Social Remittances and Social Change in Central and Eastern Europe: Embedding Migration in the Study of Society

  • Published in:
    Central and Eastern European Migration Review, Vol. 8, No. 1, 2019, pp. 33-50
    DOI: 10.17467/ceemr.2019.05
    Received:

    31 August 2018

    Accepted:

    15 May 2019

    Published:

    28 June 2019

    Views: 561

Our article considers social remittances and social change in Central and Eastern Europe. We show how migration scholarship can be embedded into the wider study of social processes and relations. ‘Social remitting’ sometimes seems to be little more than a slippery catchphrase; however, this article defends the concept. If it is defined carefully and used cautiously, it should help the researcher to think about what, in addition to money, is sent from one society to another and exactly how, thus shedding light on important and insufficiently studied aspects of migration. A close-up view of the processes by which ideas, practices, norms, values and, according to some definitions, social capital and social skills are transferred by migrants across international borders helps researchers to understand more precisely how migration contributes to social change or, in some cases, prevents it from occurring. Our article reviews some of the most interesting arguments and findings presented recently by other scholars and discusses aspects of social remitting which particularly interested us in our own research. The context of our research is social change in Poland: we attempt to understand how migration has contributed to wider patterns of social change since 1989 and exactly how it intertwines with other social trends and globalisation influences. This entails a careful focus on both structural conditions and agency and therefore on social remittances.

Keywords: social remittances; Poland; CEE; migration impact; social change

Introduction

The aim of this article is to review the recent scholarship about social remittances – both the development of the concept and its operationalisation through empirical studies. In keeping with the theme of the special issue, we focus particularly on the ways in which the concept of social remittances is useful for studying wider patterns of social change in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The article clarifies and justifies the use of the term, which we believe to be an essential analytical tool for understanding the impact of migration in any sending country, in the context of wider social trends. In recent years, research into CEE in particular has shed light on the different dimensions of social remitting, building on the foundation laid by Peggy Levitt (1998). The article draws on our empirical research and conceptual work but is also a literature review of the strands of social remittance research which we consider particularly relevant for CEE. We hope that the article will be equally interesting to migration scholars researching the impact of migration on particular countries, and to readers encountering the concept of social remittances for the first time.

Social remittances are understood variously by different authors but a working definition could include the ideas, practices, attitudes, values, norms, beliefs and identities which migrants bring from one society to another, as well as the non-economic capital of various kinds – knowledge, qualifications, social skills and useful contacts – which they acquire thanks to migration. Some scholars use the term more broadly, to encompass the indirect social effects of migration. For example, Boccagni and Decimo (2013: 1) write about the ‘myriad ways in which migrants affect their home societies’. However, it seems preferable to keep indirect impacts analytically separate from social remittances. We adhere to Levitt’s original idea, when launching the concept (Levitt 1998, 2001), that social remittances describe person-to-person transfers. Sometimes these can be deliberate but they can also be unintentional. They can be transferred not only between migrants and non-migrants but also between non-migrants.

Social remitting is more complex than its close cousin, economic remitting. Social remittances are not things taken out of a suitcase. The term is a metaphor, a reminder that economic remittances are not the whole story: migration has more than economic effects. However, the economic remitting parallel should not deceive one into supposing that only economic migrants can be social remitters. All kinds of migration and mobility, including short-term mobility such as internships and social or business visits abroad, can produce social remittances. Finally, social remitting is not simply an outcome – to be measured by quantitative research, as some scholars try to do – but also a process, with separate stages (Grabowska and Garapich 2016; Grabowska, Garapich, Jaźwińska and Radziwinowiczówna 2017).

In keeping with the anniversary theme of this special issue, our article draws on research within the geographical context of the post-communist area. We focus mostly on Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), referring also to Kazakhstan. The period of system transformation and its aftermath is an intriguing laboratory for studying social remittances and social change. Migration cannot be separated from general social relations and social processes. As de Haas (2014: 16), following Castles (2010), suggests:

We can only improve our understanding of migration if we understand the broader change processes of which it is a constituent part. Migration studies, then, become an angle through which to improve our understanding of social, cultural and economic change. In other words: to understand society is to understand migration, and to understand migration is to better understand society. Such embedded understanding of migration also creates conceptual space to study causes and consequences of migration simultaneously, instead of conceptually separating them.

By identifying the important social trends since 1989, one can begin to appreciate the overall context to which migrants contribute their micro-level changes (White, Grabowska, Kaczmarczyk and Slany 2018). However, trends and patterns are not always clear. On the one hand, the prevalent narrative of an East–West ‘catch-up revolution’ and the actual experience of the EU accession process created a backdrop to cultural change with the implication that societies in CEE were moving ‘West’. On the other, the phenomenon of catch-up is cast in doubt by the many endogenous sources of change in the region, while the assumption of unilinear progress is challenged by recent setbacks to democratisation in CEE, combined with weaknesses of democracy in the West. It is not surprising to find that survey evidence in CEE often presents a confusing picture. For example, in Poland, levels of generalised trust (trust in strangers) seem to be improving slightly, according to some measures, in the 21st century. This is what one would expect, given that the country has become more prosperous. According to other measures, however, levels of generalised trust remain stuck at a rather low level, which is typical for post-communist societies (Cybulska and Pankowski 2018).

One trend is incontrovertible: since the Iron Curtain was dismantled, new opportunities to travel and live abroad have transformed the lives and livelihoods of millions of people from CEE. Exactly how this happened and how these individual transformations have intertwined with the wider (but not unidirectional) system transformation is the subject of our article. Rather than adopting a catch-up approach, we see CEE and Western Europe as co-existing within multiple overlapping transnational and translocal social spaces. To some extent this is also already a single cultural space; however, there is also sufficient cultural diversity for migrants to want to transmit new ideas and practices from one location to another, in all directions of the compass.

