Les Back on Migrants

About this Podcast

Sociologists Les Back and Shamser Sinha spent a decade following 30 migrants in London, a study that forms the narrative in their new book, Migrant City. The book offers an insight into life in contemporary London from the the perspective of 30 adult migrants. “In the end,” Back tells interviewer David Edmonds, “Shamser Sinha and I learned so much about not only the experience of migration, but about London as a space and a place that is made through migration. So this is not really just a migrants’ story; it’s the story of London but told through and eyes, ears, and attentiveness of 30 adult migrants from all corners of the world.”

This collaborative longitudinal ethnography in, and of, London was accompanied by a conscious effort not just to “mine” the 30 migrants of their personal experiences and data; the sociologists were “doing research alongside people, instead of just in front of them and on them.”




DE: This is Social Science Bites with me, David Edmonds. Social Science Bites is a series of interviews with leading social scientists and is made in association with Sage Publishing. Migrant City is a book which tracks the lives over a decade of 30 young migrants to one of the world's great cities, London. On the cover of the book are the names of the two co-authors, Les Back and Shamser Sinha.

But there were other names, too. Les Back is a professor of sociology at Goldsmith University of London. For this research, he said he wanted the participants to take a more active role in the process, not merely to be the objects of study. Les Back, welcome to Social Science Bites.

LB: Oh, thanks for coming, and I'm really delighted to be involved.

DE: The topic we're talking about today is migrants, and in particular migrants in London. You yourself a Londoner, and you've followed 30 migrants closely. What did you set out to achieve?

LB: Initially the book was part of a seven country study of migration on the European level that was funded by the EU to explore that experience of young migrants in Europe, particularly questions of marginalization and questions of integration. But in the end, Shamser Sinha and I were learning so much about not only the experience of migration, but London as a space and a place that is made through migration. So this is not really just a migrant story, it's the story of London but told through the eyes and ears and attentiveness of 30 adult migrants from all corners of the world. And in a way, what we were trying to do is understand the social and cultural dynamics of London and, more broadly, the nation itself.

DE: So you found 30 adult migrants. How?

LB: You know, it's very comical thing, actually, 'cause Shamser Sinha is a full time researcher on the European Union project. And Sham said, "OK, well we've got to find 30." That was what we were told we had to have, a sample of 30. He said, "Well, who should I fin?" And I said, "Well, just find interesting people." We came to think, actually, that it wasn't that these were special people, but if you find ways to attend to the experience of people in a way that is broad and open and curious, then everybody is interesting.

DE: London has many legal immigrants, of course, but it also has illegal. Did the 30 constitute both legal and illegal?

LB: Well, you see, the idea of the immigrant itself holds our thinking hostage very often. That's one of the big points that we wanted to make it so coded and so symbolic in our political culture, particularly the legal illegal categories are ones that bear down on the public debate. So it's the good migrants versus the unwanted ones, right? Now what we found immediately is that once you really pay attention, you really listen to the experience of people, oftentimes people move across those categories. Those categories aren't stable.

DE: But there would be some amongst the 30 who, if they came to the attention of the authorities, would be in trouble, and others who would be perfectly fine?

LB: Yes, of course. So you have different kinds of status. And in a way what we were interested in was to think about how those different kinds of immigration status produce conditions of life.

DE: 30 lives is an awful lot for two researchers to follow. On the other hand, it's a tiny, tiny number compared to what, the 9 million in London?

LB: Yes, of course. And it comes back to the value, I think, and the case to be made for what it means to work with a small number of people over a long period of time. We were working with those 30 young people over a period of 10 years, over a decade. And what we really wanted to do was to be alongside, to work with people as they understood their own lives and were documenting their own lives through the project. So in a way, what we ended up with was a different kind of way of approaching research itself. Doing research alongside with people, rather than just in front of them and on them.

DE: So they would document what was happening to their lives. 10 years is a longitudinal study by almost any definition. What about your relationship with them? Would you check in on them every month or so?

LB: Yeah, and some people in the project really embraced the opportunity to be observers in their own lives. So it wasn't just that we were mining people for their experiences, if you like, emptying them out of their biographical and sociological data. We were often in a much more iterative, circular relation where people were sharing their experiences and thoughts and reflections. We were then sharing with them our understanding and interpretation of what we thought mattered in their experience.

And so it was a kind of cycle that was ongoing. Some people just wanted to do this conventional social science research experience. "Just ask me some questions, and I'll give you some answers." But many others, actually, were interested in being involved in an ongoing way, and that's what we embraced in the end.

DE: There are two names on this book, on the front cover. But, in fact, you regard it as a multiauthorship work.

