Migrating - a transformative process towards actualising authentic selves and lives

Petra Buergelt, Mandy Morgan, Roberta Julian, Dick Bedford

Research output: Contribution to conference (non-published works)Paper


Freely moving like other creatures across space in a borderless world is the natural and normal way of being for humans (Castles & Miller, 2009; Schmitter Heisler, 2008). Being nomadic is as old as humanity. However, agriculture enabled the development of urban societies. To create dependency to exercise control over people, the church and state intentionally disconnected people from their land and traditions, and stopped them from moving around by forcing them to build settlements (Griffith, 2015). To attract people to and keep people in cities, they created negative conceptualisations of nature. To constrain movement to make people conform, they created nation-states. Gradually, immobility became the norm.Yet, immobility is abnormal - humans are driven to wander (Massey et al., 1998; Schmitter Heisler, 2008). As a result of immobility, the majority of people live to large degrees inauthentically (Golomb, 1995; Maslow, 1970). The ways of being and living that humanity currently calls normal are really dysfunctional and lead to disease (Maslow, 1999) as a settled life is stagnant, sluggish with routine, complacent, fixed and tamed (Griffith, 2015). In response, many people migrated in past centuries (Castles & Miller, 2009). In 2000, there was a twofold increase from 76 million in 1960 - every 35th person in the world was an international migrant (2.9% of the world population) (Omelaniuk, 2005). Migration is one of the key factors causing global change as it has fundamental consequences for societies and individuals (Dovidio & Esses, 2001). Migration is part of a transnational revolution that is reshaping the face of societies and politics by changing demographic, economic and social structures, creating increasing ethnic and cultural diversity that calls national identity into question and challenges the sovereignty of states (Castles & Miller, 2009; Omelaniuk, 2005). At the individual level, migration is a major life transition (Heller, 1984). A large body of literature provides evidence that migration entails to adaptation difficulties resulting in psychological distress adversely affecting the mental well-being of migrants (Cohen, 1996). This research challenged this dysfunctional conceptualisation of migration by exploring the growth outcomes of migration and shedding light on the factors and processes that influence adaptation and health/well-being of migrants. To gain the desired insights, we synergised the assumptions of the salutogenic paradigm, symbolic interactionism, and narrative theory, which led to the methodological merging of constructionist grounded theory and ethnography. For two years, the first author accompanied 17 potential or actual German migrants throughout their migration journey to Australia or New Zealand. She travelled to Germany and lived with them in their homes for up to 7 days. She observed them, participated in their lives, and listened to the experiences and interpretations they shared in multiple episodic interviews. Those who migrated, she visited in Australia or New Zealand 6 and 18 months after migrating. Those who did not migrate, she visited after two years in Germany. Throughout the study, participants reported their experiences and interpretations in email or phone diaries. In total, the first author collected 130 hours of interviews (average 3.20 hours), 112 days participant observation as well as 960 pages and 42 hours of diaries. She analysed the thick data using a merger of grounded theory and narrative analysis strategies and Atlas.ti. The analysis revealed that actualising one’s self and living an authentic life was the core underlying current that had the participants’ turning their backs on one of the most developed and wealthiest countries (Germany) and moving overseas to start new lives in Australia and New Zealand. The analysis shows that migration was not only a temporal, spatial and cultural event as the literature indicates but was, at its core, a logical step in a long, complex developmental, transformative process that started in childhood and continued to shape the potential and actual migrant’s life beyond migrating. These transformative processes led to participants increasingly actualising themselves (Maslow, 1943, 1970, 1999), and becoming more authentic (Golomb, 1995; Maslow, 1970), moral (Kohlberg, 1984) and cosmopolitan (Beck, 2002; Hannerz, 1990; Turner, 2002). The migration-transformation process consisted of four fluid, parallel, intertwined, interdependent, and reciprocal processes: ‘becoming conscious of self and world’, ‘detaching – breaking away from cultural roots’, ‘learning to fly - gaining confidence and capabilities’ and ‘living in the gap – transcending boundaries’. The more competently migrants went through these transformative processes the better were they able to realise their authentic selves and create the life they wanted.In most cultural stories heroes travel. Hero narratives tell of people who “depart home to embark on a quest into an archetypal wilderness” to find their original self (Snyder, 1990, in Griffith, 2006, p. 135). Much literature such as Homer’s Ulysses/Odyssey, Hesse’s Siddhartha and Magister Ludi, and Coelho The Alchemist depict travelling as following one’s dreams and as a journey of exploration and self-discovery. During these journeys heros are accumulating experience to gain an understanding of the self and world, and to transform. But only a few people have the courage to follow and fulfil their dreams (Coelho, 1993). Participants heard the call of their authentic selves and had the courage to follow and fulfil their imaginations/dreams. Their mental, emotional, geographic and cross-cultural quest for meaning and a meaningful life is comparable to the cultural hero narratives told in literature. Migration was a crucial building block in the process towards self-actualisation and this process is transformational.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages3
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Externally publishedYes
EventXIII International Transformative Learning Conference: Transformation in Action: The Power of Community - Teachers College, Columbia University , New York, United States
Duration: 7 Nov 201811 Nov 2018


ConferenceXIII International Transformative Learning Conference
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CityNew York
Internet address


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