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How Young Somalis Living in Copenhagen Construct Their Identities and Navigate Their Senses of Belonging

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1          METHODOLOGY

1.1          Introduction

This chapter focuses on the research approach and methods adopted in my quest to answer the question how young Somalis living in Copenhagen construct their identities and navigate their senses of belonging. Here, I discuss the philosophical underpinning which informed the study – social constructivism – and this is followed by the methodological approach – inductive-iterative approach. Thereafter I describe how I negotiated access into the ‘field’ and recruited my informants for this study. I then move on to talk about the ethical considerations while presenting the specific methods employed in the data collection alongside the justifications. I present my informants and conclude with the limitations of this study.

The core of this thesis has been twenty interviews conducted with young people with Somali descent living in Copenhagen between the ages of 22 -29 from January 2017 – April 2017. But throughout the research process, I kept in touch with my informants outside the stated period especially through social media. Out of this, I recorded and transcribed eight in-depth interviews. Furthermore, I conducted two group interviews, several informal and spur of the moment chats, participated in and observed a handful of events and occasions I was invited to by my informants. Some of my informants did not want to be recorded so I took notes in those situations. Similarly, the spur of the moment and opportunistic chats were also not recorded but I wrote down notes immediately after I got home. All the interviews were conducted in English. The informants were comfortable speaking in English and my Danish is quite limited. The informants were also multilingual – all of them spoke fluent Danish, English and Somali – Danish and English were taught mostly at school while their parents taught them Somali at home. All the informants noted that speaking Somali was part of their identity and that their parents ensured that they spoke in Somali. While Danish remained the language, they used in their daily lives, they often spoke Somali with their families when at home. Mohammed[1], my first informant, when asked if he could speak Somali, answered that:

“Yes, I speak Somali. I read and can write Somali but it is not at the same level as my Danish. My mom, she tease (s) me a lot. She calls me ‘Sujuu’ …Which is a term that you use for people who speak broken Somali or have a different dialect mainly those who come from Southern Somalia at the border to Kenya.” – Mohammed, Interview

Mohammed further explained to me that his mother teased him because of his accent which did not sound like a ‘typical Somali’ – referring to a typical Somali as someone who had lived most of their adult life in Somalia but appreciated the fact that he could speak Somali

1.2         Philosophical Underpinning

This thesis builds on the social constructivist world view – the view that reality is socially constructed (Berger & Luckmann, 1966, p. 13). This term social constructivism is often associated with Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, who coined the phrase in their book ‘The Social Construction of Reality’ and acknowledge being influenced by the works of Mead, Marx, Schutz and Durkheim (Andrews, 2012).  John Creswell describes social constructivism as an interpretive framework whereby individuals seek to understand their world and develop their own particular meanings that correspond to their experience (2013). To him, meanings are formed through interactions with others rather than it being inherent or intrinsic (ibid.). Furthermore, social constructivism focuses on the importance of culture and the context in understanding what occurs in society and constructing knowledge based on this understanding (Kim et al., 2001). The main assumptions underlining social constructivism can be classified under three main headings – reality, knowledge and learning.

Kim et al.  (2001) explains these assumptions:

Reality: Social constructivists believe that reality is constructed through human activity and thus members of a society together invent the properties of the world. For the social constructivist, reality cannot be discovered: it does not exist prior to its social invention.

Knowledge: To social constructivists, knowledge is also a human product, and is socially and culturally constructed hence individuals create meaning through their interactions with each other and with the environment they live in.

Learning: Social constructivists view learning as a social process. It does not take place only within an individual, nor is it a passive development of behaviors that are shaped by external forces but rather meaningful learning occurs when individuals are engaged in social activities.