LB: Well, it's not quite true. There are two names, and then another three names that are authors with us, Shamser and I. So we wanted to try and push this idea of dialectic research as far as we could. Now, to say that the participants are co-authors on the one hand is an attempt to honor their contribution, and on the other hand, we felt there was a bit of sleight of hand, because at the end of the day Shamser and I spent this 10 years listening to people, thinking about the way they documented their own lives and observed their own lives, and the way in which we made sense of that. But at the end of the day, Shamser and I pulled this piece of writing together and shaped it. So it would be wrong to not acknowledge that.

In a way, I think that's about responsibility as well as credit. Yet at the same time, so much was given to us that we felt the participants should be honored and acknowledged in their own names if they wanted to. And we offered that to everybody who we were in contact with. Some people embraced it, and other people didn't.

But the way social science is written there's a kind of implicit hierarchy. So there are those people whose lives you listen to, they are data. And then there are writers who were credited as authors. And we wanted to try and mess around with that. It's very interesting.

The people that we offered to be credited, it was those people who felt that their tenure in London life was most stable, who embraced it. There were many other people who didn't want to be the owners of their own faces-- as Shakespeare would say-- because they still felt vulnerable. They still felt that their position was insecure.

DE: Defend the idea that 30 people in this vast city can tell you what's going on at a wider scale.

LB: Yeah, I'm happy to do that because, in a way, it's an invitation to defend the value of biographical methods. The thing that I learned the most from those 30 young lives was not the specifics of their biographies, the specifics of them biographies contained almost an index of London's relationship to the wider world. London's economy and how it relates to mineral exploits and mining in far off places, or Britain's colonial relationship to other parts of the world. In a way, those lives were the repository of the history of our culture.

DE: Why were those people here? Why did they end up in London? What was the appeal of London?

LB: Well, I think that comes through so strongly in their accounts is how much affection was in love there was of London itself, why London looms as a place of difference and diversity of opportunity. But very often, those young people were here because British interests, or London's interests specifically, had been alive in the places where they grew up, in their hometowns, in their far off places.

DE: Empire.

LB: Part of it's Empire, but also part of it is Britain's geopolitical relationship to the rest of the world. They are here because we were there or continue to be there.

DE: As well as the Empire, of course, we've been for some time-- this may not last very long-- a member of the EU. So there's been free movement. So there have been many migrants coming in from the European Union. That's an important part of London's recent immigration story.

LB: Yeah, no, that's absolutely right. So you're pressing me on what can you learn from 30 young people? Well, we've lived through this historic transformation. The years from the mid 20th century to the last quarter of the 20th century, the patterns of migration flow were guided by the conduits of Britain's imperial relationships to the rest of the world. Those migrants were often coming back to what they thought was the mother country.

Now from the last part of the 20th century, those relationships are of service more or less. There are new kinds of patterns of movements. In some ways it's more chaotic. And then the question of European integration starts to emerge where there is free movement. So we weren't just telling the experience of 30 young people and their everyday lives, but also that historic shift.

DE: And is the experience of those who have arrived because of the old ties very different from the experience of those who've arrived because of the new European connections?

LB: Yeah, those experiences are different experiences. One of the things that came through very strongly in the accounts of some of the participants in this work was how betrayed those people felt. Charlynne Bryan, who's credited as one of the authors in the book, she feels betrayed by a dream that the British Empire had implanted in her and her family in the first place. The dream of the connection with the motherland, the possibility of a modern experience that London promises.

DE: The European arrivals never had those expectations.

LB: No, not necessarily. On one hand, there's a connection in movement. The human family is probably more mobile now than it's ever been. At the same time, there is division and ranking. So at one point the EU migrants might have been thought to have been in a better position because of free movement in relation to their post-colonial peers. Well, the lesson of our recent times is that those hierarchies are very strong, but also they can shift very quickly.

DE: One thinks of the migrant experience as an alienated one. These are people who are deracinated in a new world surrounded by an alien culture. Do they live this alienated existence?

LB: Well, like most things, it's not as clear cut as that. There are things that certainly alienate migrants and the scrutiny that they're subject to, the surveillance that they have subject to, the questioning they're-- I mean, just as the flat, boring, to the point of tiresome questions like, "Where are you from?" meaning, "You're not from here." [INAUDIBLE] would call those trick questions. The answer is already decided before the question is even asked.

So yeah, there are those experiences of alienation, but also there are other experiences. And in a way that's, again, my argument for the value of 30 cases. What we started to witness was the instance of enchantment that people had for London.

