The practices of child rearing involve purchases, uses, and exchanges of various objects. In the course of the semi-structured interviews and participatory observation I conducted in Munich in the fall of 2014, I learned from research participants about the multiple meanings and values they assign to the things related to mothering. The material I gathered in Munich made me want to inquire in more detail into how certain objects establish palpable connections between people and places. I asked Polish mothers living in Birmingham a series of questions regarding objects related to child rearing. I kept the questions rather open, not wanting to assume certain specific practices take place. For instance, instead of asking: “Where do you buy baby clothes?” or “Who do you get baby clothes from?” I asked: “Where do you have baby clothes from?” – because one has to have them from somewhere – thus opening the question up to various responses. In fact, most immigrant mothers I have talked to, do not rely on one type of practice, but on several (buying new products, buying second-hand goods, borrowing, etc.). I identified several types of practices related to acquisition, exchange, and disposal of objects related to child rearing and marked them in different colors. Based on a close reading of the recorded material, I was able to identify how various objects travel – and why. Together with Sarah Klepp, we then thought of ways of visualizing individual objects, as well as the people and places they connect. We were assisted in this process by Melanie Thewlis of Little Web Giants, the designer of this website. The inspiration for the visualizations came from a drawing created by Izabela, which maps out the transfers of objects between her, her sister in the United States, and their mother in Poland. A detailed analysis of the visualized connections and processes will soon be featured on the publications page of this website
Our visualizations consist of several fixed elements representing the types of practices and people that keep recurring in immigrant mothers’ narrations. The various shades of people icons – from black to grey – stand for four different types of individuals/groups: family, friends, colleagues, and playgroup friends. The background of each icon is a flag signifying the country of residence of the person/people represented by the pictogram.
We recognize two major challenges regarding the people icons featured here and we look forward to receiving suggestions on how they can be overcome. First, the intensity of interpersonal relations does not necessarily have to be proportional to the intensity of the icon shading that represent them. While most of our research participants speak of close family ties, we recognize that this is by no means the case for everyone and that human relationships are far from stable: a colleague today may become a friend or a family member next month. However, as we already use various colors for individual practices and country flags, we wanted to refrain from adding even more colors fearing it would render the vizualisations less clear. Second, we have not been able to resolve the question of how to design people icons representing research participants’ family members, friends, colleagues, and playgroup friends identified by them as female and male without succumbing to stereotypical gender binary. Here, too, we turned directly to research participants’ drawings yet they did not provide any definite answers: whereas some women depicted themselves as basic stick figures, others drew stick figures in triangle-shaped dresses. Despite recognizing the highly problematic nature of gender binary representations, we opted, for now, for conventionally gendered visualizations, but are looking for new, progressive solutions.
How to use the visualizations
Please consult the legend for the meanings of all icons and colors featured in the visualizations. Hover with the cursor over an object icon to access a quotation related to the particular transaction involving the object. Hover with the cursor over a research participant’s name to access a quotation describing where that person shops for children’s clothes. Enjoy exploring the multiple, complex connections objects establish between people and places!