At Home in the City? The Persistence of the Ethnic Lens in Everyday Urban Encounters

This is part of our special feature on Forced Migration, Displacement, and the Liberal Arts.


Between 2013 and 2017, as a researcher in the ERC-funded project TRANSFORmIG led by Magdalena Nowicka at Humboldt University Berlin, I studied Polish migration to London, Birmingham, Berlin, and Munich after the 2004 EU enlargement. Our team investigated how Poles, coming from cities that are largely homogenous in terms of ethnicity and religion, make sense of and come to terms with the much greater diversity they encounter in the British and German cities in which they now live.[1] How, if at all, do they make themselves at home there? As the migration flows to the UK and Germany are urban-centric, we focused our research on the largest cities. Specifically, we explored how different local migration regimes, migrant (and other) infrastructures, and urban economies shape migrants’ experiences and how migrants navigate them.[2] Within the TRANSFORmIG framework, I conducted a study titled Immigrant Mothers As Agents of Change, in which I inquired into Polish migrants’ everyday mothering practices and the discourses and norms that shape them. I investigated how migrant women do mothering locally and transnationally, how they navigate various ethnicized, classed, and gendered ideologies of motherhood[3] and how the negotiations of migrant mothering are informed by class, ethnicity, gender, and specific urban contexts.[4] Recognizing the many complexities inherent to migrants’ encounters with diversity in urban and transnational space and the meanings migrants assign to them,[5] I chose a mixed-method approach in order to generate not more, but various kinds of data. The methods I worked with included semi-structured and narrative interviews, participant observation, creative methods accompanied by image elicitation, and focus group interviews. The people I spoke to represented a wide range of social classes and professions, from corporate managers through freelance translators to cleaners; all of them identified as Polish, women, and mothers, and most of them were—like me—in their 30s at the time of the interviews, i.e., they grew up in the final years of state socialism, came of age during the turbo-capitalist 1990s,[6] and have been living in their new place of residence for less than a decade. Although I do not ascribe to the insider/outsider dichotomy in migration research,[7] I did find my “Polish socialization” and my own migration and mothering experiences helpful during data collection and analysis. I recognize that ethnicity/nationality remains relevant for my research participants in how they describe various situations and their positions therein, but I do not apply it as an analytical category in my work.

In my analysis of migrants’ sense of belonging, I apply a translocational lens, building up on the work of Floya Anthias.[8] Our social location, Anthias argues, is embedded in relations of hierarchy within multiple landscapes of power. The translocational lens, rooted in intersectionality, recognizes the importance of social contexts and shifting locales. Within this framework, difference and inequality, are conceptualized as sets of processes and not characteristics attached to certain individuals.[9] My engagement with translocational positionality is informed by critiques of the ethnic lens in migration research.[10] Rather than taking for granted the ethnic categories people use to make sense of their daily experiences, I am interested to see how the differences they identify as relevant are translated into ethnic and other migration-related categories. In our recent paper titled “Tacit differences, ethnicity and neoliberalism: Polish migrant mothers in German cities” (2018), Magdalena Nowicka and I argue that what Polish migrant mothers distinguish as “typically Polish” or “typically German” is not necessarily connected to some ethnically specific ways of doing things or being in the world, but, rather, significantly structured by locally specific forms of neoliberalism in which they had been socialized (in this case, “market radical” neoliberalism in post-1989 Poland as opposed to “embedded neoliberalism” in (West) Germany[11]).

Without dismissing the importance of ethnic categories in the production and reproduction of xenophobia, racism, social exclusion, and systemic violence,[12] I now move on to discuss how the persistence of the ethnic lens in migrants’ understanding of their experiences tends to obscure other important power dynamics at play and reinforces their position as “the other” in the host society. In this short contribution, I will focus on the aspects of my research related to the meanings attached to migrants’ homes. This emphasis emerges from the observation that despite the thrilling diversity of locations cities offer, urbanites actually tend to spend much time in only few of them. As a place that fulfills multiple functions, be it out of necessity or individual preferences, home is to many urbanites, in particular those with caring responsibilities and limited financial resources, the epicenter of their lives. Most of the people I interviewed in British and German cities move routinely between very few locations in the city: their home, their workplace (if they work outside of home), their children’s school or kindergarten, and a few other types of places, whereby home is the place that seems to hold most functions.