The key research questions of this article are:

  • How is the concept of social remittances important for understanding the way in which migration is embedded in society?
  • How should we understand the intertwining of social remittances with economic and political ones to obtain a more holistic view of social changes in Central and Eastern European societies?
  • How can social remittances reinforce existing social trends? Considering that, since the end of the Cold War, as just mentioned, millions of citizens in CEE have also experienced the period of system transformation as one of new, direct exposure to life in foreign countries, the co-existence and intersection of these two intense and often dramatic processes create a fascinating laboratory for studying how social change can happen in a transnational context in the contemporary world.

The article is structured as follows. We first discuss the concept of social remittances and the literature on social remittances in CEE. The remainder of the article presents some of our own research into aspects of Polish social remitting, based primarily on four projects, as outlined in the methodology section. Our topics are the stages and domains of social remitting, the features of successful remitters and resistance to social remitting (Grabowska); scaling up and how remittances circulate and reinforce other causes of social change (White). Our projects were based mostly on in-depth interviews with migrants, return migrants and stayers and on ethnographic observation.

The concept of social remittances

Receiving-society researchers tend to focus exclusively on the acquisition stage, when migrants pick up new ideas and practices abroad. Although such cases might equally well be regarded as examples of ‘acculturation’ or ‘integration’, this does not make the social remittances concept redundant, since acculturation and integration are concepts which call attention to the receiving society, whereas social remitting is a concept designed mostly to understand sending societies. Karolak (2016) suggests that acquired ideas are only ‘potential social remittances’ until they are transferred to the sending country. However, when a migrant acquires new ideas and practices abroad, this can already be considered a change for the sending society. Many mobile people today – including many Poles in Western Europe – should still be considered members of their societies of origin, since they are abroad only briefly and/or maintain close ties and identification with places and people in Poland. When they acquire new ideas, practices, values, norms and beliefs, this in itself represents a facet of Polish social change (White et al. 2018).

Nonetheless, social remittances can only be thoroughly understood if an attempt is also made to trace how they are transferred by migrants to non-migrants. This often involves some negotiation and re-interpretation of the original idea or practice. Nagy (2009: 10), writing about Romania, suggests that migrants ‘help impose foreign models but often with a double translation, linked to diverse local reinterpretations’. A final, mostly untouched, question is how social remittances travel even further into the sending society, passing from non-migrant to non-migrant: how they ‘scale up’, to use Levitt and Lamba-Nieves’ (2011: 19) terminology. If they are just local events, ‘migration driven local-level forms of cultural diffusion’, as defined in the title of Levitt’s (1998) article, they might appear rather trivial. Hence it seems helpful to consider whether they might also have some, presumably cumulative, regional or national effect. This could happen, for example, in the case of social or religious movements – influenced by foreign ideas – which manage to gather new followers in a sending society. We argue, however, that many social remittances are likely to be influential on a wider scale only when they coexist with and reinforce on-going social processes and that it is not their unique impact but rather their relationship with those endogenous processes which requires attention (White et al. 2018).

Levitt (1998, 2001) and Levitt and Lamba-Nieves (2011) presented a wide-ranging discussion of social remitting between Boca Canasta in the Dominican Republic and Boston, USA. Other scholars latched onto Levitt’s term, which described a familiar phenomenon, observable wherever migrants kept in touch with their countries of origin. Nonetheless, for all the detail and thoroughness of Levitt’s analysis, social remitting as a process continued to intrigue. So did the question of how far the specific Dominican–US pairing was typical of other sending and receiving societies – not least because the one country is poorer and less powerful than the other. Although Levitt has always stressed that she was not arguing for US superiority, the potential for a normative, neo-colonialist reading of social remittances rendered the concept open to criticism (Castles, de Haas and Miller 2014: 79).

The issue of typicality is related to a broader question about interplay between agency and structure. Social remitting is an attractive term to researchers partly because ‘remitting’ highlights that migrants have agency. However, the contexts in which remitting occurs are also crucial to their success. Scholars’ discomfort with the possible ‘West is best’ implications of the term points to a broader dimension of power relationships between remitters and recipients. These power relationships are specific to each pair of individuals’ personality traits, experiences and networks but are also shaped by their geographical and social environment – for example, if the remitter lives abroad in a rich Western country and the recipient in a poorer Southern one. The power relations connected with social remitting are captured in Anthias’s (2012) concept of ‘translocal positionality’. Anthias considers social outcomes produced at the intersection of sending and receiving structures and positions and recognises the importance of the context and the situated nature of shifting locales (Anthias 2012: 107–108). She further argues (2012: 104) that people who are embedded within two social milieux often have to deal with conflicting expectations and forms of social control, hence their ‘translocal positionality’.

Social remittances research in CEE, with reference to political and economic remittances

The past few years have seen a spate of studies on social remittances, as well as several international conferences. Of particular significance was a conference under the auspices of the CMR in January 2015 which resulted in a special issue of the Central and Eastern European Migration Review (vol. 5, no. 2). Recent books and special issues focusing wholly or partly on CEE include Anghel, Fauser and Boccagni (in press); Boccagni and Decimo (2013); Grabowska and Garapich (2016); Grabowska et al. (2017) and Nowicka and Šerbedžija (2016). Not all social remittances research can be identified in library catalogues using the phrase as a key word, since some researchers use other terms such as ‘transfer’ and ‘cultural brokerage’ (Nagy 2009) or ‘hybridisation’ (Blum 2015).

The post-communist area shares certain legacies and geographical and political characteristics which bear on social remitting. One obvious feature is the fact that EU membership plus the abolition of visa requirements for countries neighbouring the EU have led to variegated and dynamic patterns of international migration. Here, we focus mostly on two other features. The first is the habit of migration as an individual/family project, which makes social remitting an individual endeavour. The second is how receptivity to social remitting connects with the level of development characterising high- and upper-middle-income countries in the CEE region,1 as well as their cultural similarities and shared history with Western Europe. These make sending societies both more and less receptive to social remittances.

