Last semester I worked as a researcher just outside of Paris. I was interested in understanding how people who have migrated to France navigate the multiple identities constructed by and for them. I spoke with people from different nationalities, social classes, and backgrounds in order to gain a variety of experiences.
When asked the question “Do you consider yourself an immigrant?” many people told me that no, for a variety of reasons. I noticed several themes in their responses. If they migrated from Europe, for example, they were definitely not an immigrant. If anything, they were an “ex-pat,” a “migrant,” or an “international.” Or, they were simply “European.” If they came from a former French colony, they were less of an “immigrant” than people who came from Asia or Latin America because they grew up in French-speaking schools and areas. According to them, they had an easier time relating to French people.
My interviews also made clear that, despite common beliefs, being a migrant depended on much more than the geographic places from which the individuals had traveled. One woman I spoke with classified herself as an “ex-pat” in the country she was born and raised in because she married a French man, worked around the world, and then came back to her home country.
Through the interviews, it became clear that “immigrant” is a word whose reference depends much upon the historical conditions of the individuals speaking. , In answer to my question, “What do you think of when you hear the word ‘immigrant’?” people would describe somewhat different types of people. For them, an immigrant was a person who has a desire of permanence in their new home country, or a person seeking a better life, escaping war or poverty in the process. They would also describe an immigrant as something negative. The term was often used as a term to “other” another group of people. For example, someone might have said, “No, I’m not an immigrant, not like those Syrians” (referring to the crisis in Syria that has forced many migrants to travel to Europe). One of my participants said, “I’m not like them because I had money in my bank account and a home to go back to.” In this way, participants discussed these differences to distance themselves from an idea or issue, which ultimately leads to an “us” versus “them” situation. Such divisions were inherent to what they viewed as “immigrant,” as well as how group boundaries played out in their daily lives.
It is within these varying degrees and flows of migration that we, as researchers, can begin to understand how people understand themselves and how we can begin to understand the world. I initially chose to study anthropology because it afforded the researcher the ability to bring a little humanity into the research process. In this small project, I found that the people who participated in my research appreciated sharing their experiences . Oftentimes, they expressed to me things they had been wanting to say, but they claimed that they had never had the opportunity to state publically before. But anthropology is not just a way to involve the stories of individuals in research. Theories and methods from anthropology allow us to understand migration as a social process that is not just about where you are or where you are going, but also about how you construct your identity. The construction of identity does not just provide perspective on the lives of individuals, but rather tells us much about why individuals behave in a particular way, or how they are a part of larger social issues. In other words, such questions are essential to understanding migration as a social and historical process. These are some of the general questions that drive my research in anthropology.
*Rachel Ladany is a second year Master’s Student in the Anthropology and Education M.A. program at Teachers College. She will graduate in Spring 2016.