Methodological Note

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Part of the IMISCOE Research Series book series (IMIS)


The second part of the book will present the results of an empirical study of the experience of Ecuadorian irregular migrants in the cities of Amsterdam and Madrid. While the general overview of the methodological conceptualization that is the backbone of the whole research work has already been outlined in the introduction, in this brief chapter the focus will be centred on the specific methodological issues concerning the empirical study.

The second part of the book will present the results of an empirical study of the experience of Ecuadorian irregular migrants in the cities of Amsterdam and Madrid. While the general overview of the methodological conceptualization that is the backbone of the whole research work has already been outlined in the introduction, in this brief chapter the focus will be centred on the specific methodological issues concerning the empirical study.

5.1 Research Design and Research Questions

In the first part of this study, a number of critical aspects that have affected the theoretical understating of irregular migration came to light. Here to two of these will be further discussed: a tendency towards non-differentiation and then a tendency to the use of mono-causal explanation.

Regarding the first issue, there has been a tendency to treat irregular migration as if it were a single, undifferentiated phenomenon across different countries and historical phases. In Chap.  3, a wide number of possible explanations of this problem were discussed, especially from a conceptual/theoretical perspective. The theoretical framework derived from social systems theory in Chap.  4 attempted to conceptualize irregular migration as a differentiated phenomenon that develops specific characteristics and different forms, depending on the social context in which it develops. Yet, the problem of non-differentiation has not only derived from the theoretical (mis-)understanding of irregular migration. The problem has also been a consequence of the methodology used to empirically study the phenomenon. While a great number of studies have meticulously discerned all the aspects and characteristics of irregular migration within a single national context, the studies that have attempted to systematically compare two or more cases have been practically non-existent. This has had the effect of reducing the possibility to recognize the existing differences.

Following the intuitions suggested by the theoretical framework developed in the first part of the study and the path opened up by a number pioneer works (for instance: Garcés-Mascareñas, 2012; Van Meeteren, 2010; Van Nieuwenhuyze, 2009), the design of the empirical research has been explicitly comparative. As pointed out by Sartori, while every study that uses non-ideographic analytical categories, and therefore refers to some general theory or generalizing framework, is implicitly comparative, “the power of comparison and its usefulness is the highest and the most reliable when it is based on explicit and systematic comparisons” (Sartori, 1991a, p. 27).

Yet, what is the advantage of comparison and why can it be useful to understand more in depth the phenomenon of irregular migration? If there has been a problem of non-differentiation and of “uncontrolled” generalization of the findings gathered in a single context of the whole phenomenon, comparative research can offer an effective remedy. Comparative research allows us to explain because it allows us to control (Sartori, 1991a, 1991b). Only through assessing different cases is it possible to produce law-like statements or, in Sartori’s words, “generalizations, with explicative power, that capture regularities” (Sartori, 1991a, p. 27). As put by Garcés-Mascareñas: “Only by comparing and, even more, by comparing what some would call the ‘incomparable’, is it possible to formulate questions that otherwise would have never been considered and, by so doing, trace relationships and deconstruct categories that are all too often taken for granted in particular historical and national contexts. As Block well puts it: ‘[C]omparison is a “powerful magic wand” that allowed historians to see beyond local conditions to develop more comprehensive explanations’” (Garcés-Mascareñas, 2012, p. 42).

Then, also for the study of irregular migration, the comparative methodology can be a valuable instrument. The comparative analysis of irregular migration phenomena in different contexts can help to establish differences and similarities, to assess the role of the contextual features in determining specific characteristics, to construct preliminary theoretical frameworks that explain both regularities and peculiarities. This type of approach can help to overcome that lack of theoretical ambition that has been denounced (Bommes, 2012).

Of course, the advantages of comparison are not without a price. “Case studies sacrifice generality to depth and thickness of understanding, indeed to Verstehen: one knows more and better about less (less in extensions). Conversely, comparative studies sacrifice understanding-in-context and of context to inclusiveness: one knows less about more” (Sartori, 1991b, p. 253). The important thing, as always occurs when choosing a methodology, is to keep in mind the inevitable, related, trade-offs.

