Volume 7, No. 3, Art. 9 – May 2006

Stories of HERMES: An Analysis of the Issues Faced by Young European Researchers in Migration and Ethnic Studies1)

Maren Borkert & Carla De Tona

Abstract: This article introduces contemporary migration research from the perspective of a cross-section of itinerant European academics at the early stages of their research career. Specifically, it examines self-reflexivity as an effective tool to support qualitative data analysis in light of the multiple dimensions of migration and ethnic research in Europe. As part of this reflexivity, the paper considers the complex relations and relationships that shape researcher-participant interaction. It shows how these are made even more intricate and confusing by research conducted outside ones home country and/ or with national communities to which one does not "naturally" belong. Over recent years, the European Commission has sought to foster inter-academic exchange, especially amongst new European researchers. Emphasis has been placed on the need to build up effective international and inter-disciplinary research networks but, we argue, very little attention has been directed towards how the processes of up-rooting and re-grouping facilitate and/ or restrict the research experience. Using self-reflexivity, and in light of the particular complexities of carrying out international migration research, the paper will review these issues and seek to increase our understanding of how young European academics become successful transnational researchers.

Key words: transnational, European research, reflexivity, qualitative methods, migration

Table of Contents

1. European Transnational Research: Doing Research as "Academic Migrants"

2. Academic Migrants in a Foreign Institution

3. How We Do European Research Among Academic Migrants? The Case of HERMES

4. "The Stuff of Life": Being a Migrant Among Migrants

5. How Do Experiences of Migration and Foreignness Influence Our Research? Personal Reflections

6. Conclusions

Acknowledgements

Notes

References

Authors

Citation

 

1. European Transnational Research: Doing Research as "Academic Migrants"

Although the EU research budget only amounts to approximately 5% of the total expenditure of its member states, it has had a great impact on research policy and practice (KUHN & ROMØE, 2005a). The Framework Programmes, in particular, have greatly contributed to a more integrated European researcher agenda and have increased the Europe-wide mobility of academics. [1]

Even though the first EU Framework Programmes started in 1984, with the 7th coming up shortly (http://www.cordis.lu/fp7/), we still know very little about their impact on European research culture(s) (KUHN & ROMØE, 2005a, p.3). We know that the Europeanisation of socio-economic research has created a new "comparative approach" (KUHN & ROMØE, 2005a, p.6); that as a consequence our research projects cross more boundaries (national, academic, personal) than ever before and that we learn to combine different cultural, linguistic and academic traditions. For KUHN and ROMØE socio-economic research in EU is becoming transnational in three manners: it is carried out through comparative country studies; through thematic studies across countries; and through studies beyond national categories (KUHN & ROMØE, 2005b, p.54). However, we still know very little of the "tacit and virtually undocumented research, social and management skills" (KUHN & ROMØE, 2005a, p.7) that we have learnt to develop as transnational European researchers. [2]

This internal academic transnationalism has been accompanied by growing skilled migration in general, the so-called "brain-drain" and "brain-gain" currents within Europe, and increased academic migration 2) in particular. Therefore, as researchers we are becoming transnational in the way we approach research and in where we are based to carry out this research. Like never before we encounter different methodological and epistemological challenges and must find ways of negotiating these. As KUHN and ROMØE argue, we must reach "a consensus on culture-specific ideas, regarding scientific standards and methods" (2005b, p.54). [3]

To use HANTRAITS phrase, within Europe there are different "intellectual (or academic) styles", i.e. Gallic, Teutonic and Anglo-Saxon traditions. These styles diverges from one another in using more philosophical or more theoretical approaches, in including more statistics or case studies, and in aiming at either consensus or dissent between researchers (HANTRAIS, 2003, p.6). For collaborative European research to work effectively, however, they need to be "harmonised" within a European academic system or at least made explicit in order to avoid misunderstandings. [4]

Other differences are inscribed in national policies on research. In France, for example, academics are treated like civil servants through the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), while in UK research is more market-driven, although the government still maintains control through the Research Councils. The funding structures in place and the relative importance of the state, the market and the voluntary sector influence inter alia how research subjects are chosen, the policy relevance of research, and the allocation of funding. [5]

These differences in turn influence the research process. As HANTRAIS recognises:

"Although the barriers created by the cultural background of researches are rarely insuperable and are an interesting object of study on their own, they can lead to delays and misunderstandings, which may undermine team building, the progress of the research and the ability of the researchers to deliver the planned outputs and within budgets" (HANTRAIS, 2003, p.8). [6]

