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This project addresses, from an anthropological perspective, the questions of how ideals of the good life are articulated, (re)assessed, and related to specific places and contexts as a result of the experience of crisis and migration. The case studies chosen to operationalize these lines of enquiry focus on the phenomenon of return migration. They consist of an analysis of the imaginaries and experiences of return by Ecuadorian and Cuban men and women who migrated to Spain, are dissatisfied with their life there, and envisage/carry out the project of going back to their countries of origin (Ecuador and Cuba respectively).

About the Project


What makes for a valuable and good life is a question that many people in the contemporary world ask themselves, yet it is one that social science research has seldom addressed. Only recently have scholars begun to undertake inductive comparative research on different notions of the ‘good life’, calling for a better understanding of the different imaginaries, aspirations, and values that guide people in their quest for better living conditions. Knowledge is still lacking, however, on how people themselves assess and compare different views of the good life and their socio-cultural anchorage, notably as a result of changing structural conditions and transnational connections - such as those prompted by economic crisis and migration. 

Addressing this knowledge gap, the project opens a new field of research on the good life and its transformations, while contributing to studies of human mobility and economic practice. Among its objectives is a reassessment of the place and value of economic considerations both in people’s decisions to migrate and in their assessment of good living. The project also aims to provide new understanding of the links between changes in values and aspirations, and transformations in living conditions.

The project brings together three main scholarly areas of enquiry: 

  1. the study of morality, ethics, and what counts as ‘good life’
  2. the study of the field of economic practice, its definition, and ‘crises’
  3. the study of migratory aspirations, projects, and trajectories

Background and Context 


Seeking a better life and a better place to live are arguably the goals of many migratory projects, and an issue that is at the core of public and political debates in the contemporary world. In the case of Europe, much attention is being paid to the influx of migrants, often underpinned by assumptions of the ‘better living’ conditions that can be found on the continent. The question of ‘return’, however, with a more profound discussion of what ‘better living’ may look like, has been less prominent in public debates.

Following the 2008 financial crisis and the ensuing decline in living conditions among ample sectors of the population, a significant number of immigrants have started returning to their countries of origin. This has particularly been the case in Spain, which has seen a change in migratory patterns related, among other factors, to return migration, notably to Latin America. Set within this broader context, the project builds on the premise that the experience of crisis in Spain has led people who migrated to this country to rethink their migratory trajectory and envisage returning to their country of origin. 

Projects of return migration that originate in crisis situations provide an ideal entry point to understand how people (re)assess what makes for a good and valuable life. When precipitated by disappointment and a breakdown of expectations, migrants’ decisions to return to their countries of origin lead them to revaluate and compare different life scenarios. Studying these processes offers a productive lens to examine how people (re)assess their notions of what makes for a good life, where such a good life is located, and how it may be achieved.

Concretely, the project focuses on the imaginaries and experiences of return of Ecuadorian and Cuban men and women who migrated to Spain, have been affected by the economic crisis, and envisage and carry out the project of going back to their countries of origin.

A multi-sited endeavour, the research is designed as three interconnected subprojects with fieldwork in Spain (Elise Hjalmarson, PhD Student), Ecuador (Jérémie Voirol, Postdoctoral Researcher), and Cuba (Valerio Simoni, Principal Investigator).



The project is based on a multi-sited ethnography – Spain, Ecuador, Cuba – and is structured as 3 closely interrelated subprojects. It employs ethnographic methods in order to achieve a bottom up, empirically-grounded understanding of how imaginaries and concrete experiences of return migration relate to experiences of crisis and how they inform the (re)assessment of what counts as ‘good life’: what good life is, where it is located, and the way it may be achieved.

The main methods consist of:

a) Review of policy documents and online/media sources 

Review of the narratives that emerge from institutional written sources, mainstream media coverage, and online discussion forums, in regards to current migration to Ecuador and Cuba, with a special focus on return migration from Spain and on the impact of economic crises on such migratory movements. 

b) Participant observation

Participant observation enables researchers to become embedded in the social life of Ecuadorian/Cuban men and women living in Spain, Cuba, and Ecuador. The establishment of relationships with research participants grants access to practices and conversations related to experiences of migration/return, assessments of living in Spain/Ecuador/Cuba, and ideals and aspirations of a good life in comparative perspective. 

c) Interviews

Semi-structured interviews with research participants, identified as a result of participant observation and via snowball sampling, focus on experiences of migration/return, the impact of crisis, assessments of good living in comparative perspective, and participants’ future projects and aspirations, notably in relation to their migration trajectories.