Moving on from this backdrop and to achieve the aim of this study and answer to the overarching question of the thesis, this approach is reflected in the responses by the informant – that is the expression of their worldview and how this is shaped by their interaction with people and the environment in which they reside. The question of ‘how’ and ‘why’ does not seek universal truths but rather their view on the position and situation in which they find themselves and how they interpret it. In other words, the goal is to understand how they as individuals in relation to the world surrounding them, construct their identity and navigate their sense of belonging in Denmark. It should also be noted that the knowledge from this thesis is socially constructed and based on the views, ideas, beliefs and narratives of the informants and thus cannot be generalized as ‘truths’ or facts representing all Somalis in Denmark.

1.3         Methodological Approach

This thesis sought to explore how young Somali refugees living in Denmark navigate their identity and sense of belonging in a Western context, Denmark as stated above. To achieve this goal, the study took the form of what Karen O’Reilly described as the ‘iterative-inductive approach’ (2011, p. 29). She defines this as the process of doing research, informed by a sophisticated inductivism, in which data collection, analysis and writing up are not distinct phases but are rather inextricably linked (ibid., p. 30). This design allows for fluidity and flexibility as researchers allow the ‘data to lead them to theory’.  Anselm Strauss and Juliet Corbin (2008) explain this further as the process whereby the researcher starts off with an area to be investigated then allows the theory to emerge from the data collected (Corbin & Strauss, 2008, p. 12).  Similarly, dynamic concepts such as identity and belonging need finesse in approaching such issues since they can be complex and complicated in investigating. This type of research is well-suited for studying groups who are not easily accessible such as refugees and immigrants (Hudelson, 1994). This approach means that themes and concepts are extracted from the data collected  (Thomas, 2006, p.  238).

This approach guided the research in this thesis, which has been open and iterative-inductive with only a few pre-conceived ideas about the young Somalis living in Denmark, letting the theory emerge from the data. Having the inductive approach gave me the flexibility needed to enter a field that was largely unknown prior to the fieldwork[2]. For instance, before entering the field, I had the preconceived idea that the Somalis in Denmark were a homogeneous group but I soon realized that was not so after a few weeks into the project. As stated already, the underlying commonality was their Somali descent but as whole they are different in many ways – some of the differences will be highlighted and discussed in the chapters that follow.

In the quest of extracting themes, the qualitative case study approach was adopted as the specific research design. Even though the use of the case study approach is widespread, there is no consensus on the proper definition of what it is among social scientists (Levy, 2008). It can be generally described as a type of research method which allows a researcher to examine closely and in-depth the data within a specific context (Creswell, 2013; Hudelson, 1994). In other words, it is an attempt to explore and interpret a spatially and temporally bounded set of events (Levy, 2008). The advantage of this approach is the flexibility with which data collection and analysis is conducted. This approach does not assign a single or rigid, straightjacket method, but rather allows the researcher to use a mix of methods depending on what best helps address the research question (Fletcher et al., 1997; Yin, 2003). The case study approach was employed to gain in-depth understanding of identity and sense of belonging among young Somalis in Denmark, specifically those residing in Copenhagen.

1.4         Negotiating access and selection of informants

The fieldwork for this research was conducted in various places in Copenhagen in Denmark. The initial idea for the thesis was to conduct an ethnographic study at Griffenfeldsgade[3] but two weeks into the field work, negotiating access proved difficult and after further consultation with my supervisor, this method was not adequate in meeting the research objectives. Thus, there was the need for a change in approach and recruitment of informants. Hammersley & Atkinson (2010, p. 41) observe that negotiating access to data continues to be one of the difficult tasks in the conduct of any research study. They continue further that gaining access is a practical matter which involves ‘drawing on the intra – and inter- personal resources and strategies that we all tend to develop in dealing with everyday life’ (ibid.). As a student from Ghana studying in Copenhagen, I reached out to my network of friends to help me contact their friends with Somali descent – living in Copenhagen and were within the category of my study population[4]. I met Mohammed, my first informant, through my network. He studied in one of the universities in Copenhagen with one of my friends.

