Migration, Social Science

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Mê-Linh Riemann | Leaving Spain

Mê-Linh Riemann


“I hope this book will give readers unique and novel insights into the south-north movement in the context of the economic crisis, and how it evolved over the course of the past decade.”

 ‘Leaving Spain’ is based on 58 autobiographical narrative interviews with recent Spanish migrants who went to the UK and Germany, and sometimes returned. “Their stories are stories of vulnerability, but also of human resilience and finding creative solutions in times of adversity”, explains Mê-Linh Riemann. By combining in-depth case studies and comparative analyses, Riemann demonstrates the potential of biographical research and narrative analysis in studying contemporary Europe, including its overlapping crises.

Briefly and concisely explain in plain language what the book is about.
Since the beginning of the economic crisis of 2008, Spain, like other southern European countries, has witnessed a mass departure of mostly young people looking for opportunities abroad. In my book ‘Leaving Spain’, I approached the phenomenon from a biographical perspective, as I was interested in how different phases of people’s lives are interconnected. Over the course of several years, I conducted 58 autobiographical interviews – and four follow-up interviews –  with Spanish migrants in Germany and the UK. Some of my interviewees had returned by the time of the interview. Their biographies were firstly marked by the lasting repercussions of the financial collapse (including mass youth unemployment), and continued to evolve in the new country – where they were sometimes faced with new collective crises such as Brexit. These types of macro phenomena (e.g. mass unemployment in Southern Europe and Brexit) are often interconnected and reflected in the lifelines of individuals. This is why I believe there is potential in adopting a process-oriented perspective on the matter, and studying these overlapping crises in a joint manner rather than as two separate entities. I used a specific type of socio-linguistically informed narrative analysis, which is well-known in Germany and Poland, but less so in English-speaking countries. I do hope that this book will help bridge this linguistic divide. I would like to stress that it has been very important for me to write in a way that makes my analysis and findings as accessible as possible. This is why I hope that students, both on an undergraduate and graduate level, will take notice of the book and feel encouraged to develop their own qualitative research projects in the style of Grounded Theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967).

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
I first developed an interest in the mass movement of young people from southern Europe in 2013, when I was an undergraduate student at the University College Maastricht in the Netherlands. It was the height of the economic crisis, and the youth unemployment rate in Spain reached a staggering 56%. I was very impressed by the images of mass protests erupting in this region, as thousands of people took to the streets of Madrid and other cities to express their anger about austerity measures. In many ways, I could relate to the protestors I saw in the news, as we were about the same age, shared a middle-class upbringing, and had gone to university in hope of eventually gaining financial independence. For many young Spanisards, the latter had suddenly become extremely difficult to achieve in their country of origin due to structural forces outside of their control. At the time, there were many media reports about young Southern Europeans migrating because of the crisis. I found these types of explanations too simplistic, as they fall short of capturing the complexity and multi-layered nature of people’s migration experiences. This motivated me to approach the phenomenon from a biographical perspective, and give my informants enough space and time to tell me ‘how one thing led to another’ in their lives. I found this form of interviewing very rewarding, and decided to continue this line of research during my graduate studies at the University of Cambridge. When I first started developing an interest in this topic, I had no idea that this study would eventually evolve into what it is today. I am very happy to have been given the opportunity to publish my findings in the form of a monograph. I hope this book will give readers unique and novel insights into the south-north movement in the context of the economic crisis, and how it evolved over the course of the past decade.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, …) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?
The use of biographies and single case studies has had a long tradition in sociological research. Early examples include, e.g., ‘The Jack-roller’ (1930) by Clifford Shaw, or ‘The Polish Peasant in Europe and America’ (1918) by Florian Znaniecki and William I. Thomas. These studies are, however, still quite different from contemporary forms of biographical research. For readers interested in this approach, I would recommend following the work of the Research Committee ‘RC38 Biography and Society’ of the International Sociological Association (ISA) (https://www.isa-sociology.org/en/research-networks/research-committees/rc38-biography-and-society/ ) – and its members, who work on very diverse issues across the globe. One important peer-reviewed journal in this context is ‘FQS: Forum: Qualitative Sozialforschung/ Forum: Qualitative Social Research’, which publishes both in English and German (https://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/about ).

For readers who are interested in the south-north movement in the context of the economic crisis, I would recommend two edited volumes: ‘South-North Migration of EU Citizens in Times of Crisis’ (Lafleur & Stanek, 2017) and ‘European Mobility in Times of Crisis’ (Glorius & Domínguez-Mujica, 2017). Furthermore, I would like to draw attention to the findings of the research project: ‘YMOBILITY: Youth mobility: maximising opportunities for individuals, labour markets and regions in Europe’ – including a forthcoming book titled ‘Young EU Migrants in London in the Transition to Brexit’ (Lulle, Morosanu & King, 2022).

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, amusing or strange?
This book is based on my doctoral thesis, which I completed in 2020 at the University of Cambridge. Like many PhD students, I experienced ups and downs during the writing process, but I found it ultimately very rewarding. During the analysis, I often detected phenomena and experiences that I had not considered before. I was determined never to ‘impose concepts on the data’ – but instead to commit to a ‘bottom-up’ approach in the style of Grounded Theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). For a biographical study of this kind, my sample is quite large. It is, furthermore, a multi-sited research project as I conducted fieldwork in Spain, Germany and the UK. What perhaps surprised me most about the writing process is that eventually the final structure of this book emerged quite clearly from my analysis. While I did have to make some pragmatic editing choices (e.g. selecting some topics over others), I do think that this publication does justice to the work that I have done over the course of several years. 

What would you like readers to remember about your book?
What I do hope is that I have given the readers a deep understanding of who my informants are – and what they went through during different stages of their lives. Their stories are stories of vulnerability, but also of human resilience and finding creative solutions in times of adversity. I also hope that readers will consider the benefits of reconstructing biographical processes in qualitative studies on a wide variety of different topics.

Your book is published open access thanks to the support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access. How did the open access publication process go? What makes open access so attractive for you/your book? Have you thus far noticed that your book reaches a wider audience?
I cannot stress enough how grateful I am to have received the support of the KU Leuven Fund for Fair Open Access for this publication. As an early career researcher, I could not have afforded to cover the book processing charges on my own. Publishing my very first book in an OA format is a true privilege, as it makes the dissemination of my finds so much easier and more accessible to everyone. Although my book has only been out for a few weeks, I have had people reaching out to me from all over the world, including from more remote areas in El Salvador and Egypt, which would have been very difficult to reach if the book was only available in paperback. As mentioned before, I hope that this book can be used for educational purposes, e.g., in courses on qualitative research. Since undergraduate and graduate students are often on a budget, it is a relief for me to know that they can simply download the file for free without any extra costs.

Do you have any plans yet for another publication? What will it be about? Would you consider publishing the book open access?
In the context of my current position in the ERC-funded study ‘ResPeCTME: Researching Precariousness Across the Paid/Unpaid Work Continuum’, I am currently working on a new book together with the PI Prof. Valeria Pulignano and my colleague Dr. Markieta Domecka. For this research project, we collected 414 autobiographical narratives with workers across three work areas (gig, creative, care) in eight European countries. In addition, we also collected 93 audio diaries and 97 expert interviews. On the basis of this extensive qualitative sample, we have developed a new theory about the connection between unpaid work, stigma and precarity, which will be at the core of this forthcoming publication. I would absolutely consider publishing the new book open access, and hope there will be ways of making this possible.