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Lost between Cultures? Emotional Ambivalences in First Name Giving Practices of Migrants

Subproject in the context of the new Collaborative Research Center (SFB): “Affective Societies – Dynamics of Sociality in a World in Motion”

Project Coordinator

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Gerhards

Project Researchers

Julia Tuppat M.Sc.

Daniel Drewski M.A.

Theoretical Frame

First names are part of our social identity. They indicate our belonging to social groups, designate membership boundaries symbolically and thus define relationships of inclusion and exclusion. Due to processes of stereotyping, we therefore do not only often associate a specific gender, social class or generational belonging with a given first name; we also link a particular national or ethnic affiliation to it, without knowing the person in question. This classification then influences our interaction with this person which, in turn, affects his or her identity.

Persons who migrate to another country and have children there are often confronted with an emotional dilemma when choosing a first name for their new-born. If they select a name which is common in their country of origin, this can express an emotional bond to that country. At the same, though, it might lead to the child’s discrimination due to the name’s foreignness and existing stereotypes. This can lead to emotional strains. If they instead select a name which is common in the host society, this can signify an emotional bond to the host country and, thus, help to avoid discrimination. However, this choice might lead to exclusion from their own group of origin, as well as to feelings of alienation towards their own children.

Research Question

Based on the example of first name giving, we analyse the emotional conflicts involved in processes of disembedding and relocating migrants. The following questions play an important role: Which first names are given by migrants of a different cultural origin who came to Germany? Which factors influence the parents’ decision? Which role do affective ties with the country of origin, feelings of exclusion or, respectively, of acceptance within the host society play? Do different migrant groups vary in this respect? And how do migrants try to master these dilemmas?

Empirical Implementation

We will answer these questions via a combination of two different methodological approaches. First, we will analyse data from the Socio-Economic panel (SOEP), especially the migrant sample of 2013. We will assign the first names of children with a migration background from different countries of origin, who are born in Germany, to different categories (first names that are typical in the country of origin vs. first names common in the host country vs. hybrid first names vs. first names that are neither common in the host country, nor in the country of origin, but are typical for another country). We will then analyse which factors influence the choice of first names. Quantitative analyses only shed little light, however, on concrete motives, negotiation processes and emotional dilemmas some families are faced with when choosing a first name for their child. Therefore, we will secondly conduct semi-structured interviews with about 40 families, in order to reconstruct processes of negotiation, belonging, distinction and possible personal and intra-familial conflicts. The close interrelatedness between both methodological approaches is of particular importance. On the one hand, the selection of families to be interviewed will be based on those criteria which show up as relevant in the quantitative analysis and will be drawn from the SOEP sample. On the other hand, we will also analyse whether and how the quantitative results need to be interpreted alternatively when taking the qualitative findings into account.

Relevant Literature

Gerhards, J.; Hans, S. (2009). From Hasan to Herbert: Name Giving Patterns of Immigrant Parents between Acculturation and Ethnic Maintenance. In: American Journal of Sociology 114 (4): 1102-1128.

Gerhards, J. (2005): The Name Game. Cultural Modernization and First Names. New Brunswick, London: Transaction Publishers.

Khosravi, S. (2012): White Masks/Muslim Names: Immigrants and Name-Changing in Sweden. In: Race & Class 53 (3): 65-80.

Lieberson, S.; Bell E. (1992): Children’s First Names. An Empirical Study of Social Taste. In: American Journal of Sociology 98: 511-554.

Lieberson, S.; Mikelson, K. (1995): Distinctive African American Names: An Experimental, Historical, and Linguistic Analysis of Innovation. In: American Sociological Review 60: 928-946.

Sue, C.; Telles, E. (2007): Assimilation and Gender in Naming. In: American Journal of Sociology 112 (5): 1383-1415.

Publications within this project

Tuppat, Julia & Jürgen Gerhards (2021): Immigrants’ First Names and Perceived Discrimination: A Contribution to Understanding the Integration Paradox. European Sociological Review 37(1): 121-135.

Gerhards, Jürgen & Julia Tuppat (2020): “Boundary-Maintenance” or “Boundary-Crossing”? Name-Giving Practices among Immigrants in Germany. Names.Online first.

Gerhards, Jürgen & Julia Tuppat (2020): Gendered Pathways to Integration: Why Immigrants’ Naming Practices Differ by the Child’s Gender. Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 72: 597-625.

Gerhards, Jürgen & Florian Buchmayr (2019): Die Wahrnehmung symbolischer Grenzen und die Strategien von Grenzarbeit. Beitrag zur Ad Hoc Gruppe „Belonging and symbolic boundaries in the perception of immigrants”, In Komplexe Dynamiken globaler und lokaler Entwicklungen. Verhandlungen des 39. Kongresses der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie in Göttingen 2018, edited by Nicole Burzan (Online-Publikation).

Gerhards, Jürgen & Florian Buchmayr (2018): Soziale Kontexte und Diskriminierungserfahrungen von MigrantInnen. Ergebnisse einer qualitativen Studie [Social Contexts and Migrants' Experiences of Discrimination. Results from a Qualitative Study]. Soziale Welt 69(4): 379-405.

Gerhards, Jürgen & Florian Buchmayr (2018): Unterschiede zwischen der ersten und zweiten Generation von Migrantinnen in der Wahrnehmung symbolischer Grenzen und in den Strategien ihrer Grenzarbeit [Differences between First and Second Generation Migrants' in Interpreting Symbolic Boundaries and in their Boundary Work]. Berliner Journal für Soziologie 28(3). Online First.

Gerhards, Jürgen & Christian von Scheve (2018): Simmels Theorie der Emotionen. Pp. 815-827 in Simmel-Handbuch. Begriffe, Hauptwerke, Aktualität, edited by Hans-Peter Müller & Tilman Reitz. Berlin: Suhrkamp.

Gerhards, Jürgen & Julia Tuppat (2018): „Boundary Maintenance” oder “Boundary Crossing”? Symbolische Grenzarbeit bei der Vornamenvergabe bei Migrantinnen [„Boundary Maintenance” or “Boundary Crossing”? Migrants’ Symbolic Boundary Work When Giving First Names]. Working Paper SFB 1171 Affective Societies 02/18.

Gerhards, Jürgen & Sylvia Kämpfer (2017): Navigieren zwischen symbolischen Grenzen - Eine Typologisierung der Grenzarbeit von Migrantinnen und Migranten am Beispiel des Umgangs mit Vornamen [Navigating between Symbolic Boundaries - A Typology of Migrants' Boundary Work by their Way of Handling with First Names]. Working Paper SFB 1171 Affective Societies 02/17.

Gerhards, Jürgen & Sylvia Kämpfer (2017): Symbolische Grenzen und die Grenzarbeit von Migrantinnen und Migranten [Symbolic Boundaries and Migrants‘ Boundary Work]. Zeitschrift für Soziologie 46(5): 303-325.