Policy-makers often assert that diasporas should contribute to development for their societies of origin. The assumption that they will want to do so may be correct where migrants move en masse between specific locations like Boca Canasta and Boston, and there is social pressure to contribute to sending communities through hometown associations. However, post-accession migrants from a single location in CEE are often scattered around Western Europe and do not form hometown associations. Insofar as they self-organise, it is usually to defend their interests in the receiving society (White and Grabowska 2018: 45). Migration is an individual or family project, not one undertaken for the sake of the origin community.2 Its individualistic nature is linked to the fact that migration has often been a livelihood strategy chosen because of defects in the post-communist system transformation at local level. The state is blamed for the weaknesses of local labour markets, while individuals laud their own resourcefulness in getting by, outside official structures, through employing a range of informal practices and relations (Ledeneva 2018; Rakowski 2016). These include informal migration networks (White 2016). Researchers therefore need to focus on individuals’ experiences of adopting new ideas, practices, etc. and on trying to spread these further among their family members, friends and neighbours – in other words, individual social remitting.

Numerous lifestyle and cultural similarities exist between countries in CEE and those in Western Europe. Health and education outcomes are comparable and, according to UN Human Development Indicators, the whole area is ‘highly developed’. Hence CEE does not fit neatly into the migration–development nexus often used to explain migration’s social impact. Close similarity between sending and receiving societies facilitates the easy transfer of ideas, so that – particularly in the bigger cities of CEE with a large share of highly educated and prosperous residents – there is a constant flow of influences in both directions. New fashions and habits can be picked up abroad and transferred to CEE without friction.3 In the CEEMR special issue on social remittances (vol. 5, no. 2), Levitt (2016: 17) refers to ‘the cultural and discursive backdrop that makes those exchanges possible by making people more open to these new ideas and behaviours’.

On the other hand, CEE, particularly outside major cities, sometimes seems to lack that backdrop. It offers an intriguing study of power relationships in a not quite ‘post-colonial’ setting. These relationships rest on an economic hierarchy. North-West EU member-states, through European funds, subsidise most regions in CEE, as well as constituting the main destination countries for EU migrants. Also relevant are historically rooted superiority and inferiority complexes and assumptions about cultural difference between ‘East’ and ‘West’. Such complicated feelings – to some extent reinforced by growing Euroscepticism – can impede receptivity to social remitting in contemporary CEE. Nevinskaitė (2016) introduces the concept of country receptivity. As Garapich (2016) shows, receptivity at the local level is also key to successful remitting.

Haynes and Galasińska (2016: 55) point out that, on Polish Internet fora, ‘non-migrants tend to agree with migrants when comparing cultural differences between two countries and that, more often than not, they are united in mutual complaints about their home country’ (Galasińska 2010). However, other authors – such as Dzięglewski (2016), Garapich (2016) and Nevinskaitė (2016) – highlight instances of low receptivity, and resistance to social remittances. Nevinskaitė (2016: 135), for example, mentions ‘a perceived negative opinion (unwelcoming attitude) in society towards Lithuanians from abroad’. Garapich’s (2016) article is titled ‘I Don’t Want this Town to Change’. Dzięglewski (2016: 178) highlights the lack of trust within Polish society, resulting in ‘reserved and distant attitudes towards new ideas, know-how, behaviours and any social innovation of which migrants might be the propagators’. Kubal (2015) similarly records how Ukrainians hesitate to try to enact foreign practices after they return, for fear that they will not be sympathetically received.

Like Kubal (2015), Blum (2015) identifies varying degrees of acceptability for different practices, in this case imported from the USA to Kazakhstan.4 Blum’s interviewees found it easier to convince non-migrants to emulate a perceived American work ethic than to enthuse them about volunteering. Ideas about gender equality seemed to travel surprisingly well: female non-migrants, at least, were receptive to persuasion by female returnees (2015: 159). Blum (2015) argues that migrants’ likelihood of picking up social remittances depends largely on their individual capacity for reflexivity – and also that, overall, women acquired social remittances more easily than men. This last finding is echoed in a number of studies of Polish migrants (Grabowska-Lusińska and Jaźwińska-Motylska 2013; Mole, Parutis, Gerry and Burns 2017; Siara 2009).

Adopting a slightly different approach to receptivity among the various social groups in post-communist Poland, our own recent book (White et al. 2018) considers links between social remitting and other demographic and socio-economic characteristics, arguing that social remittances can be particularly influential where one might assume the population to be the least receptive to new ideas – among working-class, older and small-town Poles less exposed to other globalisation influences, such as through higher education, tourism or big-city life.

Some of the most useful scholarship for understanding CEE focuses on how different sub-types of remittance – economic, social and political – intertwine. Since we are interested in explaining Poland ‘in the round’, this type of approach seems particularly helpful. Here, we very briefly review some studies of the sociology of economic remitting, remittances of democratic values and the ‘transnational action space’.

In a recent article showing how economic remitters in Senegal influence the voting patterns of remittance receivers, Vari-Lavoisier (2016) claims that the literature on social aspects of economic remitting is still underdeveloped. While this may be true of quantitative sociology, there do also exist social anthropological studies of economic remitting, including on CEE. Qualitative researchers seek to understand the symbolic functions of money transfers and the cultural capital of remitters. For example, as Vianello (2013: 92) points out, in Ukraine but also globally, migrant women represent ‘the act of remitting money… as a symbol of love and faithfulness towards their families left behind’. This fulfils an emotional need but also has a social function in justifying non-standard behaviour, when women leave their children and become the household’s main breadwinner.

