GaWC Project 28

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Community, Immigration, and the Construction of Citizenship II

Funded by ESRC (2002-2004)


Grant holder: Caroline Nagel (with Lynn Staeheli, University of Colorado at Boulder)

Does citizenship matter in an era of globalization? With the rise of identity politics, do people think of themselves as citizens and as members of an inclusive political community or public? Do complex patterns of mobility and new technologies shape ideas of community and citizenship? Do they create new geographies of community and citizenship? Citizenship is commonly conceived as the formal relationship between an individual and a state that delineates the rights and responsibilities of each to the other. But citizenship is neither fixed nor static; rather, it is the focus of continuous negotiation.

Central to many of the negotiations over citizenship are questions of who can be a citizen and under what conditions an individual should be granted citizenship. These questions may involve legal matters such as those involved in naturalization procedures, but they often speak to more ideological and emotional questions of integration, incorporation, and membership in a political community. In short, citizenship rests not simply on a set of legal institutions, but also on a sense of membership rooted in notions of shared identity and common purpose that are recognized individually and collectively (Shklar, 1991; Baechler, 1993). Sometimes the differences between these ideas are framed in terms of de jure and de facto or in terms of formal and substantive citizenship. The tension between these meanings of citizenship are central to the political conflicts over immigration seen in the US and UK.

A second element of the debate over citizenship and membership addresses the role of the nation-state in structuring citizenship. Practically speaking, societal membership is evaluated within a nation-state context (Bauböck, 1994). But the intensification of transnational flows of capital and people, as well as the creation of international regimes of governance, has destabilized the assumed congruence between citizenship and membership in the community delimited by the nation-state. These trends include:

  • the expansion of dual citizenship, both in terms of the countries recognizing it and the number of people holding two passports (Castles & Davidson, 2000);
  • the increase in numbers of people who are not citizens of the countries in which they reside (Hammar, 1990; Bauböck, 1994);
  • the emergence of international human rights regimes, which have placed pressure on nation-states to extend many of the formal rights of citizenship to those living within their territories (Brubaker, 1989; Soysal, 1994);
  • the maintenance of social, familial, political, and economic linkages between immigrants and sending societies facilitated by the sending government’s intervention and by communications technologies (Basch, et al, 1994; Itzigsohn, 1999).

Compounding the issue are other trends that also seem to indicate a reduced importance for the nation-state as the community on which citizenship claims are based. These trends include the rise of identity-based politics, which have been criticized for reducing attachment to national identity (Glazer, 1997; Salins, 1997), and the augmented role of cities, rather than nation-states, as the locations in which the substantive rights of citizenship are negotiated (Cheah & Robbins, 1998; Guarnizo & Smith, 1998).

Such trends have been the impetus for new debates about the connection between membership and citizenship (Soysal, 1994; Spinner, 1994). The diverse arguments put forward by scholars, however, are often normative, and are not based on systematic empirical analysis. The research proposed here investigates the ways in which individuals who are members of multiple communities understand and practice citizenship. Through this research, we hope to move away from abstract debates to consider citizenship and membership as practices, experiences, and meanings articulated and acted upon by individuals and social groups. Our strategy involves intensive interviews and focus groups with people who actively negotiate their citizenship and membership. Given the current emphasis on globalization, transnationalism, and migration in re-shaping communities and citizenship, we will focus on immigrants1 and their adult offspring, looking in particular at British-Arab and Arab-American communities (as will be explained in the Research Design). The use of case studies in the US and the UK will allow us to evaluate the role of institutions and context in shaping citizenship and membership.

In exploring the ways in which immigrants practice and negotiate citizenship and social membership, we are especially interested in the role of communications and information technologies (CITs) in fostering new types of political identities and social-geographical networks and communities. Some commentators argue that CITs have the power to reinvigorate community and democracy (Elkins, 1995; Sclove, 1995). Others, however, have been more skeptical about the kinds of communities and democracies they may foster. For example, Morely and Robins (1995) argue that internet communities are in some ways divorced from place and from broader social contexts in which the community may be challenged. Others have shown that the identity claims made through CITs reflect "categorical political identities" rather than broader ‘public’ identities (Calhoun, 1998), and that some of the uses of community-building on the Internet are outright exclusionary (Zook, 1996). Complicating the debate are claims that CITs may allow greater connection to place, but that they simultaneously allow connections to more than one place. Thus, it becomes easier for immigrants to maintain connections with their hometowns and to participate as members of two communities in two locations. Overall, claims about the power and impact of CITs are more a product of speculation than of sustained empirical analysis. The research proposed here intends to examine more systematically the ways in which CITs may (or may not) make possible new forms of community, identity, and political practice that disrupt the assumed linkages between social membership, territory, and citizenship.

