Why Study Immigration?

While immigration in the sense of relocation is rather factual, the related concept of being of immigrant origin is socially constructed (some prefer references to having an immigrant background). How long is an individual who has moved to a different place considered an immigrant? By studying immigration, social scientists play a role in legitimizing and recreating these differences, thus help maintain arbitrary differences that can lead to discrimination. Should we stop? Let’s consider the alternative for a moment: without studying immigration we have no means of knowing whether there are problems, we do not know whether people perceived as immigrants tend to be discriminated in the labour market, and so on. So no, looking away is not the solution.

What we need to remind ourselves from time to time is taking care not to essentialize, not insisting on seeing migrants everywhere – especially not when we’re really looking at class, or gender. It means being precise about the words we use, and resisting the temptation to go with a topic just because it is high on the political agenda.

The paradox of multiculturalism

It’s common for people to consider themselves multiculturalists in the sense that they positively enjoy different cultures, favour ethnic diversity, and sneer at right-wing populists mobilizing against immigrants. There is, however, a paradox in liberal multiculturalism. On the one hand, respect for differences and other cultures is proclaimed. On the other hand, it values highly (even idealizes) the ability to go beyond one’s culture and value the diversity of cultures that exists. Put differently, if we want to be proper multiculturalists, we need others to be monoculturalists, the more ‘authentic’ the better.

What we’re looking at here is folkloric multiculturalism. Cultures are reduced to symbols, but also to ‘authentic’ settings (Italian pizza served by an Italian waiter, not German pizza served by a Polish waiter…). The paradox stems from the fact that if too many individuals transcend cultures, there is nobody left for the ‘authentic’ cultures we seek and respect. Yet, don’t multiculturalists look down on the ‘simple’ or ‘authentic’ people in their own culture because they are unable or unwilling to move beyond their own culture?

Baggini, J. 2010. “The Poppadom Paradox.” In The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten, 199–201. London: Granta Books.