It’s common to differentiate between ‘first generation’ immigrants (i.e. people who moved to live in a different country), and ‘second generation’ immigrants (i.e. their descendants). It might look like a systematic (hence scientific?) approach, but it’s not appropriate. Typically, we use the term generation like this: “The bakery is owned and operated by fifth-generation baker Sylvain Chaillout and his parents.” Here we have baker after baker, and supposedly this makes Sylvain Chaillout (the firth-generation baker) more of a baker than any Johnny-come-lately baker. Contrast this with the ‘second generation’ immigrant, a person who is by most people’s definition not an immigrant him or herself, and if anything less of an immigrant than any Johnny-come-lately immigrant who has just arrived.
Image: cc-by-nc-nc open-arms
This post might serve as a reminder to myself and others doing research on immigrants and their descendent that nationality is not a mechanism. Put differently, if you discover that people with nationality A differ from people with nationality B in a given characteristic, you have not explained anything at all.
It feels rather obvious when put this way, but it’s usually harder when it comes to multiple regression models. So often we throw in a control variable like “foreign national” or “foreign born” without thinking why we do so, what alternative explanation we think we are capturing. Obviously, a person’s passport or place of birth is used as a shorthand or proxy of something else, but what exactly?
Let’s consider the commonly used variables of migration background or migration origin. Short of calling a particular section of society different in essence (which we probably don’t want to), there are a range of concepts we might be trying to capture, like the experience of (racial) discrimination, having a different skin colour, having a different religion, holding different values, having poor language skills, being of the working class, having additional cultural perspectives and experiences, transnational ties, or a combination of these.
Knowing what we’re after is essential for understanding. Sometimes it is necessary to use proxies like immigrant origin, but we need to specify the mechanism we’re trying to capture. Depending on the mechanism, who should be counted as of immigrant origin, for example, can be quite different, especially when it comes to children of immigrants, individuals of “mixed” background, and naturalized individuals. Having poor language skills, for example, is something most likely to affect (first generation) immigrants; but likely experience of racial discrimination is probably not disappearing just because it was my grandparents rather than me who came to this country.