Beyond preconceived ideas on children of immigrants...

Interview with a young sociologist
Mathieu Ichou
  • Mathieu IchouMathieu Ichou

After a visitor scholarship at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, Mathieu Ichou passed successfully his PHD in 2014. He studied sociology at OSC Sciences Po, under the supervision of Agnès van Zanten. The young sociologist combines both traditional sociological method and adaptability to describe a debated multi-faceted reality. He's now research Fellow in the French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED). 

In your work you denounce the standard equation of immigration with social problem and education failure
"My thesis on the academic trajectories of children of immigrants attempts to debunk a certain number of prejudices or preconceived ideas on immigration. I think that the most important thing that I try to challenge is the idea that immigration is mainly a social problem.

Immigrants, children of immigrants and immigration in general, especially nowadays but it was the case also a few decades ago, is mostly talked about in the media and by politicians as a problem, something that is only visible as soon and as long as it creates a problem. This premise is not a good starting point in order to study immigration sociologically. In my work, I did not take as a starting point the fact that immigration is a problem and I think it enabled me to make progress on two fronts.

First, it enabled me to decouple children of immigrants and school failure. In fact, what we see in the data is that being a child of immigrants does not overwhelmingly lead to failing at school, or at least, it is not because your parents are immigrants that you are more likely to have lower school results. The vision that equates children of immigrants and school failure fails to see the large heterogeneity that exists within the so called “second generation”.

The second consequence is to show how important it is to consider the parents of these children not only after they have crossed national borders, arrived in France, and become visible here, but also before they migrated. The experiences of the parents and their social characteristics in their country of origin are essential elements to understand and explain the academic trajectories of their children in the country of destination, so in my case in France and in England."


To study trajectories of children of immigrants, are data easily available?
Mathieu Ichou"As it is well known, France forbids the collection of ethno-racial data to large extent. So, one might think that without directly measuring ethnicity it is extremely difficult to quantify the academic trajectories of children of immigrants. I would say that this is only half true because, with existing data, it is already possible to do quite a lot. Like most researchers in this field, the main measure that I have used is the country of birth of children’s parents. This is because I was mostly interested in the consequences of migration on the academic trajectory of children, rather than in the consequences of ethnicity or race per se. That said, I think that one important area of research that I have only been able to touch upon in my thesis and that would greatly benefit from the collection of proper ethnicity data is the study of discrimination in schools. Existing research shows that children of immigrants often feel that they are discriminated at school, especially when it comes to choosing which track of upper secondary school (lycée) they will go into. But very little is known on the exact extent of this discrimination and the stages of the academic trajectory when it takes place. The collection of data on ethnicity would be a big step towards answering these kinds of questions."


From Data to Interviews. You seem to balance between two approaches ? 
"In my thesis, I do use both quantitative data and qualitative data. I try to combine both and to make the most of each type of method. So for example, when I try to correlate the pre-migration characteristics of immigrants with their children’s educational attainment and to show an effect of one on the other I use mainly quantitative data and statistical methods. But when it comes to understanding how the processes by which, within families, educational aspirations are transmitted from the parents to the children, how they are internalized and modified by the children themselves and how it might affect their academic trajectory then I mostly rely on interviews that I have carried out with children of immigrants and immigrants in France and England."


Are educational trajectories significantly different in UK and in France ?
"My thesis is a comparison between France and England – I actually do not say Britain or UK because my data only covers England. Carrying out fieldwork in England was a great opportunity for me to actually stay in the country for a whole academic year where I was a “junior visiting scholar” at Nuffield College in Oxford and also an academic visitor through the OXPO program in the department of Sociology of the University.

I think when people do comparisons they often tend to insist on the differences and the main question people will ask is “what are the differences between England and France?” I think what my thesis shows is that the common elements are more important than the differences between the two countries.

Mathieu IchouThat is, I do not want to say that everything is similar in both countries, but I hope to have shown that the basic mechanisms of inequality, the processes by which academic inequalities are created in both countries are similar. These are the processes by which resources from parents are transmitted to their children and the parents who possess more resources often raise children who are more successful – this is true not only in immigrant families but also in the general population. The specificity of immigrant families is that resources that parents have are not only gained or defined in the country where the children are schooled but also in the country of origin of the parents. So, I think that common points between France and England are definitively more important than differences in that regard. But if I have to cite one salient difference between the two countries I would probably insist on differences in the school systems, especially on one difference that affects the academic trajectories of children of immigrants: in France, the provision of special education is carried out in entirely separated classes. When people have significant learning difficulties or difficulty with learning the French language, they are put in entirely separate classes and, in these classes, children of immigrants are over-represented. It is a form of internal segregation within the school system and statistics show that once a child has attended one of these classes, it is very difficult for him or her to go back to mainstream classes.

This is also true for example for the vocational track in upper secondary school: once you are channeled into this vocational track in which children of immigrants are also over-represented then it is very hard to go back to the mainstream academic track. In England, the approach is different. Any child that is diagnosed with special educational needs, whether learning difficulties or attention disorder or difficulties with speaking English, except in extreme cases, will remain in their normal mainstream class and will just benefit from extra resources; extra help, for example a part-time teacher who is specifically devoted to explaining them exercises at a slower pace, etc.
And again at the upper secondary school level, tracks are much more flexible than in France. It is possible for pupils to choose both vocational and academic subjects, to combine both. So that they are not entirely segregated into less prestigious, relegated tracks from which they can never get out. Generally speaking, the fact that the French system is a more stratified and hermetic is detrimental to the academic trajectories of children of immigrants. The fact that the English system is slightly more flexible is beneficial to them."


Indicative Bibliography

  • Ichou, Mathieu (2014), “Who They Were There: Immigrants’ Educational Selectivity and Their Children’s Educational Attainment,” European Sociological Review, vol. 30, n° 6, p. 750-765.
  • Ichou, Mathieu (2013), “Different origins and the origin of differences: the academic achievement of children of emigrants/immigrants in France from the start of primary school to the end of compulsory education,” Revue française de sociologie (English), vol. 54, n°1, p. 1-46.
  • Ichou, Mathieu (2015), « Les trajectoires scolaires des enfants d’immigrés », Cahiers français, n° 385, p. 43-48.

Interview : Bernard Corminboeuf & Bénédicte Héraud.