There are many aspects of these misunderstandings which we experience not only in our academic institutions and with our colleagues, but also in the fieldwork and in the practices of our researches. This is something that the authors of this collection, all transnational researchers within Europe, have often been troubled by. We have discussed, argued and sometimes clashed over our own approaches to qualitative migration research, The differences emerged at conference sessions and more often informally whilst chatting afterwards at the end of a busy conference day. Our qualitative methodologies have allowed us space to talk about and reflect upon our encounters with "difference" and through this we have started to draw on a Europe-wide perspective in our subsequent research. [7]

We have, however, found little evidence in the literature of the challenges and opportunities of such Europe-wide collaboration. This article, and the papers that follow, are born out of an instinctive need to address this gap and evaluate and reflect on the meanings and consequences of our European research encounters. In focusing on the implications of the Europeanisation of academia for social research, we are concerned in particular about research on migrants by academics who because of their research are themselves migrants. [8]

According to a recent publication of the European Commission, "research in relation to migration issues is an integral part of the European Union's programme for research in the social sciences and the humanities". Emphasising this point, "the Directorate-General for Research of the European Commission supported a significant number of research projects that address directly issues of migration" in both in the Fourth and Fifth EU Framework Programmes (see ftp://ftp.cordis.lu/pub/citizens/docs/catalogue_migration_projects.doc). [9]

The term academic migrant refers to European academics, like the authors of this paper, who become more and more transnational while researching migration in Europe. As migrant European researchers we move to and settle in third-countries, often having to speak a new language, and learning to adjust to new social and cultural normativities, feeling the migration's uprooting and re-grounding and, in short, becoming "foreigners" as the people who participate to our researches (who may or may not be from our home country). Although we may not call ourselves migrants, we end up experiencing migration in similar ways to the participants of our research. [10]

The emerging issue for us is how does this particular transnational aspect of our positionality (of researching migrants as academic migrants) influence us as researchers, the dynamics we establish with our participants and the ultimate shape of our research? [11]

This article will analyse these issues, reflecting upon the implications of doing transnational migration research in Europe. Firstly, it will consider some of the challenges that researchers face in diverse European academic contexts. Secondly, it will introduce the HERMES network of European researchers, as an example of collaborative European research and it will discuss some of its methodological implication. Thirdly, it will highlight the methodological issues that emerge when academic migrants research other migrants from both their home and from other countries, departing from the personal experiences of the authors of this article. [12]

2. Academic Migrants in a Foreign Institution

As European researchers in a foreign country often hosted by a foreign research institution, we must ask ourselves how to behave? Every research institution has its own dynamics and behavioural patterns. Moreover, the validity of our research is dependent on the time-space context in which it is located. What kinds of questions we ask depends upon our perception of this context and the broader definition of science within it. [13]

For example, when BORKERT started working on migrant integration policy and migrants' experience of this in Italy, Italian colleagues commented on her PhD's project by saying that she was "concentrating on a mouse, with an elephant hiding behind it". The research was focused on the Emilia-Romagna region, an area of Italy known for its outstanding political awareness on migration, and to investigating this case did not seem promising to BORKERT's colleagues. The reputation and image of the region, based on the production of political documents by the regional government, seem to impede in-depth investigation of integration policy measures and their impact in practice. Moreover, the planned comparison of different municipalities and the ways used to implement integration policies was deemed inappropriate because of the diverse local reactions towards immigration. [14]

Criticism of BORKERT's approach were based on the implicit "insider" assumption that the local implementation of integration policies depends mainly on the (migration) situation in single municipalities and thus common practises throughout the region are unlikely to be found. In the event, comparative research showed how important individual commitment from a single actor was, and also highlighted a widespread inertia and disinterest of Italian authorities as well as strong prejudices and stereotypes of both sides, addressees and actors) (BORKERT, forthcoming). The reaction against comparative research and lack of enthusiasm towards identifying general conditions in Italy may be based on the historically fragmented Italian political system and Italy's weak sense of being a nation (CARTOCCI, 2002, p.13). It also illuminates, however, how much the practice of social research is embedded in the national context of understanding science and social reality. [15]

Similar cases of "blind spots" in social research are evident across other European countries. In Germany, for example, over the last 50 years it has been nearly impossible to investigate the educational performance of pupils from immigrant backgrounds, because after World War II German authorities avoided building up statistics based on ethnicity for obvious political reasons. [16]