Furthermore, my supervisor[5] recommended an event – Bindestregsidentitet / Hvor kompliceret er det?[6]– where I met Somalis both residing in Copenhagen and outside. She introduced me to some of her friends and that formed my access into the Somali community. I was quickly welcomed and trusted after she took time to explain my study to them. I got into informal chats with some of the informants and some agreed to be interviewed for my research. The informants from the event further recommended others I could talk to –  snowball sampling. Snowball sampling can be generally described as the type of non-probability and purposive sampling where research informants recruit other informants for a study (Kvale, 2006; Mack, Woodsong, Macqueen, Guest, & Namey, 2005). It is often adopted for groups that are hard to reach (Hudelson, 1994) and young Somalis in Copenhagen was hard to reach for me since the ‘field’ was new to me even though I shared the city, Copenhagen[7] with them.  Here informants with whom initial contact has been made ‘use their social networks to refer the researcher to other people who could potentially participate in or contribute to the study’ (Mack, et al., 2005, p. 5-6).

As the reader will find out later in this chapter, majority of the informants are female and educated. Even though I deliberately tried as much as possible to ensure that there was a balance between the sexes and diversity, this was not the case. This is because as I snowballed my way through the field, my informants led me to their friends who were of the same gender as themselves except Mohammed who did not recommend anyone for me to speak to. Being a young man of 25 years (around the age of most of the informants), my assumption before the study was that the females would be uncomfortable sharing information about themselves with me but I was proven wrong. The female informants were always ready to help and were more open than their male counterparts. In fact, all the events that I participated in, were through invitations by my female informants.

It should also be noted that as someone with African descent and around the same age as my informants – they felt a sense of closeness to me, which also made it easy for them to trust me. Mohammed would always call me ‘brother’ instead of my name anytime we met. He explained that we are “Africans” (from Africa) and that we are one people even though I was from the West and he from the East of Africa. This feeling was not only with Mohammed but with the other informants as well. During some interviews and chats, they would make statements like ‘we’, ‘us’, and ‘we/us Africans…’ showing a connection and a shared ‘brotherhood’ and identity that resonates from having the African background/connection. This was in no way curving into the niche and stereotyping all Africans as one but a sense of connectedness because of the common denominator that we shared. This to some extent made it also easy for trust to be established. It also made the informants comfortable to share some sensitive information with me. It needs to be said however that my sample of young Somalis living in Denmark is by no means fully representative and their stories only give partial insights into a wider phenomenon.

1.5         Ethical Considerations

Ethics are fundamental in conducting every research especially when using people (humans) as objects of study. Bryan and Bell (2007) observe that it is important to ensure respect for the dignity and autonomy of research participants both children and adults. The issue of ethics concerns the protection and rights of the people connected to the research. This makes it prudent in being ethical in the conduct of any research. During the conduct of this study, I was careful to treat my informants with respect and cordiality – always guided by the ethical considerations listed by the American Anthropology Association’s code of ethics and Bryan and Bell’s principles of ethical consideration for social scientists (Beeman, 1992; Bryman, 2016; Bryman & Bell, 2007). The ethical considerations were clear to me on the onset of the study as he topic I am investigating is a sensitive one. Sensitive in the sense that it involved a vulnerable population – refugees (Hugman & Hugman, 2011)

Before beginning every interview, I took time to explain comprehensively what my research to the best of my knowledge was about, and sought the consent of the informants. I also clariid to them the objective of the research I was conduction which was that it was for my Master’s Thesis. Furthermore, I explained to them that they should feel free to withdraw at any point and should not feel obliged to answer questions which they were not comfortable with. I sought consent before taking any photos or making recordings of any kinds including making notes while we talked. In line with the informed consent, I also made assured the informants that their identity will be anonymized. Also, anything they said would solely be used for academic purposes. I have given pseudonyms to my informants/informants to protect their identity

1.6          Methods

This section focuses on the specific methods employed in the collection of data to answer the question of how young Somalis living in Copenhagen construct their identities and navigate their sense of belonging in Denmark. I discuss the methods including how they worked in the field and reasons for using them.

