Otto-Hahn Research Group ‘Gender, Migration und Social Mobility’

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Gender, Migration, and Social Mobility among West African Women in Europe

This Max Planck Research Group explores the dimensions of social mobility among women who have migrated from West Africa to Europe. West African migrants are usually motivated by the aspiration to escape poverty and achieve better material conditions. Social mobility in migratory contexts means the movement of individuals (or groups) between social classes: people may change their social status upward or downward vis-à-vis their initial social group of belonging. West Africans who migrate to the Global North may achieve upward social mobility (providing regular income and access to consumption opportunities), but their situation often remains precarious. For the lucky ones, livelihood and class-making strategies allow them to reach and maintain a middle-class status.

This research programme analyses the strategies of social mobility and empowerment among West African women living in Europe. What are the strategies that women use to move up the social ladder while facing challenging migratory environments? How do they mobilize transnational networks to access resources (material resources and resource-people such as kin, friends, business partners)? How does their gender influence access to certain resources? More broadly, how do female-based networks offer opportunities to achieve social mobility? By looking into those questions, we want to understand how women create their own opportunities for social becoming and economic improvement within migration. In mobilizing gender-based resources, women also create spaces that are differentiated from men’s spaces. This points to the existence of ‘alternative’ transnational social fields that emerge as women create their own socioeconomic pathways and may be less visible than men’s activities and separated from them. 

As they migrate, West African women may evolve in sociocultural spaces dominated by gender hierarchies. They face constraints that men do not: gender norms, such as control of their professional lives by partners, or childcare duties that render access to educational opportunities difficult. Those hierarchies frame their possibilities for social mobility (for instance, their ability to pursue a degree or start a business). This has an impact on the strategies that they employ to achieve social mobility for themselves (e.g., they may invest in their children’s education, create online businesses or charities, or purchase assets in their country of origin, etc.) They may choose different strategies at different stages of their lives to advance and secure their own social position (including intimate partnerships and/or divorce). 

The programme of the research group revolves around four questions: How does gender impact strategies of social mobility? How do women shape transnational fields by pursuing strategies of individual (and collective) empowerment? How (and in what social arenas) do women aim at achieving social recognition? How do they perform social mobility in different cultural and social environments (for example, their country of origin and their country of immigration)?

Taken together, the various projects of the members aim at using a gender lens to theorize concepts such as social mobility, success, status, influence, recognition, and power. Particular emphasis is given to the idea of ‘alternative pathways of recognition’: the (often unseen) ways by which women gain recognition in migratory contexts. Migrant women often see no possibility for improving their socioeconomic situation in the host country. Yet they may aspire to recognition within transnational networks. Thus, other social or economic activities such as small-scale entrepreneurship, online businesses, charities, or advocacy work may still allow them to win recognition by their co-nationals as important actors in the diaspora. 

Current Projects

A book project by Anais Ménard, Andrea Lobo more
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