It seems a no-brainer that the internet, social media, and cellphones have made homesickness for migrants a thing of the past. But as historian Susan J. Matt reveals in a recent New York Times op-ed, previous generations have found technology no substitute for home sweet home, and today’s immigrants are no different.
More than a century ago, the technology of the day was seen as the solution to the problem. In 1898, American commentators claimed that serious cases of homesickness had “grown less common in these days of quick communication, of rapid transmission of news and of a widespread knowledge of geography.”
But such pronouncements were overly optimistic, for homesickness continued to plague many who migrated.
Today’s technologies have also failed to defeat homesickness even though studies by the Carnegie Corporation of New York show that immigrants are in closer touch with their families than before. In 2002, only 28 percent of immigrants called home at least once a week; in 2009, 66 percent did. Yet this level of contact is not enough to conquer the melancholy that frequently accompanies migration. A 2011 study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that Mexican immigrants in the United States had rates of depression and anxiety 40 percent higher than nonmigrant relatives remaining in Mexico. A wealth of studies have documented that other newcomers to America also suffer from high rates of depression and “acculturative stress.”
Then why does the idea that technology can overcome homesickness persist? Matt cites a pervasive belief about mobility that many hold despite its disappointments.
The global desire to leave home arises from poverty and necessity, but it also grows out of a conviction that such mobility is possible. People who embrace this cosmopolitan outlook assume that individuals can and should be at home anywhere in the world, that they need not be tied to any particular place. This outlook was once a strange and threatening product of the Enlightenment but is now accepted as central to a globalized economy.
Technology plays a role in supporting this outlook.
The comforting illusion of connection offered by technology makes moving seem less consequential, since one is always just a mouse click or a phone call away.
Further, Matt argues that this illusion of connection may amplify homesickness rather than cure it.
The immediacy that phone calls and the Internet provide means that those away from home can know exactly what they are missing and when it is happening. They give the illusion that one can be in two places at once but also highlight the impossibility of that proposition.
The persistence of homesickness points to the limitations of the cosmopolitan philosophy that undergirds so much of our market and society. The idea that we can and should feel at home anyplace on the globe is based on a worldview that celebrates the solitary, mobile individual and envisions men and women as easily separated from family, from home and from the past. But this vision doesn’t square with our emotions, for our ties to home, although often underestimated, are strong and enduring.