Also concerning the second critique of the current understanding of irregular migration, namely the use of mono-casual explanations, it seems possible to recognize the effects of the mentioned methodological orientation. The vast majority of studies on irregular migration have researched the phenomenon within a single geographical context and using a one-sided theoretical lens, for instance, that of migrant’s agency or that of social structures. If this has been the case, it is not surprising that there has been a tendency to produce mono-causal explanations. In particular, as comprehensively discussed in Chap.  3, when the focus has been centred on the role of structures (policies, implementation, the economy, culture, etc.), the role of the migrants’ agency and the capacity of migrants to react and adapt to it have been understated. In contrast, when the focus has centred on the migrants’ agency (strategies, networks, aspirations, intentions, etc.), the role of structures has been downplayed. Both approaches have missed focusing on “the heart of social life”, which is precisely the “interconnections between social agency and systems elements” (Layder, 1998, p. 48).

For this reason, with the awareness of increasing the complexity of the task and the connected risks, it was considered that it was not enough to simply adopt a comparative perspective, but that such comparison needed to include an analysis capable of addressing both social structures and migrants’ agency, and their interactions. In this respect, the methodological approach proposed by Derek Layder, which he called “adaptive theory” (Layder, 1998), was of great help and allowed to establish a permanent dialogue between the theoretical and empirical parts of this study. In his perspective:

“Adaptive theory focuses on the construction of novel theory by utilizing elements of prior theory (general and substantive) in conjunction with theory that emerges from data collection and analysis. It is the interchange and dialogue between prior theory (models, concepts, conceptual clustering) and emergent theory that forms the dynamic of adaptive theory”. Moreover, “[M]oving away from empiricism allows the theoretical registering of the systems elements of social life rather than simply those to do with the lifeworld. The empirical focus of the adaptive approach centres on the lifeworld-system linkages that characterize the structure of social reality in general and which are also principal defining features of that area of social life which is currently the research focus”.

Following this approach, therefore:

Both actor’s meanings, activities and intentions (lifeworld), and culture, institutions, power, reproduced practices and social relation (system elements) must be taken in account” […]. The acceptance of both lifeworld and systems features as part of a comprehensive, interconnected and stratified social ontology, also enables a proper treatment of issues of power, control, and domination, and the resources that underpin them (ideologies and cultures). The pervasive influence of power (and control) and the manner in which it manifest itself in different domains of social life cannot be understood properly if its systemic (or structural) aspects are not recognized or registered in the first place (Layder, 1998, p. 48).

With these points in mind, the choice has been to compare the irregular migration phenomenon in two different countries and to use a double research strategy. On the one hand, a context study was developed. This was assembled using secondary literature and the available statistical data and was aimed at assessing the main structural characteristics affecting irregular migration in the two contexts. On the other hand, an original empirical study was developed which aimed at retracing the life experiences of irregular migrants within the selected contexts. The systematic comparison between both the contextual characteristics and concrete experience of irregular migrants in the two countries pointed at establishing similarities and differences and at producing a hypothesis capable of explaining them.

The main research questions that backed the empirical study were: (A) How do the contextual characteristics affecting irregular migration of the two countries differ? In what aspects and to what degree? (B) Are the irregular migration experiences in the two countries different? In what aspects and to what degree? (C) How may the different contextual characteristics affect the irregular migration experiences?

A number of secondary, more concrete, questions guided the research of both contexts and migrants’ experiences. Regarding the first aspect, and following the scheme elaborated in the theoretical part of the study, the questions were: (A) What was the migratory history of the country? (B) What have been the main policies affecting irregular migrants? (C) What have been the main characteristics and trends of the economic system and the labour market? (D) What have been the main characteristics of the welfare state? (E) What have been the attitudes of the political and public opinion?

Regarding the second aspect, since the aim was to assess the experience of irregular migrants, four main questions were posed: (A) What has been the legal trajectory (residence and possible regularization) in the host country? What have been the related problems and solutions? (B) What has been the labour trajectory? What problems and what solutions? (C) What was the migrants’ experience of internal controls? What problems and solutions? (D) How have other issues, such as healthcare and housing been dealt with?

