Social Research Practical 2 – Interviews

Introduction — The home is a space of many different dimensions that vary and develop over the course of a person’s life, depending on the people and cultures we interact with (Sixsmith 1986). Not only are they a place of belonging and comfort, they also a medium through with individuals can express their cultural identities, personalities and citizenship (Jones, 1995). These findings lead Kenyon (2002) and others to believe that home can be used and perceived by young people as ‘a sign of and a space for developing adulthood’. Leaving the childhood home and creating a new personal home is therefore seen to be both a physical manifestation of reaching adulthood and the time/place where complex emotional developments will occur. There has been a significant amount of research into this transitional period when school pupils become students, and consequently enter the first stage of adulthood. However more and more students are choosing to not only to leave the city they grew up in for university, but the country they call home, despite the added difficulties of travel, cost and recently and perhaps most significantly, Brexit.
Durham University’s website proudly boasts ‘over 4,500 international students from 156 countries choose to make Durham their home’. This project looks at just four of these stories, examining the extent to which Brexit has effected their sense of home in the UK, and how they view the Durham as home in general as an international student from an EU country. 

Literature Review — Research into the concept of home stemmed from discussions of place, coming from some of the earliest research in social geography. Martin Heidegger (1951) examined the way we construct a world to which we can attach meaning through the idea of ‘dasein’ or ‘dwelling’ using the example of a farmhouse home in the Black Forest. However, this concept of home is simplistic, and irrelevant to a modern, nuanced sense of belonging, and has been criticised for being exclusionary and idealising being strongly connected to a physical place (Harvey, 1993). More recently, there has been a wave of new discussions on ‘home’ from geographers, anthropologists and sociologists, producing a wealth of literature on the term. This has resulted in varying definitions and a certain level of ambiguity around the concept of home. For example, Blunt (2005) writes that for many people, home is multi dimensional, taking on many different meanings depending on class, culture and stage of life. Unlike Heidegger, home is now not often thought of as a physical, tangible structure in the same way we would think of a house as a dwelling place. 
Most people’s homes are located in ‘imaginative, rather than material terms’, for instance, home may be viewed as being with certain people such as family members, or existing within certain cultural practises (Blunt and Dowling, 2006). An Ideal Home’, a collection of essays on the varying meanings of home compiled by Chapman and Hockey has been an influential work in the recent geographical study of the concept. In Liz Kenyon’s chapter on students’ transitional experience of home, she illustrates that home for students can be compartmentalised into four main categories, the physical, social, personal and temporal home (Kenyon, 2002). Despite these categories being determined from interviews with home students, they strongly correlated to the various homes discussed in my own study, with all participants citing the importance of their physical homes overseas, as well as cultural discourses that produce a sense of home for them in other locations. However the wide diversity of the homes discussed suggests that Kenyon’s framework may be too rigid.

For this topic, it was crucial to examine the importance of people/place relationships, and how home can be experienced on a national scale. Anderson (1991) has noted how the nation can foster a sense of belonging through the link between the local and the national, with many people ‘forging a sense of belonging and loyalty to our nation chiefly through the power of our imagination’. Creating and constructing a home on your own terms is a powerful way of feeling comfort and an eventual sense of belonging in a new place, especially for students. This powerful imagined geography is primarily why the international students we interviewed spoke of the importance of appreciating and identifying British culture and humour in order to feel at home here. Ahmed (2006) also noted the importance of affinities and loyalties with culture in creating a new sense of home, and conversely, how this has the power to exclude ‘othered’ cultural identities. Additionally, the attitude of the population can play a huge part in making a new place feel like home. When Brexit occurred, it was thought of as representation of the population’s generally negative stance towards migration, leading some foreigners to feel out of place or unwelcome (Lulle et al., 2017). However, despite the significant effect Brexit has had on the lives of many EU students across British universities, there is currently very limited research on their changing sense of home in the UK in the wake of the referendum.

