Migration food for thought: Studying ethnic identities through the lens of Bourdieu

2019-09-24 07:52:40

#migrationfoodforthought from Fiona Seiger, on ethnic identities and the creation of economic, cultural and social capital.

When it comes to migration, ethnicity is a crucial aspect that needs to be fully understood as a category of social differentiation. This means that claims to a particular ethnic identity can be closely related to social and material advantages, and are likely to be informed by a pursuit of political advantage and/or material self-interest, as Jenkins proposes. In other words, ethnicity can give advantages in the form of citizenship or privileged visa status that allows people mobility, both across borders and potentially in socio-economic terms. 

While we often consider social capital such as migrant networks, cultural capital such as educational achievements or so-called human capital, and the economic capital facilitating mobility and migration, we need to also look at ethnic identity claims. Crucially, we add consanguineal capital, to acknowledge how ancestral ties are privileged in many migration and citizenship policies. 

Around the world, the potential for consanguinity as a form of capital is embedded in policies. For example: Immigration policies in Germany allowing for the “ethnic return” of so called Aussiedler from Eastern Europe; South Korea and Japan having crafted special visa categories for foreigners of Korean and Japanese descent respectively; and Italian citizenship law allowing descendants of Italians to (re-)claim Italian nationality and citizenship.

Consanguineal capital needs to be understood as politically symbolic, its symbolic currency being based on notions of actual or imagined ‘blood ties’ and belonging, and their frequent conflation with culture. Ancestry can be leveraged to gain access to resources through the legal implications that are provided by biological relationships, but also through symbolic claims for belonging to a nation or people, by virtue of descent.

A good example of how the material dimensions of ethnic identity constructions and identity claims provide this access, is the case of Japanese-Filipino children in the Philippines and the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) advocating on their behalf. Most Japanese-Filipino clients of NGOs in the Philippines were raised by their Filipino families with little knowledge of their Japanese fathers and no lived experience of Japan.  Although these children and young adults are often called ‘multicultural’ by NGO workers, they grow up as Filipinos with no connection to Japan other than the awareness of their Japanese parentage and the availability of global Japanese cultural products equally accessible to most Filipinos.

The oftentimes deliberate absence of Japanese fathers from their children’s lives, the children’s exclusion from the Japanese nation-state, as well as the seeming indifference of subsequent Japanese governments to the plight of children born to Japanese men and Filipina women have led NGOs in both Japan and the Philippines to pick up and politicize the issue. 

In doing so, they mobilised their clients’ Japanese descent by endorsing essentialist ideas of ‘Japanese blood’ and framing their Japanese-Filipino clients as Japanese ex-patria to support claims for recognition from their ‘other homeland’.  On top of Japanese nationality (and consequently citizenship), claims to Japaneseness also engender social distinction within the Philippines as offspring of Filipino-Japanese couples elicit cultural admiration, as Satake & Da-anoy propose in their 2006 study. The filiative relationship between Japanese fathers and their children turns into powerful politically symbolic ‘blood ties’ linking Japanese-Filipino children as a whole to the imagined community of Japanese. This is part of the ideological work performed by NGOs and their Japanese-Filipino clients to transform consanguineal into economic, cultural and social capital. 


Read more

Bourdieu, P. (1986). The Forms of Capital. In J. Richardson, Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education (pp. 241-258). New York: Greenwodd Press.

Jenkins, R. (2008). Rethinking Ethnicity (2nd ed.). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Satake, M., & Da-anoy, M. (2006). フィリピン-日本国際結婚―移住と多文化共生(International Marriage between the Philippines and Japan: Migration and Multiculturalism). Tokyo: めこん (Mekon).

Seiger, F.-K. (2014). Claiming Birthright: Japanese-Filipino Children and the mobilization of descent. PhD Thesis. Singapore: Ph.D. National University of Singapore.

Seiger, F.-K. (2017). Consanguinity as Capital in processes of rights assertion: Japanese-Filipino Children in the Philippines. Critical Asian Studies (49:2), pp. 207-225.

Seiger, F.-K. (2017). Claiming Japaneseness: recognition, privilege and status in Japanese-Filipino ‘mixed’ ethnic identity constructions. In Z.Rocha & F. Fozdar (eds.), Mixed Race in Asia: Past, Present and Future, pp. 98-113.

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