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Nicole Kessell: “Migration, Identity, and the Spatiality of Social Interaction in Muscat, Sultanate of Oman”

With the help of the generous fellowship afforded by George and Conni Slape, I had the opportunity to conduct extensive thesis research in Muscat, Oman from June to September 2015. This research is concerned with the social and cultural impacts of labour migration to Muscat on nation-building efforts, focusing on the extent and nature of daily interactions between migrants and nationals as related to identity construction and maintenance.

Oman’s development strategy involves efforts to construct a unifying national identity amongst various sub-state loyalties while concurrently relying on the importation of a foreign labour force, skilled and unskilled, to undertake infrastructural and institutional development. I am concerned with residential locality and the daily spatial behaviours of city residents, citizens and expatriates alike, how culture and identity are affected by spatial encounters, and to what extent these spatial interactions influence the cultures and identities of Muscat residents. More importantly, thesis research is concerned with socialization between Muscat residents of varying national origins, which locations are the sites of cross-cultural socialization, and to what extent this socialization influences their respective identities and sense of belonging.

shopping center, Qurm neighbourhood of Muscat

Shopping center, Qurm neighbourhood of Muscat

Over the course of my summer research I conducted 30 semi-structured interviews with mostly young expatriates and Omani nationals. The primary interview questions related to four broad themes:

  • individual attributes relating to age, country of origin, length of residency, level of educational attainment, local presence of family, and whether the participant is second or third generation
  • spatial patterns, perceptions, and preferences for both national and foreign participants, including areas of residency, and areas avoided or preferred by Muscat residents for social, economic and recreational activities, like where, for example, participants do their grocery shopping;
  • cultural interaction, including the frequency and context of these interactions, perceptions of others’ that arise from such interactions, and cultural transmission. Lastly,
  • identity and belonging, relating social interactions with perceptions of self and self-identification, identification of ‘home’.

A key element of this research is the mental map. Interview participants were asked to sketch Muscat on a blank piece of paper. It is assumed that increased familiarity with particular areas will be reflected in the mental maps in terms size and/or level of detail in the area’s depiction. Areas avoided or in which participants have limited experience will likely be scant in detail, or perhaps absent all together. Through an analysis of varying sizes, shapes, and orientations of city neighbourhoods as drawn in these maps, one could uncover which spaces are frequented most by individual participants, thus allowing for the identification of significant places and networks for Omanis and various migrant communities. In addition, a comparison of the mental maps sketched by Omanis with those sketched by foreign participants identify areas of significant social interaction, shedding light on notable locations of cultural transmission occurring its impact on identity construction.

Once areas of potential social interaction were identified in a comparison of the mental maps drawn, participant observation was an approach to gauge the nature and extent of social and cultural interactions, and more fully understand the context of place, and the daily experiences of foreign and national communities in Muscat.

Practice game, Filipino  Social Club basketball tournament

Practice game, Filipino
Social Club basketball tournament

Settings for such observation were in the areas depicted in relative detail by both Omanis and migrants in their maps, or areas identified in verbal communication. I attended private gatherings, both social and religious, played sports, participated in karaoke nights, and frequented other recreational establishments with both Omani and expatriate friends and research participants.

I am currently analyzing the thirty interviews and their corresponding mental maps, as well as sifting through dozens of pages of observational notes, and so I cannot at this time make any definitive conclusions regarding my research questions. However, with so much data, this research endeavour was incredibly fruitful, and I am so appreciative of the financial support of George and Conni Slape, and the guidance of Dr. Dennis Galvan, Dr. Susan Hardwick, and Dr. Yvonne Braun throughout my research process. I am humbled by the encouragement of my thesis committee members, and am grateful for their counsel.