The Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) is happy to announce that the 2022 winner of the annual Cultural Horizons Prize is Daniela Giudici for the article, “Beyond Compassionate Aid: Precarious Bureaucrats and Dutiful Asylum Seekers in Italy.”
Recognizing that doctoral students are among the most experimentally minded—and often among the best-read—of ethnographic writers, the SCA created the Cultural Horizons Prize, which is awarded by a jury of doctoral students for the best article appearing in the previous year of Cultural Anthropology.
This year’s jurors were Liliana Ramirez (UC Irvine), Brian Walter (UC Santa Cruz), and Magdalena Zegarra Chiappori (University of Michigan).
In recognizing Daniela Giudici’s article, the jurors write:
In “Beyond Compassionate Aid: Precarious Bureaucrats and Dutiful Asylum Seekers in Italy,” Daniela Giudici offers an ethnographically-rich account of asylum-related bureaucratic work in Bologna, Italy, during a time of austerity crisis and welfare state rollback. While this piece is specific to the sociopolitical context of Italy, it also illuminates the shifting global politics around precarious migrants such as refugees, asylum seekers, and undocumented immigrants. This is a clearly written and timely article that shows how precarity not only affects those seeking asylum but also those who form part of the institutions that intend to grant it, demonstrating that the position of the state workers, like asylum seekers, is liminal.
Ethnographically well-grounded, through the recreation of bureaucratic spaces, state workers’ interventions and descriptions, and an atmosphere of hopelessness and discontent, Guidici successfully captures the problems and complexities of a broken infrastructure that, more than ever, deserves our attention. The ethnographic material offered here allows readers to have a realistic glimpse of the hardships that people outside and inside the migration system must endure in order to craft possibilities in a society that constrains them at so many different levels. Exploitation, marginality, and hostility are sensed throughout the article in the voices of interlocutors, in the description of broken governmental settings, and in the depiction of the Italian political-economic landscape.
While narratives of extreme hardship faced by refugees remain important, Giudici sheds light to the innerworkings of an immigration system in a prominent xenophobic country but within the city of Bologna, known for its welfare services and considered “Italy’s showcase city of the Left.” The precarious conditions forcing refugees to arrive in Italy are insufficient justifications for state care within Italy’s current metrics of deservingness. In today’s Italian context, asylum seekers must prove their value to the state by completing required hours of community service to be considered for state sponsored aid. Disguised as community service, Italy created nationalistic narratives of immigrant deservingness based on refugees’ ability to provide free labor to the state. Additionally, bureaucrats at the local level confront the infrastructural consequences triggered by national xenophobia. Bureaucrats struggle with coercive short term employment contracts devised by the state to serve refugees at a low cost for the national budget. Although they face different levels of precarity, both bureaucrats and refugees in the system are sources of cheap and disposable labor for the Italian state.
Giudici does not only offer an account of the changing subject position of asylum-seekers or bureaucrats, but follows how their relationship shifts within a shared economic crisis. Rather than seeing bureaucratic reception workers as complicit agents of the state, Giudici's empathetic “studying up” reveals them to be both the enforcers of a violent system, and victims of outsourcing and austerity. While reception workers route asylum seekers into coercive civic participation programs, they are also important sources of solidarity, critique, and political reform from within the state. Reception workers understand their precarious working conditions impact their ability to provide services to asylum seekers and argue “the struggles for workers’ and migrants’ rights should not be distinct.” In doing so, Giudici identifies powerful possibilities within un-examined spaces of solidarity and resistance inside the state migration apparatus.
Submitted by Andrea Muehlebach (University of Bremen) and Ramah McKay (University of Pennsylvania), Cultural Horizons Prize Co-Chairs.