Porous Homes

One recurrent motif throughout the interviews I conducted, regardless of the participants’ class and type of housing, is that the sounds produced in migrants’ homes are interpreted as invasive by their neighbors, which sometimes leads to conflict and more often to self-policing. One day, as a Polish mother living in Munich (I will call her Monika) was listening to music on the local radio in her newly rented apartment, a neighbor knocked on her door complaining about the noise. Monika was surprised at this intervention, as the volume did not seem excessive to her at all. In our interview, Monika explained this exaggerated (to her mind) reaction partially with what she considered to be the neighbor’s old age, but mostly saw it as a confirmation of a wide-spread stereotype about Germans’ “natural” need for order summed up in the phrase Ordnung muss sein (the order must prevail). The incident proved formative to how Monika has been using her apartment and the behavior she expects of others who inhabit it, even if only temporarily. The incident also came up in the interview I conducted with Monika’s mother (I will call her Aneta) who lives permanently in Warsaw. Aneta was struck by how strictly the quiet time in Munich was obeyed. When she visited her daughter in the Bavarian capital, Monika told her not to turn on the radio in the kitchen “under any circumstances,” as that may “bother the neighbor.” Monika’s kitchen was not wall-to-wall to the neighbor’s apartment, but separated by a hallway, so Aneta was surprised that the sound of the radio may be disturbing, but followed her daughter’s instructions. As she later explained, “it’s not like in Poland” where she would speak directly to her neighbors if she felt disturbed by the sounds coming from their apartment. In Munich, as Monika warned her, “there is no knocking on the door, they call the police right away.” Aneta was quick to assure me that no neighbor had ever called the police on Monika for being too loud “because she’s policing herself.” Well-aware of the persistent reputation of Polish (and many other) migrants as unruly, Monika does not want to give her neighbors any reasons to complain. She stays quiet at home to make sure none of the migrant substance leaks through the walls of her apartment.

Clearly, when we compare Monika’s and Aneta’s accounts of what happened, the story does not hold together: it was, in fact, Monika’s neighbor who complained to her directly about the noise, she didn’t call the police. The alleged rules Monika explained to her mother seem exaggerated and based on hearsay rather than her own experience with the neighbors. What we also see here is how a one-off experience is transformed into a general rule. As another Polish mother living in Munich recalls:

one day a lady knocked on our door to tell me that I close the windows too loudly. A lady living in a building adjacent to ours. She said [the noise] was very common, that it happened all the time. My [German] husband had also reprimanded me, he kept reminding me to close the windows more quietly, but I was shocked that someone from a different building would feel compelled to come to our building, find me, knock on the door, and make a complaint. It still baffles me that Germans have this need to inform.

As one Polish mother living in Berlin quipped repeatedly in the course of our interview: “Germans will be Germans.” This fatalistic approach, seeped in historical and pop cultural references,[13] not only reproduces stereotypes about Germans, but also reproduces migrant identities as substantially different from those marked as German (whereby “German” irrevocably means white German in the interviews I have conducted). There is a striking difference in how migrant mothers describe mundane conflicts in German cities and those in Polish cities: in Poland, annoying neighbors are just that, annoying neighbors (if they are distinguished in any way it is usually by their life stage, e.g., students, retirees, parents of small children); in migrants’ new places of residence annoying neighbors are seen through the ethnic lens, their actions instantly generalized. And it’s not just Germans that are singled out, but other ethnic groups too, as this statement from another Polish mother living in Berlin demonstrates:

We are very quiet, but before [we moved here] I used to live with my girlfriends and so my life looked very different than it does now that I have a family. … Here everyone informs on you. In [the other neighborhood] where we lived, no one cared: it was a Multikulti mix, no one ever called the police. They’d rather knock on the radiator [to let you know you’re being too loud] or knock on the door to tell you what the problem was. So [that other neighborhood] is more similar to Poland in this regard.

