A comeback

It’s been a while since my last blog post. I was afraid I had nothing much to report, that not much progress had been done with my research. It turns out that I only needed some time to clear out all the thoughts that I had gathered and all the materials that I put together. They’re mostly notes to be honest, thoughts on my ethnographic observations that I thought would never suffice to get anything going. But I’m starting to be more optimistic about this. At least I have to.

I completely understand now why people said the year abroad is a challenge, but this is not the time to expand on how your exchange can throw things at you that you never expected or how your research might be more difficult to pursue than you have imagined. I used to think of this blog as some place I had to share information, now I’m thinking about these posts as a way of putting my notes together and making some sense of them.

So here is my progress, which I will be following up with a series of blog posts summing up the major themes I have come across. Also some interviews will follow shortly with my follow-up on them.

The first focus group was extremely interesting. I had to start by giving a presentation on the role of ESN in collaborating with European stakeholders, in order to make it relevant to the meeting, so more of a workshop structure. It was held during the ESN UK National Platform in Cardiff. There were 3 other workshops held at the same time, so all participants had the right to choose their workshop. There were five people present during mine and I have to say I was very lucky to notice the variety of people who actually joined.

The questions I asked were very general, whether they feel the organisation fosters a European identity, what are their thoughts regarding this concept, what has to be done to increase the feeling of “Europeanness” among youth. The answers were far from general and actually tackling very different points on this concept.

So the person who actually broke the ice during the focus group was this boy who said he is technically not European, he is actually Nigerian, but has moved to the United Kingdom a while ago, so that him joining ESN was actually an attempt to feel more integrated, even if he has not been on exchange thus far. He actually stated that he joined in order to feel more European. He seemed to be saying those things in an awfully shy manner, although he did not strike me as a shy person overall and the points he was making were actually going beyond the formal general question that I addressed, so quite a lot of courage was implied by his first statement. As for the follow-up on the other questions, he seemed to be a bit reluctant, he said he’s there to find those things out for himself as well so he can’t go too much into detail.

The second person went on continuing the issue of national identity and sharing with the group that his parents are actually of different national identities – British and Austrian, that he speaks both languages and is himself looking into youth exchanges and mobility as a means of promoting a more integrated Europe. He seemed to be very positive around the idea of European identity, that it does happen, but it’s only a recent product, that it’s somehow some identity to be built in the future as new generations (“generations will change”) of people like himself or some of the rest of us, who see ourselves living and working in different places than the ones we were born, who might have parents of different nationalities, who speak several languages and are mobile emerge. He seemed to be very confident in his belief that this was the key point in forming a European identity and that this would definitely happen in the future.

The third person was of German nationality, but based in the UK and was actually very much inclined to disagree with the former. Although she believed in the values pointed out by the first person, she said that the “frightening movements” happening in Europe at the moment are only signs of the situation getting worse and yes, mobility is needed, but we still have a long way to go. Her attitude towards it was neither shy, nor firm, she seemed to be someone who changed her mind a few times about the topic and who had recently formed a more negative stance on the situation but somehow still hopes for the best.

The other 2 people quite shied away of the discussion for a while, with the other three mostly dominating the discussion, but my efforts to bring them into the debate actually pointed out a very interesting fact – the 2 participants were British, had been on exchange, but did not feel particularly European. They felt “British”, something that has often occurred in my conversations with British ESNers regarding identity. It is more often that you encounter that, at least in ESN, with British people. One of them said: “When I go on vacation, I go to Europe. That’s how I’m used to say it. I know Britain is in Europe, but somehow I don’t feel European. I feel British and I felt even more so when I was abroad.” It was very difficult to get him to expand on this. The points he made were quite clear-cut, it almost felt as he himself is a bit surprised with how he feels, but that is just a given that he cannot change somehow.

The conclusion of this focus group was that people’s first reactions to the question of European identity is to firstly relate it somehow to their own national identity, which made them reveal things about themselves I was not planning on asking. Furthermore, the question of being European is mostly looking into the future, not necessarily into a common past, as none of the points made were referring to any kind of common heritage, but mostly to new generations, current movements, continuing to increase mobility etc. Moreover, the rise of social and political movements is another topic that comes to mind in discussing the question. And lastly, that national identity and the country’s fondness of Europe might impact European identity in some way. I’ve also read a very interesting study on this conducted on Erasmus students coming to the UK and UK students going to other European countries on exchange, with the result that the former tended to feel less European than the latter after their exchange.

Which is why “self-identity” in general will be further pursued in my next blog post.

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