Qualitative migration studies have often criticized the use of categories such as ‘nationality’ and ‘second generation’ because they essentialize and naturalize differences instead of analysing how these differences are socially constructed and the complexities beyond strict categories. To avoid these pitfalls qualitative research has encouraged more reflexivity from researchers in their work by, for instance, co-constructing knowledge with the participants instead of using predefined categories. Whilst such a participative process seems feasible during fieldwork for qualitative research, the deductive process of quantitative research limits such interactions in the conceptualisation of categories and is, therefore, more at risk of reproducing a ‘state thought’.
In a new study, Milena Chimienti, Eduardo Guichard, Claudio Bolzman (LIVES Swiss Centre of Expertise in Life Course Research and University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland) and Jean-Marie Le Goff (LIVES Swiss Centre of Expertise in Life Course Research and the University of Lausanne) engage in this discussion by analysing both the theoretical and empirical challenges of using ‘nationality’ and ‘second generation’ as categories in quantitative studies. The study presents a set of recommendations to make these categories more efficient in surveys.
Their analysis is based on the LIVES-FORS cohort survey, which is an annual longitudinal survey that, in 2013, started following a cohort of young adults born between 1988 and 1997 who grew up in Switzerland. Whilst the aim of the study is to compare the life course of young adults coming to age by their gender, origin and socio-economic backgrounds, the longitudinal survey allowed them to show the fluidity and subjectivity of ‘nationality’ and ‘second generation’ as categories. Looking across the five waves of the survey, they noticed a 2% unexplained variation in the first nationality mentioned by the participants and 31% missing values regarding the nationality at birth – which are both indicators that nationality is a subjective category as well as a legal one. By changing the definition of the category ‘second generation’, adding to those born and arrived in Switzerland at 10 years old, those who had arrived and enrolled in school one year later, i.e. at the age of 11, they increased the proportion of ‘second-generation’ participants from 43 to almost 62% of the sample. These lead the authors to argue that the static and neutral conceptions of the categories ‘second generation’ and ‘nationality’ reproduce a false and stigmatised image of migrant descendants.
To overcome these drawbacks, the authors suggest developing multilevel geographical comparisons (1) to consider the effects of time (age and historical), (2) to use a wider range of information to be more precise, (3) to examine different nationalities instead of focusing on the traditional nationalities of labour immigrants in a given country and (4) to explore the reasons for the lack of responses to certain questions. Thus, the questionnaires should include both more flexibility in the answers and details respondents can provide as well as more open-ended questions regarding sensitive issues about their self-definition. To accomplish these goals, the survey should be developed through a participative and bottom-up process fostering mixed methods.