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Missing the Bigger Picture

More life course research and European comparisons are needed about immigrant and ethnic minority families
Copyright: lassedesignen

Immigrants and their children and grandchildren form a significant part of the population in many European countries. But only over the last decade has research begun to show increasing interest in understanding the patterns of union formation and childbearing behaviour of ethnic minorities. Further research is needed to gain a better understanding of the connection between family life and integration. Hill Kulu and Amparo González-Ferrer reviewed the existing literature and proposed four areas where to focus.

The authors explored studies on union formation among immigrants and their descendants, with a special focus on trends related to formation and dissolution of marriages, as well as studies on childbearing. The reviewed articles have been published in the main international journals of demography, population and migration studies between 2000 and 2013, and focus solely on Europe. Drawing on this review the authors emphasize key aspects which have been neglected so far in the literature, and which can be studied with data and methods at hand.


One life-event-at-a-time

First, studies on family changes among immigrants and their descendants over their life courses (or a significant part of them) are needed. While life course research has a long tradition in social science research, studies on immigrants and their descendants have focused on only one transition at a time. It is critical to go beyond the ‘one life-event-at-a-time’ approach and to study several transitions simultaneously (and the sequence of various transitions, if applicable); this enables researchers to create a ‘holistic’ picture of the family lives of immigrants and their descendants.

Second, it is important to conduct more research on family trajectories among the descendants of immigrants, whose share has significantly increased in the last decade. While the ‘forces’ of origin, destination and ‘in-between’ interact in shaping immigrant family and fertility patterns, it is critical to understand what happens to the descendants of immigrants in the European context. How much does their success or failure reflect the migration context of their parents (‘labour migrants’), and how much is it influenced by the institutional and policy settings of various European countries?


Alternative modes of family behaviour

Third, alternative modes of family behaviour need to be considered and explicitly included in analyses for several reasons: first, to avoid a bias in the results, and second, to improve our understanding of ethnic minority integration. Regarding the former issue, the practice of cohabitation and bringing spouses from the country of origin are of particular interest. For example, recent studies have shown that cohabitation with a native Spanish partner is a common practice among Latin American female immigrants in Spain, and is associated with lower rather than higher educational levels. At the same time, the analyses of intermarriage between native Spaniards and immigrants show that the chances of having a partner from another country are higher for women and educated individuals, and lower for Latin Americans.

Fourth, we should promote more comparative research on family trajectories among immigrants and ethnic minorities both across groups and across countries. Previous research on migrant families has examined migrants and ethnic minorities primarily in one or two countries at maximum; we lack truly comparative research on migrant and ethnic minority families in Europe that takes various institutional and policy contexts into account. By exploiting the unique opportunity Europe offers, we could examine how socio-economic, institutional and policy settings shape family lives of immigrants and their descendants. Existing studies on fertility and union formation of women with Turkish origin in seven European countries are a good start; these studies also provide a good example of how to pool data from different countries and conduct comparative studies.


Going further

But according to the authors it is important to go further, and carefully specify and test the hypotheses on the effects of welfare state context or even more, develop ‘middle range theories’ on how institutional and policy settings shape family lives of immigrants and their descendants. The measurement of the cultural and structural integration of immigrants and their descendants is an important task, but becomes meaningful only if it is set in a wider welfare state context.


This PopDigest is also available in French, Spanish and German.


*This PopDigest has received funding from the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° 320116  for the research project FamiliesAndSocieties.
FamiliesAndSocieties ( has the aim to investigate the diversity of family forms, relationships and life courses in Europe, to assess the compatibility of existing policies with these changes, and to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. The consortium brings together 25 leading universities and research institutes in 15 European countries and three transnational civil society organizations.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Daniela Vono de Vilhena / Sigrun Matthiesen