Collaboration and complementarity between subprojects are reinforced by the original use of "simultaneous matched sample methodology” and mutual research visits, which provide insights on the transnational dimension and social embeddedness of people’s (re)assessments of the good life. Developing a partially-shared network of research participants in Spain-Ecuador and Spain-Cuba provides key insights on how migratory projects and decisions are discussed and evaluated among kin, friends, and acquaintances experiencing the different contexts at stake.





Between 2000 and 2009, the foreign-born population in Spain rose from 1.5 to 6 million. Latin Americans contributed in great measure to this increase, and in 2008 they represented almost 40% of the foreign-born population residing in Spain. From 2008 onwards, or in the years that followed the global economic crisis and related downturn of the Spanish economy, Spain’s migratory balance began shifting dramatically. The return of Latin American migrants to their countries of origin contributed significantly to this shift. Such movement of return has been largely related to the worsening of economic conditions for migrants, who suffered heavily from the crisis.

Elise Hjalmarson (PhD candidate) conducts fieldwork in the metropolitan area of Madrid. This city is the largest in Spain, with the highest concentration of Ecuadorian and Cuban migrants in the country. The focus is on Ecuadorian and Cuban migrants and the ways they articulate their experiences of crisis in Spain with projects and imaginaries of return and visions of a better life.




The growth of recent Ecuadorian migration to Spain (from 4’000 registered Ecuadorians in 1997 to almost 500’000 in 2005) has led scholars to view it as one of the most surprising migratory phenomena of the early 21st century that was not prompted by war or natural disasters. The largest Latin American collective in Spain, the number of Ecuadorians living in this European country began to decline in 2008. The effects of the crisis have hit Ecuadorian migrants particularly hard, with unemployment rates rising from 7.1% to 31.5% between 2009 and 2014. It is also among Ecuadorians that the highest numbers of return among migrants have been recorded since the beginning of the economic downturn, making the crisis-return nexus all the more salient. 

Jérémie Voirol (Postdoc) conducts fieldwork in Ecuador, mainly in the metropolitan area of Quito. Quito’s province, Pichincha, has the highest share of return migrants in Ecuador. The focus is on migrants’ experiences of return, their (dis)satisfaction with it, and the way return leads them to (re)assess what counts as good life.




Between 1990 and 2009, the Cuban population in Spain saw a steep increase, rising from around 2’500 to over 100’000. By the mid-2000s, Spain had thus become the most important destination for Cubans who wanted to ameliorate their lives and economic conditions. Ongoing changes in Cuba, such as economic reforms encouraging private enterprise and a new migratory law facilitating exits and returns, make some Cuban nationals reassess the possibility of finding a better life in Cuba, notably in light of declining living conditions in Spain. 

Valerio Simoni (Principal Investigator) conducts fieldwork in Cuba, mainly in the metropolitan area of Havana. This city is by far the largest in Cuba and contains the highest proportion of return migrants in the country. The focus is on migrants’ experiences of return, their (dis)satisfaction with it, and the way return leads them to (re)assess what counts as good life.

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Linking the Studies

The Cuban and Ecuadorian cases present a number of convergences and divergences that enrich the project while avoiding an excessively disparate picture. 

On one hand, the context of migration in Spain, this country’s recent economic crisis, and the strong linguistic, cultural, and social ties that exist between Spain, Ecuador, and Cuba, provide an empirical point of juncture for the project. On the other hand, Cuba and Ecuador differ as to their integration into the world economy, and their political and economic models of governance. Most importantly for the project’s inquiry, the two countries also diverge in terms of the perceived constraints, opportunities, and imaginaries of the good life for returning migrants. 

The combined analysis of the two cases (Spain-Ecuador and Spain-Cuba) will generate key insights on the links between different frameworks of possibility and the way they allow migrants to imagine and fulfil their aspirations for a better life.



The project started in February 2018 and will be completed in January 2023. Fieldwork in Ecuador and Cuba takes place 2 months per year for 4 years, and in Spain 4 months per year for 3 years, with mutual 1 month visits to each other site.

Elise Hjalmarson (PhD student) undertakes empirical field research for a total duration of fourteen months. Of these, twelve are spent in the metropolitan area of Madrid, one month in the metropolitan area of Quito, and one month in the metropolitan area of Havana. 