5.2 Selection of the Cases

As pointed out by Sartori, the choice of the cases to be compared entails a number of problematic issues and possible risks (Sartori, 1991a, 1991b). Obviously, comparison makes sense when there are differences between the selected objects. Yet, similarities are needed too, otherwise the danger is to end up comparing “apples and oranges”. When comparing then, the crucial question that needs to be raised is: “comparable with respect to which properties or characteristics and incomparable (i.e. too dissimilar) with respect to which other properties or characteristics?” (Sartori, 1991b, p. 246).

Once the existence of a minimum number of communalities has been established between potential objects of comparison, it is possible to choose between two main strategies (Sartori, 1991b). On the one hand, it is possible to compare “the most likely cases” (Broeders, 2009, p. 20), to use the “most similar system design” (Sartori, 1991b, p. 250). When the objects of comparison are countries, for instance, this means: “choosing for the homogenization of the sample of countries on key aspects considered important” (Broeders, 2009, p. 21). This strategy is especially useful when a particular, very well defined phenomenon that is present in the two contexts needs to be researched. With the contextual similarity, the systemic, contextual features (for these the ceteris paribus criteria is used) can be left in the background and the focus is the analysis of the specificities of the phenomenon. This may be helpful to learn more and to discover further characteristics or to fine-tune an existing theory. The other option is to compare “the most different cases” (Broeders, 2009, p. 20), with the “most different system design” (Sartori, 1991b, p. 250). In this case, the choice of the cases is more disparate. This strategy is particularly useful when the researched phenomenon is more wide-ranging and still not precisely defined. The radical differences between the cases allows us to assess the extension of the researched phenomenon, to control the validity of an early conceptual framework and, most importantly, to observe the effects of the systemic, contextual features on its characteristics (Sartori, 1991b, p. 250).

Given the existing limitations in the theoretical understanding of irregular migration and the interest in assessing the systemic character of the phenomenon, the choice was to adopt the research design of “the most different cases”. In particular, what was chosen was to comparatively research the irregular migration phenomenon in the Netherlands and Spain.

The two countries share a number of similarities that validate the possibility of comparison. They are both EU, highly developed, liberal-democratic nation-states. Yet, within this broad group, they also show many important differences, for instance, in their economies, welfare states or social structures. It is especially in relation to the field of our interest, i.e. irregular migration, that the two countries could be considered, somehow, opposite cases.

The Netherlands is an old country of immigration, which has received consistent numbers of migrants since the 1960s. This long experience has translated into a very developed set of policies directed at governing the phenomenon in all its facets. Especially since the 1990s, the efforts by the Dutch government have become increasingly restrictive and today the country has one of the toughest and most efficient policies against irregular migration. As pointed out by Engbersen and Broeders, within “fortress Europe”, the Netherlands can be considered as “the heart of the fortress” (Engbersen & Broeders, 2009, p. 870).

Spain, in contrast, is a recent country of emigration, which started receiving consistent numbers of migrants only in the late 1990s. Because of the weak border controls and the recurrent adoption of massive regularization of irregular migrants, like in countries, such as Italy, Greece or Portugal, Spain has been considered as part of the “European soft underbelly” (Pastore, Monzini, & Sciortino, 2006).

As pointed out by Finotelli, the idea of a sharp north/south divide between countries regarding the management of irregular migration should not be uncritically taken, since reality is usually much more complex and nuanced (Finotelli, 2009). Yet, the cases of Spain and the Netherlands can certainly be considered quite different. If the objective was to inquire into the variety and extension of the irregular migration phenomenon, then the comparison of these two cases, precisely because of their differences, appeared particularly stimulating and promising.

If the idea to compare the irregular migration phenomenon within two national contexts seemed promising, the extension and complexity of the task required adopting strategies to reduce the object of analysis. In this respect, there were three main choices.