These examples show how academic research is deeply embedded in national/local cultural context and societal belief systems. The migrant researcher, whilst maybe not familiar with the cultural context/ belief systems he/ she moves into, can bring a different viewpoint that has the potential to challenge hegemonic academic and cultural conventions. The risk is that "indigenous researchers run the risk of being blinded by the familiar", whilst the "foreign researcher runs the risk of being culturally blind" (BOLAK, 1997, p.97). The problem is to find a balance between these positions through greater reflexivity. [17]

Certainly, being an academic migrant helps one to understand and deconstruct unspoken assumptions and norms. It also contributes significantly to the necessary process of self-reflection as it reveals the academic Weltanschauung of the respective research institution and society. The experience of academic migrants reveals how relative scientific findings are, and how meanings and results are negotiated and influenced by particular time-space contexts. Effectively, migration research carried out by transnational European researchers tells us both about the situation of the migrants we set out to study, and about the way European (academic) institutions perceive migration research. [18]

3. How We Do European Research Among Academic Migrants? The Case of HERMES

When we began the European Ph.D. programme on Migration, Identities and Diversity within the HumanitarianNet project—out of which HERMES was born—we attended Summer Schools in which young scholars were brought together to discuss and develop fictional joint research projects on migration and ethnicity studies. The Summer Schools took place in different universities in Europe (Spain 2001, UK 2002, Germany 2003, Finland 2004, Italy 2005). During these meetings, future members of HERMES discussed their projects and soon realised that it was not difficult to find themes of common interest. We found out that the de facto conditions in the European member states, i.e. infrastructures, geographic conditions etc., did not constitute a substantial problem for creating joint research projects. What revealed itself to be a problem was the different meanings, concepts and terms used. When talking about an issue we often had to clarify what exactly we were talking about and reflect together on diverging scientific interpretation of this. We found that in comparative European research, spanning disciplinary and national boundaries, "the devil really was in the detail". In effect, by coming together we had started defining and constructing a new "scientific" ground, that drew together different research approaches. This process showed itself to be quite intensive, time consuming, and sometimes stressful. Ultimately, we also found it rewarding and we recognised it as an indispensable part of the Europeanisation of our research. [19]

The HERMES association was born as a continuation of our desire to address the European differences we encountered with regard to qualitative migration research and learn about academic practices in other EU countries. HERMES is an international non-profit organisation which brings together European researchers working in the field of migration, ethnic relations and minority studies. It was registered officially in July 2005, but existed in practice as a "network of action" in various scientific events well before then. HERMES members are based in different countries and have diverse cultural and academic backgrounds (at the moment we are still enlisting members and we count circa 70 members from 20 EU countries). The association allows members to share their multidisciplinary knowledge and skills and offers unique possibilities to communicate, explore and learn from different disciplines, cultures and research traditions inside the EU. Moreover, HERMES provides valuable links to research institutions where previous research has taken place thereby creating cumulative networks of academic knowledge to help emerging researchers put international cooperation into practice. [20]

The HERMES experience has lead us to conclude that researching migration and ethnicity cannot be nationally confined; like the subjects of migration research, we must be prepared for and willing to cross Europe's borders, practically, intellectually and emotionally. Just as migrants are transnational, so we must learn to trans-migrate academic and epistemological boundaries. We must be willing to adopt a trans-national perspective before, during and after our research. [21]

4. "The Stuff of Life": Being a Migrant Among Migrants

In addition to diverging national research traditions, transnational European academics have to face some very special methodological implications while investigating migration in Europe. [22]

Feminist epistemologies in particular have helped us to understand the fundamental importance of the social location of the researcher in the production of knowledge (HARAWAY, 1988; BELL, 1993; LENTIN, 2000; PERSONAL NARRATIVE GROUP, 1989). As researchers, our class, gender, age, sexuality, and racial-ethnic status, all shape the multiple identities that we bring to the field which in turn structure our social interactions with migrants. Through a reflexive approach we can recognise, examine, and understand how our social backgrounds, positionalities, and assumptions matter (HESSE-BIBER & YAISER, 2004, p.115). [23]

When we go to the field as transnational researcher and we research other migrants, our reciprocal foreignness and otherness can function as a meaningful site of encounter and a way to negotiate closeness. This idea resonates with the long-standing debate on researcher positionality and insider and outsider status, i.e whether it is more effective to conduct fieldwork as an insider or an outsider relative to the study group. However, whilst recognising the importance that this debate had, we also acknowledge that the discussion of the insider/outsider debate in bipolar terms:

"sets up a false separation that neglects the interactive processes through which 'insiderness' and 'outsiderness' are constructed. Insiderness and outsiderness are not fixed or static positions, rather they are ever-shifting and permeable social locations that are differentially experienced and expressed by community members" (NAPLES, 1997, p.89). [24]

Methodologically this involves that "our relationship to the community is never expressed in general terms but it is constantly being negotiated and renegotiated in particular, everyday interactions; and these interactions are themselves located in shifting relationships among community [members]" (NAPLES, 1997, p.89). Naples successfully deconstructs the essiatialised notion of the insider/outsider but also reconfirms that in everyday interactions we negotiate, create and recreate in-side relationships with our research participants. This process depends upon us creating meaningful interaction that brings researcher and participant closer together. [25]

Arguably the experience of foreignness is a very important experience in this respect, connecting academic migrants to migrants as research participants. This particular relationship is negotiated in the localised and situated position of both actors being "dwellers of somewhere else", "outsiders" and "foreigners". In sharing the same position of outsiderness, the migrants and the researchers become insiders as foreigners. As such, both the researcher and participant are "inside the marked off, different and, although within, not within in the same way that the real insiders are" (STANLEY, 1997, p.6). Moreover, significantly, "this difference is not merely experienced, it is lived, it becomes the stuff of which 'a life' is thus composed, and it is central to identity and feeling, and thinking" (STANLEY, 1997, p.6). It is an all-encompassing experience. Scientific research is not an exception. [26]

We can benefit, if we recognise how this experience is shared and if we reflect upon the negotiations taking place during the research process. Being aware of this process illuminates the modalities that construct our identities in the field and our perceptions of the field. Reflexivity can also awaken us to the dangers of othering, objectifying, and speaking for rather than about our research participants. Moreover being aware of the situatedness of knowledge helps us critique universalising discourse on migration: "it is easier to know, when and where the universalising discourse ignores you, turn you into a blind spot, exclude you or discriminate against you" (MOROKVASIC, EREL & SHINOZAKI, 2002, p.19). This is a precious capacity given the marginalising effects of hegemonic discourses on migration. Sharing a common experience of foreignness, can also help us "to ponder the ambiguities and motives of those from the majority culture who decide they want to write about ethnic minorities" (GOLDSTONE, 2000, p.380). [27]

5. How Do Experiences of Migration and Foreignness Influence Our Research? Personal Reflections

When BORKERT researched migrants in Italy as a German citizen she also experienced migration which made her a foreign like the migrants she researched. These experience shaped her qualitative research and in particular the interview process. Italian and migrant interviewees often remarked upon her nationality. Italian participants tended to highlight BORKERT's foreignness and comment specifically on her German citizenship and German heritage. The extract below is but one of the many examples of how this happened.



Instead of alluding to her German origins, the migrants she interviewed referred more often to assumed shared experiences linked to common foreign status in Italy: "Come saprà anche lei …"—"Like you know/have experienced yourself …". In the following case the migrant interviewee, an active member of an immigrant association, identifies himself to be an "outstanding" observant of the Italian state and critical of its low efficiency in migration matters. During the interview he showed to assume that BORKERT as a foreign researcher agrees with his observations and critics on the Italian integration policy that he formulated on the ground of his experiences as a stranger donated with certain intellectual skills.



DE TONA's research experience also highlights the importance of personal standpoints in the research process. In her research on Italian migrant women living in Ireland, her own status as an Italian migrant woman is obviously relevant, even though not relevant in an obvious way. The perceived closeness and "insiderness" of the shared status is influenced by the intersecting of other social categories such as class, educational background, regional affiliation, etc. This created many layers of differences, which allowed shared images of Italianitá to assume different meanings, often negotiated to adjust to different contexts. For example, initially, some instances led DE TONA to develop a strong sense of dissatisfaction with regard to the "caricatured" modes of Italianitá she experienced with some migrants, which mostly reflected her own essentialised assumptions about what Italianitá means. The imagined idea of Italians living abroad was constructed through a specific consumption of representations and narratives on migrants, especially of the Italian cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, which did not fit the social profile of the particular groups of migrants living in Ireland she was researching. The process of deconstructing an essentialised notion of identity and of discovering the heterogeneity of meaning and manifestations of Italianitá was a confusing and puzzling experience. For example, when asked as "an insider" by some Dubliners how "they cook fish and chips in your place in Italy", she felt very strongly "an outsider", who could not even grasp the meaning of such a question. Even if one is aware that Italian migrants in Ireland have traditionally worked in fish and chips shops, it still remains confusing how Italianitá came to be associated with fish and chips' business. There is no evidence of such culinary practice in Italy and it is not easy to trace how such business became "Italian" in Ireland. Other times though, especially at a later stage, Italianitá also functioned as a site of encounter, in the name of which it was possible to initiate the re-telling of a (failed) imagined common identity. These awkward and multiform meanings of insiderness show simply how people have different ideas of what it means to be part of a certain ethno-national group. There is never one way to be Italian, and whilst we often "play the (Italian) part" it is possible to be seen as a "foreigner" among "foreigners", to feel different and yet to be recognised, and simultaneously recognise oneself, as "insider" in this foreignness too. [28]