Research Design

Empirical Focus: Arab-American and British Arab Activists

This research focuses empirically on leaders of and participants in Arab-American and British Arab organizations. Arab-Americans and British Arabs refer to individuals who trace their origins to the Arabic-speaking countries of Southwest Asia and North Africa. Population estimates from the census and other sources suggest there are about 3 million people of Arab origin in the US and approximately 200,000 in the UK (Bureau of the Census, 2001; Al Rasheed, 1996). While Arab communities in the UK and the US date from the late 19th century, most of the growth of Arab immigrant populations has resulted from in-flows of skilled professionals and post-graduate students since the 1960s. In Britain, as well, an important draw for skilled migrants has been London’s sizeable sector of Arab banks, businesses, and media firms. There are, however, disadvantaged segments in Arab immigrant populations. Britain’s Moroccan and Yemeni communities, for instance, are mainly working class, and recent flows of refugees have added to lower-income populations of British Arabs and Arab-Americans.

The reason for focusing on Arab-Americans and British Arabs is that they embody the tension between formal citizenship and social membership central to current debates on citizenship. Arab immigrants have been able to secure formal citizenship with relative ease, but Arabness has been consistently marginal to notions of community in both British and US societies (Nagel, 2001; Joseph, 1999). Because many Arab immigrants come from countries that have had strained relationships with the US and the UK, they are often targeted by anti-terrorist laws and by ‘profiling’ measures (Zogby, 1998). Arab-Americans have gained some recognition in recent years as a legitimate ‘ethnic voting bloc’ (Economist, 2000). But the nascent Arab lobby has been hindered by the perception of Arabs and ‘Arab causes’ as anti-Western—a perception made all the stronger by the terrorist attacks of 11 September.

Our proposed study focuses on Arab-identified organizations operating from the US and UK and includes national-level lobbying groups, foreign policy activist groups, social service providers in Arab-origin communities, social-cultural clubs, village societies, and student associations. The reason for targeting organizations is, first, that they provide an easily identifiable pool of people who claim Arab origins. It is not feasible to locate individuals of Arab origins through random sampling techniques, because many Arabic (and especially Muslim-Arabic) surnames are found among non-Arab groups, and because some Arab-origins families ‘Americanize’ or ‘Anglicize’ surnames. Moreover, given that many Arab-Americans have voiced their displeasure at being targeted and profiled, especially following 11 September, we feel that to randomly identify potential study participants would be insensitive and counter-productive (see Ethical Considerations below). Meeting with organizations gives us more opportunity to explain our goals and interests and to develop relationships of trust. A second reason for focusing on organizations is that leaders and members of such groups are often actively negotiating issues of community, membership, and citizenship. These issues, of course, are important to people outside of organizations, but they are perhaps more salient and more explicitly discussed in organizations.

We recognize that in limiting our study to organizations, we will be excluding many voices in the Arab-American and British Arab populations—especially those who do not wish to identify themselves as Arab. While we cannot eliminate this bias, we will attempt to counteract it by interviewing rank-and-file members as well as organizational leaders. Further, by identifying people with a range of involvement in organizations, we will be able to capture some of the diversity of viewpoints that exist in the population.

In order to evaluate the significance of institutional structures and local contexts, we propose fieldwork in two countries (UK and US) and six cities (London, Sheffield, Washington, DC, San Francisco, Detroit, and Los Angeles). By conducting case studies in two national contexts, it is our aim to understand the different ways in which institutions and discourses of community and integration (for instance, ‘assimilation’ and ‘multiculturalism’) interact to shape the experiences and practices of citizenship and membership on the part of immigrants. The six cities we have selected will allow us to explore a range of Arab immigrant communities and their interactions with locally-based institutional structures. More specifically, the selected cities cover: i) The largest and most concentrated Arab populations in the UK and US (LA, Detroit, and London); ii) The oldest and most generation-diverse (Detroit, Sheffield); iii) the most class-polarized Arab immigrant populations (Los Angeles, Detroit, London); iv) key centers of Arab-owned businesses and Arab professionals (London, San Francisco, Los Angeles); v) key centers of national Arab immigrant organisations (London, Washington, DC); vi. a global center of CITs (San Francisco).

