(Re)Constructing Ethnic Identity among Migrants and Their Descendants: Cutting through Generations

AHA Session 271
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Dartmouth Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Russell A. Kazal, University of Toronto
The Audience

Session Abstract

How are ethnic identities in different locations and national contexts through time (re)constructed? This panel analyzes transnational ethnic identities in the 20th century that evolved in multicultural urban, suburban and rural spaces, and describes the factors which influenced the adaptation, changes and continuities of ethnic identities. Italian Americans in the United States, Polish Canadians in Toronto and Montreal, and Austrian women in Britain are at the heart of the panel. A particular focus lies on the generational ebbs and flows of claiming and rejecting Italianness, Polishness and Austrianness among migrants, their children and grandchildren in the diaspora. The purpose of this panel is to contribute to the insights into migration/transnational research in history and in the social sciences. This panel offers valuable clues to the long term consequences of migration and what that means for the identity constructions of the descendants. By discussing several consecutive generations of immigrants and their descendants, questions of assimilation are raised – something that is called for in debates among historians and sociologists within migration studies (Kazal 1995, Morawska 1994, Gjerde 1999). Yet by presenting the papers within the framework of transnationalism, and considering three different national contexts – the United States, Canada and Britain –, the panelists do not walk into the trap of the ‘immigration paradigm’ of American history. This paradigm declares that all immigrants over time eventually become completely American (Gabaccia 1997). It is the accounts of the different ethnic agents that make the complex realities and multiple possibilities of ethnic identifications transparent. Hence not only assimilationist tendencies of groups, but also the continuation of ethnic identities are debated. Additionally, the panelists make their arguments from a gender perspective, a social category which in mainstream migration research is often marginalized. From debating within this multifold framework, the panel provides answers to questions of migration, gender, and ethnic identity over time. One paper examines – based on oral history interviews – familial memories of descendants of Italian immigrants to the United States and how these memories shaped individual and collective ethnic identity constructions. The examination of three generations of different social backgrounds reveal how class, gender, and locality influenced the creation of memory and hence ethnic identity. Another paper discusses how national and international historical events formed the way in which Polish Canadians defined themselves: It was the Cold War, Quebec nationalism in the 1960s and multiculturalism that Canada applied as state policy in the 1970’s. In this paper it is youth publications from which insight into the ethnic self-awareness is derived. The third paper reflects on how diet and customs became basic instruments with which Austrian women and their daughters and granddaughters (re)established and maintained an Austrian identity in Britain. The panelist, who conducted oral history interviews, emphasizes how Austrian life was invoked in the private sphere. The panel members are interested in an active engagement with the audience. Audience members who would like to discuss the topics of ethnic identity, migration, and memory from a transnational and interdisciplinary perspective are welcome.

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