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Discursive constructions of identity: talking to immigrant graduates in German

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posted on 2022-03-29, 03:29 authored by Eva Schmidt
Germany is a country of immigration. This has de facto been the case since the beginning of 'guest worker' recruitments in the 1950s, but Germany only legally acknowledged that it was incorrect to maintain that 'Germany is not a country of immigration' ('Deutschland ist kein Einwanderungsland') only 16 years ago, with a shift in migration policy that affected both the political and the social discourse on immigration and integration. Since 2000, a new Citizenship Act has granted citizenship based on place of birth ('Ius Soli') rather than on descent only ('Ius Sanguini'). In 2005, a new Immigration Act took effect and addressed matters of integration at the federal level (Castro Varela & Mecheril 2010: 25). Debates on successful integration became prevalent in the political discourse, and a national action plan on integration ('Nationaler Integrationsplan' 2006, 2007; 'Nationaler Aktionsplan Integration' 2012) declared measures to improve the situation of migrants in Germany. Among other issues, the plan aims to ease the entrance of highly skilled migrants to the German labour market (National Action Plan on Integration 2012: 20). Through the 2005 Immigration Act, Germany started to foster immigration of highly skilled migrants for the first time since the end of 'guest worker' recruitments in 1973, a series of contracts that encouraged migration to post-war Germany. 'Guest workers' helped to rebuild the German economy and formed the first big migration wave to Germany in the 20th century (Castro Varela & Mecheril 2010), but they were expected to leave after a short period of work and their integration did not form part of the 'guest worker' recruitment. Besides, few of them worked in the highly skilled sector. With the implementation of the new Immigration Act, Germany now invests in the acquisition of knowledge via immigration (Act on the Residence, Economic Activity and Integration of Foreigners in the Federal Territory, Sections 19, 19a & 21), and thereby tries to address the skills shortage (The Federal Government 2014). However, many highly skilled migrants living in Germany did not immigrate as part of the initiative to reduce the skills shortage, but came as refugees, ethnic German repatriates or for family reunification. Although there have been recent initiatives to improve the acknowledgement of their degrees and certificates, various studies prove that their professional potential is not tapped, and that they too often face deskilling (Henkelmann 2012; Nohl, Ofner & Thomsen 2010). This is contrary to research that finds professional integration a relevant criterion for satisfactory integration into society (Peirce 1995; Nohl, Schittenhelm & Schmidtke 2014; Pätzold 2010; Brizić 2013). Despite increasing skills shortages in fields such as engineering (e.g. The Association of German Engineers VDI 2016), the knowledge and qualifications of highly skilled migrants seem to have lost significance on the German labour market (Flam 2007: 118). This situation frames the qualitative study at hand. To reveal perspectives on professional skills and career paths after migration to Germany, 17 semi-structured interviews were conducted with immigrant graduates who participated in a requalification project. As part of the project, all participants had enrolled at the University of Duisburg-Essen to obtain a German university degree with a view to enhancing their chances on the labour market. Since they had migrated to Germany 2-20 years before, none of the participants had been able to work in the fields they obtained their degrees in. Experiences of immigrant graduates in the context of their 'insufficient incorporation' (Nohl, Schittenhelm & Schmidtke 2014: 4) into the German labour market have been subject to recent studies (e.g. Nohl, Ofner & Thomsen 2007; Ofner 2011; Henkelmann 2012; Nohl, Schittenhelm, Schmidtke & Weiß 2014; Jacoby 2011), but more research is required on how participation in professional communities is assessed by migrant graduates in the context of their de-skilling. Through examining how ideas on professional participation and agency are verbalised in interviews, the study at hand addresses this desideratum. 'Agency' and 'participation' are main factors in the analysis of the data presented in this thesis, and their definition builds on the assumption that '"doing" is at the heart of identity formation', linking action to processes of identity formation (Pratt 2012: 26). The present study suggests that expressions of agency and participation reveal how professional identities are discursively constructed in interviews. This leads to two research questions: 1. What kind of strategies did the interviewees use to support the discursive construction of their professional identities? 2. How did the respondents demonstrate agency in discursive constructions of professional identities? To analyse the data for strategies of identity construction, a qualitative content analysis (Mayring 2010, 2014; Kuckartz 2014, 2014; Schreier 2012) was carried out. Thus, the data was structured according to the aforementioned research questions (Mayring 2010). This was achieved by assigning text units to categories that were formed deductively from research about the notion of professional identity and its construction (Turner 1991; Pratt 2012; Ashforth, Kreiner, Clark & Fugate 2007; Caza & Creary 2016), as well as inductively from interview data. Hence, the result of the coding procedure was a number of text units that were filtered with the help of categories and that showed different types of strategies for the construction of professional identities. The filtered text units were then examined according to how agency was demonstrated within them. The analysis showed that various types of discursive strategies were located. These strategies helped to construct, deconstruct or maintain professional identities. The strategies involved agency to different extents. Whereas resigning and adapting strategies showed only little or no agency on the part of the interviewees, regaining and disclosing strategies involved more agency in the construction of professional identities. These findings are discussed with regards to two aspects. The first aspect is how the typology of discursive strategies relates to the theoretical framework of the study. It can be shown that participation in professional communities increases agency and supports the construction of professional identities, while unsatisfactory participation is reflected in a lack of identification as a professional. The construction of professional identities is clearly linked to participation in actual or imagined professional communities. The validation of these actions contributes to the construction of confident professional identities (Pratt 2012: 26). Moreover, comparing and contrasting (Kelle & Kluge 2010) discursive strategy types shows how metaphorical references to power (Lakoff & Johnson 1980) support the processes of constructions of professional identities. The second aspect is the validity of the findings. It will be demonstrated that although the qualitative approach of this research project includes the subjective perspective of the researcher, there are certain quality criteria such as the transparency of the analysis process and a second analysis procedure at a different point of time that ensure a satisfactory level of internal validity (Malterud 2001: 484). The transferability of the findings to other contexts is outlined in the conclusion. More specifically, the findings can be transferred and applied to further research in two different ways. Firstly, a similar analysis should be conducted with the same participants at a different point of time. The hypothesis that professional participation enhances the construction of professional identities could then be re-evaluated after a longer period of employment in the field of graduation. Secondly, this hypothesis could be transferred to a different migration setting, for instance to Australia, to test whether the construction of professional identities changes according to the context of another immigration country.


Table of Contents

1. Introduction and structural outline -- 2. Germany as country of migration -- 3. Constructions of professional identity -- 4. Specific research context: immigrant graduates at university -- 5. Methodological framework -- 6. Data analysis -- 7. LYA: characterisation of a representative case -- 8. Conclusion -- 9. Beyond this study.


Bibliography: pages 171-182 Theoretical thesis.

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


PhD, Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of International Studies

Department, Centre or School

Department of International Studies

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Martina Möllering


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