Relative Distance: Kinship, Generation, and Reproduction between Kenya and the United Kingdom 2008 - 2013


A historically informed ethnographic study, the project explores the micro-spaces of familial interaction between Kenya and the United Kingdom, and the ways in which transnational families offer a privileged lens for considering how people experience and make sense of wider social transformations. Much existing scholarship on transnational families considers the emotional pain of separation and the commodification of love as migrants try to compensate for their absence by sending remittances and goods as expressions of affection to those who stay behind. It also focuses on the power of (im)migration regimes to re-shape such families, locating the forces of change as primarily external to families. This project breaks away from these dominant narratives to consider the ways in which migration generates space to re-work kin relations.

Principal Investigator

Leslie Fesenmyer


Godfrey Lienhardt Memorial Fund

Carr and Stahl Fund, St. Antony’s College, Oxford


FamilyGeneration and Life courseReligion




In this project, I adopt a generational, life-stage, and gendered lens to the study of transnational Kenyan families, engaging with the anthropological themes of reciprocity and recognition, migration and imagination, and the economic and the affective in kinship relations. Analytically, the project explores the ongoing constitution of moral economies of relatedness transnationally. In doing so, it asked, how do kin stay engaged across space? How do those who move and those who stay make sense of differing perspectives and needs, aspirations and experiences? And, how do family relations get re-worked between Kenya and the United Kingdom?


The project entailed 14 months of fieldwork among transnational families living between London, Nairobi, and Kiambu District, Kenya in 2009 and 2010. It included gathering stories of migration from the perspectives of both those who moved and those who stayed, as well as exploring everyday and ritual practices of relatedness across space.


In exploring how what it means to be related is re-worked across space, I argue that ‘change’ emerges as a ‘dirty’ word that migrant Kenyans seek to avoid being associated with. Thus, the project explores the discourses they invoke, particularly Pentecostalism, in their efforts to re-define for whom they are materially responsible without compromising their moral standing or breaking off their relations. Highlighting the affective process of negotiating relatedness transnationally, it shows that changes in their kin relations cannot easily be attributed to the so-called inevitable nuclearisation of families as a result of moving to a western country. Instead, it demonstrates how kin navigate their respective circumstances, reconfiguring the meaning of relatedness as they do so, and at the same time how wider forces mediate the social reproduction of families.


The project contributes to efforts that illuminate the human dynamics of migration, while complicating the notion that family migration inevitably entails the movement of more than one person. During the project and subsequently, I have participated in conferences and discussions, and I was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 for a programme on the emotional and human dimensions of mobility. At the invitation of interlocutors, I have also given presentations on my research, as well as on more applied topics, such as, accessing higher education, securing external funding, and developing women’s empowerment initiatives.