T1-02: Ethnicity and inequality

5 September 2019, 16:00–17:30

Chair: Kurt Vandaele


Where nationalism and class formation meet

The production of ethno-migrant inequality at work

Hans Siebers, Tilburg University

On the one hand, nationalism is on the rise in many parts of Europe. As a movement that understands the world as parcelled out in nation-states that would exist side by side and would constitute the natural framework for social life in general and labour relations in particular (Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002), it fuels the ethnicization of migrants and migrant workers as the ethnic ‘others’ as well as the erection of boundaries towards them (Barth, 1969; Wimmer, 2013). This ethnicization of migrants not only takes place in radical right political movements (Rydgren, 2007), but is the unavoidable consequence of nationalism, whether in its current ethno-nationalist (Smith, 1986) or in its civic nationalist (Gellner, 1983) or multiculturalist (Modood, 2013) form.

On the other hand, the distribution of economic capital like jobs and pay is not just guided by rational economic mechanisms and regulations, but is very much influenced by class formation, indexed by social and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986). Cultural capital not only refers to one’s educational qualifications (Nohl el at., 2014), but also one’s capacity to create distinction regarding one’s personality and ‘tastes’ (Bourdieu, 1984; Garnett et al., 2008). The branding and profiling of one’s assumed personality or identity traits (Vallas and Christin, 2018) becomes a field of competition between workers. Assumed identity and personality traits, framed as ‘soft skills’ (Grugulis and Stoyanova, 2011), has become a field of HR intervention and labour control that decides upon one’s access to employment, salaries and promotion (Alvesson and Willmott, 2002).

Based on several case studies in the Dutch public sector, triangulating qualitative and quantitative data, I will show:

  1. That at least in part access to work and pay is decided by one’s success in profiling one’s performed (Goffman, 1959) personality of identity, as promoted by current HR discourses and policies.
  2. That migrants face an uphill battle when having to compete on such personality or identity profiling compared to non-migrants.
  3. That these disadvantages stem from nationalist othering discourses becoming operational in personality and identity assessments in application and performance assessment interviews.
  4. That such disadvantages constitute a major reason why migrants have less chances for being hired or being promoted.

HR practices of ‘competence management’, coaching, assessment trainings and soft skills training thus provide the mechanisms that allow nationalism to become operational at work.


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  • Gellner, E. (1983) Nations and Nationalism. Ithaka (NY): Cornell University Press.
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  • Grugulis, I., & Stoyanova, D. (2011) Skill and performance. British Journal of Industrial Relations, 49(3), 515-36.
  • Modood, T. (2013) Multiculturalism, second edition. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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  • Smith, A. D. (1986) The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: Blackwell.
  • Vallas, S.P., & Christin, A. (2018). Work and Identity in an Era of Precarious Employment: How Workers Respond to “Personal Branding” Discourse. Work and Occupations, 45(1), 3-37.
  • Wimmer, A. (2013) Ethnic Boundary Making. Institutions, Power, Networks. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Wimmer, A., and N. Glick Schiller (2002) Methodological Nationalism and Beyond: Nation-State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences. Global Networks, 2(4): 301-334.


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