Immigrant Researching versus Immigration Research

16.06.2022

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Integration policies are often perceived in academic works as gatekeeping instruments but, while they can certainly be deployed as such, this framing does not fully represent the variety of immigrant perspectives in my study. My own positionality as an immigrant, applicant for a spousal visa, and a researcher prompted lines of inquiry and responses from South Asian immigrants that call into question the dominant approaches to integration policies as well as the notions of belonging and exclusion. Consequently, my journey as an ‘immigrant spouse’ molded my research on spousal migration.

Eight months after I applied for a visa to establish a civil union in Germany, I picked up my stamped passport at the New Delhi embassy. My application had remained in limbo for a variety of reasons, including a complicated life situation involving three different countries that made me illegible to the German state. But the biggest stumbling block was the bureaucrats’ reluctance to recognize my educational qualifications as grounds for an exemption on the A1 language proficiency exam.

Since I was, during those months, conducting ethnographic research on legal interventions in cases of elopements, this experience had opened up an exciting opportunity for a second project on marriage migration. The following years became a curated collection of experiences and learnings that would eventually support my research with South Asians, who seek spousal reunification.

Positionality as an ‘Immigrant Spouse’

This research project only officially started in 2020, although my own journey as an immigrant spouse had already proceeded through different legal statuses without a corresponding growth in career prospects. By the time I had started interviewing immigrants, I had gone through cycles of disillusionment and abject resignation that I saw mirrored in the narratives of women, who had joined their spouses in Europe.

The exclusion from the job market despite belonging to the more open and global field of academia was accompanied by the corporeal experience of being a hyper-visible woman of color in German public spaces which, unlike the US, do not pretend to be ‘color-blind.’ I had observed a lack of comprehension and, at times, apathy, for people of color like me, but to label these experiences as discriminatory would be an oversimplification. Even as I struggled to master German, I also realized how native Germans were often ill-equipped to deal with immigrants and new arrivals in general. While a generous view of integration policies would hold that it prepares new residents for the German society and work culture, there are fewer avenues to prepare Germans for the country’s own reality as a global, multicultural place.

These reflections form an important background to how I approached my research interlocutors, the kind of questions I posed, and the data I collected on both empirical details and affective associations. A majority of my interlocutors, including both sponsoring individuals and their spouses, were eager to continue their language education even when settling down was not the ultimate goal. If they were not restricted by childcare responsibilities, spouses often had a better chance of gaining fluency than their working partners, who did not have the time or energy for language classes. This was, in part, an attempt to overcome the disadvantages spouses (both women and men) faced when it came to finding gainful employment but language education, in itself, often did not lead to professional success.

Despite the ‘integration contract’ not living up to its proposed goal of inclusion in the labor market and local communities, interlocutors in my study largely viewed it as an example of the state’s benevolence and something that would ultimately benefit them. Research interlocutors in Italy, where state policy does not target recent immigrants, mourned the lack of access to language classes and several even expressed a positive evaluation of the German policy when they discussed the continued exclusion of South Asian women from public spaces and the job market.

Being ‘comprehensible’ in social life is not a color-blind expectation and it may well be a pressure faced by certain races, ethnicities, and genders more than others. But, discriminatory as these conditions probably are, immigrant spouses like myself have often found acquiring language and cultural competencies to be an essential first step towards building a life in European communities that remain, at times even stubbornly, monolingual.

Viewing integration policies primarily as a reflection of a discriminatory state and society might lead to research that only provides a partial picture. Even when migration research traces the experiences of immigrants, it may end up reinforcing the hypothesis of exclusion without taking a more holistic perspective on its role in diasporic lives. My affinal connections with South Asians, especially women, helped me gain a more complex picture of how language and cultural education can, at least in the short term, enrich immigrant lives.

 Integration Beyond Nationalism Debates

As I started presenting the project data to an audience of mostly European scholars, who studied migration in their own or neighboring countries, my analysis on integration topics was, on more than one occasion, met with skepticism and even gentle pushback. I was warned that claiming language education can aid immigrants, as I do in my work, can feed into mainstream discourses against ‘serial migration’, where the lack of language and cultural proficiency among immigrant families and communities is regularly highlighted as a problem requiring a solution.

The pushback I received eventually helped me realize the ways in which my conclusions may add fuel to the already polarized immigration debates to which ‘native’ scholars – for want of a better term – respond to in their research and writing. It may also seemingly shift focus away from the uneven implementation of the German integration policies where people with certain identities are perceived as requiring education and support more than others.

The potential misinterpretation of my research data is, hence, a fair concern but I will also argue that deploying narratives from transnational communities in larger socio-political struggles and the pursuit of aspirations for more pluralistic societies runs the risk of reproducing what Wimmer and Schiller have termed methodological nationalism. That is, the scholarly discussion is still responding to the political mainstream and contesting claims on the imagined nation without adequate attention to the lived realities and needs of immigrant communities.

As a non-citizen immigrant researching marriage migration, I do not see patterns of subtle and not-so-subtle exclusions disappearing any time soon and, as a scholar, I would like my research to aim for conceptual frameworks that do not lose sight of discrimination but also go beyond it. Being reflexive about my positionality in my research and writing has allowed me to not limit my analysis of integration policies to larger contestations on nationhood and belonging.

This blog series is a collaboration between the IMISCOE Standing Committee ‘Reflexivities in Migration Studies’ and the nccr – on the move.

Rama Srinivasan is an anthropologist and a visiting professor at the International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad, India. Till May 2022, she was a Marie Curie Postdoctoral fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.

This blog post is based on research conducted as part of RE-NUP: Spousal Reunification and Integration Laws in Europe, which has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 890826.

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