Friday, September 4, 2020

Emine Fidan Elcioglu's "Divided by the Wall"

Emine Fidan Elcioglu is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Divided by the Wall: Progressive and Conservative Immigration Politics at the U.S.-Mexico Border, and reported the following:
Divided by the Wall tells the story of why ordinary Americans join volunteer organizations and mobilize in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, either in the pursuit of helping undocumented immigrants or to aid immigration enforcement. Though the terms are not very nuanced, I refer to the former group as ‘pro-immigrant’ activists, and the latter as ‘immigration restrictionists’. What makes my research unique is that I study “conscience constituents”, a fancy sociology term to refer to social movement participants who do not stand to gain personally from the movement’s successes. In this case, these are folks who, because of the privileges of whiteness and U.S. citizenship, are not directly impacted by immigration policy, but who nonetheless work to change it. The big question I ask is: why?

Now, let’s skip over to page 99. Page 99 introduces the book’s second part, which examines how these two politically opposed groups wrestled with the accusations of their opponents—and how they tried to refute these allegations. I write, “When challenging the actions of their left-wing opponents, restrictionists activists like Rick repeatedly raised the topic of organized crime and drug smuggling. […] [Meanwhile] Pro-immigrant activists, like Mariela, argued that restrictionists were motivated, above all, by their hatred of people of color, particularly people of Latin American descent.” As much as I would have loved the page 99 test to work, it alone wouldn’t give an interested reader a very clear sense of what the whole book is about.

But the page is still intriguing! It clues in the reader to the fact that the book is an ethnographic study, involving hours upon hours of me talking to people like Mariela and Rick to figure out who they were, how they made sense of the world, and why they did what they did. Page 99 also highlights another unique feature of the book: that I studied both sides of this political struggle. Social scientists tend to shy away from this kind of holistic research design. After all, it is far easier to study one side of a contentious debate, especially the side with which we personally sympathize. But Rick was keenly aware of what people like Mariela thought about him, just as Mariela knew what people like Rick thought about her. This fact—that activists are quite mindful of their political adversaries when they mobilize— suggests that we would miss important data were we to confine the study to just Rick or just Mariela. As a wise mentor once told me (echoing the famous sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu): How can you follow a game of soccer by fixating on one side? You have to watch both teams play.

So what did I learn as I watched this soccer game? Well, a lot. Most importantly, I learned that when people hold strong convictions about ‘the wall’, they’re not just articulating concerns about ‘the wall’. As I write on page 233: “the polarization of immigration politics is a symptom of worsening inequality and the expression of local communities’ desire to do something about that inequality.” So, when we debate immigration policy, let’s not just talk about walls. Let’s also talk about the underlying issue: how to eradicate the insecurity and inequality that makes immigration a needlessly contentious topic.
Visit Emine Fidan Elcioglu's website.

--Marshal Zeringue