropology at Fordham University in New York, and has held fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and the Hutchins Center at Harvard University. She is currently working on a project on migrant rights activism and new forms of pan-African belonging in Mali.
Review by Johannes Lenhard
It’s the biggest train station in Europe with more than 220 million passengers passing through every year. Most of these people are going elsewhere crossing many different levels, malls, étages, escalators and stairs; people come from the subway and the commuter trains, the RER, and the high-speed TGV as well as the Eurostar from Belgium and Britain. Despite two major renovations and restructurings – around the turn of the century and just recently – the station in many ways continues to be a hot mess.
In this fantastic ethnography, Kleinman tries to make sense of a small part of what happens there, how certain people have ordered the station for themselves. She has spent almost two years with the people that can still be found most easily outside the glass entrance at the South-East of the station, people that call themselves ‘aventuriers’, adventurers. Kleinman is focused on migrants, mostly from West African countries, such as Mali and Senegal. She tells the stories of these mostly first-generation immigrants through their eyes as a struggle for money but also status, as a coming of age tale. She shows us how these men are struggling to find pathways into a (better) future not necessarily concerned with settlement and the kind of integration the French state might be imagining.
At the core of these men’s survival is what they describe as the ‘Gare du Nord method’: a self-defined social becoming which involves both getting by materially, often through finding a job, but also proving one’s worth to oneself and one’s family. But as adventures usually don’t go as planned (p. 146), Kleinman spends the majority of the chapters on different kinds of, often structural, obstacles she observed her informants creatively managing and dealing with.
From the police racism and racial profiling (p. 76) often specifically targeted at the men from West Africa, and the systematic exclusion from the French labour market, people like Lassana, Amadou or Driss constantly confronted risks (p.79). They figured out, for instance, the best way to ‘fake their identity well’ (by turning the ID-check encounter into a way of increasing symbolic capital; p. 75f, p. 87f) and ways of finding the best temporary jobs, despite their instability and exploitation (through their informal networks, for example, Chapter 4). Kleinman’s ethnography is at its strongest portraying the will and hopefulness of these men spread between here, the French train station with its daily annoyances (but also pleasantries) and there, often their homeland where they were supposed to return to or at least send sufficient amounts of money back to.
Within all this, Kleinman’s informants are focused on extending their social networks at the train station, both along language, village and kin ties but most importantly beyond. One reason for this focus on extending networks was the informal access to petty jobs (and crime) this would provide; an even bigger incentive, however, involved the ‘filles d’Amiens’, women who commuted into Paris and who were ‘ideal’ for the men to start relationships with, possibly even families (Chapter 5, p 128).
Kleinman tells these stories between onward mobility, a constant striving and struggling forward and a fixedness, finding a place, making home as I described in a similar form for my rough-sleeping informants at the same station elsewhere. She talks in rich detail about where money comes from and what it is used for, how important a residence permit is and what role remittances play as well as the dynamics between France and the family at home (p. 138).
Let me, just briefly, dive into some of the questions that Kleinman’s work poses for me, some of the areas I would love to hear more about. Firstly, similar to my group of informants at the same train station, Kleinman’s ethnography is almost exclusively focused on men from West Africa. Where were the women? The women that are mentioned are almost exclusively French and I would love to hear more about the adventurer’s wider kinship networks as it is (at least at times) built up in France.
Secondly, while we do learn some of the ways of how Kleinman’s informants work – mostly through temporary work agencies – the analysis could present more detail. What kind of work do they do and why? Are adventurers also involved in illegal money making (e.g. drug dealing)? These questions could all lead to a stronger analysis of the importance of work, having an occupation, possibly even as a status symbol for these men.
Lastly, I wonder whether Kleinman systematically follow her participants home, to the banlieues? Connected also to the first question above, what happened outside of the Gare du Nord for these men? How did they make home, at least temporarily, in France, and how easy was it to live between two homes?
I want to finish with a last, more abstract, thought I would like to bring to Kleinman: she seems to deliberately disconnect from a long (and ongoing) tradition of ethnography of marginalised groups, such as migrants, ‘the poor’ or ‘the ill’, often analysed in what Robbins (2014) calls the suffering slot. While the adversity people sleeping rough or migrating endure needs to be highlighted, I believe we also need to focus on how they struggle through it and make a life despite it. In fact, I would love to see an explicit analysis of Kleinman’s findings in this direction: does she feel her findings contribute to an ‘anthropology of the good’? What is it that we can learn more broadly for our understanding of migration from such an angle?
Dr Johannes Lenhard, is an ethnographer based at the Max Planck Centre Cambridge for the Study of Ethics, the Economy and Social Change. Having worked towards a better understanding of survival practices of homeless people in London and Paris for his PhD, he has recently started two new research projects. While one is concerned with the impact of COVID-19 on homeless people and homeless support services, the other focuses on the ethics of venture capital investors with fieldwork in Germany, the UK and the US. Find him on Twitter at @JFLenhard.