Data Collection and Preparation

Step 1: We will compile contextual information as this information relates to citizenship and immigrant incorporation. Specifically, we will collect information related to:

  • Citizenship laws and rules regulating immigrant activities e.g., work, political activism.
  • Quantitative information related to patterns of immigrant incorporation and qualitative information describing the immigrant-host society interactions in each study site.
  • Immigrant community associations (Arab-specific and for immigrants generally), their activities, and networks with other community associations.
  • Source sending policies toward emigrants.

This information will be collected from governmental sources (INS, Census, local governments), national organizations related to Arab immigrants, and searches of public documents and newspapers. Work on this step is in progress.

Step 2: Using organizational lists (such as the Arab-American Almanac), Internet searches, and other data services, we will construct a database of web-sites associated with Arab immigrant organizations. Information in this database includes:

  • information about the sponsoring organization.
  • interaction allowed through the web-site (chat room, bulletin board, links, etc.)
  • the intended audience as evidenced by language, subscription requirements, content, etc.
  • elements of community building and the "locations" of those communities (local, US or UK, Arab world).
  • political content and the places to which that content pertains.

Work on this step is also in progress.

Step 3: We will conduct in-depth interviews with leaders of organizations located in each of our field cities. Particular care will be taken to ensure that we have a wide variety of types of groups so that we do not inadvertently introduce a class and/or gender bias that would not be reflective of Arab immigrant populations within each city. The interviews will address:

  • the nature of the organization and the services delivered, membership, linkages with other groups, the community it serves (including the location and how it is defined).
  • ideas about incorporation, citizenship proffered by leaders.
  • means by which the organization gathers and disseminates information.
  • the leaders’ self-identification and motivations for participation.

Interviews will be taped, transcribed, and coded for key phrases and themes (see Data Analysis). The questions for this part of the study have been pretested in a pilot study of seven interviews conducted in June 2001. Across the six cities, we anticipate 100 interviews with organizational leaders.

Step 4: With permission of organizational leaders, focus groups will be conducted with rank and file members of organizations. Per the suggestion of leaders interviewed in the pilot study, participants will be recruited at meetings of the organizations or through their regular mailings to members. Organizational leaders have also suggested that people will be reluctant to complete a survey, and that focus groups are the preferable means to obtain member viewpoints. Focus groups will involve members from as many organizations as possible and with a balance across immigration status, socio-economic status, and gender. We anticipate three focus groups with ten participants in each of the 6 cities, for a total of 180 participants. A short questionnaire to obtain demographic information will be administered prior to each focus group; these will be used to ensure that we have balance across the groups. The focus groups will address issues of identification, attachment to place(s), ideas about citizenship and community and community membership. Focus groups will be taped, transcribed, and individual responses will be coded for key phrases and themes.

Data Analysis

With the information collected above, we will be able to reconstruct the complex relations between identity, community membership, and citizenship as understood by Arab immigrants to the UK and the US. Our analysis is qualitative in nature, and we do not expect the sample to be representative of immigrants or even of Arab immigrants to the US or UK. The large number of interviews and focus groups, however, allows us to avoid some of the problems of small n’s (Lieberson, 1991) in that a small number of hand-picked individuals are not used to represent an entire immigrant group.

Our analysis of interview text will involve identifying key concepts, common themes, phrases, and logics that suggest the array of ways in which people build connections between their sense of citizenship and community and their social practices and behaviors. Our analysis will be based on the following questions:

Question 1: What roles do ideas of citizenship and community play in activism? In this portion of the analysis, we want to understand how activists in US and UK interpret community and citizenship and whether ideas of community and citizenship are important to their activities and goals. Analysis will be based on respondents’ statements regarding the following:

  • Whether activists explain their work in terms of acting as citizens and/or claiming citizenship rights
  • Whether respondents view being a citizenship as being a member of a community.
  • Whether they view citizenship(s) and community(ies) as complementary or incompatible, and whether they believe membership in multiple communities (especially those that span national boundaries) affects their ability to act as citizens.
  • Whether activists view themselves as building communities, gaining group recognition, and/or gaining cultural acceptance vis-à-vis ‘mainstream’ groups.
  • Whether explanations and motivations for activism vary between urban or national contexts, between different cohorts and generations of British Arabs and Arab-Americans, and/or between organizational leadership and rank-and-file members.

Question 2: What roles do communications and information technologies play in the efforts of activists to attain their goals? We are concerned here with the ways in which CITs are being used to achieve activists’ goals related to community and citizenship, the differences in the ways that particular types of organizations use CITs, and the sorts of geographical networks are being facilitated by CITs.