Some of the participants created scrapbooks for us, which documented their everyday lives. And the thing that I was surprised by, stupidly and naively, was how often they looked like tourists scrapbooks, how much love there was for the stone structures of the old, imperial city, for example. Or the icons of Tower Bridge or the red jacketed guardsman, Horse Guards Parade, how much love there is for this place.

DE: Was there a sense of identity? Did they come to feel like Londoners?

LB: Their affiliation to London doesn't begin when they arrive, it's fostered through the connections that Britain has had with its influence around the world. Many of those people come to a place that they feel that they know already, it's already part of their imagination. But the other thing that came through very strongly was how much London was prized by some of the participants as a place where their complex lives could be assembled. One of the participants, extraordinary woman who spent 10 years of her life fleeing various wars and conflicts called Zizi, she was born in Mogadishu. She said in one of the dialogues that we had, she said, "You know, London completes me." So she sees the traces of her complex experience of movement across the globe registered in Newham in East London.

DE: You mentioned the regime of surveillance that they live under. Describe that. Surveillance sounds like it's something which is undertaken by the instruments of government.

LB: Yeah, well the instruments of government have embraced the incredible power of antiimmigrant feeling that's circulated within British society in the last decade as a license to show that they're trying to do something. And they do that through mechanisms of ordering and surveillance that aren't conducted at the edge of the political territory when you come through passport control at Heathrow or Gatwick, they move to the center of life. So those forms of surveillance are as close to those migrant lives as the mobile phones in their pockets.

And one of the participants told us this story about the end of his time of having his visa in London. He's told by the Home Office to leave and to inform them when he was going to fly and what flight he was on, which he does. Goes to the airport, sits down on the flight, and does what anyone does-- last thing before you take off. You check your phone. But his phone had vibrated just as he was putting his hand luggage above his seat, so he knew he had a message. So he sits down, puts his seat belt on, opens his phone and there's a message from the Home Office more or less saying goodbye and good luck.

DE: That was the thing that bothered him the most, actually.

LB: --reflecting on his experience of being in London.

DE: One of the things that struck you and also struck me reading your work was how migrants spend a lot of time waiting, waiting for things.

LB: Yes. Time. The importance of time in social life. Now London is probably one of the most impatient cities on the planet. Just before we started to talk, we went and had a coffee. How long did we wait? 35 seconds. We're incredibly impatient, Londoners. We want it done now from the train ticket to the coffee in the morning. But what we witnessed was how much those migrants who were either waiting for their cases to be reviewed by the Home Office were made to wait sometimes years waiting for a decision from the Home Office. It's not just about the experience of movement, it's about the experience of time that the issues of migration and migrant experience need to be attentive to.

DE: What's the impact on people's lives of having to have a different attitude to time? Anxiety [INAUDIBLE].

LB: I mean, what's the emotional, psychological, and social consequences of having to live in a condition where your life is on hold? Many of the people that we were working with and listening to and talking to, they couldn't go back, they couldn't go forward. We call it temporal straitjacket, a time straitjacket. You can't work, there are limitations being placed on this condition [INAUDIBLE] what you can do.

We wanted to do this democratic form of research. So we gave the devices to create data to the participants. And one of the participants called Nana took this photograph. When it came back I thought, "Why's he done that?" It was a photograph of a clock at 8:03, an unspectacular domestic clock.

And he said, "Well, I took the photograph of the clock because at 8:03 when his partner goes to work, he's waiting for his immigration claim to be processed. That's when dead time begins for him."

DE: The migrants who arrived in the 1950s, 1960s would have had the occasional letter back home from their friends and families. The new migrant is on a Whatsapp group with their mates back in wherever it is. What's the significance of that?

LB: Yeah, it's so interesting that the colonial migrants of the 50s and 60s, it needs to be remembered. They were not immigrants technically, they were citizens of the British Empire. They became immigrants here, and that's why we're so attentive to the power of language, actually. That's why the facts matter.

But to come back to the question of technology-- in the past, a letter back home would take several weeks. That world and that life from the place that the migrant had moved was unfolding without them. But we live in a more connected time than ever before. We're constantly getting updates from all of our friends, and it's no less true for those people who've moved across the globe. In a way, that separation no longer exists we have a co-presence, almost, across space and time. But that shared co-presence doesn't mean that the experience of separation or being trapped in this straitjacket of dead time is any less pressing or can be suffocating.

So I remember meeting Nana, who took the photograph of the clock, cafe in East London just to check in with him to see what was going on. We were just sitting together talking, he's checking his phone, and he can see on Facebook his friends and family in Ghana. He can see their lives unfolding. It's being documented in real time on Facebook. They're falling in love, they're getting married, they're getting new jobs. So he's watching their lives unfold, and yet here he is in London, the place of opportunity, and he's stuck.

