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Albany Sociologist Heads NSF-funded International Study of the Children of Immigrants

An interdisciplinary consortium headed by sociologist Richard Alba of the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the University at Albany- SUNY has received a three-year, $1.2- million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct a study of the children of immigrants in the schools of the United States and five western European countries. The Albany grant, one of 10 inaugural awards made by NSF’s Partnership for International Research and Education, was the only one to include sociologists.

This award funds a program of training and research to investigate how the contemporary second generation is faring and thus the impact of immigration on the societies of reception and on the immigrants and their children. The motivating idea is that comparative research on the incorporation of immigrant groups is an essential next step, especially for U.S. scholars, who remain focused almost exclusively on incorporation in the American context. Such a narrow focus makes less and less sense in a globalized world, where movement across national borders has become commonplace. The United States, no longer the primary receiving country, now shares with many countries the increasingly common challenges posed by immigrant integration. Moreover, only through international comparisons can the impact of systemic features of American society on the incorporation process be revealed. The second generation, the children of immigrants, is the litmus test for the long-term prospects of successful incorporation, and the bulk of this generation is still quite young— hence, the focus on schooling.

Large Scale, Binational

“This is a marvelous opportunity to lay the foundation for a long-term program of comparative research on immigration,” said Alba, upon learning about the NSF support for the research proposal. “Comparative research on this topic is a virtually unexplored frontier for U.S. sociologists, and Europeans are ahead of us in terms of establishing the international networks that are necessary for carrying out large-scale multi-national projects on immigrants and the second generation.”

The research portion of the program pairs senior social scientists on both sides of the Atlantic in five binational research projects to examine specific aspects of the interactions of school systems with the second generation. Examples of topics to be examined include the role of tracking in the United States and the Netherlands and the transition between school and the labor market in the United States and France. Alba’s American co-principal investigators include: Jennifer Holdaway of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the City University of New York- Graduate Center (Sociology); Margaret Gibson, University of California-Santa Cruz (Anthropology and Education); Carola Suárez-Orozco, New York University (Education); and Mary Waters, Harvard University (Sociology). Josh DeWind of SSRC is also a coprincipal investigator and plays a central administrative role.

The European social scientists paired with American partners include: Mikael Alexandersson of the University of Göteborg (collaborating with Suárez-Orozco); Silvia Carrasco of the University of Barcelona (paired with Gibson); Maurice Crul of the University of Amsterdam (paired with Holdaway); Anthony Heath of the University of Oxford (paired with Waters); and Roxane Silberman of the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (paired with Alba). With one exception, all of these collaborations originate with this project.


The training part of the program, which will be administered through SSRC, aims to introduce a new generation of U.S. scholars to comparative research. Each binational project will have a pre-doctoral student and a postdoctoral scholar attached to it. These junior scholars, who generally have already been involved in significant research in the United States, will spend 6 to 12 months in a European country, carrying out a collaborative research plan. In addition, a complementary grant from the Nuffield Foundation will enable five European post-doctoral fellows to take part in the training and work on the U.S. portions of the projects. All told, then, the entire project will engage the efforts of 25 U.S. and European researchers.

The young scholars are being prepared to take part in the project through a five-day workshop to be held this spring, where they will be introduced to the logic of comparative research as well as to the basics of immigration in each country. The fellows will both contribute to the team project in each country and also pursue a related study of their own. The grant also contains funds to support advanced language training, where necessary. The fellows will go into the field in the 2006-07 academic year, and the entire team will meet in Europe during the spring of 2007 to discuss issues arising in the course of data collection and analysis and to examine preliminary findings.

According to Jennifer Holdaway, “this project offers a rare opportunity to train a team of young scholars to participate in an integrated crossnational, comparative study and will establish the basis for future collaboration among members of the network well beyond the life of the program.”

Multiple Methods

The research projects will employ a mixture of methodologies. For instance, the U.S.–France project will employ similar large data sets (e.g., the National Education Longitudinal Study in the United States, Génération 98 in France) to track the transition from school to the labor market for second-generation Mexicans and North Africans, the largest groups in each country whose incorporation is viewed as problematic. In addition, youthful members of these groups will be interviewed about their experiences. The post-doctoral scholar attached to the project, Amy Lutz of Syracuse University, has already interviewed Mexican-Americans as part of her dissertation research.

The Amsterdam–New York study will use data from the Immigrant Second Generation in Metropolitan New York and the Dutch component of The Integration of the European Second Generation (TIES) project to examine how school systems in the two cities serve two disadvantaged immigrant populations: Dominicans in New York and Moroccans in Amsterdam. The team will focus on the ways in which residential segregation and formal and informal tracking in schools shape the educational trajectories of the two groups, and the ways in which immigrant families navigate the educational system. The pre-doctoral fellow, Mayida Zaal, will focus her dissertation research on the school experiences of Moroccan girls, building on her research on Muslim and Arab American youth in the United States. The other member of the team will be Norma Fuentes, currently an Assistant Professor at Fordham University, whose previous work has been on Dominicans and Mexicans in New York City.

Model for Comparative Understanding, Policy

The project will make a contribution to our understanding of the ways in which cross-national differences in educational institutions, policies, and practices shape the pathways taken by children of immigrants into further education or the labor market, and its findings will doubtless be of interest not only to academics but also to policy makers in the six countries. In training a cohort of scholars to grapple more effectively with the many challenges of cross-national comparative research (e.g., language and cultural differences, incompatible data sets, and historically grounded national debates, to mention just a few), the project will provide a model for training social scientists to operate more effectively in a world in which this kind of comparative research is increasingly necessary.

More information about the project can be found on its website: index.htm.