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Digital projects aimed at immigrants in Germany: an anthropological study

November 21, 2008

I was recently at the University of Bremen where I had the pleasure of examining a PhD thesis by Oliver Hinkelbein entitled Strategien zur digitalen Integration von Migranten: Ethnographische Fallstudien in Esslingen und Hannover. Hinkelbein defended his dissertation very successfully and was awarded a magna cum laude degree.

The stated aim of this thesis is to investigate some of the strategies whereby both public and civil society organisations in Germany are seeking to bridge the ‘digital divide’ reportedly separating native Germans from foreign immigrants. These strategies come under the rubric of ‘digital integration’ (digitale Integration) and they are investigated in this study through the case studies of digital initiatives aimed at immigrants in Esslingen (public) and Hannover (non-governmental). Theoretically, this thesis adopts an interdisciplinary approach based on actor-network theory (Latour, Callon, etc) and the theory of rhizomes (Deleuze and Guattari), although the focus is on those human agents who act as sociotechnological go-betweens (Hinkelbein calls them ‘new mediators’) rather than on non-human agents (PCs, software, printers, etc.).

This study makes an important contribution to our current knowledge of digital initiatives at the local level of policy and practice, especially as they impinge on the lives of ethnic minorities in a Western European polity. The sustained attempt at theorising the empirical findings is particularly welcome given this research area’s undertheorisation and lack of conceptual development. All too often the specialist scholarly literature is too close to the ideals and values of digital policy-makers and practitioners to achieve sufficient analytical distance. Although clearly and openly sympathetic to the goals of the new mediators he got to know well, Hinkelbein manages to attain such an objective distance whilst painting a vivid portrait of their dreams, hopes and frustrations.

It is precisely this study’s analysis of the new mediators’ practices that contributes most to our current understanding of grassroots technologies and its local ‘champions’, and not only among immigrant groups – an area of knowledge about which we know very little. Not only does this data on new mediators fill an important gap in the scholarship, it is also theorised within a four-stage processual model of their activities that opens up a new avenue for future comparative research in other parts of Germany and elsewhere.

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