He can't move forward with his life, he can't move backward in this experience of waiting, waiting for his life to restart.

DE: Some of us, some Londoners, would like to see the city as a welcoming melting pot of a place. Is it possible to quantify how much hostility these migrants experience when they arrive here?

LB: It's definitely possible to quantify. It's certainly possible to document qualitatively that experience. I think London is a paradoxical place. It is a place of diversity. London is a world city, a world city of multiculture, but it's also a deeply divided city. So the division and the diversity coexist. The violence-- sometimes those streets, where the most profound forms of bridges are erected across differences, can be the very selfsame streets where the most extreme forms of violence can take place.

DE: You've stressed in this interviews several times the importance of facts as though your job is to document the facts when it comes to your 30 migrants, and to let the values speak for themselves. Is that the correct interpretation of what you're doing?

LB: Well, I think the facts really do matter. And we tried very, very hard to get the facts right. It isn't easy job, actually, to honor the facts of things because the experience of a life being told can change over time. The story can change. So what's the right story? What's the factual story?

If we're not attentive to that, then what should we be attentive to? And in a way, our values, I think, determine the things we think are important. But once those things that are important are defined, and you mentioned at the beginning, now my life is inextricably linked to this city. And there are parts of what London is that have been incredibly energizing for me in terms of the things I care about.

DE: The connection between values and facts, then, is that your values influence the facts you then seek to identify?

LB: I think we make those choices because of our values. But at the same time, there are sometimes things which you find out in the course of a project that are uncomfortable or that are challenging. And I think it's really important to cultivate that capacity to be surprised, and also to cultivate and be open to letting go of the questions that you think are the most important ones.

One of the participants took a digital camera before mobile phones became so sophisticated, and she took a photograph of in front of Buckingham Palace of the railings in Buckingham Palace. [INAUDIBLE] "Why did you take that photograph?" This is one big issue about migration surveillance, multiculturalism, racism. It's a photograph of Buckingham Palace. What does that tell us?

Well, Buckingham Palace is a place that she loved, and partly because it was a place that her grandmother, who had lived in London, loved also. The symbol of this place was a connection of very complicated migration history within this family. And being able to take that photograph-- even having experienced quite serious forms of surveillance of being interviewed by the police and all kinds of stuff-- for her was a symbol of a freer sense of life itself.

DE: I presume that you're critical of some of the obstacles that are put in front of migrants' lives. Would you be worried if the facts as you've identified them were used by your political opponents?

LB: That's the risk of any kind of public speech or public communi-- or making anything, in a way. Shamser and I labored long and hard to try and write the book in the best way that we could. But then you let it go, and then it becomes part of the public conversation, and it can be read in ways that you would like it to be. It can also be read and used in ways that you wouldn't like it to be.

DE: Would that be uncomfortable?

LB: Well, I'd say it is uncomfortable in one way, but the opportunity is that it means that the conversation about the thing that we've made isn't finished, isn't foreclosed. So there are some people who want to disagree and to be in dialogue in bad faith. They've already made up their mind. They're not open to any view that's counter to the one they've already got. And that is just a fact of public debate at the moment. It feels to me we live in times where the public debate is incredibly impoverished. So that's the risk.

DE: I wanted to ask you about the style in which your work is written because it's full of descriptions of these people's lives, and it's more literary than many quite dry academic works. And I wondered whether that was intentional, and if so, why?

LB: It is intentional. It's interesting that some people have read it and said, "It was a different kind of writing voice than you've had before." Well, it's because it's not just a singular one, it's Shamser, it's also the participants. But I think I decided probably more than 10 years ago now that we needed to try and cultivate-- literary is a high compliment. If it can have a literary quality-- it's writing after all, you know? That's what we do, we're writers.

I don't think academics think of themselves enough as writers. We're involved, and we're committed to communication and persuasion. And the thing that I've decided, I think, some years ago now was that I wanted to try and capture, if I can, some sense of the dynamism, the life that is in the lives, and to try and write in a way that doesn't mortify that life, but in a sense sustains it, that leaves the reader with a impression whether it's a description, or a scene, or a moment, or a turn of phrase that's lasting. A lasting impression for further thought. That's what I'm after.

DE: Les Back, thank you very much indeed.

LB: Oh, real pleasure. Thanks very much for coming.


DE: Social Science Bites is made in association with Sage Publishing. For more interviews go to socialsciencespace.com.

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