Cross-border marriages under conditions of transnationalization and politicization. A case study in Switzerland

Janine Dahinden, Joelle Moret, Shpresa Jashari (MAPS)

Marriage is one of those practices that increasingly occur in transnational spaces. For the past few years, there has been a growing interest among social scientists to analyze the motivations, practices and constraints inherent in this form of transnationalization. At the same time, cross-border marriage has become an important topic in immigration countries, particularly when it involves migrants from non-European countries. Overall, a politicization and ethnicization can be observed that trigger debates about "forced marriages," violence against migrant women, sham marriages or cross-border marriages as entry tickets for immigration. On the ground of such opposing forces - the increased transnationalization of migration practices versus the politicization of these practices - we aim to understand cross-border marriages from the viewpoint of the persons involved by investigating the practices, strategies and representations of family, gender and ethnicity, and the resulting conflicts. These are, as we consider, closely articulated with the political, economic and discursive frames at both ends of the transnational chain. We argue that the issue can best be understood by approaching it through three lenses: a) a transnational approach to cross-border marriage practices can give insights into the networks, meanings and questions of belongings of the actors involved in these practices. Such an approach allows also to understand how local contexts and socio-political and discursive frames ("locality") at both ends of the transnational chain shape the practices of cross-border marriage; b) a boundary work perspective can explain the roles of family and ethnicity when it comes to cross-border marriages and bring to light the production of different forms of "groupness" as well as representations of a "good marriage," an "ideal spouse," etc. This perspective also allows an investigation into how ideas about ethnicity and family impact cross-border marriages relationally and in interaction with ethnicizing, culturalizing, and stigmatizing debates in immigration contexts; c) a gender perspective makes it possible to investigate how gender affects all dimensions that are relevant for cross-border marriages. Thus, three main sub-questions will guide our research: 1. What role do transnational networks and subjectivities play in cross-border-marriages? 2. What forms of "groupness" (family, ethnic, religious, others) are produced in cross-border marriage, how can the boundary work of the actors be understood, and how is that boundary work related to local contexts? 3. In what ways are the contexts and the processes that result in cross-border marriage gendered, and how are gender inequalities (re)produced, legitimated and put into practice or, on the contrary, attenuated? These questions will be approached by a qualitative-interpretative methodology. We will do research with couples from non-European countries who marry or have married across borders, meaning that one member of the couple has been living in Switzerland before marriage and is a second-generation migrant and the other one lives or was living in another country. In the first step, we will conduct 20 to 25 narrative interviews with second-generation migrants engaged or about to engage in a cross-border marriage; and, if they are present, we will also interview their spouses. In the second step, we will select around 10 case studies that will be investigated in depth, using a multi-sited approach. For this step, we will grasp the transnational "marriage network" of the couple, and subsequently conduct interviews with the most important persons from this network. The significance of the proposed research lies in its opportunity to gain answers to highly politicized questions - answers that go beyond simplistic explanations (of culture or of sexism within migrant communities) and that bring to light the complex processes of this form of transnationalization as well as its constraining and conflictual dimensions.


Funded by:  Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF)
Duration: 2014-2017