Adjusting the Lens: Conviviality-as-necessity in the German periphery
Adjusting the Lens: Conviviality-as-necessity in the German periphery

Adjusting the Lens: Conviviality-as-necessity in the German periphery

VISION Note #2 by Paul Sperneac-Wolfer

Image 1: Southern Brandenburg, July 2023. View from an agricultural labour camp to the
neighbouring village © Sperneac-Wolfer

In the summer of 2023, I took part in the VISION project as a guest researcher. Beforehand, I was as excited
about the project as I was sceptical: I sensed a conceptual tension in using conviviality as a lens to examine
the position of Central and Eastern European workers in the social fabric of Brandenburg. After all, the very
sectors focused on in the project – logistics and agriculture – reflect the economic exploitation of Central and
Eastern European workers in terms of racialized labour hierarchies, and widespread exploitative practices.

Furthermore, in light of the fact that 32% of voters in the district will vote for the Alternative for Germany (AFD)
in the upcoming 2024 election, I wondered: doesn’t this reality contradict conviviality, as envisioning the
bridging of the category of ethnic difference? What is the ethnographic affordance of conviviality as a lens
that allows us to notice things that were previously not considered?
These doubts are in fact common reactions to what has been called the “convivial turn” in migration studies.
If scholars turned to “how people successfully live together, how they create a modus co-vivendi and what
strategies they develop to practice it” (Nowicka and Vertovec 2014, 342), the question arises: successfully for
whom and at what cost? Several voices pointed out the concept’s multiple blind spots in terms of racism,
exclusion, and structural inequality. Taking stock of this development, Nowicka (2020) emphasizes the farreaching
basic assumptions of conviviality that are rooted in cosmopolitan thinking and points to its
reorientation as a non-normative tool to rethink the social.

Brandenburg as a semi-periphery: Three scenes
With this debate in mind, I frequently drove with the VISION team from Berlin to rural Brandenburg to talk to
people from Poland and Romania about their experiences. Within an hour, the crowded streets and traffic
madness turned into rural landscapes and wide, tree-lined avenues. The further east we went, so the houses
got smaller, and the roads got worse. Near the Polish border, we came across run-down buildings, halfabandoned
villages, and the only person on the road was an old man walking his injured dog on a sunny
summer day. After a few sentences, he apologized that his village had no functioning sewage disposal system
(which we didn’t know until then). With a mixture of humour, pride, and bitterness, he went on to tell us that
the local bakery was the only functioning business in the town, which supplies the vast border area with fresh
bread. We continued the conversation and asked about the presence of Poles:
“Ah, of course they’re here. They’ve been coming in droves over the last few decades. Some of them have even
bought houses here, some commute. But to be honest, I don’t know what the village would look like without
them. I believe that every worker in the bakery is from Poland. When I walk my dog when their shift ends, you
see the cars, hear laughter, Polish music. It’s almost as if I’m in a Polish town.”
This almost eventful presence of foreign workers in the public space was repeated in southern Brandenburg.
The village is home to an asparagus farm that is so notorious for its working conditions that the Romanian
labour attaché in Germany personally visited the farm during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the peak season, 900
workers are employed, living in a camp near the village of 7000 inhabitants. I got to know some of the workers
and accompanied them to the nearby supermarket. At the end of the shift, the otherwise sleepy village was
transformed into a scene I was used to seeing in Romania: people on bicycles slowly balancing their groceries
on their way home, people shouting across the street to check on each other’s well-being, and traditional
songs playing on at least three phones simultaneously. While sitting with a befriended worker outside the
supermarket, he opened up about his current situation:
“Now that the asparagus season is over, we don’t have much work. This week I earned what I had to pay for
accommodation. It’s a big scam here [“șmecherie mare”]. The Polish workers on the farm have more work
experience and can still work their ten hours. But we, Romanians, are left empty-handed. If this goes on, I’ll
have to move on by the end of the month.”

Another worker was less upset. Talking to him and his family, he replied:
“We’ve been coming here for 12 years, and the boss knows us well and we know him well. We always bring
him something from Romania. The work is fine, you just have to know how to get around [“cum se descurca”]
and when to come to work. But he knows that he needs us.”
I considered these remarks with countless other field notes that cannot be reproduced here. One last situation
will suffice. In another village, we met a German janitor who regularly goes to a Romanian food truck for a
beer after work. When asked why he is the only German person of the neighbourhood who visits the food
truck, he replies:
“I absolutely love the sausages here. And the owners are good people, I’ve known them for a while. They don’t
speak much of German; I think that puts other people off. They’re not sure what kind of people these Romanians
are because they don’t understand them. But you see, before the food truck opened, there was literally nothing
here. This piece of land was empty and now something good has come out of it. I appreciate it, but I guess
people need time to get used to it.”

