Researching Youth Ethnicities in East London and in Paris Banlieues: Methodological Challenges and Explorations

Monday, July 14, 2014: 10:52 AM
Room: F201
Oral Presentation
Agathe VOISIN , Observatoire Sociologique du Changment, France
This contribution explores the methodological challenges I faced while carrying a qualitative study on ethnicity among young people (aged 15 to 25 and chosen to maximise diversity across gender, age, ethnicity, social class, education and type of housing) in the London Borough of Newham in East London and in the city of Bondy in Paris northeast Banlieues. The research aimed at investigating the impact of French republicanism and British multiculturalism on everyday life and identities of these young inhabitants. But how to study ethnicity, a deeply relational phenomenon, socially and symbolically violent, and often – especially in France – considered taboo?

The paper starts with positionality and how I dealt methodologically, ethically and personally with the power relationships involved in the research. As a middleclass white French female student I was perceived in opposite ways during fieldwork: a white rich middle class Parisian in Bondy; a strange, lost, and possibly East European young woman in Newham.

It then shows how both the willing to reduce symbolic violence and the choice for a constructionist approach defined my research design and the structure of my interviews. Two methods especially helped me investigate intersectionality while decreasing symbolic violence: self-portrait and mental maps. This fed a reflexion over the use of categories.

At last, I discuss how each method involved specific power relationships and revealed - produced - different aspects of ethnicity: individual semi-structured interviews fostered the presentation of particular yet universal selves who rejected categorization and stressed a distinctiveness based on intimate experiences; focus groups [carried out every other week in secondary schools with the same participants for one or two semesters] politicized discourses and built collective actors defending group identities based on Us/Them dichotomies. At last, observations disclosed autonomous, playful, situational and instrumental aspects of ethnicity and discrepancies between attitudes and practices.