Routines of morality: Nurturing familiar values in unfamiliar landsby B. E. Brown



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DOI: 10.1177/0309132514568000


Routines of morality:

Nurturing familiar values in unfamiliar lands

Bernardo E. Brown

National University of Singapore, Singapore


Although many long-term Sri Lankan migrants to Italy have words of praise for Italian culture and find few reasons to permanently return to their hometowns, they often take the decision to bring children back to Sri Lanka for their education. The reason most cited to opt for Sri Lankan schooling is that ‘Italians don’t have good values’. Certain

Sri Lankan normative practices that adults can circumvent while in Italy play a fundamental heuristic role in the education of children and are allegedly only present in Sri

Lanka. However, values are also a fundamental aspect of arguments put forward by migrants to stay in Italy as workers. This article discusses the ambiguities that concepts such as values and culture have in the daily usage of migrant workers. To clarify how they are used in arguments for and against migration, I suggest that scholarship in the anthropology of ethics can be illuminating in the ethnographic context of the Sri Lankan transnational experience. I discuss how migrant parents critically approach their understanding of Sri Lankan and Italian cultures, and how they ponder over alternative courses of action that tread between the material objectives of migration and the ethical values of Sri Lankan Catholicism.


Sri Lanka, return migration, ethics, education, values

In an opinion column published in Sri Lanka’s Daily News in 2011, a distressed and frustrated neighbor of the town of Wennappuwa criticized what he described as the incipient moral collapse brewing amongst local youths. He complained that his beloved hometown had become exclusively preoccupied with finding ways to migrate to Italy. Young students who had once worked hard to excel in school were now idling through their classes until they reached the age when they could leave the country. But the author’s main concern was aimed at the ‘social evils’ that

Corresponding author:

Bernardo E. Brown, Postdoctoral Fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, Singapore.

Email: at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on March 25, 2015eth.sagepub.comDownloaded from

XML Template (2015) [24.1.2015–2:31pm] [1–19] // (ETH) [PREPRINTER stage] the children of migrants in Italy were introducing to the town. His plea to the local community alerted that:

The children realize that whether they are educationally qualified or not they have a clear passage to migrate. Such children attend school not for education but mainly for pleasure [. . .] They are on top of the list of scamps who tempt their fellow students for malpractices and in turn tarnish the good image of the schools. Ultimately such children become a threat to all.1

His opinion was backed with disapproving references to the mansions built by return migrants, the expensive gifts they gave to their relatives and the leisurely and spendthrift lifestyles they led while at home.2 But it was not only the Italian money that tempted young men and women in the region – rumors and anecdotes of days of freedom and fun away from the watchful eye of the community also multiplied the enticing charms that an Italian adventure offered. The author of the column ominously concluded, ‘If we do not act against this widespread evil enthusiastically, the Catholic villages in the costal belt [. . .] will be shattered to pieces ethically’.

But this was only one side of the story. Migrant parents living in Italy often sent their children to Sri Lanka precisely because they thought that they could not offer them a good education in Italy. Only in the hometown and with their extended families could children born in Italy learn to embrace the values and traditions of the Sri Lankan Catholic community. Parents imagined Sri Lanka as a place where their children would be socially contained and safe from the unrestrained individualism that unsettled them about Italy. However, they soon realized that, once at home, young boys and girls born in Italy were exposed to homegrown ‘social evils’ of consumerism and immorality. To make matters worse, non-migrants rarely valued the efforts made by migrants to bring their children home, as these children were widely regarded as a nuisance in the community and a corrupting influence amongst the local youth.

In this article I examine some of the arguments advanced by return migrants to evaluate their experience of transnational migration to Italy beyond its socioeconomic dimensions. Economic prosperity and stability – often cited as the main objectives informing the decisions of transnational migrants – would often be postponed to allow an unmistakably moral dimension to emerge as the guiding concern behind their choices (Jackson, 2013). When financial calculations and family development projects were no longer able to support arguments for re-migration to Italy or permanent re-settlement in Sri Lanka, transnational workers justified their decision using the language of values and culture.

Moreover, these migrants who were apparently prioritizing rather strict normative codes in order to satisfy the moral requirements of the community were more often than not recompensed with very poor results. For example, most Italy-raised

Sri Lankan children had little interest in spending more than a few weeks over the summers in their family’s hometown of Negombo; non-migrants like the one 2 Ethnography 0(00) at UCSF LIBRARY & CKM on March 25, 2015eth.sagepub.comDownloaded from