Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Understanding international students beyond studentification: A new class of transnational urban consumers. The example of Erasmus students in Lisbon (Portugal)

Daniel Malet Calvo


The growing presence of international students in the city of Lisbon attracted my attention ten years ago, when I started my PhD on the occupation by different social groups of the most emblematic central square in Lisbon: Pra├ža do Rossio. As a foreigner, I shared several apartments with international students, at a time when the city of Lisbon was not renowned as a tourist or student destination. I got to know a group of exchange students that had developed a particular alternative lifestyle in the patio where they lived. They organized several meals outside and installed improvised benches to spend time in the patio, as well as sharing a communitarian style of living with their Portuguese neighbours. Next year, when the students left, the next-door Hostel bought those apartments and converted them into suites for tourists. Replicating the students, they installed permanent benches and even imitated their new-age tastes in the decoration. In other words, the hostel reproduced the students’ creative ways, making products for tourists. When I started to study Erasmus students back in 2013, I borrowed the term ‘studentification’ to assess the significance and impact of those populations in Lisbon. However, as an anthropologist, it was unsettling for me to isolate the housing question from the wide variety of practices and relations that students established within Lisbon’s urban processes.
 
In the present article I discuss the applicability of the studentification literature to other geographies other than UK’s, stressing that the main effects on the urban form (spatial concentration, segregation and density of student populations) are missing in the case of Lisbon. Taking the study of Francis Collins about South Korean international students in Auckland, I started to use ‘studentification’ in a wider sense, considering the agency of students and their ability to reproduce their own cultural practices when abroad. In this sense, my idea was to present three different cultures of Erasmus students (the most significant population of international students in Lisbon) to understand their role and involvement in different processes of urban change.
 
First, I identify the party-centred practices of the so-called ‘typical’ Erasmus students, and their participation -along with young tourists- in the production and consumption of Lisbon’s tourism gentrification. Then, I recognize that a group of ‘alternative’ Erasmus students who rejected a ‘typical’ Erasmus life are working as marginal gentrifiers, whose political and aesthetic orientations lead them to the discovery of new urban territories for consumption. Finally, there are the ‘scholar’ or hard-working Erasmus students, who seem to be engaged with entrepreneurial activities, echoing the emphasis on the knowledge-economy that prevails in today’s urban policies of European capital cities.
 
To summarize, international students could be considered a new class of transnational urban consumers that express collectively a diversified repertory of practices, cultures and lifestyles. Wealthier than the average of college students, they are relevant consumers (and occasionally clever producers) in the travel economy (as foreigners), in lthe eisure economy (as youth), and in the knowledge economy (as students). Therefore, they become central actors at the core of the cognitive-cultural, visitor-centred system of production in contemporary cities.

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