Valerio Simoni (Principal Investigator) and Jérémie Voirol (Postdoc) spend eight months respectively in Cuba (mainly Havana) and Ecuador (mainly Quito), divided into separate annual stays between 2018 and 2022. They also visit the Spanish field site for one month each.

Separating fieldwork periods and distributing them over 4 years enables researchers to follow the evolution of narratives and projects among Ecuadorian and Cuban migrants/returnees over the longer term and ensures the progressive analysis of data and related refinement of the project’s theoretical framework.

The Advisory Board

Gioconda Herrera

Advisory Board, FLACSO-Ecuador


Ecuadorian sociologist, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at the Facultad Lationoamericana de Ciencias Sociales in Quito (Ecuador), Gioconda Herrera holds a PhD in Sociology from Columbia University. Her main research interests are the relationship between gender and international migration and the effects of globalization on social inequalities in Latin America. She has published several works on Andean migration to Europe and the United States, especially of women and indigenous peoples, and on the migratory returns and circularities that have taken place as a result of the global crisis of 2008. Gioconda’s current research deals with post-deportation life of indigenous migrants in rural communities of Ecuador. She is also involved in a comparative project on Venezuelan migration to Latin America. Since 2016, she has been an associate editor of LARR in the area of sociology.

Susana Narotzky

Advisory Board, Universitat de Barcelona


Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Barcelona (Spain), Susana Narotzky was awarded a European Research Council Advanced Grant Grassroots Economics [GRECO] (2013-2018) to study the effects of austerity on Southern European livelihoods. Her main research focus has been on economic anthropology with particular attention to unregulated production, industrial restructuring, reciprocity and care practices within and across generations. The recent global crisis has led her to investigate the articulation between folk models of the economy that inform practices at the micro sociological level, and expert models of the economy that frame policy, corporative and institutional behavior. Her work is inspired by theories of critical political economy, moral economies and feminist economics. Recent writing addresses the themes of making a living in futures without employment, political mobilization, and class. “Rethinking the concept of labour”, JRAI, 2018, is her last publication. Other recent journal articles include (2016) “On Waging the Ideological War: Against the Hegemony of Form” Anthropological Theory, Vol. 16(2-3): 263-284; (2016) “Between inequality and injustice: dignity as a motive for mobilization during the crisis” History and Anthropology, Vol.27 (1): 74-92; (2016) “Where Have All the Peasants Gone?” Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 45:19.1–19.18; (2014) (with N. Besnier) “Crisis, Value, Hope: Rethinking the Economy” Current Anthropology V. 55 (S9):4-16.

Adriana Piscitelli

Advisory Board, Universidade Estadual de Campinas


Adriana Piscitelli is a feminist social anthropologist, Professor at the University of Campinas (Brazil), National Science Research Council Researcher (CNPq/Brazil), Senior Researcher of the State University of Campinas/Unicamp’s Centre for Gender Studies - PAGU. During the last twenty years she has been engaged in studies focusing gender, feminism, sexuality, migration, the transnationalization of sex and marriage markets and the expansion of anti-trafficking regimes. She is author of the books: (2006) Jóias de Família, gênero e parentesco em grupos empresariais brasileiros ligados a famílias (Editora da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro); (2013) Trânsitos, brasileiras nos mercados transnacionais do sexo (EUERJ/CLAM); She published diverse articles in international academic journals and book chapters, among them: (2018) “From Programas to Help and Marriage:  Transnational Sexual, Economic and Affective Exchanges among Brazilian Women”, in: Intimate Mobilities, Berghahn (ed: Christian Groes and Nadine T Fernandez); (2015) “Erotics, love and violence: European women's travels in the northeast of Brazil”, Gender, Place and Culture; (2013) “Between Iracema Beach and the European Union: international sex tourism and women’s migration”, in: Sexuality, Culture and Politics, a South American Reader.1 ed. Rio de Janeiro : CLAM v.1, p. 326-453. (2008) “Looking for New Worlds: Brazilian Women as International Migrants”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 33: 784-793 (2007) “Shifting Boundaries:  Sex and Money in the Northeast of Brazil”, Sexualities, Vol 10-4:  489-500.