The literature on households and remittances cannot avoid the topic of family politics. More conventionally ‘political’ are studies of circumstances under which social remitting contributes to democratisation or its reverse. For example, Levitz and Pop-Eleches (2010: 476) argue for ‘the high importance of migration in Bulgaria and Romania, which seems to facilitate social learning and contributes to greater domestic pressures for better democratic governance’. Although the EU loses leverage after candidate countries join, it can indirectly influence post-accession politics in a more liberal direction, thanks to EU-engendered mobility. Ahmadov and Sasse (2015), drawing on the wider literature as well as on their empirical studies of Ukraine and Poland, suggest that the picture is more complex.

Migrants’ political outlooks can differ from those of their non-migrant compatriots in some respects, while closely resembling them in others. A nuanced understanding of migrant political outlooks and behaviour and their congruence with those of their non-migrant compatriots calls for careful micro-level empirical studies of specific identities’ (2015: 1770).

The political remittances literature, as this quotation hints, is short on qualitative studies. There are, however, qualitative studies of how social movements spread across international borders. Erdmans (1998) had already written about this phenomenon with regard to links between Solidarity in 1980s Poland and Chicago. Today, opportunities for mobility between CEE and foreign countries, as well as the Internet, facilitate transnational action. Binnie and Klesse (2013), for example, in their article Like a Bomb in a Gasoline Station, describe Polish LGBT activism in and between Poland and abroad. While criticising the over-optimistic activist who used this metaphor to describe the impact of migrants returning to Poland with more LGBT-friendly outlooks, they do document extensive cross-border collaboration in what they label the ‘transnational social action space’. At the other end of the political spectrum, increasing collaboration and exchanges of visits between far-right organisations in Poland and the UK in 2017–2018 have been documented by journalists and by the website niepatriociuk.com, ‘non-patriots.com’, which monitors the activities of nationalist extremists. The edited volume Transnational Ukraine? Networks and Ties that Influence(d) Contemporary Ukraine argues that, rather than focusing on internal fragmentation in order to understand Ukrainian politics, scholars should turn their gaze towards the multiple ties (of all political colours) between Ukrainians in Ukraine and Ukrainians abroad (Beichelt and Worschech 2017: 16).

As these examples suggest, recent research has unearthed many interesting empirical data about social, economic and/or political remittances in CEE. However, with the partial exception of studies of transnational social action space (Binnie and Klesse 2013), the literature insufficiently addresses broader questions about how and when social remittances can spread. More qualitative work is needed to understand the nuanced process of social remitting, including the domains in which remitting occurs, the characteristics of remitters who can be ‘agents of change’ and the stage of diffusion among stayers. Moreover, very little indeed is written about how remittances circulate and ‘scale up’, relating to wider patterns of social change. The next sections discuss these matters, mostly with reference to our own research.

Our projects and methodology

The remainder of the article is based on our own recent research and, in particular, on the following four projects.

  • Cultural Diffusion through Social Remittances between Poland and the UK. This was a longitudinal project conducted by Izabela Grabowska, Michał Garapich, Ewa Jaźwińska and Agnieszka Radziwinowiczówna in 2011–2014. The research team interviewed 121 residents of three small Polish towns (c. 20 000 inhabitants) – Sokółka, Trzebnica and Pszczyna – and their contacts in the UK, both migrants, return migrants and non-migrants. We also conducted participant observation.5
  • Education to Domestic and Foreign Labour-Market Transitions of Youth: The Role of Locality, Peer Groups and New Media (abbreviated to Peer Groups and Migration). This project consists of qualitative longitudinal studies in 2016–2020 in three medium-sized towns in Poland (c. 100 000 inhabitants): Puławy, Słupsk and Mielec. The units of analysis are both individuals and high-school peer groups, with both migrants and non-migrants as a direct reference population.6 The team of the research project conducted 111 structured in-depth interviews in the first wave and 54 semi-structured in-depth interviews with narrative components along the life line.
  • The Impact of Migration on Social Change in Poland. This project was financed by the Grabowski Fund. White interviewed both stayers and return migrants in Wrocław, Łódź, Warsaw and Lublin in 2015–2016. The research project also drew on her 2006–2013 projects on return migration and family migration from Polish small towns and villages. She interviewed a total of 229 people (see White 2018: 135).
  • Invisible Poles. The present article also draws on this project, for which Anne White and Kinga Goodwin interviewed 28 British-born Poles in the UK in 2018.7

White’s interviewees were given pseudonyms, while Grabowska’s in the Cultural Diffusion project are referred to by the occupations they performed at the time of the interview and by the birth year in the Peer Groups and Migration project. All interviews were conducted in Polish except those with British-born Poles.

The process of social remitting and agents of change

The process of social remitting is complex and has many stages. It is not easy to discover what ideas and practices were taken from one place to the other and what impact they had. By breaking the process down into separate stages, one can observe these various aspects. As already discussed, social remitting involves acquisition, transfer and the outcomes of transfer (Grabowska et al. 2017). Resistance can be encountered at every stage (Garapich 2016). The stage of acquisition occurs when encounters (sometimes only fleeting) take place in various social settings: at workplaces, clubs, sports centres, restaurants, parks, private houses, etc. Such encounters occur not only with representatives of the receiving society but also with co-nationals from other regions of the migrant’s own country, representatives of neighbouring countries (in the Polish case, from CEE) and migrants from other parts of the world. This socially situated learning seems to be crucial for acquiring social remittances – mostly ideas and practices. People acquire new ideas and learn new practices predominantly by observing, communicating and doing things with the others in places such as these (Grabowska 2018b). When people change the context of their lives and feel a contextual disjuncture, they usually acquire a bifocal perspective (Garapich 2016). This involves making comparisons between destination and origin locations, which tends to lead to a better appreciation of what was left behind and is therefore often not favourable to acquiring social remittances. Nonetheless, social remitting is occurring, since acquiring a bifocal perspective can be a social remittance in itself. This is illustrated in the following quotation from an anonymous male migrant interviewee in Puławy (the Peer Groups and Migration project).

