Mapping the Role of ‘Transnational Family Habitus’ in the Lives and Identity of Black Minority Ethnic Young People


On 5 June 2017, Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR) hosted a public lecture by Professor Tracey Reynolds on Mapping the Role of ‘Transnational Family Habitus’ in the Lives and Identity of Black Minority Ethnic Young People. In this lecture, Tracey discussed and developed the concept of transnational family habitus as a theoretical tool to make sense of how young people with migrant backgrounds are doing families transnationally. She tried to argue that having a transnational family habitus should be seen as an asset that can potentially disrupt conventional understandings of belonging and challenge deficit models of family life in black minority ethnic communities.

Tracey defined ‘transnational family habitus’ as a structured set of values, ways of thinking and ‘being’ within the family that is built up over time through family socialization, practices and cultural traditions that transcend national boundaries. This concept was influenced by David Morgan’s idea of everyday family practices. The origins of her research stemmed from the work within the Families and Social Capital Research Group at London South Bank University that began in 2003. The project focused on Caribbean families and young people both in the UK and countries of origin, which allowed Tracey to observe lives of transnational families and issues concerning migration, identity and community. These transnational and cross-cultural kinships and connections are important in shaping young people’s ethnic identities. The research also benefited from a recent project ‘youth matters’, which included interviews and participatory theatre techniques to explore how transnational identity manifested itself in an embodied and physical way with young adults from diverse ethnic communities.

Examining the experiences of migrants through the framework of transnational family habitus encouraged a rereading of her original data. By doing that, Tracey was able to explore how much of the young adults’ experiences of ‘doing families’ was embodied, a factor that was generally overlooked in the original analysis. It allowed her to observe the contradiction between the transnational family literature over the past twenty years that presented the subject as a broadly positive feature of family life and the persistent pathological understandings of transnational family practices in policy and media debates. However, revisiting data also presented some methodological challenges. The key limitation was that one might lose sight of the importance of the meanings of the interaction that took place between the researcher and the participants during the original phase of data collection.

Young people’s transnational family life and its meaning for identity development is still a relatively under-researched area in transnational family literature. Tracey pointed out migrants who are Muslim, black, or people of colour are mainly represented that within contemporary political discourse as criminal and illiberal . Such attention overlooks other important dimensions to these young people’s lives. Influenced by Peggy Levitt’s work, Tracey saw transnational young people as embedded within a social field created by cross-border connections. Their link to their parents’ homeland is more than just symbolic. It is embodied in the sense that these individuals maintain communication across national borders and express emotional as well as material attachments to their countries of origin. These transnational family relationships are valuable social resources reaffirming the notion of cultural belonging.

Transnational family habitus emerges from these young people’s practices of ‘doing family’ that transcend national boundaries. It includes mundane and unconscious activities that occur within families. It draws attention to different types of youth participation in family relationships that are transnational in nature and to the ways in which families inform young people’s practices, notions of identity and opportunities within and beyond national boundaries. Interviews with these young people showed that they were well aware of the notion of presence/absence. They also expressed a clear sense of belonging to families as broad, deterritorialised units. Presentations of transnational family habitus are largely positive and can be utilized as cultural capital, but the extent to which this is possible is racialized. For example, for Italians and Norwegians their bilingualism generates social mobility and freedom of movement while bilingualism in non-European languages is not positively valued; while black youths might use habitus to develop culturally-specific small and medium enterprises in ‘black neighbourhoods’ to affirm and validate their cultural belonging.

Transnational family habitus creates opportunities as well as challenges. Through the transition between different and complex worlds they inhabit, young people at times might experience processes of dis-identification and lack of acceptance. There are also structural limitations. Working class young people are less likely to have a transnational family habitus because they face greater constraints in keeping these important transnational practices going. Migration status is also increasingly significant in shaping transnational family habitus.

To conclude, Tracey’s lecture demonstrated that transnational family habitus can shed light on the experiences of young people from a variety of ethnic groups who have grown up in transnational families. Her research focused on young people as members of wider family networks that go beyond the nuclear ones privileged by much family research and highlighted transnational family experience as a potential asset with stratifying consequences for different groups of youth.

Listen to the podcast of the lecture

This post is contributed by Chenyang Wang, a 3rd year PhD Student in the Department of Psychosocial Studies.


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