Firstly, it was decided to focus on one national group of migrants. This allowed to significantly reduce those variables concerning the different origins of the migrants. The selected national group was that of Ecuadorian migrants. There were two main reasons for this choice. The first had to do with the characteristics of the Ecuadorian migration. Though small numbers of migrants had been leaving Ecuador since the 1980s, it was in relation to the deep economic crisis that hit the Andean country at the end of the 1990s, that almost one fifth of the population emigrated in the following decade (Herrera, 2008). At the end of the 2000s, given the economic recovery of the national economy, the migratory trends returned to the pre-crisis standards. With all the necessary caution, then, Ecuadorian emigration can be considered as a relatively time-limited, “one shot” phenomenon, which had basically an economic justification. The second reason had to do with my own Ecuadorian nationality. Besides the obvious personal interest, this fact entailed some potential research advantages. The sharing not only of a common language but also of a number of cultural and communicative codes between the researcher and the people researched, especially in such a sensitive case as that of irregular migrants, may be an element that helps to overcome inevitable barriers and reticence.

Secondly, it was decided to geographically limit the area of consideration to the cities of Amsterdam and Madrid. This not only meant making the fieldwork more feasible in practical terms, but it also allowed for the comparison of two similar settings. Both cities are the biggest urban areas in their countries, they host important immigrant communities, and have developed services and industrial economies.

Thirdly, given the dynamic character of migrants’ status and the possibility that both former irregular migrants had regularized or that formerly regular migrants had become irregular, it was decided to interview migrants who had been irregular for at least two or more years during their migratory trajectory.

5.3 Fieldwork Methodology, Strategies and Limitations

The fieldwork research in the cities of Amsterdam and Madrid was mainly developed in 2012/2013/2014.

The fieldwork in Amsterdam was realized between November 2012 and July 2013. In order to develop this part of the research, I moved to Amsterdam for 7 months. I was hosted by an Ecuadorian migrant who had a house in the Bijlmermeer neighbourhood in the Zuidoost borough of Amsterdam. The fieldwork in Madrid, was realized between August 2013 and February 2014.

The adopted research strategy did not orthodoxly follow any methodological paradigm. On the contrary, it combined a number of strategies and approaches derived from different qualitative methodologies. The main methodological reference, though, was offered by Layder’s “adaptive theory” (Layder, 1998). The crucial suggestion of this perspective is to maintain a continuous, bidirectional dialogue between the results of the theoretical reflection and bibliographical analysis, and the results of the empirical research. This flexible strategy allows us to combine both inductive and deductive approaches instead of being limited to just one of them. Practically, this translates into a process that does not separate the theoretical and empirical phases of the research, or, in metaphorical terms, the library from the street. Instead, the researcher permanently brings the results of his/her readings to the field to test their validity and plausibility and takes the evidence emerged from the field to the library in order to validate, modify or reject the existing theories.

The main research tools used throughout the fieldwork were key informant interviews, participant observation and in-depth interviews with migrants.

5.3.1 Key Informant Interviews

The first step of my fieldwork was the collection of a small number of interviews with key informants. These interviews helped me to establish the general contours of the phenomenon I was going to research. Moreover, they offered a number of indications about possible contacts with migrants and locations where I could encounter them. I collected 6 interviews in the city of Amsterdam (2 with NGO volunteers who help irregular migrants, 2 with spiritual leaders of the Amsterdam catholic church, 1 with the Ecuadorian consul in the Netherlands, 1 with the leader of an Ecuadorian migrants’ association) and 5 interviews in the city of Madrid (2 with NGO volunteers, 1 with the Ecuadorian consul in Spain, 2 with leaders of the Ecuadorian migrants’ association).

5.3.2 Participant Observation

One of the main objectives of the fieldwork was to directly observe the daily activities of irregular migrants in the two cities. To this end, I adopted two strategies. Firstly, I tried to get invited to and participate in a wide variety of social activities such as: reunions, parties, festivities, religious events, sports gatherings, etc. I have always been clear with the migrants about my aim. I told them that I was a researcher and that I was trying to understand how irregular migrants live, what problems they have and how they solve them. During the events in which I had the chance to participate, the main objective was to observe people’s behaviour, to listen to conversations, to collect personal impressions and ideas. These were also opportunities to chat with people, to establish relations and to find potential candidates for the in-depth interviews. At the end of the day, I always elaborated field notes in which I compiled all the collected impressions and information. Then, as I started to develop closer relations with certain migrants, I asked them if I could meet their families, go to their houses or go with them to work. Also in these cases, I had the chance to develop many friendship relations. I always bore in mind my aim and asked for permission if I wanted to use information or to quote a certain conversation in my field notes.