I made a lot of new friends from around the world. I certainly practised the language, and there is always a different perspective on how you look at life. Even after returning to Poland, I used to look at Poland, thinking that here it is so beautiful and when you come here it is the most beautiful place on earth. And earlier I didn’t appreciate it.

Social remittances can be divided into ‘wide-ranging’ and ‘selective’. The former usually constitute a whole mind-set and world view, which people adjust or change as a result of international migration. They can relate to religion, gender roles, political views and affiliations or, more generally, to an overall way of life. Selective social remittances are usually partial and are acquired singly. They are situational and relate to life situations and ventures which people are undertaking or are planning to undertake – or, in some cases, avoid – in the near future. In our research findings, these included family celebrations such as weddings, christenings, first Holy Communion, funerals, Easter and Christmas and family reunions; life-cycle events such as pregnancy, retirement, divorce, school-to-work transitions, a gap year or taking care of older family members; and purchasing or renting property, cars and equipment for the home, as well as house and garden makeovers.

The stage of transfer involves the travel of already acquired remittances from one place to another. Wide-ranging social remittances usually travel in bundles, because they relate to a wider set of practices and might also be translated into norms, beliefs and values, as in the first example below, by a male return migrant in Słupsk born in 1989 (the Peer Groups and Migration project). Selective social remittances usually travel singly, as in the case of seating name cards for wedding guests mentioned in the second quotation by a sports coach in Sokółka (the Cultural Diffusion project).

Cultural knowledge, because understanding other people isn’t just about speaking the language, but also about how you behave in a setting with different cultures. Is there anything else? I think perhaps you see the world differently… We have a wider perspective on people – that everyone’s entitled to their own views and opinions.

We brought these little name cards for the guests, to show them where to sit at the wedding table, in order to avoid family tensions which we knew about before. It worked out very well.

Sometimes the transfer is incomplete or blocked because there is no opportunity structure (Merton 1996) to implement new ideas and practices acquired abroad. Most commonly, English language skills, which are usually required by employers after return, are rarely needed because the company has not developed business links across international borders and has no need to communicate in English with suppliers, clients or other parties on a daily basis. The stage of transfer might also involve resistance, when people discover that an idea or a practice is too innovative for an origin location and decide that it will never be possible to introduce it.

Some migrants, as a result of migration and acquiring a bifocal perspective, even prefer their origin locations to remain unchanged. They idealise them and deliberately do not transfer innovative social remittances, even in cases where it seems that these could be useful. A process of re-traditionalisation takes place, meaning that people want to either freeze or bring back traditional beliefs, values and norms about both community and family. In the case of Poland, this is connected with a patriarchal family model and the Catholic Church.

The stage of outcomes of transfer involves both implementation and adaptation by others of acquired and transferred social remittances. It includes copying and pasting social remittances –‘borrowed’ from abroad and imitated after return – and social remittances which are ‘translated’ or ‘adjusted’ to local terms and conditions. It is much easier to extensively copy and paste selective social remittances and much more difficult to implement wide-ranging social remittances and persuade others of their merits. Success is only possible for certain carriers of social remittances. They need to demonstrate innovative behaviour and possess specific traits. In other words, human agency is essential to the process.

We collected the opinions of local people about some active carriers of social remittances in three communities – Sokółka, Trzebnica and Pszczyna, small towns with varying economic profiles located in different regions of Poland (Grabowska et al. 2017). The carriers of social remittances were a nurse, a beautician, a sports coach, a bartender, a pet-shop owner and a person who spent much time socialising in public places in the town and sold legal highs. We identified a set of features necessary to become an ‘agent of change’: (1) personality traits; (2) opportunities for contact and informal learning abroad; (3) organisational and institutional settings for diffusion in home town; (4) a socially useful, everyday role in the community; (5) migration money and awareness of its social value (Grabowska 2018a: 84). As one of the non-migrants – the colleague and co-worker of a cosmetician in Sokółka (the Cultural Diffusion project) – observed about her friend, a returned migrant:

She does not realise but she has changed as a result of working abroad. She has a different approach to clients. She knows how to do the beauty business. We observe her, how she brings up her children and behaves in her second marriage, and we learn from her. She organises these small charity events in her beauty parlour and clients go for it.

It is difficult for one person to combine all the features of an agent of change. Moreover, some people possess individual hallmarks without having any collective impact on a community. They have acquired many social remittances but are not able to transfer and implement them because of local conditions. These social remittances are then kept as an individual resource which might eventually be activated after a time lag if opportunities appear. Another situation occurs when some people are not credible and socially visible enough to achieve a following. In both cases, the window of opportunity for scaling up the outcomes of social remittances is somewhat limited.

Earlier in this article we mentioned the most active sites of encounter for acquiring social remittances. Here we would like to discuss the most active social sites for transferring and implementing both wide-ranging and selective social remittances. Throughout the course of our research we found that the most active sites of transfer and implementation of social remittances were workplaces and families. Workplaces are the most open and innovative micro-publics (Amin 2002), allowing both selective and comprehensive social remitting. By contrast, families are private spaces, able to implement selective social remittances, although also more prone to resist wide-ranging social remittances connected to norms, beliefs and values when these are remitted rapidly and at once. However, selective remittances may eventually lead to wider transformations (Buler, Grabowska, Pustułka and Sarnowska manuscript).

Polish workplaces also reflect, to some extent, the social trends taking place in society. They are affected by the general economic prosperity of recent years in Poland, the inflow of European Union funds, foreign investments and innovation, which make a friendly environment for innovative social remittances connected to non-material capital transfers of knowledge, skills and international contacts. Karolak (2016) argues, however, that the micro businesses which are usually set up by return migrants are more a source for the potential but not the actual transfer of social remittances into Polish workplaces. Grabowska and Jastrzębowska (2019, forthcoming) and Grabowska (2019) found that working abroad has an impact on transferable competences: cognitive, intrapersonal and interpersonal. The strongest impact was found on the birth cohort 1968–1972, described by Szewczyk (2015) as the ‘European Generation of Change’. This is the generation which was partly educated under communism and partly within the democratic system; its members did not necessarily acquire marketable qualifications in Poland and the experience of international migration enhances their social competence in the labour market.

