Social psychology

Post-conference reflections

Yesterday we wrapped up the second Cultural Diversity, Migration, and Education conference hosted by our research group at the University of Potsdam. It went surprisingly smoothly, thanks to great student assistants and numerous volunteers, as well as the ever friendly, patient leadership my advisor Linda Juang provides. Overall I feel very positive about my own experience at the conference as well, though some of my take-aways were not entirely what I had expected.

I presented my third dissertation chapter, which is currently under review for publication, comprised of a critical review of terminology used in recent psychology and education research in the German context, focusing on labels related to the heritage/ethnicity/nationality of participants. Using a constructionist thematic analysis of terminology from 167 articles, I found extreme inconsistency and a largely racialized, exclusionary use of labels, with authors often mixing "migrant" and "migrant background," not reporting generation, and using "German" to refer, either implicitly or explicitly, to white Germans solely of German descent.

I presented this research on the last day of the conference, after having sat in the audience of numerous presentations from top researchers who, in their own work, continue to reiterate such Othering while simultaneously engaging in research focused on promoting positive relations in increasingly diverse contexts. In personal discussion with some of these researchers, it became clear that they do not see the issue with calling someone a "migrant" who was born and raised here, or researching that person's "acculturation into the host country." The argument I often hear is that, well, that's what everyone does. Yes, "everyone."

One interesting, and simultaneously inspiring and depressing, take-away was how divided these discussions were by rank, experience, and to a large extent, gender. Though many young scholars engage in unreflective, mainstream work, it was only among other PhD students, all of whom women, where I found not just understanding, but other folks doing similar work, problematizing similar issues, and feeling similarly alienated by the status quo in the rather insular world of psychologists and education scientists focusing on migration and identity in Europe. I had fantastic conversations with two other women, both of whom working in countries other than where they grew up, both of whom focusing on belonging, identity, and exclusion in their work. These conversations helped me remember that pushing back against the notion that "this is the way it is done" does not mean that that is the only way, nor the best or most equitable way. What it also made me remember though, is that the folks with tenured professorships, who therewith have the option to make or break one's career, tend to be the ones less interested in such dissent. Thus the depressing part of the realization. But, I will carry on, and keep fostering friendships and potential collaborations with like-minded young scholars. Critical mass also has power.

So, what do you do?

When people find out that I am working towards a PhD, a natural follow-up question is about my focus. I find it difficult to answer this query, not least because I'm a US American getting my PhD at a German university, in a department titled Inclusive Education, though my doctorate itself will say psychology, and I actually situate my work somewhere between critical social psychology, migration studies, and sociology of education.

These complexities can be waded through, however, depending on time and level of interest. What I find more difficult is negotiating the conversation around my work itself. How I frame my research varies wildly, often based on my own assumptions about my interlocutor's politics, prejudices, life experience, and my own energy level. Am I prepared to be mansplained by yet another white German dude about why national identity is different in Germany because (the following is an estimate of the roughly hundred different ways I've been told this), "immigration is very new in Germany and people aren't used to diversity the same way they are in the US", after I have just said that I focus on national identity and Islamophobia in contemporary Germany? Am I ready for yet another assumption of white solidarity and an encouraging, "oh that's great you're doing research on that, there are so many problems with getting them to integrate," after I've just said I focus on migration and identity? Which version of my life story do I want to offer when I am inevitably asked the seemingly innocuous, "why on earth is someone from New Mexico researching discrimination in Germany?" Yes, why indeed.

So, to allow myself space to work through these and other questions as I do this work and have these conversations, I have decided to once again start blogging. At least this way all the versions of my answers will at some point be available for public consumption. Perhaps I'll just start handing people a card with a link when things get tense, as they invariably seem to.