Methodology and Limitations —  There were many options to consider when deciding the most appropriate method of research for the topic. Focus groups for example, are dynamic group discussions, of around 5-12 people and attempt to emulate a relaxed conversation between groups of friends. The interactive element makes focus groups suited to exploring the nuances and complexities of people-place relationships (Cameron, 2005). Focus groups produce concentrated amounts of data on precisely the topic of interest, and are less time consuming than individual interviews (Morgan 1997). However, we decided they were inappropriate for our project due to the personal nature of the subject matter, and the varying experiences of different EU students. Additionally, the group setting may influence people to give different responses than they normally would, as participants tend towards polarisation due to a phenomena named ‘Groupthink’. (Janis, 1982). Questionnaires were also deemed unsuitable as they are often unable to produce appropriate qualitative data, that is individual to each varying experience, and fail to take note of social cues such as body language and intention, which can offer an authentic insight into people’s experiences (Silverman, 1983). Furthermore, students are often an over sampled sector of the population, and participants may have become tired of surveys. They therefore might appreciate the opportunity to vocalise their opinions on these important issues (Harrell and Bradley, 2009). 

Therefore, we used semi-structured interviews to produce a large volume of qualitative data in the form of coded transcripts. Semi structured interviews are perhaps the most common method of research in social and cultural Geography, and produce detailed, in-depth information occasionally lacking in other methods of research collection, as the interviewer can go much deeper than a simple yes or no, and establish the participant’s 
strength of feeling on a particular issue (Di Cicco-Bloom and Crabtree, 2006). There are certain drawbacks of the method of data collection, such as the necessity for purposeful sampling (Opdenakker, 2006). In this particular case for example, the participants I selected were friends, which may have led to a more open discussion, but also meant I had to be very cautious not to include personal information from previous encounters. It has also been noted that during semi-structured interviews, interviewers often fail to take notes of things like body language, mannerisms and tones, however we were able to circumvent this issue by having two researchers present, one for leading the questioning, and the other in charge of recording and note taking. 

We had some idea of the sort of questions we would ask, but rather than having a pre-determined list, we allowed the participants to guide the conversation towards matters of relevance (Flick and Kardoff, 2004). We conducted four interviews, with four different students who consider their home to be in an EU country. As the research group was formed of four people, I was able to lead two of the interviews, but as we had met numerous times beforehand and created a clear and detailed interview guide, we were able to achieve coherency and constancy of subject matter across all four interviews. However, we were also careful to allow the interviewees to guide the interview, resulting in more of a conversation about what was important to them, rather than following a strict set of questions. This allowed different experiences and personal opinions to be explored in more detail. To encourage the participants to feel comfortable, interviews took place in familiar places of the interviewees choosing such as coffee shops, college rooms and their own homes. Interviews lasted around 20 minutes and covered a wide range of topics, focusing on their experience of home in Durham and the UK, and how this related to Brexit. We then transcribed the interviews, and sent them to participants, allowing them to amend any answers they were uncomfortable with. My approach when analysing the four interviews was to divide the material into six key codes and then further divide them into numerous sub-codes. For example, one of the main codes was ‘Social’ , which included sub-codes of ‘friends’, ‘culture’, ‘activities/practises’ and ‘humour’. I used six different colours for the main codes, with similar colours denoting sub codes see attached transcript of M Interview, and code sheet. 

