Respectable families. Immigration, generations and social position

Marja Peltola

The objective of the study is to determine how two generations of people with an immigrant background talk about their families and how they see their families positioned as a community. I ask, on the one hand, what position the families have in the intersecting hierarchical orders of ethnicity and social class and, on the other hand, how the hierarchical differences defined by generation and gender within the family are interpreted and negotiated.

Theoretically the study falls within various fields of research: ethnic and migration research; Bourdieuian research on social class and research on the intersectionality of social distinctions; sociological family research; and youth research. By means of a frame of reference composed of these fields, I examine the lives of families with an immigrant background from an angle that challenges problem-centred interpretations that stress issues pertaining to “culture” and “integration”.

The core of the research data consists of 45 interviews of an ethnographic nature, which I have conducted with the parents and children of 16 families. The parents interviewed had moved to Finland from outside Western affluent societies as adults. The representatives of the young generation are their children, young people and young adults who were born in Finland or had moved to Finland as children. Observations made in the interviewees’ homes serve as background material for the interviews.

In the empirical chapters of the study, I take up the following themes: socio-economic status; ways of speaking about the family; relations between generations; gender equality; and the future of the young generation. The supporting overarching theme is the idea that presenting one’s own way of life and family as respectable and good is an important element of the social positioning carried out by the interviewees. Interpretations concerning the interviewees’ social status were not constructed only in relation to Finnish society – where their socio-economic and discursively produced status was rather weak – but were also based on their middle-class background in their former home countries.

The organization of relations between generations and genders takes place through negotiation and in ways moulded by situation-specific requirements. They are also organized in relation to the (class) structures and hierarchies of the former home country and Finnish society. Although the generations differed from each other in terms of their relations with Finnish society and the former home country, there was also significant inter-generational continuity. This was visible, for instance, in efforts to convert the existing social and cultural resources into legitimate capital in Finnish society, and in the discursive techniques whereby interviewees presented their own family as respectable and distanced themselves from the problem-centred “immigrant” category.