Crossing Boundaries of Self: Multidimensionality of Ethnic Belongings and Negotiating Identities among Polish Migrants in Belfast, Northern Ireland

By Kempny, Marta | Polish Sociological Review, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Crossing Boundaries of Self: Multidimensionality of Ethnic Belongings and Negotiating Identities among Polish Migrants in Belfast, Northern Ireland


Kempny, Marta, Polish Sociological Review


Abstract: This paper discusses multidimensional aspects of identity formation in a European context, referring to Polish migrants' experiences of migration in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Its aim is to understand the dynamics inherent in the process of identity construction by exploring the incidence of multiple ethnic identities among Polish nationals, lb this end, following theoretical consideration on a sense of belonging and boundary making mechanisms in contemporary societies, it examines the incidence of Polish, local, European and cosmopolitan identities among migrants. It then points out at contradictions between different layers of belonging and explores the situations in which they occur. The paper draws on the findings of a one year long ethnographic fieldwork and uses the results of participant observation and in-depth interviews.

Keywords: belonging, Polishness, small homeland, Europeaness, cosmopolitanism, identity switching.

Intensified flows of people across the member states of the EU, following the accession of new member states in the previous decade, brought about many changes with regards to how individuals think of themselves and make sense of their belonging. The present article tackles issues of identity construction under the current condition in which "certain kinds of relationships have been globally intensified and now take place in paradoxically a planet-spanning, yet common - however virtual - arena of activity" (Vertovec 2009: 3). It specifically draws on the case study of Polish nationals in Belfast.

Polish migration to the United Kingdom, following the 1 May 2004 accession date of new member states to the EU, increased at an unprecedented scale. In the period from 1 May 2004 to 3 1 March 2009, the highest proportion of approved applicants were nationals of Poland (66% of the total). The overwhelming majority of Polish migrants were aged between 18 and 34, with only a small percentage (less than 18%) aged over 35, and without dependants in the UK (93%) (Ruhs 2006: 11). According to Owen, Fihel and Green (2007), 25% of Polish migrants held higher education diplomas, but despite this, worked in blue-collar sectors, mostly in construction, agriculture, hospitality and cleaning.

In terms of geographical distribution, the United Kingdom has been the most popular destination spot for the inhabitants of provinces with high industry concentrations: Kujawsko-Pomorskie voivodship (49%), Lodz voivodship (42%), Silesian voivodship (39%), Mazovian voivodship (35%) and Lower Silesian (34%). It was less popular among inhabitants of strictly agricultural areas: Opole voivodship (11%) and Podkarpacie voivodship (21%) (Grabowska-Lusinska and Okólski 2008: 81). Polish workers usually settled in three main regions of the UK: South-East, East and Northwest Anglia. Before the migration boom started in 2002-2003, 70% of Polish people applying for a national insurance number were based in London, but the significance of London as the centre of migration has been gradually decreasing (Owen, Fihel and Green 2007: 2). Polish migrants began to choose other regions of the country as their destinations. While from 2005 to 2006, the number of applications submitted by Polish people in London amounted to 16% of the total number of the applications made by foreigners, in the East Midlands this number reached 36%, and in Northern England and Northern Ireland it reached 30% (Owen, Fihel and Green 2007: 2). This shifted the focus of attention from London to other areas in the UK where Polish minorities outnumbered other ethnic minorities.

The Polish community is the largest immigrant ethnic group in Northern Ireland, even surpassing the Chinese, the most numerous of the minorities during the 1990s (Svasek 2009). Currently, there are about 30,000 Polish nationals living and working in Northern Ireland, and approximately 8,000 of them live in Belfast (NISRA 2009). Polish migrants find themselves in a highly politicized part of Belfast, still marked by the history of Troubles where religion persists to be a powerful component of ethnic identity (Cairns 2000, Jenkins 1996). …

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