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The Art of Living in Transitoriness: Strategies of Families in Repeated Geographical Mobility


In the context of migratory instabilities, an increasing number of professionals engage in repeated moves across countries with their families, living more or less permanently on the move. Yet the international adjustments of these families are usually studied in terms of the adaptation of family members to a single host country. This article uses in-depth interviews conducted with families in repeated geographical mobility and currently living in Switzerland to identify the strategies enabling them to move across countries while adjusting to diverse sociocultural environments. By bringing together studies on psychology with those on migration and mobility, the article introduces the specific challenge of repeated geographical mobility and sets out a theoretical framework for understanding this phenomenon from a sociocultural perspective. It then presents three types of strategies employed by families. The findings show that against the backdrop of constant changes, families recreate the same spheres of experience everywhere, transform their relations to objects, and build a continuum of social relationships by enlarging their social networks while focusing inward on the relationships within the nuclear family. The analyses bring to the fore a new modality of establishing a sense of continuity that involves a complete reconfiguration of investments so to embrace more complex ways to cope with the apparent concurrent requirement of adjusting to a new country while preserving some degree of mobility in view of the next move. The research sheds light on very contemporary dynamics embedded in the broader unfolding context of mobility by taking into account its experiential dimension.

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  1. 1.

    From a sociocultural perspective in psychology, geographical movement also leads to semantic displacement, since each move favors the encounter with alterity, engendering semantic movements of meanings (Gillespie et al. 2012).

  2. 2.

    Research on expatriation has used the term “expatriate” to refer to employees sent abroad for a limited period of time by an international company from their headquarters to foreign subsidiaries (Vance 2005).

  3. 3.

    This research project was led by Professor Tania Zittoun and supported by the National Center of Competence in Research nccr – on the move funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation.

  4. 4.

    All participants spoke English fluently; in nine households, they were English-native speakers.

  5. 5.

    Findings show how the absence of routines adds to heightened emotions felt while relocating.


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The author would like to thank all participants and Professor Tania Zittoun for her precious feedback on an earlier version of this paper.


This research was supported by the National Center of Competence in Research nccr – on the move funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Deborah Levitan is a grant recipient of CAPES Foundation, Ministry of Education of Brazil.

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Correspondence to Déborah Levitan.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. The author took all reasonable precautions to protect participants’ anonymity, suchlike not disclosing individual information about professions, languages spoken, nationalities, or trajectories of international mobility.

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Levitan, D. The Art of Living in Transitoriness: Strategies of Families in Repeated Geographical Mobility. Integr. psych. behav. 53, 258–282 (2019).

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  • Migration
  • Mobility
  • Sociocultural psychology
  • Family
  • Transitions
  • Spheres of experience