In the case of families, the process of implementing social remitting is more nuanced. It is easier to transmit and implement selective remittances connected to simple practices which facilitate daily life than to adopt new norm and value systems. It seems that family life is still particularly exposed in Poland to a high level of social control. Abroad, people behave more freely but, when they return to their origin communities, they either follow the existing rules or actively choose re-traditionalisation (Buler et al., manuscript). We have however identified three categories of social remittance transferred into family life in the translocal perspective (Buler et al., manuscript). These categories are (1) the everyday logistics of organising family life observed and imitated from British families; (2) bringing up small children to be more independent by giving them small duties, more freedom and less ‘helicoptering’; and (3) gender roles, although this domain does not display one uniform pattern of social remitting. With regard to gender roles as bundles of social remittances, we found that, if there is some opening in the family and community (more-individualised migration, a weaker migration culture and less social control), people are more able to work out their own household division of labour, childcare, family quality and rubbish time, and to make decisions about women’s education, women setting up their own businesses and taking care of older family members.

Because active remitters are usually people who are both willing to learn and to share things with others, they also engage in the circulation of social remittances. This came out clearly in the stories of a nurse who had returned from the UK to live in Trzebnica (the Cultural Diffusion project):

I also showed the staff in the British nursing home the healing properties of garlic… They laughed at me. I went to the local library and I proved it. And I always thanked my fellow workers after we had been on a shift together, something I always did in Poland. (…) My husband gathered his co-workers in the garage and told them facts and stories about Polish history, not only about the Battle of Britain.

Circulation does not seem to be a symmetrical process, meaning that the same quantity and quality of social remittances are remitted to origin and destination. It is, however, worth considering it further and looking for evidence of remittances to receiving countries, even if they are not on the same scale as reverse flows.

Circulation and ‘scaling up’/reinforcing existing trends

The assertion that there can also be ‘circulation’ of social remittances often seems to be used to refute suggestions that social remittances are just a form of cultural colonisation of poorer countries by richer ones. However, the term is used variously by different scholars. By some, circulation is seen as something occurring within the brains/experiences of individual migrants. Levitt and Lamba-Nieves (2011) suggest that Dominican villagers come to the USA with cultural repertoires which they refine (rather than abandon) in the process of acquiring US social remittances. Vianello (2013: 92) similarly observes: ‘Social remittances should not be viewed as a cultural colonization, because they are developed – and not passively learned – by [Ukrainian] migrants through their work experiences, their life events and the interaction with different cultures’.

Social-media content researchers are able to study how ideas are tossed back and forth between stayers in the sending country and their co-nationals who have migrated. For example, Galasińska (2010) analyses arguments for and against return migration to Poland and Trandafoiu (2013) shows how Romanian stayers and migrants, through their discussions, jointly construct migration as the survival of the fittest. However, although this methodology allows the researcher to see how threads develop, one has the impression that true circulation is limited, in the sense that the migrant participants are not particularly receptive to ideas coming from the sending country. In any case, the information is too fragmentary to allow for thorough analysis of how ideas travel round and round in such settings.

Circulation also occurs when members of the receiving society adopt social remittances from migrants. Grabowska et al. (2017: 211) write about the ‘rule of reciprocity’ as facilitating social remitting. It is easier to take if you also give something back. Contact theory, although usually used for analysing integration, is equally relevant for understanding social remitting (which is, in some respects, the same phenomenon as integration but viewed from a sending-country perspective). For example, equality of status is said by contact theorists to be one precondition for good relations between different ethnic groups (Fonseca and McGarrigle 2012: 10). This can be illustrated in cases where Poles living abroad invite their foreign friends and employers to visit them in Poland, so that they can reverse the roles and temporarily adopt the ‘superior’ position of host rather than guest (Ahmadov and Sasse 2015; Galent, Goddeeris and Niedźwiedzki 2009; White 2018).

Visits potentially equalise the relationship, although not always – visitors may simply have their prejudices about supposed Polish backwardness confirmed, as, for example, in the case of a German farmer who visited his ex-employee in north-east Poland and noticed a farm horse pulling a cart. According to Tomasz, interviewed by White in Grajewo in 2012, ‘He was amazed. In the West agriculture is different; here in the Mazury Region it was like in the nineteenth century; the German had only heard about such things from his grandparents’.

However, Polish migrants often emphasise that visits to Poland persuaded foreigners to adopt favourable impressions of the country. Such visits apparently led the Belgian employers in Galent et al.’s study to see Poland as being ‘green instead of grey’ (2009: 130). A similar observation was made in London in 2018 by Teodora, a half-Polish, half-British retiree who owned a house in Poland to which she often invited British friends:

For many of them, it’s their first time in Poland and they come with a certain perception of what they think it’s going to be like and go away with a very different perception. I think they still have a feeling – maybe it’s a throwback to communist times – that it’s going to be very grey and people are very dour. But they come away with a very strong feeling about the people of Poland – I suppose that’s because we have family, they’re involved in that and they meet friends, as well. The food they think is wonderful!

Iwona, a stayer interviewed in Lublin in 2016, commented on how her husband’s Italian brother-in-law and his friends and relatives acquired a taste for Polish food products.

Doughnuts and Polish buns. They can eat lots of those… They bring horseradish back from Poland… and ptasie mleczko chocolates. They don’t have it. Paolo can eat a whole box.

