More than just work: How an immigrant finds belonging

People crossing a street.

"You have people coming in to the country with huge skill sets and experiences that could be used, and it's just thrown away," says Erika Gubrium.

Professor Gubrium's own immigrant story is familiar to many immigrants to Norway.

She came here with an advanced degree and experience in her field, but the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration (NAV) and other agencies offered little help other than to suggest she look for work as an assistant in a pre-school setting; work that was unrelated to her skills.

Rather than ask how time in Norway shapes their experience, I want to ask how they refer to their experiences when understanding the meaning of their time in Norway. – Erika Gubrium

She set out to develop an approach that goes beyond Norway's standardised system to better account for the experiences and needs of immigrants.

A patterned approach

Norway's current policy for integrating immigrants into Norwegian society is based on what Gubrium calls a "patterned approach". It tries to connect the number of years a person has spent in the country with identities like gender and ethnicity.

Programmes and interventions are primarily interested in whether a particular group has integrated into the labour market after a certain amount of time. There is more emphasis on "do they have a job?" than "do they feel like they belong?"

While people do tend to feel more connected to a country the more time they spend in it, Gubrium wants to flip the question around.

"Rather than ask how time in Norway shapes their experience, I want to ask how they refer to their experiences when understanding the meaning of their time in Norway."

This approach goes beyond the patterned approach and treats immigrants as people who actively draw on their life experiences and encounters with welfare and immigration systems.

Different stories, same process

Two immigrants might go through the same integration programme – a Norwegian course, for example – but create very different meanings from it based on their earlier experiences, status, and activities.

Who they were before they moved here and the circumstances of their move – what sort of job offers they had and the limitations that were placed on them at the time of the move – can deeply change how they experience that programme.

Immigration policies in Norway and around the world rarely consider these factors. This patterned approach that cares whether someone is employed over whether their work is fulfilling is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term.

Finding belonging

Gubrium wants to shift the focus to recognise every human being’s value. Feeling integrated in employment is not just about finding work, but about finding meaningful work, feeling one belongs at the workplace.

She started this project as an extension of her research on the connection between poverty and shame. Poverty is not just about being below a certain income level, it’s related to the social standards of the surrounding community.

The ability to make enough money to support yourself or your family in your community is widely recognized as an important part of integrating into a new country.

Yet she has not often seen this idea of relational poverty and its connection to social exclusion discussed in the context of immigration.

"Do not downplay the importance of finding work that feels meaningful and socially acceptable in feeling integrated or feeling like you can or want to stay," Gubrium stresses.

Potential to gain or lose

Immigrants often struggle with comparing their status in Norway with where they would have been if they had stayed. Many immigrants come with advanced skills but only have access to jobs that do not require much education.

A person who ran a service business before coming here and now can only find work stocking shelves or a bioengineer who is told to look for a job waiting tables, represents lost potential to succeed in a new society.

It's not just a waste in an economic sense. We waste people in an emotional sense. It’s a social waste. – Erika Gubrium

This waste leads to anger and demotivation in many immigrants and prevents people from feeling like they belong.

Struggling in the "best place"

Norway is often seen by immigration experts as a best-case scenario for incoming immigrants.

The country provides free basic language and cultural courses to many immigrants, school and childcare are free or heavily subsidized, and there is a strong social welfare system.

On the other hand, the people who struggle the most face the harshest rules.

Since 2015, Norway has had an income and language requirement for residency and many categories of immigrants are required to be in an activation programme or a job.

"People get caught between systems that have different rules and different demands."

These conflicting time requirements put people in precarious positions between course work and insecure jobs, with the constant fear of losing residency.

Understanding belonging

Gubrium's goal is to identify mechanisms that make people feel more or less connected with their new home. The idea is that a sense of belonging is a pre-requisite to sustainable integration.

Her research centres around interviews with adult immigrants who have been in Norway for at least five years. She is also interested in the racialised aspect of this issue.

Each participant in her current research project takes part in a series of increasingly deep interviews to understand all aspects of the person and their changing sense of belonging over time.

First, they talk about their life history: what were things like for you before moving here? How was the move itself? And what has it been like for you since moving here?

Next, Gubrium has participants draw a map of the meaningful places in their life, including those affiliated with the immigration and welfare authorities, from before and since moving here.

How people construct this map reveals meaning. The positioning, grouping, and organisation of meaningful places on a map prompts further exploration of the connection of place to experience over time.

For example, a participant might refer back to a place they have previously drawn or draw the same place a second time if the meaning of the place has significantly changed over time.

"Following up with participants on why they have drawn their maps in a specific way tells us something about how they perceive their world and gives insights into how the changing connections between places over time and sense of belonging," Gubrium explains.

Finally, Gubrium does a walking interview where the participant takes her on a tour of a place in Norway that is meaningful to them.

Walking and sharing a space provides other sensory data (feeling the weather, smelling the city, moving around) that can also be discussed during the interview.

This kind of interview reveals unique aspects about changing connections between experience, place, and time in Norway.

Audio recordings of interviews outdoors in the rain and wind emphasise the strong seasonality of Norway, and invite discussions of how social interactions change with the seasons and weather.

Encouraging belonging through research

So far, Gubrium has interviewed four participants, some who came to Norway for education and others to escape war or civil unrest at home.

By the end of the research, ten people will have completed the three-step interview process.

She hopes that analysing these personal histories, institutional encounters, and everyday experiences will lead to a better understanding of the integration process.

Recognising the complexity of people's lives leads to a more effective policy modelling and new programmes that are more inclusive and sustainable for participants.

As we take the stories of immigrants seriously, we can develop better tools to help them find fulfilling employment and develop a greater sense of belonging.

Professor Gubrium coordinates the Master's Programme in International Social Welfare and Health Policy and teaches a qualitative methods course for international master’s students at OsloMet. She is actively recruiting participants for this study.


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Published: 07/10/2022
Last updated: 31/10/2022
Text: Matthew Davidson