While neighbors identified as German seem annoying with their perceived exaggerated attachment to rules, other migrant neighbors appear more humane, more “like us;” both are seen through the ethnic lens. Paradoxically, a district of Berlin described as multicultural is likened to an ethnically homogenous housing estate in a Polish city because of the perceived disregard for strict rules and reliance on direct, even if sometimes aggressive action.

Anthias’s notion of translocational positionality paired up with a close consideration of tacit differences helps us unpack these situations in that it points to how power hierarchies are shaped by the ethnic lens. As one migrant mother in Munich remarked: “we’re not in our backyard, we have to adjust.” Although “other” migrants, those credited with constituting the Multikulti mix, are perceived as equally disadvantaged vis-à-vis their German neighbors, not infrequently Poles position themselves above other minorities, particularly those they identify as non-Christian and non-white.[14] What counts as sound and what counts as noise is highly subjective and strongly classed, gendered, racialized.[15] When tacit differences are interpreted through the ethnic lens, what happens in the process is stereotyping (and self-stereotyping), which can, in turn, reinforce the increasingly popular essentialist narratives (especially the anti-migrant ones). Another danger resulting from brushing off certain behaviors as “typically German” is that the ethnic lens blocks one’s view of the structural and legal issues at play. Among the migrant mothers I interviewed, those who are well informed about their rights as tenants (and possess the cultural and social capital to demand they be respected) are less worried about their neighbors’ interventions and feel more at home in their apartments.


Sticky Homes

Both in Germany and the UK there is a pervasive stereotype that migrant women do not “integrate properly” because they spend too much time at home. While white middle-class stay-at-home moms are celebrated (and celebrate themselves), minoritized migrant mothers who stay at home are rarely referred to with this hyphenated adjective – unless they are expats, that is. Migrant mothers are not stay-at-home moms, they are mothers who stay at home; their apparent domesticity is pathologized and dismissed, they are addressees of special programs aimed at professional activization of women, particularly if they are Muslims living in Europe.[16] The common narrative is that they are not trying hard enough to integrate, to mix in with the host society. Looking carefully at what actually happens in migrants’ homes helps us dismiss many of these misconceptions. Following up on the groundbreaking work done by Umut Erel, Tracey Reynolds, and Erene Kaptani[17] on migrant mothering as acts of citizenship and looking carefully into the strategies and tactics migrant mothers employ at home, gives an insight into the workings of patriarchy and neoliberal austerity policies (two forces that reinforce each other) in transnational contexts. Why does home remain, in fact, the epicenter of some migrant mothers’ lives? And how is the gendered division of labor in migrants’ homes ethnicized?

To state the obvious: some people spend a lot of time at home because they choose to. For many mothers of small children, including migrant mothers, it is not always choice, however, that determines the centrality of home in their lives, but lacking infrastructures and limited access to resources. The cost of childcare is prohibitive to many, especially in London and Birmingham, and early childcare availability is limited, especially in Munich and, increasingly, in Berlin. Because of persistent gender pay gap, it is primarily women (in families run by heterosexual couples) who stay at home—a difficult calculation many of my interviewees discussed. In low-income working-class families, staying at home is not always an option so parents take turns at working shifts and childcare responsibilities. The amount of time spent with children at home depends also on local infrastructures: while mothers living in Berlin and Munich praise the abundance of playgrounds and parks across the city, those living in London and Birmingham note that children-related infrastructures are developed unequally throughout the city: those living in low-income neighborhoods find recreational infrastructures for their children lacking and they cannot always afford traveling to the neighborhoods with well-maintained playgrounds and parks.[18]

