Go to almost any family reunion, and you’ll find some of the same things: gossip and posturing, old photos and favorite recipes, brand new babies and aged ancestors. For anthropologist Jennifer Cole, these often-awkward gatherings are rich opportunities for fieldwork that offer a glimpse into the emergence of a transnational culture as it forms.
For more than two decades, Cole, a professor of cultural anthropology, has studied the legacy of French colonization in Madagascar. In recent years, she has given particular attention to the emigration of women from Madagascar to France. There’s a shortage of single women in rural France, and so it has become common for working-class Frenchmen to seek brides in Madagascar via matchmakers and Internet dating sites. If all goes well, the man gets a wife, the woman a husband—and a coveted visa in the bargain.
This summer, thanks to a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, Cole is tagging along with one such family living in France as they visit family in Madagascar. Her travel companions: husband Francois, wife Simone, and their two little girls, Lori and Claudette.
This will be their first trip to Madagascar as a couple and it’s likely to be every bit as prickly as Americans find their own family reunions—probably more so. In Madagascar, “family” is defined much more broadly than in Western nations like France. Or, as Cole explains it: “Imagine you were going home to meet your in-laws and your in-laws were thousands of people. How do you think he feels?”
For Simone, however, the awkwardness is more than offset by pride in her achievement. After ten years abroad, she’s going home to show off a devoted husband and two beautiful daughters, not to mention a first-world lifestyle. Many Malagasy (i.e., Madagascar residents) would love to immigrate to a wealthy nation like France. Even though Simone lives a humble, working-class existence—she is employed as a maid—she presents herself as enjoying a Parisian affluence.
“Malagasy women living abroad like Simone carefully manage their reputations back home,” Cole explains. “There is a basic contradiction: They are supposed to be rich in Madagascar, but they are comparatively poor in France. So, they have to manage two identities at the same time.”
For Cole, these sort of hybrid identities—French and Malagasy, wealthy and yet poor, prestigious and yet humble—embody the very essence of a transnational culture in the making. By examining the lives of people like Francois and Simone, plus many similar couples, Cole gains a window into how individuals reinvent their own cultures to ultimately create something new. Madagascar offers an ideal laboratory to study such melding. The island has long been buffeted by Indian Ocean trade, producing a culture neither African nor southeast Asian. Cole was first drawn to Madagascar because of this unique history and because of personal experience (she lived for a time in France). Now, the Guggenheim gives her the means to return to a place she has grown to love.
In her work, Cole draws heavily on classic anthropological methods like participant observation. Fluent in French and Malagasy, she will follow Francois, Simone, Lori and Claudette from place to place, share their meals, and go sightseeing with them. She will focus on their interactions with Simone’s big, extended family.
“Seeing is so much different than hearing,” Cole explains. “I can get a sense of how people stand in their families and the pressures on them that’s impossible when I’m far away hearing people recount it. There is an incredible amount of impression management when the couple goes home. The man has very little idea what is going on around him, or comparatively little. Because he relies on his wife for access to what is going on much of the time, she can try to shape his impressions, which she does!
“I want to see how the family treats the husband. I want to see how the husband treats her family. I want to see what the little girls think.”
The trip’s climax will be an ancestor ceremony, an elaborate ritual-cum-fete that can only be performed in Madagascar. There will be a party and dancing fueled by rum and the local sugar-cane beer and, the following day, a ceremony in which Simone’s family thanks her ancestors for her good fortune by sacrificing of a bull. It’s a big deal, not least because of the expense involved.
“For one small woman who works as maid in France to come home to feed 500 people in Madagascar, that’s a large gathering, believe me,” Cole notes.
“They’re showing off. They wouldn’t have a ceremony if they weren’t successful.”
Yet to maintain the family’s trust, Cole must avoid calling their bluff.
“When I first started doing this research, people were scared that I would out them—that I would reveal what their lives in France were actually like,” she says. “If I exposed people that way, I’d be out of a job.
“I’m always careful to say that people are doing well in France.”