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Meaning, materials and melancholia: understandingthe Palace Hotel

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Whilst social science has recognized that racist discourse often attempts to ‘fix' outsider groups to particular locations, much less has been said about the locations themselves. The Palace Hotel is a prominent feature in gossip and public debate concerning the presence of ‘asylum-seekers' in the seaside town of Southend-on-Sea, Essex. This paper considers why this is so. As a basis for the development of a theoretical model, the focus of the paper is outlined using a variety of qualitative sources, including interviews from the author's doctoral fieldwork. From here two distinct approaches are applied in order to explain how the Palace Hotel has become synonymous with the presence of ‘asylum-seekers' in Southend-on-Sea. The first of these draws upon the social constructionist trend within geography that conceives of certain spaces as ‘marginal'. The second account engages with the often forgotten role that materiality plays in such constructions. It is argued that there is no need to choose exclusively between the two approaches because tensions can be resolved on the basis of a stratified realist ontology. The fundamental tenet of this ontology is that objects are permitted ‘relative autonomy' from our lay or scientific knowledge about them. Central to the explanation offered is an examination of the opposing conceptions of temporality inherent to each account. Lastly, the psycho-dynamic ‘space' between meaning and materiality is argued to be generative of a collective condition of melancholia. This insight is drawn upon in the recommendation of a coherent model for understanding the pronounced position of the Palace Hotel in discourse surrounding ‘asylum-seekers' living in Southend.

Keywords: asylum-seeker; demandeur d'asile; espaces marginaux; espacios marginados; marginal spaces; materialidad; materiality; matérialité; melancholia; melancolía; mélancolie; realism; realismo; réalisme; solicitante de asilo

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: University of Essex, Department of Sociology, Wivenhoe Park, Colchester, CO4 3SQ, UK

Publication date: August 1, 2005

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