These data come primarily from the web-sites and from the interviews with leaders. We focus on these two data sources for several reasons: i) the leaders can explain how they envision CITs, and the Internet in particular, as fitting into their overall strategy; ii) we can evaluate the extent to which the web-site is regularly updated, involves interactive capabilities; iii) we can provide a different evaluation of how the web-site appears to non-participants than the leaders can. If time permits, we would ask the participants in the focus groups about CITs, and we may include some questions on the short survey.

Question 3: How are identities as community members formed through experiences in and attachments to particular sites, and how are these identities connected? Our concern here is to analyze the scales and sites at which individuals and groups formulate and enact community and citizenship, and to understand specifically which features of particular sites contribute to conceptions and practices of citizenship and community membership. Data include the interviews and information gathered in Step 1. Analysis will be based on the following:

  • Whether respondents view their access to the institutions and structures of the host society as limited and their position in these institutions and structures as disadvantaged.
  • Whether respondents maintain material, political, and/or familial links with the sending country, and the degree to which these links affect day-to-day social interactions and political behavior.
  • Whether perceptions of integration and access to key host society institutions and social systems influence decisions to maintain identities and linkages with the sending society.
  • Whether certain attachments are particular to generation, leaders, or other subgroups.

Question 4: What are the locations of community and citizenship? Here our concern is with the extent to which ideas of citizenship and community are local, national, binational or transnational. We address this question in two ways:

First, we analyze the web-sites to identify the locations of community and citizenship. Analysis will focus both on the informational content of the site and on the external linkages that are built into the site. Mapping the linkages allows us to evaluate the structure of community, the extent to which it is tightly bounded in terms of linkages with other Arab groups, and the geography of the community in terms of linkages with people or groups in other places (particularly with groups in other cities, countries, and the on international scale). It is likely that SPSS will provide both the graphic and analytical capabilities we require for this analysis.

Second, we analyze the responses from the interviews and focus groups to this question. Again, this will primarily be a textual analysis. Since both sets of respondents will be asked the questions about the locations of community and citizenship, we will be positioned to address the questions of transnationalism and multiple community membership that have been so prominent in academic debate. Several aspects of our research design allow us to provide a more comprehensive evaluation of this issue than has been typical of recent writing: i) we have a wide range of respondents in terms of their immigration status, class, and national backgrounds; ii) we include people who are very active as well as those who may be only moderately or slightly active in Arab-identified groups; iii) we ask people these questions directly, rather than draw out interpretations from secondary sources, such as literature, music, or movies.

Ethical Considerations

As stated above, our study population is one that is increasingly subject to harassment and government profiling. We will take the following steps to assure sensitive and ethical treatment of our research subjects: i) Study participants will be given a form stating the objectives of the research, assuring the confidentiality of their responses, and providing contact details for the researchers. This form will be explained to the participant and signed by both the participant and the researchers before the interviews are conducted. Copies will be held by both the researchers and the participants; ii) Participants will be advised prior to the interviews that they are free to not answer any questions posed to them by the researchers and to stop the interview at any time; iii) Participants will be advised that they can refuse to have the interviews tape recorded; iv) Those participants who agree to be tape recorded will be given the opportunity to read transcripts and to make any changes to their statements. It should also be noted that the researchers are bound to the research code of conduct issued by their respective institutions.

Expected Outputs

The theme of citizenship, identity, communication technology, and migration are of interest to a wide variety of audiences. The results of the project will be presented to different audiences in a number of venues including i) publications in specialist and interdisciplinary academic journals, including Political Geography, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Ecumene, and Politics and Society; ii) presentations at academic conferences and conferences; and iii) presentations to non-academic audiences (as specified in User Engagement and Communication Plans) and a website disseminating research results in non-academic terms.

Qualifications of Researchers and Institutional Arrangements

This project involves collaboration between two scholars who bring different specializations to the project. Staeheli’s work has examined globalization and democratization, particularly as these affect citizenship and community-based political activism. Nagel’s work has addressed issues of identity and nationalism amongst Arab immigrants in London. Nagel also has Arabic language training.


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1. Some researchers have discarded the term ‘immigrant’, implying as it does a norm of permanent settlement, integration, and eventual full citizenship. These commentators advocate terms, such as ‘transmigrant’ to signify that lives, identities, political practices, and allegiances span multiple territorial boundaries and are not fixed in one place. (e.g. Basch et al, 1994). Our research, however, deals primarily with people who have settled in one place and who conceive of themselves as permanent residents; therefore, we feel the term ‘immigrant’ to be the most appropriate.