Pablo Rodríguez

Advisory Board, Universidad de La Habana


Pablo Rodríguez Ruiz, is a graduate of Philosophy with a Master’s in Sociocultural Anthropology. He is head of the department of Sociocultural Anthropology at the Cuban Institute of Anthropology and directs “Culturas del trabajo en la reestructuración del modelo económico cubano”, a nationally funded research project. He has directed or participated in various studies linked to themes such as the national question in Angola (solicited by the governments of Angola and Cuba), ethnicity and race relations in Cuba, administrative corruption, criminal violence, the black market, social prevention, marginalization and poverty in the Cuban context during the 1990s, and cultures of work. Pablo has been the recipient of three Academias de Ciencia de Cuba awards for the following published works: Relaciones raciales en Cuba: Estudios Contemporáneos (Fundación Fernando Ortiz, la Habana, 2012); Los marginales de las alturas del mirador un estudio de caso. (Fundación Fernando Ortiz, La Habana, 2012); and the edited volume 1000 preguntas, 1000 respuestas (José Martí, La Habana, 2016). He was also awarded the Pinos Nuevos prize for his book Los Nhanecas-Humbi de Angola, Procesos Etnosociales. (Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, La Habana, 1992.) He has taught in a range of graduate programs, presented papers at numerous conferences in Latin America and Europe, and is a member of various think tanks and advisory groups in Cuba.

Jarrett Zigon

Advisory Board, University of Virginia


Jarrett Zigon is the Porterfield Chair of Bioethics and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Virginia.  His interests include the anthropology of moralities and ethics; the intertwining of humans, worlds and situations; political activity and theory; the intersection of anthropology and philosophy; the drug war; artificial intelligence and ethics; and data ethics.  These interests are taken up from the perspective of an anthropology strongly influenced by post-Heideggerian continental philosophy and critical theory, the theoretical articulation of which he names critical hermeneutics.  His latest book, A War on People: Drug User Politics and a New Ethics of Community (2019), is an ethnographically-informed critical hermeneutic exploration of how the anti-drug war movement is politically building new worlds and creating a new ethics of community through the enactment of freedom as letting-be and attuned care.  He also recently published Disappointment: Toward a Critical Hermeneutics of Worldbuilding (2018), which addresses the ethical, political and ontological grounds of the disappointment many feel today, offering an alternative vision of what a future could be and how to achieve it.  He is the author of several other books: Morality: An Anthropological Perspective (2008), Making the New Post-Soviet Person: Narratives of Moral Experience in Contemporary Moscow (2010), and HIV is God’s Blessing: Rehabilitating Morality in Neoliberal Russia (2011), and edited a volume titled, Multiple Moralities and Religion in Contemporary Russia (2011).


The five-year project, has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 759649).

The European Research Council (ERC) – the first pan-European funding body for frontier research – was set up in 2007 under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme for Research.

The ERC Starting Grants are designed to support Principal Investigators at the career stage at which they are starting their own independent research team or programme.

The ERC’s mission is to encourage the highest quality research in Europe through competitive funding and to support investigator-initiated frontier research across all fields of research, on the basis of scientific excellence. It aims to make the European research base more prepared to respond to the needs of a knowledge-based society and provide Europe with the capabilities in frontier research necessary to meet global challenges.




Invited talks

  • Hjalmarson, E. 'Emotional Returns and Other (Heart)Felt Migrations among the Cuban Diaspora in Spain'. INTERMIGRA Lab, HETS, Geneva, Switzerland, November 2022

  • Voirol, J. 'La desilusión del regreso. Deliberaciones morales y espacio-temporales de migrantes ecuatorianos retornados desde España', Keynote Speaker, Coloquio de investigacion, grupo en Migraciones Internacionales y Globalisacion, FLACSO, Quito, Ecuador, On-line, October 2022.

  • Simoni, V. Migrant, Tourist, Cuban: Identification and Belonging in Returns to Cuba 5th MoMO lecture (Moving Mobilities,  Online,7 June 2022
  • Simoni, V.Ethics, Success, and Contentious Freedom in Return Migration to Cuba, Cambridge University, Department of Social Anthropology, 25 February 2022
  • Simoni, V. 'Enacting the Good Life and Getting Stuck: Moral Economies and Articulations of Value in Touristic Viñales, Cuba', Keynote Speaker for Workshop Trapped in Paradise, University of Bern, Online, June 2021.

  • Simoni, V., Voirol, J., and Hjalmarson, E. 'Demanding Comparisons: Interrogating Migration and the "Good Life" in Spain, Ecuador, and Cuba', ANSO Seminar Series, The Graduate Institute, Online, April 2021.