As indicated in the example from Trzebnica, cited above, social remitting also occurs when migrants enact changes in attitudes, habits, etc. in the receiving country. As well as describing visits by Italians to Poland, Iwona, from Lublin, commented in 2016 on the behaviour of Paolo’s wife, her Polish sister-in-law, in Italy:

When her [Italian] friends come round, she treats them to Polish food, so that they can find out what it’s like. She always brings back something from Poland, some herbs or other Polish stuff. And when her parents visit her, her mother always makes pierogi and especially Polish things like bigosbigos to die for!

These examples suggest a subtext of wishing to counter assumptions that the migrant and his or her country of origin are culturally inferior: the migrant needs to make a special effort to correct that impression. No doubt this situation occurs in many societies but post-communist countries have a particular image problem, given that, in the West, they are viewed as having languished behind the Iron Curtain and, as both Galent et al. (2009) and Teodora (above) suggest, been infected by presumed Soviet ‘greyness’.

As research in receiving countries shows, convivial occasions can be particularly effective for promoting understanding between people of different cultural backgrounds (Rzepnikowska 2015). Such occasions were described by a number of stayers – such as Beata, from Wrocław – interviewed by White in Polish cities in 2016.

The wedding [in Spain] was half-Polish, half-Spanish… I knew all the friends [at the wedding] because heaps of them had been to visit us [in Wrocław]. My son invited them [to Wrocław] because I always love having guests… And they all turned up at the wedding… Generally they don’t dance [at Spanish weddings] but my son wanted everything to be Polish and Spanish.

Since, as discussed above, the family is a domain where social remitting can be particularly effective, it is not surprising to find that the non-Polish partners adopt behaviour and even norms and values from their spouses. For example, Phil (from Bath), who was half-Polish but had grown up in the UK in a culturally English household, had married a recent Polish migrant. He commented in 2018:

The other thing I really like about Poland – and this is going to sound strange – is that they do not forget their dead… When my parents died in ’91 I made the first two or three token visits on birthdays and I probably never saw their grave for five or six years. The minute I met my wife in the 2000s – ‘Where’s your family buried? We’re going’. And now I regularly go there and clean it. It’s a very strange custom which is alien to English people, probably.

The increasing number of mixed marriages between Poles and Western Europeans offers favourable conditions for sending-to-receiving-country social remittances, with Polish spouses being well placed to diffuse selective social remittances in the receiving country. As shown by the examples of Teodora and Phil, there are also children of Polish refugees from the 1940s who are nowadays becoming ‘more Polish’, partly as a result of new opportunities – offered by Poland’s EU accession – to meet Poles born in Poland and to live and work in the country (White and Goodwin 2019).

On an institutional level, social remittances can be transmitted within the Catholic Church. The Church as an institution in Western Europe has seen its membership shrink among natives of Western European countries and has often become heavily dependent for its survival on attracting migrant worshippers (Pasura and Erdal 2017). As indicated in this quotation from Tomek, a British-born Pole living in a small town in Berkshire, outside London, English parishes sometimes have to adapt to the expectations of their Polish parishioners:

Quite a number of Polish people go to the English Catholic Church. A couple of years ago, our parish priest introduced the blessing of food on Holy Saturday, for Easter, so he’s trying to widen those cultural ties. For the Christmas Eve mass – it’s no longer Midnight [Mass], but the equivalent of – we sing a number of Polish carols.

Turning now to the question of ‘scaling up’; the above example of how a practice from CEE became institutionalised in the UK could be considered an instance of scaling up, since it was presumably at the request of a number of Polish parishioners that the British priest was persuaded to introduce the blessing of food at Easter.8 The adoption of selective Polish practices in British parishes can be seen as part of the wider process, mentioned above, of adaptation to migrants by the Catholic Church in countries such as Norway or the UK.

Within sending societies in CEE, there are naturally parallel cases of institutionalisation, where organisations are changing their practices as a result of input from migrants and former migrants. For example, Binnie and Klesse (2013) refer to LGBT activists who had previously lived abroad and their impact on the LGBT movement in Poland. Since we are defining ‘migration-driven cultural diffusion’ (Levitt 1998) to include all kinds of mobility, social remitting can encompass all manner of influences on business cultures, political institutions, etc. which result from short visits as well as longer stays abroad. However, in many cases it is impossible to disentangle social remittances from other types of communication and channels of influence which do not involve people physically moving from place to place. Levitt and Lamba-Nieves (2011: 3) argue that social remittances ‘are distinct from, but often reinforce and are reinforced by, other forms of global cultural circulation’. This is particularly likely to be true in parts of the world such as CEE – especially cities – which are already subject to a mass of different influences from Western Europe. Social remittances are most likely to be significant, ‘scaling up’ when they work in tandem with and reinforce other influences.

This is not to claim that they are insignificant. In fact, in some cases they may be more significant than the influences with which they intertwine. For example, Arcimowicz, Bieńko and Łaciak (2015: 385–386), in their study of changing customs in Poland, looked primarily for media influences but found, from their 406 in-depth interviews, that ‘more often than the media, our respondents cited personal experience and observation from travel (from tourism, professionally, to work, to visit family – from their own or someone else’s experience)’. Many scholars have observed that Polish migrants, especially manual workers, are suspicious of Polish strangers; locations in Poland with high volumes of international migration and reliance on migration networks also seem to be pervaded by mistrust, and it seems clear that this is a significant factor in helping to dampen down levels of generalised trust which one could otherwise have expected to be improving, as life in Poland becomes easier and more prosperous (White 2018: 147–150).