Formed during the industrial revolution and solidified under Fordism in the West, the separation of the places of productive labor (factories and offices) from the places of reproductive labor (private homes) collapsed under neoliberalism, its borders became porous.[19] Under neoliberalism, home serves not only as a place of care and housework, but also a location of other types of work—work on yourself (in various forms, ranging from studying to the ever-more popular practices associated with mindfulness), work on your body (workout), work for your employers (also known as home office) or provision of services (classes taught at home, other services administered at or from home). For many mothers I interviewed, home was the place where they spent most time not only because of their childcare responsibilities and housework (though that certainly was the case for many of them), but also because they engaged in paid work from home: as a tattoo artist, a language teacher, a blogger, a child minder, a translator, an eBay entrepreneur, etc. With the increase of precarious and flexible working arrangements, home doubles as an office, a practice, a nursery, or a store. While the precarization and blurring of work-life boundaries is hardly unique to migrants,[20] the translocational lens helps us acknowledge the complex power hierarchies migrant women find themselves in and how they navigate them. Migration can also disrupt or highlight the gender dynamics of the relationships that play out at home:

On weekends I always miss seeing my family and friends [in Poland], and a moment of break from my daughter and some time for myself. But I don’t even speak up about it, it’s her dad who complains all the time … Generally, [my daughter]’s dad would like to rest on the weekend and it’s difficult to talk him into doing anything. I think this approach is rather typical of Polish men/fathers (though there are exceptions, of course) and it hits us especially hard, “here in exile” (na emigracji), when we see English hands-on fathers all around or men from other countries, like Germany, who are very involved in childrearing and housework.

The author of this diary entry is a Polish mother living in a middle-class neighborhood in the London suburbs. She works as a freelancer, often from home, while her husband works in The City. As she acknowledges the unequal gendered division of labor in her household, she explains it with gender traits she associates with particular nationalities or ethnicities: Polish men are less keen on doing housework and care work than British and German men. She feels doubly alienated as a migrant mother: because her family and friends are in a different country and because her husband does not contribute enough to housework and care work. The ethnic lens employed here is, again, a fatalistic gesture: just like “Germans will be Germans” about their neighborhood rules, Polish men will be Polish men about not getting involved in housework. Attributing the problem to a particular nationality or ethnicity obscures the workings of patriarchy in this particular relationship and beyond.



Many migrants I spoke to during my research considered the places they currently inhabit their adopted homes and showed no intention of leaving, but they also acknowledged the precarious nature of their sense of belonging. As white EU migrants, Poles enjoy a wide range of rights and freedoms in Germany and the UK, but they are hardly immune to xenophobia and various structural and mundane forms of exclusion. As I was trying to demonstrate in this brief contribution, there is a tension between the pressure to contain the migrant substance within the four walls of home and the stigma attached to migrants for staying at home. Migrants’ sense of belonging, their—our—notion of home, is partially shaped by negotiations of these and other contradictions, and it is as much of a process as the place—be it a city, a street, or a house—where they live. The ethnic lens is an unreliable signpost in making sense of home as it reinforces essentialist notions of place. Rather, in conclusion, I propose to turn to Doreen Massey’s powerful plea to rethink our sense of place as progressive: “not self-enclosing and defensive, but outward-looking”.[21]


Agata Lisiak is Professor of Migration Studies and Academic Director of the Internship Program at Bard College Berlin. Agata works at the intersections of migration studies, urban sociology, visual cultures, and gender studies, and has published on migrant mothering, urban girlhood, walking in the city, Taiwanese cinema, Polish hip hop, cultural memory in post-socialist cities, and invisible femininities, among many other topics. Together with Elena Vacchelli, Agata is co-founder of migART: a platform showcasing activist, research, and teaching projects that creatively and collaboratively engage with migration.



Anthias, Floya. “Translocational belonging, identity and generation: questions and problems in migration and ethnic studies.” Finnish Journal of Ethnicity and Migration 4, no. 1 (2009): 6–16.

Anthias, Floya. “Intersectional what? Social divisions, intersectionality and levels of analysis.” Ethnicities 13, no. 1 (2013): 3–19.

Bhattacharya, Tithi, ed. Social Reproduction Theory: Remapping Class, Recentering Oppression. London: Pluto Press, 2017.

Bohle, Dorothee. Neoliberal Hegemony, Transnational Capital and the Terms of the EU’s Eastward Expansion. Capital & Class 30.1 (2006): 57–86.

Bull, Michael and Les Back. “Into Sound … Once More with Feeling.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Ed. Michael Bull and Les Back. London: Bloomsbury, 2016. 1-20.

