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Mihaela Nedelcu: ICTs contribute to integration

Mihaela Nedelcu, who holds a BA in Mathematics and a PhD in Sociology, is a professor and head of research at the Sociology Institute at the University of Neuchâtel (Switzerland) and the author of several studies on the impact of new technologies on migratory processes. Born in Craiova (Romania) in 1969, she is a visiting professor at the UOC’s research institute, IN3.

You have studied how Romanian emigrants living around the world use new technologies and interact with each other and with their homeland thanks to the Internet. How would you describe this new-style emigrant?

I became interested in highly educated Romanian emigrants, specifically in the computer scientists who were living in Canada in the late 1990s, when the technologies were only available to an elite. Many of the people who left prepared for their journey with the information they had gotten on the Internet and discussion forums, where they shared experiences with people who had left before them.

How has the Internet affected the lives of people who have left their country?

We saw how the Internet transformed the emigrant’s experience by facilitating the process. By the time they reached the new country, they were already aware of all the formalities they had to go through. They had high-quality information and had already taken the first few steps to integrate. The Internet has become a tool to help emigrants acclimate from a distance, as well as a means of facilitating integration into the job market, knowledge of the institutions, of laws and of the possibilities and difficulties they will find.

The new technologies facilitate emigration, but do they also transform it totally?

Absolutely. Early 20th century sociologists had studied the case of the Polish in North America and how the letters they sent back to their country revealed the changes they were undergoing. What has changed significantly is mainly continuity and instantaneousness.

What changes are the technologies bringing about in these people’s lives?

Today’s migrants live in constant contact with different places. They are aware of what is happening in their home country and remain almost permanently united with their family and friends. Yet at the same time they are in touch with the world, informed about what is happening where they live and what is going on elsewhere. They also learn about new job opportunities. Something major has changed in the way they project themselves to the world. Many view mobility as a way of life and have a different conception of space and mobility. In the past, socialisation took place within the family, the school or certain institutions anchored in a specific place. But now emigrants increasingly have multiple referents, incorporate different lifestyles from different places. One example is a little girl and her grandmother: one lives in Toronto and the other in Bucharest. They are in touch every day, and the grandmother checks that the girl is doing her homework. It is interesting to see how in the exchanges between migrants and non-migrants, the non-migrants’ universe also changes. They come to project the world in a different way.

What possibilities do the ICTs offer?

The new technologies are used to find jobs, to keep abreast of the news and also to reinforce citizen participation. For instance, a group of Romanian scientists living all around the world created a network called Ad-Astra which became an extremely important forum for both scientists who lived in the country and those who were abroad. They undertook a shared reflection and even proposed measures to transform the teaching and research system in Romania. And they recently created an NGO. They managed to create a movement for change: some of the members were invited to be part of a working group organised by the President of the country, and last January one member of the commission was appointed minister of Education. The Internet can be a means of transnational action and transformation.

Being in constant contact with their home society can also hinder an individual’s integration process.

What I have observed in my study, which I once again stress is about educated migrants, is that having ties with the homeland does not run counter to integration. The study I am currently supervising in Switzerland is yielding the same result: their transnationalism comes hand-in-hand with integration. In fact, they are often the most integrated emigrants. Both concepts tend to be pitted against each other in the literature on emigration, but they are often complementary. The new technologies help people integrate. However, this conceals another question about the integration policies that are applied: there is very little awareness of emigrants’ multiple senses of belonging. We must reflect on emigrants’ social horizons.

When part of the citizenry has this capacity to “be” in different places at the same time, what challenges does this pose to the host societies?

We have to stop seeing integration as a process of homogenisation. We can talk about integration at different levels. Culturally, I think that integration should take into account an individual’s multiple senses of belonging. Ten years after having conducted my study, there is a democratisation of the new technologies. Now, even less educated people have access to a mobile telephone, to the Internet, to a hook-up. Therefore, the new technologies can help less fortunate emigrants integrate. The host societies have to reflect on the emigrants’ need to be informed. Research should serve as the springboard for coming up with new policies. It would be great if there were better coordination between the world of politics and the world of science to begin this reflection.

And for the home country, what are the implications of a social group that exercises its citizenship rights from a distance?

The home societies are more aware of the benefits to citizens who live abroad and the ties they uphold. The home countries are particularly interested in monetary transfers, which contribute directly to improving the quality of life of the family members and indirectly of society as a whole. Small local businesses are started; some people create lobbies on international policy. The Romanians in the United States mobilised themselves to defend Romania’s membership of NATO. Global nation politics is a kind of global politics that does not take account of the existence of frontiers, yet that is keenly aware that there are fellow countrymen scattered around the world. In the host countries, the opposite holds true: there is a policy of closure.

So then, what kind of society are we heading towards?

We are in a process of transformation which is triggering what is called the globalisation-localisation of social life, a kind of everyday cosmopolitanism. Global and local are articulated in the same reality. I am convinced that with the new transnational habits, with this cross-border socialisation, we are immersed in a process of inter-penetration between the global and the local which other authors have dubbed denationalisation. Perhaps mobility offers a more insightful interpretation of society. In the past we had a fixed social structure which was equivalent to the nation-state. With the current transformations, this vision is obsolete because not all of society is confined within the traditional boundaries. Where problems lie is with policy. Despite society and all the changes being witnessed today, the regulatory mechanisms are still primarily national. This is an extremely delicate situation that accounts for many of the conflicts seen today in how international migration is handled.

Do the new technologies level us, or conversely do they accentuate differences?

That’s a good question. Indeed, the new information and communication technologies provide access to many resources, but some people are always excluded. It is a question not only of training and education but also of technological equipment. However, ICTs are increasingly accessible to everyone, not just to an elite.

By Gabriel Pernau

Ad Astra–An Online Project for the Romanian Scientific Community
Page de Michaela Nedelcu à UniNE (Université de Neuchâtel)
Mihaela Nedelcu: "Du brain drain à l’ediaspora: vers une nouvelleculture du lien à l’ère du numérique"
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