White’s research into social remittances in Polish cities – whose inhabitants sometimes deny that migration has any influence – concluded that cities are particularly receptive to social remitting because it reinforces the cultural change which is occurring there already. For example, pensioners who are attracted by older people’s lifestyles which they see on visits abroad find it easier to emulate such lifestyles when they return to Polish cities, where opportunities for adult education and so forth are already increasing. There is growing popular acceptance of ‘active ageing’ and a belief that pensioners should be able to enjoy their leisure time as individuals without sacrificing it entirely to their families (Krzyżowski, Kowalik, Suwada and Pawlina 2014). However, as mentioned earlier in this article, where influences from higher education and foreign tourism are somewhat fewer, in smaller towns and villages, social remittances – if they are successfully transferred – are more likely to be important in transforming the lives of individuals. For example, going abroad might be their only opportunity to make friends with a black or an LGBT person. Hence social remittances can be considered to have a more significant impact in smaller locations, even if they are more prevalent and transferrable (though often invisible to outsiders) in the cities.

Conclusions

The concept of social remittances is a tool for embedding migration-related factors into analysis of societies experiencing threefold social, economic and political system transformation. Since the collapse of communist regimes in 1989–1991, societies in CEE have undergone many changes – some directly linked to system transformation, others similar to developments in the West, though often different in ‘pace and scale’ (Jacobsson 2015: 10). Simultaneously, CEE citizens acquired a freedom to travel and live abroad which had been denied under communism. It is intriguing, therefore, to consider how exactly this new mobility influenced the wider processes of change. Although research on the impact of migration on sending countries has mostly focused on the development of countries outside Europe, there is now some scholarship on CEE as well. This tends to consist of individual-country case studies. However, our article has looked much more broadly at CEE, identifying its special characteristics as a sending region: cultural and lifestyle similarities with Western Europe which make it easier for social remittances to spread but also complexes and antagonisms which can have the opposite effect, diverse patterns of mobility – thanks to EU membership – and an individualised/family-oriented approach to migration which makes collective social remitting rare.

The complexity of this situation makes it particularly important to study in detail the cases of individual migrants, each with their own unique transnational ties, and also the circulation of social remittances, where ideas are spread from CEE to Western Europe as well as vice versa. As we have suggested, individual small changes often travel in ‘bundles’: individual, selective changes in practice can indicate deeper insights and changes to values and attitudes. Even when remittances seem to be primarily economic, as is often the case, for example, among small-town labour migrants, they contribute to social change through their symbolic significance – for instance, in restructuring gender hierarchies.

Sceptics might argue that wealthier cities in CEE are now so similar to those in Western Europe that there is no social remitting. However, short-term mobility in the form of business trips, educational exchanges, etc., as undertaken by many city residents, surely does produce social remittances. In fact, since their purpose is often to obtain knowledge and know-how, this is precisely what such mobility should achieve. Moreover, the ‘transnational action space’ is particularly observable in cities. Here the overlap between ‘social’ and ‘political’ remitting is marked.

Some scholars assert that social remittances are insignificant when compared to other factors for change. For example, it does seem that, when migration leads to improvements in gender equality in sending countries, this happens for reasons indirectly connected to migration rather than because people (especially men) are converted to the belief that gender equality is important. However, it cannot be assumed that social remittances are somehow minor factors. Our article mentioned the cautionary tale of Arcimowicz et al.’s (2015) research into television’s influence on changing habits in Poland, which unexpectedly turned into a study of the impact of travel and life abroad. One should also ask ‘important for whom?’ Highly educated city-dwellers are subject to a mass of different influences which help to mould their opinions and practices but, for a person in a small town, social remittances can stand out in their experience as a major influence for change. Hence they do have a significant role to play in reinforcing social trends.

In the end, however, the point is not to weigh the significance of one determinant of change against another. It is enough to acknowledge that, without studying social remittances, our understanding of important trends in CEE, for example towards or away from greater equality and respect for diversity, or stagnant levels of generalised trust, cannot be fully understood.

Turning to the future, an obvious deficiency of contemporary social-remittances research is its short perspective. The EU, with its extreme mobility since 2004, is a fascinating laboratory for studying migration influences; however, only longitudinal studies will be able to discover the long-term impact of the social remittances transferred today. Moreover, as more migrants come to countries in Central Europe and these latter become receiving societies, this creates an additional set of migration influences and the potential for impressions from both immigration and emigration to intertwine.

Notes

1 In 2018 the World Bank classified Romania, Bulgaria and CEE countries outside the EU as upper-middle income. The remaining countries in CEE were high-income (World Bank 2018).

2 Cingolani and Vietti (2018) do provide some counter-examples in Moldova, where in a few well-publicised cases members of the ‘diaspora’ have contributed to projects in their communities of origin.

3 For various examples, see Grabowska et al. (2017) and White et al. (2018).

4 Kazakhstan is not comparable, in some respects, to post-communist Europe but, despite differences in detail, the overall story is similar. This ‘same but different character’ is illustrated by the following case, described by Blum (2015: 158), where the dish is typically Kazakh but the situation, of causing offence by adopting new eating habits, could happen anywhere. ‘After coming back home he decided to slim down by going on a vegetarian diet. Based on his experience in an American college, this represented an appropriate course of action. But he quickly learned that it constituted an affront to national pride. ‘My dad said, “You’re a Kazakh! You should be eating horsemeat! Stop infiltrating your American attitudes!”’

5 The research was funded by the National Science Centre, Poland (see Grabowska et al. 2017).

6 The research is funded by the Polish National Science Center under the Sonata Bis Project Contract No. 2015/18/E/HS6/00147.

7 The research was partly funded by a European Commission Jean Monnet grant to UCL European Institute.

8 One could also consider this to be an example of integration, with a British institution adapting to meet the cultural expectations of migrants. Theorists of integration routinely claim that it is a two-way process, with the onus partly on the receiving society to adapt to migrants. However, as in the case of social remitting, this direction is very much less studied than the other, where migrants adapt their ways.

Conflict of interest statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

ORCID IDs

Anne White  https://orcid.org/0000-0002-4431-6707

Izabela Grabowska  https://orcid.org/0000-0001-7957-4901

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