5.3.3 In Depth-Interviews

During the first phases of the fieldwork and in particular during the participant observation, I was able to identify possible interesting candidates for in-depth interviews. On those occasions I asked these people if they wanted to take part in my research and I explained my goals and the procedure to them. I generally received enthusiastic replies to my request. The interviews were realized in different places such as the migrants’ houses (the majority), bars, parks, public libraries, train stations. The setting and the availability of time on the part of the interviewees had an effect on the length of the interviews. The average length was about 2 h, the shortest was 30 min and the longest 7 h. In Amsterdam I collected 32 interviews, and in Madrid 31.

During the interviews I used a one page general scheme that helped me to keep in mind the main topics I wanted to discuss and some key questions. My aim, however, was to maintain, as much as possible, a conversational, free approach. The idea was to introduce issues and then to allow other topics to emerge and develop along with the flow of the conversation. In many cases, this strategy not only determined a temporal extension of the interviews but also the discussion of topics not necessarily pertaining to the research goals. It is my conviction, nevertheless, that this strategy made it possible to somehow break the rigidity of the interviewer/interviewed roles and therefore to produce a richer exchange and more useful information.

5.3.4 Study Limitations

Both the selection of cases and the chosen methodological strategies entail a number of possible problems and limitations that it important to make explicit and to reflect upon.

Regarding the first aspect it seems important to discuss two issues. Firstly, the choice to study the experience of Ecuadorians, and therefore of my co-ethnics, as previously discussed, may certainly offer certain advantages but also some limitations. While the share of a common language and of a common cultural background can be a useful tool for instance to “break the ice” or to better understand certain meanings and expressions during the research, this can also imply many downsides. The presence of culturally structured and codified elements in the relation between the researcher and the researched may importantly influence both sides. For the former, for instance, this may translate into prejudices, preconceptions or “taking for granted” forms of biases; for the latter, into reluctance, hesitancy or the desire to appear in a certain way instead of another. Although, every research relation, i.e. one between co-ethnics or one between people of a different origin, necessarily implies specific problems, what seams important is to keep them in mind, to reflect upon them, and, if possible, to develop strategies to limit their effects. In my case, I tried to combine, on the one hand, mental openness and a questioning attitude towards my subjective impressions and conclusions, on the other hand, discretion and a certain restrain in the expression of my opinions, personal history or social background. The first attitude helped me to limit the role of preconceptions or “giving for granted” assumptions; the second helped to reduce the possible influence of my subjectivity upon the interviewed.

Secondly, when choosing the two countries to study, the option for “the most different cases”, as mentioned, has the advantage of offering a great variance, which can be useful to search for the extension of a phenomenon. Yet, a connected risk to this strategy is that the enormous difference between the cases may end up resulting in an unproductive comparison. What it was attempted, to avoid such risks is to select two cases that, being very different, present yet sufficient commonalities in order to allow a fruitful contrast.

Regarding the chosen methodologies and in particular the option for in-depth interviews and ethnography, as more in general occurs with qualitative approaches, a number of issues may be raised concerning the validity of the collected data. Firstly, it is important to remember the lack of statistical validity given the limitation of the sample and the research techniques. Secondly, the relay on personal assessments, memories and anecdotes, the bulk of the interviews material, implies the potential interference subjective not only psychological but also “environmental” distortive elements. These two important limitations require a pondered use of the possible findings. In particular, on the one hand, given the lack of statistical validity, the elements that emerge from the fieldwork must be used not as definitive indicators or as conclusive demonstrations but rather as elements able to suggests hypothesis, contest convictions, open interpretative possibilities. On the other hand, the use of “personal material”, requires an extra effort of material analysis, comparison and cross-check both between the different interviews but also with other research material such as statistics, previous studies, etc.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.International Cooperation CentreTrentoItaly
  2. 2.University of TrentoTrentoItaly

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