Un/Certainty, Morality and Symbolic Boundaries in Small-Town Germany

Friday, 20 July 2018: 09:15
Oral Presentation
Elif ALP-MARENT, University of Tübingen, Germany
With the recent influx of forced migrant newcomers in small towns across Germany, group identities and boundaries are being renegotiated. Especially in rural areas, where social groups have been formed and stabilized, this creates a unique sense of uncertainty, as insiders and outsider seek to re/create a sense of identity and belonging amidst fluctuating legislation, shifts in asylum status, and housing relocations. What mechanisms do actors rely on in resolving such uncertainties? Current sociologists of morality define morality as that which “encompasses any way that individuals or social groups understand which behaviors are better than others, which goals are the most worthy, and what people should believe, feel and do” (Hitlin and Vaisey 2013, p55). Cultural sociologists maintain that moral boundary work enables actors to construct hierarchies between themselves and others (Lamont 2000). Building on this line of thought, this paper maintains that the deployment of moral discourse best characterizes how symbolic boundaries are settled, focusing on the example of how the quality of deservingness is created between local-level actors. Eighteen semi-structured interviews with forced migrant newcomers, grassroots volunteers, and local administrators across four small-town field sites in the German state of Baden-Württemberg are drawn on in making this argument. Uncertainty around asylum status, marked through the German bureaucratic category of Bleibeperspektive (likelihood of being permitted asylum), can have direct social consequences of stigma, such as being undeserving of mentoring services and language help, and is itself a category riddled with presumptions. This research identifies re-labeling, resignation, and accountability as mechanisms actors turn to in combating their frustration with German bureaucracy and the chronic uncertainty that colors the experiences of forced migrant newcomers and those working to integrate them. Although not in the same manner, the harmful effects of uncertainty touch everyone – forced newcomers, grassroots volunteers, and administrators alike.