With One’s Head in More Than One Country: Migrants in a Transnational Social Field

Migrants’ lives are increasingly transcending national borders. When Kurd youths from Europe return to their parents’ homeland, their identity is challenged; however, they prove their ability to negotiate two cultures. 


Introduction to a transnational social field

The concept transnational social field describes a new global normal state in which migrants’ lives become transnational as they unfold in both the country of origin and the receiving country simultaneously. Due to advances in technology and communication such as social media, free Skype telephony and available flights, the daily lives of migrants are characterized by relationships with people both here and there. As a result, they are continuously exposed to expectations and values from both places. 

The notion of field in the contemporary debate on transnationalism originates in Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of field and the use of this concept by the Manchester School of social anthropology. A Bourdieusian field is a system of social positions structured by power relationships and created by the participants in their competition for social dominance. However, whereas the boundaries of the social field discussed by Bourdieu are coterminous with those of the nation state, the practices of contemporary migrants transcend national borders.

With the concept of transnational social field as a theoretical starting point, I studied identity experiences, belonging and transnational social practices among second generation youths with Kurdish background raised in a European country. They had all returned to their parents’ homeland as young adults despite having been born and/or brought up in Europe and the qualitative interviews were all conducted in Kurdistan.

The upbringing of all the youths I interviewed was characterized by participation in activities related to the parents’ homeland, such as national holidays, remittances to relatives and travels to Kurdistan. In this way the youths had been brought into a transnational involvement from early age. The parents’ homeland played an important part in my informants lives from an early stage, although the youths were still integrated in their country of upbringing. The youths, however, split into two groups with regard to their background as well as their level of transnational involvement. The first group were children were of the generation who had fled the civil war and the precarious humanitarian situation in Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1990s. The second group, on the other hand, had parents who were part of the first wave of Kurdish refugees who had fled Saddam Hussein’s oppression of the Kurds and came to Europe as political refugees. 

For the informants in the first group, the transnational activity in adolescence had been limited to symbolic and nostalgic practices. For the youths in the second group, however, the connection to the parents’ homeland resulted in active participation. These informants had also returned on their own, while the informants in the first group had returned together with their family. The differences in the transnational involvement between the two groups can be linked to a greater political involvement in the families who had come to the West as political refugees. However, the different life phases of the youths might be a reason for the various levels of transnational involvement: The informants in the most active group were older.

Illustrasjon: Hanne Korsnes

Identity of Transnational Youths with Kurdish Background

The informants were able to alternate between Kurdish and Western identity according to the context and depending on their situation and available social network. According to them it made little sense to identify with only one country. As a Kurdish proverb goes: “They have their head in more than one country”. This was made possible by their upbringing in a transnational social field, with access to the codes of both cultures. 

However, the return to Kurdistan also made it clear to the young people how “Western” they really were in the eyes of the local Kurds.  Whereas the Kurdish language had been a means of expression Kurdish identity in the upbringing of the informants, in Kurdistan their unfamiliar accent when speaking Kurdish became an indicator of their “Westernness”. Here, they also sought to other youths with a Western background for friendship because of inability to find common ground with local youths.

The return to their parents’ homeland also challenged the informants’ subjective experience of Kurdish identity. Upon returning, some of the informants paradoxically had an experience of being more Kurdish than the locals and felt disillusioned by the lack of patriotism and the wide-spread corruption in Kurdistan. This was especially true of the informants whose parents were among the first wave of Kurdish refugees escaping from Saddam Hussein’s oppression of the Kurds. They had, as they themselves expressed it, spent growing up in an idealistic “time capsule” shielded from the realities of Kurdistan.


Are Transnational Practices Evidence of a Lack of Integration?

Transnational practices among second-generation migrants are sometimes viewed as a reaction to poor integration and low socio-economic status in Western societies. Interest from the second-generation in developing ties and returning to the homeland of the parents have been tied to both discrimination from the majority population and pressure from traditionally minded parents to preserve the culture and values of the country of upbringing. Transnational practices have been interpreted as a reluctance to adapt to Western societies and as a rejection of Western values and designated viewed as examples of reactive transnationalism,

The experience of my informants, however, offers an alternative perspective on transnational involvement. The youths were well-integrated and resourceful members of both societies and did not suffer from social or economic exclusion in the country where they grew up. Rather than being caused by lack of integration, the return of the informants to their parents’ homeland was a result of the favourable economic situation and study- and employment opportunities in Kurdistan at that time. This made it seem profitable economically and otherwise, for the youths and their parents to return. 

Thus, transnational involvement was for the youths a matter of choice, not of necessity. They had been socialized into the rules and institutions of a Western country while at the same time having been exposed to ideas, values and practices from their parents’ homeland. Therefore, they had access to knowledge and contacts that many of their peers did not have. Belonging to two cultures expanded the youths’ range of potential opportunities and was a resource rather than a burden for them.

As a consequence of their double connection, the youths could identify with each country when they wanted, depending on their situation and network. Thus, their experience of “home” was therefore not confined to the place where they were born or raised, but related to transnational experiences that challenged conventional boundaries of cultural belonging. As a Kurdish proverb has it, they “had their head in two countries”.