In the collection of data to answer the question how young somali refugees identify themselves and their sense of belonging in a western context, Denmark, I conducted interviews. This formed the primary method of data collection for this thesis. In the view of Kvale (2006) interviews are conversations that have a structure and a purpose which is usually used by social scientists to investigate varieties of human experiences. To him, interviews are used to understand the world from the view of the subject and to unfold meaning of their lived world (Kvale, 2006, p. 481). Furthermore, interviews give voice to ‘common people, allowing them to freely present their life situations in their own words, and open for a close personal interaction between the researchers and their informants’ (ibid.). Some authors classify interviews into three broad categories – unstructured, semi-structured and structured interviews (See Hudelson, 1994) but Karen O’Reilly breaks this down even further. She observes that interviews can take the form of opportunistic chats, questions that arise on the spur of the moment, one to one in- depth interviews, and group interviews, and all sorts of ways of asking questions and learning about people that fall in between (O’Reilly, 2011). This study made use of all the types described by O’Reilly which I will introduce you to below.

Moreover, I made preparations before the conduct of the interviews (Bryman, 2008, p. 473; O’Reilly, 2011, pp. 95, 105). I arranged with informants on where the interviews should take place. Often based on their suggestion, we agreed to meet in the city centre of Copenhagen as it was convenient for both of us. The interviews mostly took place in semi-public cafes – even though public, the cafes had private spaces for private conversations. Furthermore, I used my iPhone to record the interviews with the consent of the informants.  Hence, I ensured that the phone was fully charged before heading out for the interviews. During the interviews/recording, I had a sense they quickly forgot the presence of the phone – as despite being visible the phone did not light up or indicate it is recording. On multiple occasions, we chatted for long periods of time before our consciousness was drawn to the presence of the phone – either at the end of the interview or the signal of a low battery. For example, in the interview with Memuna, both of us forgot about the phone until it lit up to indicate that the battery was low. Memuna remarked that:

I even forgot that you were recording on your phone (pointing to the phone as it beeped to indicate a low battery) … I hope you can use the information you have recorded for your project. (Memuna, Interview)

Hence even though the phone was there physically, it blended easily into the surrounding. The advantage of this is that it allowed my informants to fully express themselves without the consciousness of them being recorded that is our conversations flowed as if there was no recording device. The phone indicated a low battery because we had been chatting for close to two hours.

The interviews often ranged between 30 –  120 minutes often depending on how much the informants wanted to share and how open the whole session was. During the interviews, I took as little notes as possible and listened more but wrote down my field notes right after the interviews. O’Reily (2011) argues that recording and taking notes at the same time is both difficult to do and makes the interview less anonymous and natural, hence my decision to take less notes. I also took notes of the non-verbal gestures most especially their facial expressions during the interviews. For example, I noted that anytime Amina would speak about the negative stereotype about Somalis in Denmark, her disposition would change from her smiling face to that of sadness, to illustrate how that stereotype makes her feel. This was like Memuna, who expressed anger at these stereotypes. Mohammed would beam with smile when talking about Somali food and how he can’t wait to visit his family who lived in Aarhus. These gesture which could not be captured by the recording device provide an emotional component to the interviews conducted.

I constructed the interview guide as I progressed in the field work. As started already, I entered the field with little preconceived ideas about Somalis in Denmark and allowed my informants to guide me, hence exploring themes which came up from the conversations we had. I was aware of the broad areas that I wanted to investigate as suggested by Bryman (2016, p. 473) but allowed the informants as well as the field to guide me. Because of this, I started off with general questions which became narrower as I progressed.  My questions developed as I interviewed my informants. I asked follow-up questions about some specific answers and explored further some important themes which came up during the conversations.  This is the advantage that came with the semi-structured interview guide, the flexibility which allows for follow-up questions based on the specific answers by my informants (ibid. pp. 470 – 471).  The complete interview guide can be found in the Appendix A at the end of this thesis. Furthermore, this tool of data collection came with a structure alongside the flexibility – structure in the sense that it gave the conversations direction and some form of uniformity (ibid.). This allowed for me to compare the responses from my informants and draw some conclusions as well. I used the semi-structured interview guide often during the one-on-one interview sessions of which I conducted eight and the two opportunistic group interviews. With time, I did not need to carry the interview guide with me as it became familiar the more I used it.  I believe that this is an advantage I wouldn’t have come across had I structured interview technique or even a quantitative approach. This chosen approach allowed for the further probing of issues that arose from the conversations with my informants.

