Visual metaphors, alive classificatory systems, and ethical research

by Nadia Hakim


Let’s think about a research project that lasted four and a half years, dealing with boundary construction processes –both symbolic and material– with young people in different contexts of their everyday lives.

I should add as a relevant piece of information that I am a sociologist who had the chance to meet and work with anthropologists and got dragged into their world. So… what has this overlap produced? I wasn’t sure until I was at a very advanced stage of my doctoral research that this personal trajectory, which can seem a very habitual one, actually became a central part of how I approached research and even my being-in-the-world.

During my dissertation I struggled with putting into words the underlying drive leading me to do the research I was doing. What was making me get up in the morning and go into this vocational school, talk to these professors and students, going to some of the young people’s homes and meet their parents and friends, and even attending church services?

Words didn’t come easy (yes, like the song). So, what about drawing it and stop approaching this need of concretion as a struggle? That meant relaxing, grabbing a big white sheet and some pens and stamps and see what happens. A year ago, Cheryl Ball suggested we composed a visual account that could then be interpreted as a visual metaphor of our ongoing research projects. Some things emerged during that cathartic process that was possible because we were sharing a space that allowed this openness as an academic activity.

The visual metaphor that emerged from this exercise has to do with how we as researchers can generate categories that allow us to think about what it means to be a subject, with some tools such as our gaze and the videos and the writing.

the gaze of the researcher


As researchers we are also classifiers while studying these processes, we label with our gaze.

the gaze of the researcher classifies

If we agree with this, research is then an act of responsibility. Responsibility for who? Above all, for the people we are doing research with, and also with ourselves as researchers, in the sense of dedicating our time and effort to principles we value and which make sense for us.

In my case, the expected thing would have been to simply assume that these young people I had been working with for several months back then were “young migrants”, young people with “special” ways being and doing because of their migrant experiences. But then, the uncomfortable questions would start arising by themselves, and overlooking those would be just dishonest. Who are the “migrants”, who the “locals” (or “autochtones” in my research context, Barcelona), and at what point in time do you stop being a migrant and become a sedentary person, a part of the here and the now, and maybe even the tomorrow of the contexts we all are engaged in?

Reflexivity poses another but related set of issues to add to the puzzle, and in this case the personal experience of having been categorized as a young migrant within different institutional and everyday life contexts (and yes, I’m most of all counting in university classrooms).

This visual metaphor is about how I intended to challenge the classifications used to define the people I work with through an anthropological lens, avoiding the classification system that is derived from a demographics approach (Paulle & Kali 2013 develop a critical perspective for the Dutch case), which is the one most commonly used in the field of migration studies and sometimes youth studies within sociology at least in Spain (e.g, Alarcón, Parella & Yiu, 2013; Cebolla Boado & Martínez de Lizarrondo, 2015; González-Rábago & Blanco, 2016).

I am not thinking just about the youngsters, but also the adults, who can be “parents”, “professors”, “facilitators”, or “preachers”. All of those making part of the research perform their own categorizations, with the tools available. But a careful observation of and participation in certain contexts of the everyday, where relevant interactions occur, shows us very quickly that we, researchers, are continuously performing certain categorizations that frame the people in our research with underlying values that influence the questions we ask, the methods we design and apply, and the conclusions we draw. This isn’t a new problem, but even if the foundations for questioning the preconceived objects of study have been set some time ago (Durkheim, 1982; Bourdieu, Chamboredon & Passeron, 1991), problems (meaning scientific problems) as “youths”, or “immigrant youth” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992: 200) are continuously being re-taken up (cf. García Borrego, 2003; Lefranc, 2010 for a critique).

the disconnetion between people and classification 3

the disconnection between people and classifications

From this viewpoint, it becomes not only relevant but fundamental to address the disconnection between the category and the subject, and address the fact that the categories currently used don’t have an empirical clear reference. This is a problem even for demographics-based research and social policy designing anyway –who are we designing this policy for? What are the consequences of using this particular criteria? I am not saying that we should aim for the perfect match, but a better correspondence between concepts and the people or processes they are involved in.

A more attuned connection

In making better classifications we are not avoiding the classifying part, but attempting to approach ethically the act of classifying, being with the people as a methodological decision, so that we can grasp the fact that the subject is not fixed in just one attribute (man, women, black, white, young) and that our gaze as researchers doesn’t define what they are, but is an empathic and ethical interpretation of what they can be in relation to other processes and relations.

This reflection is an entry point into thinking in methodologies as ethics and embracing this requires opening up disciplines such as sociology or demography to allow a practice-based cross pollination for questioning the tools that seem canonical but that are more plastic than we thought and that can be transformed to make our research more robust.

Entire drawing



Alarcón, A.; Parella, S. & Yiu, J. (2013) Educational and Occupational Ambitions among the Spanish ‘Second Generation’: The Case of Barcelona, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, DOI:10.1080/1369183X.2013.831550

Bourdieu, P.; Chamboredon, J.-C.; & Passeron, J.-C. (1991) The Craft of Sociology: Epistemologic preliminaries. New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Bourdieu, P. & Wacquant, L. (1992) An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cebolla Boado, H. & Martínez de Lizarrondo, A. (2015) “Las expectativas educativas de la población inmigrante en Navarra. ¿Optimismo inmigrante o efectos de escuela?”, Revista Internacional de Sociología, 73 (1), Doi:

Durkheim, É. (1982) The Rules of Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press.

García Borrego, I. (2003). Los hijos de inmigrantes extranjeros como objeto de estudio de la sociología. Anduli: revista andaluza de ciencias sociales, No. 3, 2003, 27-46.

González-Rábago, Y. & Blanco, C. (2016) Modes of engagement of immigrant with their home societies and measurements of engagement. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1369183X.2015.1090902

Lefranc, A. (2010) Unequal Opportunities and Ethnic Origin: The Labor Market Outcomes of Second-Generation Immigrants in France. American Behavioral Scientist, 53: 1851. DOI: 10.1177/0002764210368100

Paulle, B. & Kalli, B. (2013) The Integration Matrix Reloaded: From Ethnic Fixations to Established Versus Outsiders Dynamics in the Netherlands, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, DOI:10.1080/1369183X.2013.847783