6. Conclusions

In this article, we have considered how the researcher's national/class/gender-influenced positionality plays an important role in the research process. We have criticised the general tendency to define the status of the researcher and to label her/him in certain situations as an outsider or insider on the ground of her/his nationality. There are oscillating identifications of the researcher and the research participants during the research process, which need to be taken into consideration. However we also recognised that our status and positionality as academic migrants, as "foreigners among foreigners" is influencing our research. We need to reflect on its qualitative implications on our methodologies. The reflexive position of the researcher, her perception of the research participants, her interpretation of the results, her insertion in the academic institution need to be scrutinised. On the one hand this allows for a deeper understanding and a more honest control of the research process. On the other hand it leads to a dialogical/discursive construction of a common European research area, which can potentially clear out misunderstandings and delays undermining transnational European research. [29]

The construction of a European research area in migration and ethnic studies is fostered through the "migration of academics", their academic and personal process of up-rooting and re-grounding and the discursive negotiation of research findings in an international audience. Methodologically, it is impossible to disregard the position of a transnational researcher studying the same research process for the very basic question, as Stanislaw LEM said: "Egal in welchen Raum sich der Mensch begibt, er nimmt sich immer selber mit" ["Independently in which space humans are moving, they take themselves always with them"] (LEM, 2005). [30]

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank warmly Alberto MARTIN-PEREZ and Sam SCOTT. Their support and contribution to the drafting and editing of this article was invaluable. Our most grateful thanks go to Katja MRUCK for giving us the opportunity for reaching an international audience so essential for young researchers. We would especially like to thank her for her precious advices and tireless assistance. To Maren, for your positive energy, your cheerfulness and your "Italian" temperament, grazie! To Carla, for your gentle brightness, sincere conviction and for your "Italian" temperament, grazie mille!

Notes

1) This is the updated version of a contribution held at the 7th Conference of the European Sociological Association in Torun, Poland, from September 9th-12th 2005. <back>

2) The rhetoric pleonasm of the expression academic migration is deliberately used to contest the current view that academics moving within Europe are lesser migrants than unskilled/semi-skilled/skilled labour migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, on which migration studies mainly concentrate. The hidden assumption that we intend to denounce in this way is that migration of high class professionals is less difficult, because it is perceived as less threatening than other types of migration. <back>

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Authors

Maren BORKERT is the chief editor of this special issue and editor of two German translations and all abstracts. She is the Vice-president of HERMES and affiliated to the European forum for migration studies (efms) at the University of Bamberg. Currently she is preparing her PhD dissertation on integration policies in Italy—their formal provisions, the interaction between political and civil actors involved and the policy implementation in local realities.

Contact:

Maren Borkert

europäisches forum für migrationsstudien (efms)
Katharinenstr. 1
96052 Bamberg
Germany

E-mail: mborkert@web.de, maren.borkert@sowi.uni-bamberg.de

 

Carla DE TONA is responsible for the interviews on the state of the art of qualitative migration research in Europe. She is completing her PhD on Italian migrant women in Ireland in Trinity College Dublin. She teaches in the field of migration studies and is research assistant for a project on Global Network in the Institute for International Integration Studies, Trinity College.

Contact:

Carla De Tona

Institute for International Integration Studies
The Sutherland Centre
Trinity College Dublin
Dublin 2
Ireland

E-mail: detonac@tcd.ie

Citation

Borkert, Maren & De Tona, Carla (2006). Stories of HERMES: a Qualitative Analysis of (Qualitative) Questions of Young Researchers in Migration and Ethnic Studies in Europe [30 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 7(3), Art. 9, http://nbn-resolving.de/urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs060397.



Copyright (c) 2006 Maren Borkert, Carla De Tona

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