The Construction of Belonging in Immigrant Societies

(Last modified September 2010)

The research project investigates how descendants of post-colonial immigrants to Germany and France construct ideas of belonging to imagined Muslim, Kabyle, and Palestinian communities. What notions of order, what standards and normative principles underlie such constructions of belonging, and how are these constructions used to question social status hierarchies, political and institutional practices, and norms in Germany and France? The study describes and conceptualizes the relationship between constructions of belonging and how power hierarchies and conditions for individual autonomy and equality are experienced.

Three case studies for this project were carried out between 2003 and 2007: one on Muslim constructions of belonging (in Hamburg, Paris, and Lyon), one on Kabyle constructions of belonging (in Paris and Lyon), and one on Palestinian constructions of belonging (in Berlin). Central to the empirical interest of the investigation is the question of how descendants of post-colonial immigrants in Germany and France imagine community and how they localize it beyond nation-state structures. Rather than investigating the content of subnational and transnational imaginations of community, the focus is on examining the modes with which they are generated. Islam, Kabyle linguistic culture, and Palestinian nationalism are regarded as examples of content that can be drawn on by individuals in constructing belonging, thereby  creating contexts of meaning that guide their actions and critique.

To better understand these contexts of meaning, these three case studies were supplemented by investigations into the institutional conditions with which people in Germany and France are confronted in constructing a sense of belonging to Muslim, Kabyle, or Palestinian communities. This segment of the study addresses, first, the semantic functions that territorial, religious, and linguistic categories fulfill in shaping how states organize social relations in Europe, and, second, the institutional structures and developments connected with these three categories in Germany and France. To accomplish this, documents from the Council of Europe and the European Union (EU), as well as German and French policies on integration, religion, and language were analyzed to determine  what assumptions they make concerning concepts of territory, religion, and language, what normative standards are established by these assumptions, and what power interests are pursued in the process.

By relating the three case studies to European territorial, religious, and linguistic semantics, and to the institutional conditions of German and French policy on integration, religion, and language,  it becomes possible—this is the study’s basic premise—to conceptualize the construction of belonging in European immigration society sociologically and to grasp the critical potential of empirically-observed constructions of belonging. On this basis, the study will systematize, firstly, the subjective notions of order, standards, and principles of subnational and transnational imaginations of community; secondly, the structural components of constructions of belonging; and finally, the normative orientations of constructions of belonging that can be observed among descendants of post-colonial immigrants in Germany and France. The analysis of empirical material shows that imaginations of community and constructions of belonging are the expression of individual or collective  competence in relating actions to both ideas and interests. The study concludes that people use imaginations of community and constructions of belonging to articulate norms—and thus blueprints for a good or proper way to live as well as concepts of justice—and at the same time to question established power relations and existing conditions for individual autonomy and equal treatment in Germany and France.

The research project is in the writing stage.