Image 2: Southern Brandenburg, July 2023. The front of a dormitory in an agricultural labour camp. In the high season, the camp is
inhabited by 700-900 Eastern European workers, who temporarily make up 10% of the total population of the village during the
summer months © Sperneac-Wolfer.

Learning from a place: Conviviality as a necessity
Racialized work hierarchies, disinvested landscapes, interpersonal familiarity across categories of class and
origin, everyday racism, clientelism, sharing a beer after work. All of this meshed together in the rural southeast
of Brandenburg. Crucially, this mesh is permeated by a pervasive sense of interdependence. In areas that
are almost exclusively characterized by the out-going of people and industry, dependence on others
becomes palpable – accompanied by everyday practices of valorisation of the alien other. While the presence
of foreign workers seems to violate some local ideas of the village-as-they-know-it, some residents
nevertheless emphasize the necessity of CEE workers for the entire social fabric. Rural Brandenburg thus
proves to be a heterogeneous space that does not readily conform to the populist xenophobic discourse at
the epicentre of German politics a few dozen kilometres away. To be clear, the AFD also has a strong position
in the entire federal state of Brandenburg. But this is not the whole picture. Amidst ruins of racism (Back and
Sinha 2018) and post-socialist de-investment (Ringel 2018), there are multi-layered ways of relating to each
other. By time, I noticed the different forms of how people articulate that coexistence cannot be avoided, or,
in other words: how conviviality becomes a necessity.
This partly echoes what Nowicka and Vertovec (2014) describe as “the way to understanding human
relationships in a sense of interdependence at the root of human existence” (16). In rural Brandenburg,
conviviality does not imply idle, communal, and progressive forms of organizing collective existence. That
would miss the point. Conviviality as a lens does not prescribe a normative ethic of multiculturism contra
racism. Rather, it asks us to develop our ethnographic sensibilities to recognize what ideas and practices
coexist within highly unequal arrangements; it calls us to unpack the multiple layers that emerge from throwntogetherness,
or what Nowicka (2020) has aptly described as “the chimerical nature of everyday human
encounters” (16). The multiple chimeras of racism, exclusion, and interdependency in rural (and post-socialist)
Germany refuse a simple categorization of the county as ‘suspended’. Rather, it is the diversity of local
interactions that could serve as a basis for questioning their characterization within the current political
conjuncture. Having adjusted my lens this way, I have learned a lot from this place in this time.

Back, Les, and Shamser Sinha. 2018. “Multicultural conviviality in the midst of racism’s ruins.” In Convivialities,
edited by Amanda Wise and Greg Noble, 95-110. London: Routledge.
Nowicka, Magdalena, and Steven Vertovec. 2014. “Comparing convivialities: Dreams and realities of livingwith-
difference.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 17(4): 341-356.
Nowicka, Magdalena. 2020. “Fantasy of Conviviality: Banalities of Multicultural Settings and What We Do (Not)
Notice When We Look at Them.” In Conviviality at the Crossroads: The Poetics and Politics of Everyday
Encounters, edited by Oscar Hemer, Maja Povrzanović Frykman, and Per-Markku Ristilammi, 15–42. Cham,
Switzerland: Springer Nature Switzerland AG.
Ringel, Felix. 2018. Back to the Postindustrial Future: An Ethnography of Germany’s Fastest-Shrinking City. 1st
ed. Vol. 33. Oxford: Berghahn Books.

About the author
Paul Sperneac-Wolfer is currently pursuing a PhD in the ERC-project FOODCIRCUITS at the University
of Barcelona. He completed his MA in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Central
European University (CEU) Vienna. Therein, he has developed a strong focus on (migrant) labour,
Eastern European transnationalism and food systems. He conducts his doctoral thesis with Romanian
food workers, exploring how food actually becomes cheap and the social structures that underlie this
process. Methdologically, he is developing visual-ethnographic methods to explore these issues in
participatory and more-than-academic ways.