January 24, 2013
Political Scientist, ISSR Research Scholar Focuses on Minority Migrants in Europe
“My research focuses on the politics of ethnic and racial diversity in Europe,” says Rahsaan Maxwell, assistant professor of political science, who is among the first group of Social Science Research Scholars affiliated with the Institute for Social Science Research in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. “As an African-American who grew up in New York City, I’ve been thinking about the complexities of diversity for as long as I can remember. Traveling outside the country in my teens and early twenties, I became fascinated with all the different ways societies can be organized.”
Diversity in Europe, according to Maxwell, shares many basic similarities with the U.S. while also having many differences. “Studying how diversity operates in Europe provides me with a new way of understanding my American roots in a broader perspective,” he says. “Plus, ethnic and racial diversity is one of the biggest and most pressing issues in contemporary Europe. Due to recent immigration, the complexion of Europe is changing but it’s not yet clear how that transformation will play out. It’s good to engage with those intense debates.”
In graduate school at the University of California Berkeley, Maxwell did a lot of fieldwork. Three years of interviews in Paris and London resulted in his dissertation and first book, Ethnic Minority Migrants in Britain and France: Integration Trade-Offs (Cambridge University Press, 2012). Debates around diversity have been powerful, he says. “In many ways I compare this moment in Europe to the 1960s in the U.S., when civil rights and societal change were open and on the table. “Paris was especially exciting because academics play a much larger role in the public and political debate than they do here. I went to lots of meetings, debates and public events, and interviewed lots of people. Always, I was inspired by their commitment to making a change for something they believed in, even if I didn’t agree with their opinions.”
These days Maxwell’s work primarily focuses on statistical analysis of survey data, related particularly to migrant integration in Europe, and writing articles about the results. The list of publications is impressive. In addition, he is a reviewer for numerous professional journals, and has been called on to speak at many workshops and conferences around the world. “My main intellectual contribution so far has been to highlight the complexity of the integration process,” says Maxwell. “Many people want to know whether integration has succeeded or failed but my research has been all about showing how it can simultaneously be a success and a failure on different dimensions—economic or political, for example.”
Prior to Maxwell’s research, most people who looked at this issue were sociologists studying the multiple ways in which economic and cultural outcomes could be mixed. Maxwell, however, has extended those insights into political outcomes. “I would like to think that this is opening up new questions and new ways of investigating how minorities integrate into a society,” he says.
One of the more practical results of Maxwell’s research is showing that, in many respects, integration in Europe is more successful than people realize. Much of his work, for example, shows that minorities in Europe have very positive attitudes about European society, something one would not often realize by reading popular media accounts. “I hope my research helps to counterbalance the other narrative,” he says.
As an ISSR Research Scholar, Maxwell is participating in an interdisciplinary seminar that includes ongoing presentations and discussion of faculty research proposals, advice on grant writing and submission, information about grant agencies, and opportunities to meet national scholars for consultation. His project explores the conditions under which majority and minority individuals in Europe do and do not share identities with each other. In particular, he is focusing on how these identity boundaries may vary across different areas of society, such as politics, sports, business, and culture. Beginning with a pilot survey conducted in France last summer, he is developing a research grant proposal to expand the project within France and to Germany.
“The ISSR Research Scholars program has been a great opportunity to see the nuts and bolts of how people from other disciplines conduct their work,” says Maxwell. “The tangible benefits are clearly the course release and the structured feedback on my grant proposal, but the intangible benefit of being inspired by different approaches to research is also very valuable.”
Maxwell came to UMass in 2009 as part of a large wave of hiring in political science. “There has been lots of new energy and the department is very open to new ideas,” says Maxwell. “Junior faculty get a lot of respect and are included in departmental discussions and debates in ways that might not happen in every university. The department is very self-conscious about casting a wide definition of political science and encourages us to pursue a wide range of questions. This is especially nice for me because much of my research overlaps with other disciplines—most notably sociology and, increasingly, psychology.”