  • Simoni, V. ‘Negotiating Ethical Procedures and the Demands of Ethnography: From Research Proposal to the Field’, Swiss Anthropology Association Workshop, Online, March 2021.

  • Simoni, V. '“Migration” and Its (Im)possible Demands: The Situation of “Return” in Cuba’, University of Bern Anthropology Research Seminars, Online, March 2021.

  • Simoni, V. 'Freedom and Obligation: Challenges from Return Migration in Cuba', Seminarios GI Identidades, Culturas e Vulnerabilidades, Instituto de Ciências Sociais (ICS), Universidade Lisboa, Online, January 2021.

  • Simoni, V. 'Making a Difference: Expectations and Reconfigurations of Value in Return Migration to Cuba', Laboratorio demo-etno-antropologico, Dipartimento di Studi Umanistici, Universita Ca' Foscari, Venice, Italy, November 2020.

  • Voirol, J. ‘¿Dónde se vive mejor? Narrativas sobre la “buena vida” entre migrantes ecuatorianos retornados a raíz de la crisis de 2008’, FLACSO, Quito, Ecuador, July 2019.

  • Voirol, J., Hjalmarson, E., and Simoni, V. ‘Retourner vers un lieu meilleur? (Ré)évaluer la "bonne vie" en temps de crise’, Université de Neuchâtel, Neuchâtel, Switzerland, May 2019.

  • Simoni, V. ‘Regresando a un lugar mejor? Trayectorias migratorias Cuba-España-Cuba y la (re)evaluación de la “buena vida”’, Institut des Hautes Etudes de l'Amérique latine, Université Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3, Paris, France, March 2019.


  • Strasser, S., Simoni, V., Lems, A., and Dahinden, J. Co-convenors of Workshop 'Trapped in Paradise', University of Bern, June 2021.

  • Hjalmarson, E. '"Yo Crucé el Atlantico Sola": Cuban Migrant Women Negotiating Gendered Autonomy in Spain', Latin American Studies Association International Congress, Online, May 2021.

  • Simoni, V.  'Integrationism: Social Imaginaries and Moral Justifications, Invited Discussant for Panel The Moral Economies of Knowledge Production on Migration: Conflicts, Values, Positionalities Conference IMIS, University of Osnabrück, Germany, December 2020.

  • Hjalmarson, E. 'Migration, Morality and Transformation',  17th IMISCOE Annual Conference, Online, July 2020.

  • Hjalmarson, E. 'Between Hope and Despair: The Affective Vicissitudes of Awaiting Assisted Return', European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Biennial Conference, Online, July 2020.

  • Simoni, V. ‘Dubious Returns and the Imperative of “Success”: Some Reflections from Return Migration to Cuba’, Workshop Experiences and Expectations of Return of New Portuguese Emigrants: Reintegration and Mobilities, Lisbon University Institute, Lisbon, Portugal, January 2020.

  • Simoni, V. ‘From Worker to Owner: Emerging Moralities of “Trabajo” and “Negocio” in Return Migration to Cuba’, American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Vancouver, Canada, November 2019.

  • Simoni, V. and Voirol, J. 'Articulating Morality in Return Migration', Panel Organization, American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Vancouver, Canada, November 2019.

  • Voirol, J. and Simoni, V. ‘Moral Articulations of Economic Life in Returns to Ecuador and Cuba’, American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting, Vancouver, Canada, November 2019.

  • Voirol, J. and Simoni, V. 'Imaginaires de l’entreprenariat et de contextes économiques dans les situations de mobilité', Workshop, Graduate Institute, Geneva, Switzerland, November 2019.

  • Voirol, J. ‘From 'Social Remittances” to “Moral Assemblages': The Return of Ecuadorian Migrants From Spain and Their Reassessments of the “Good Life”’, Emerging Patterns of Mobility, Graduate Conference of Migration and Mobility Studies, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, September 2019.

  • Simoni, V. ‘Tourism, Migration, and Back in Cuba’, Workshop Freedom, Power and Time in Tourism, Institute for Social Anthropology, University of Bern, Bern, Switzerland, June 2019.

  • Simoni, V. Migration and the Imaginaries of “Good Life”, Invited Discussant for Panel, Session at the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) Biennial Conference, Stockholm, Sweden, August 2018.

  • Simoni, V. ‘(Re)assessing Cuba and the “Good Life” from the Touristic Borderzone’, Latin American Studies Association International Congress, Barcelona, Spain, May 2018.

Research team