Analysis —  A major theme that emerged in our interviews was one noted previously by Ahmed (2006) on the importance of understanding and being able to participate in British culture and humour in order to feel at home. This was reflected strongly throughout all four interviews but particularly in my discussions with Mathilde and Mari-Liis. When I asked Mathilde whether she felt at home in Durham as a student, she said ‘I feel like, I mean, although I’m like completely French and everything, I’m also British, like as in I’ve got the culture, I’ve got the humour.’ She proceeded to say that enjoying and understanding British culture and humour was the most important part of making her feel at home here. Mari-Liis discussed the fact that, despite spending the majority of her life in Estonia, she’d done the majority of her ‘growing up’ here, therefore British culture has shaped her into the person she is now,— ‘I think thats a massive reason why I feel like this is also my home’. With regards to Brexit, both voiced the opinion that the referendum had not altered their cultural feeling of belonging in the UK. When asked about it, Mathilde laughed and said ‘it hasn’t really affected the whole cultural feeling I have of feeling at home here…  I think, yes it’s separated somewhat from politics’. As this culture will largely remain the same regardless of the outcome of the referendum, it could indicate that Brexit has not compromised this way of feeling at home in the UK for EU students, which is definitely a positive force.
Another emerging theme from the interviews was the importance of friends, family and the general population to a sense of home, including people’s attitudes. As noted by Anderson (1997), sense of home can be strongly felt on a national scale, which is linked to the population’s stance towards internationals. However, despite the fact that many saw Brexit as a declaration of the British feeling towards immigration, the general consensus of the four interviews was that it had not affected their sense of home, due to the specific people in their lives that make them feel at home. Chris discussed an incident involving walking through the city centre and hearing ‘some people yelling ‘go for Brexit’ or something like that’, however it just made him aware of his perceived ignorance of some members of the population, rather than making him feel particularly unwelcome or out of place. Mari-Liis described being in Guildford (a ‘leave voting’ constituency) as the result of the vote was announced. However, she ‘wasn’t thinking as much about the wider community, more about the people that I personally consider to be part of her life’. She also discussed considering St Andrews as an option for university, due to Scotland having voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU, however she feels comfortable in Durham, as she is surrounded by the university sphere of remain voters rather than local residents, who were more likely to have voted to leave. When asked whether Brexit has changed how welcome Mathilde feels in the UK, she confidently responded ‘Not really because I guess, in Durham, at least, a lot of people are just like ‘not pro Brexit’. I mean the attitude is just such a big factor, and because everyone’s attitude is so positive here, then obviously that has contributed to making me feel welcome and at home’. Reflecting back to the importance of a shared sense of humour, she also remarked that connecting with people through laughter has been a significant way of making friends for her and therefore feeling at home. Emma mentioned that she has ‘always felt quite comfortable and at home in the UK…’. She succinctly surmised what many of the participants were voicing— ‘home is a place which is private enough that like policy decisions and stuff like that wouldn’t influence what goes on’.

Despite the participants sense of home remaining generally unchanged with regards to attitudes and culture, there were many shared concerns about the logistics and practicalities of the politics surrounding Brexit. One of the key themes that emerged was the ease of travel between Durham and their home countries being compromised. This was also seen to affect feelings of closeness towards old friends and family members. On the other hand, it transpired that a significant way of developing their sense of home has been to form new friendships with people in Durham and, as this has not been affected by Brexit, its impact in this regard has also been minimal. Mathilde shared her opinions on the difficulties of travel impacting her relationship with home saying ‘now I feel like I can only really go home in an emergency or holidays’. However as a self confessed ‘chilled out person’, she admitted to have not given the increased tightening of borders much consideration. However, Emma did voice her concerns on the increased security checks at airports for when her and her family are travelling to and from Poland. She described the ease of travel once Poland was part of the EU as making her feel ‘more closely connected’ and ‘more as a European rather than as a Polish or British person’. For Emma, the politics surrounding border control did not seem to have impacted her sense of home in the UK, rather her sense of closeness to her ‘other’ home in Poland because ‘it’s separating things that I think are quite close and are both important to me’. 
Finally, the most common concern with regards to Brexit, was it’s potential to alter the participants plans and hopes for the future. Despite Mathilde’s strong sense of home in Durham currently, she now feels reluctant to remain in the UK after her degree due to the uncertainties surrounding Brexit. She discussed how, before the vote, she would ‘definitely still want to stay in the UK’, but is now unsure due to potential complications with visas and employment. Similarly, Chris mentioned that he is now concerned about England’s ability to perform well financially, which has shifted his view on the country as a whole— ‘That’s the only thing that’s changed, not my perception of home or anything like that’. Although it is true that all of the participants voiced concerns about remaining in the UK since Brexit, the major factor in this decision was to do with the practicalities of employment, cost and visas rather than a compromised sense of belonging, which reflects what we discovered around people and attitudes and being more important to a sense of home than perhaps belonging to a nation in the political sense.  

Conclusion — While all the responses obviously varied in terms of details, many aspects were similar, with the same themes occurring throughout all four interviews. Each participant had a similar sense of the multiplicity of home, with family, friends, cultural practises and physical spaces of their home countries bringing them a sense of belonging, but being able to find these aspects in their new lives at Durham University. As the most important features of home for them were not affected by Brexit, one could be forgiven for thinking that the vote has not affected EU students as much as expected. However although their sense of home in Durham was found to have been largely uncompromised, the practicalities and political changes are definitely a cause of concern for their lives. 

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