Erel, Umut, Tracey Reynolds and Erene Kaptani. “Migrant mothers’ creative interventions into racialized citizenship.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 41, no. 1 (2018): 55-72.

Garcia, Luis-Manuel. “At Home, I’m a Tourist: Musical Migration and Affective Citizenship in Berlin.” Journal of Urban Cultural Studies 2, no. 1+2 (2015): 121–34.

Komlosy, Andrea. Work: The Last 1000 Years. Trans. Lore Balhorn and Jacob K. Watson. London: Verso, 2018.

Lisiak, Agata. “Mothering and othering in the city: Polish migrants in the UK.” Families, Relationships and Societies 7, no. 3 (2018a): 383-397.

Lisiak, Agata. “A sense of disorder: Urban orientations and migration.” Cities of the South/Cities of the North. Eds. Kerry Bystrom, Ashleigh Harris, and Andrew Webber. London: Routledge, 2018b. 199-215.

Lisiak, Agata. “other mothers: encountering in/visible femininities in migration and urban contexts.” Feminist Review 117, no. 1 (2017): 41-55.

Lisiak, Agata and Łukasz Krzyżowski. “With a Little Help From My Colleagues: Notes on Emotional Support in a Qualitative Longitudinal Research Project.” Emotion and the Researcher: Sites, Subjectivities and Relationships. Ed. Dawn Mannay and Tracey Loughran. Emerald Books, 2018. 33-47.

Lisiak, Agata and Magdalena Nowicka. “Tacit differences, ethnicity and neoliberalism: Polish migrant mothers in German cities.” Gender, Place and Culture 28.6 (2018): 899-915.

Lisiak, Agata. Fieldwork and fashion: gendered and classed performances in research sites. Forum: Qualitative Social Research 16.2 (2015). Available at: [last accessed 17 February 2019].

Majewska, Ewa and Jan Sowa, eds. Zniewolony Umysł 2: Neoliberalizm i Jego Krytyki [The Captive Mind 2: Neo-liberalism and Its Critics]. Krakow: Korporacja ha-art, 2007.

Massey, Doreen. Space, Place, and Gender. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1994.

Nowicka, Magdalena and Łukasz Krzyżowski. “The Social Distance of Poles to Other Minorities: A Study of Four Cities in Germany and Britain.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43, no. 3 (2016): 359-378.

Nowicka, Magdalena and Louise Ryan. Beyond insiders and outsiders in migration research: rejecting a priori commonalities. Forum: Qualitative Social Research 16.2 (2015). Available at: http:// [last accessed 17 February 2019].

Weeks, Kathi. The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Wimmer, Andreas, and Nina Glick Schiller. “Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences.” Global Networks 2, no. 4 (2002): 301–334.

[1] Lisiak and Nowicka 2017; Nowicka and Krzyżowski 2016.

[2] For more on the comparative aspects of the research project please see, e.g., Nowicka and Krzyżowski 2016; Lisiak and Nowicka 2017; Lisiak, 2018a; Lisiak 2017.

[3] Lisiak 2017.

[4] Lisiak, 2018a.

[5] Lisiak 2018b.

[6] Majewska and Sowa, 2007.

[7] Lisiak, 2015; Nowicka and Ryan, 2015.

[8] Antias 2009, 2013.

[9] Anthias 2013.

[10] Wimmer and Glick-Schiller 2002.

[11] Bohle, 2006, 57.

[12] Lisiak and Nowicka 2017; Lisiak 2018b.

[13] Lisiak 2018b.

[14] Lisiak 2017, 2018a, 2018b; Lisiak and Krzyżowski 2018.

[15] Bull and Back 2016.

[16] Farris 2017.

[17]; see also Erel, Reynolds and Kaptani 2018.

[18] Lisiak 2018a.

[19] Bhattacharya 2017; Komlosy 2018.

[20] Weeks 2011.

[21] Massey 1994: 147.


Photo: Polish immigrant mothers’ drawings about their experience living in Birmingham
Published on March 5, 2019.


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