Researching Ethnicity without Ethnicising Migrant Social Lives
Sociology University of Bristol Oxford, UK
Sociological and anthropological migration research has often taken ethnicity to be a key factor in migrant lives. (Neo-)assimilationists and transnationalists alike tacitly assume the relevance of ethnicity, frequently working through a bi-focal lens (i.e. the migrant group versus the receiving community). On the one hand, the (neo-)assimilationist perspective concentrates on the receiving context measuring the extent to, and "uneven" processes by, which migrants integrate into the "mainstream" or remain embedded in their "ethnic community". On the other hand, if transnationalists have gone beyond national borders, focusing on how migrants spread their lives across two or more societies, they have not looked beyond the ethnonational community, to a similar extent. Migrants thus remained confined to the ethnic community at both destination and departure points. Yet, in their everyday lives, migrants will also interact with a variety of people and cultural scripts, of natives or other foreigners, whose impact on social relations has comparatively little been addressed so far.
This paper problematises the taken-for-grantedness and prioritisation of ethnicity in understanding migrant social lives. In doing so, it makes three methodological suggestions for researching ethnicity without "ethnicising" the subjects. First comes sampling. While a great share of qualitative migration studies use ethnic associations and snowballing strategies to recruit participants, non-ethnic sampling routes are key to reducing the "ethnic" bias. Secondly, comparing different migrant subpopulations (e.g. migrants in high- and low-skilled occupations) rather than different migrant groups will likely lend different results regarding the role of ethnicity in people?s lives. Lastly, using a social network approach to understand how migrants build and maintain their social ties will help reach beyond the "ethnic community" home and abroad by revealing the multiplicity of social relations (e.g. with natives, other foreigners, as well as co-ethnics home and abroad) in which migrants are embedded and the interests behind them. Through these three ways, the paper argues, one can examine the relevance of ethnicity in different spheres of social life without assuming or prioritising it as such. The arguments will be illustrated by reference to a qualitative project on sociability patterns developed by Romanian students and workers in London.