I conducted two group interviews during the study both were not planned but happened at the spur of the moment. The first one was with the homework group organized by Illam and her friend. The initial idea was for me to come observe how they organized the homework group but Illam allowed me to conduct an interview with the girls available – four in total – half were born in Denmark and the other half were born in Somalia. The second group interview was a random one. I was heading to the kitchen in my university when I chanced upon three guys who I later found out were Somalis and needed direction to the washroom. We got involved in a conversation about half an hour after they had used the washroom. Two of them were born in Somalia and the other was born in Denmark but moved to the U.K. for ten years but back again in Denmark.

The informal interviews were applied to follow up on observed events from participant observation. The main advantages of this method are the high level of flexibility and how the method is applied in an unrestricted environment (Hammersley & Atkinson, 2010; Kvale, 2006). I had several informal interviews and spur of the moment chats with Somalis of diverse background during the duration of the field work. Most occurred at events I was invited to by informants and randomly getting into conversations with Somalis on either my bus or on the train.

An underlying method in the whole research process was participation and observation. I did this to complement the interviews and chats that I had with my informants. In doing this, I always made sure my informants were aware of my presence, purpose and permission to do carry this out (Bryman, 2016, p. 436; O’Reilly, 2011, pp. 61–65). This method allowed me to observe and to some extent take part in some activities with my informants (DeWalt & DeWalt, 2011, pp 2). During the period of the study, I was invited to different events by my informants – ranging from formal events to having dinners with their friends. One of such events was an event organized by Amina called Min Identitet På Tværs. This event was about Somali culture expressed through dance, music, folklore and a photo exhibition. The photography exhibition was Amina’s way of recreating iconic vintage Somali photos by Somalis living in Denmark. The apparel used in the photos were sown by Amina – she “sows clothes and follows her imagination as a hobby” – putting it in her own words. During this event, I participated in some Somali traditional dance which was taught to me by Amina and some of her friends available. We formed a circle and everyone took turns to dance. I showed them some Ghanaian dance.  I also engaged in informal opportunistic chats with the attendees at the event. While at the event, I got to observe how the attendees discussed and explored Somali culture. The event was supposed to be in Danish but when I arrived, they combined Danish with English so I could understand what was happening. After the whole thing, a handful went for dinner. I was invited and I went along. Participating in these events further strengthen the trust between me and my informants and also made me gained insight into different aspects of the culture and understanding of my informants – what De Munck and Sobo (1998) call the “backstage culture” – i.e. the “behaviors, intentions, situations and events as understood by [the] informant” (De Munck & Sobo, 1998, p. 43).

1.7         Presentation of Informants

This section gives a brief presentation on the seven informants who participated in the study. They include four females and a male ranging between the ages of 22 – 29 years, who reside in Copenhagen. All my informants hold a Danish passport. Furthermore, all the informants had some form of formal education and either had part-time or full-time jobs. All the informants were multilingual as they spoke and could write fluently in Danish, English and Somali. This is contrary to the dominant stereotype in mainstream media that people of Somali descent were lazy, unwilling and depended on welfare benefits. All of them paid taxes and contributed to the state through their jobs. Similarly, all the informants were born in Somalia but before moving to Denmark they lived in either Ethiopia or Kenya or both.

Table 1Summary of information of informants

Name of Informant Age Gender Citizenship
Mohammed 26 Male Danish
Fawza and 

Ilham

26 and 

22

Female 

Female

Danish 

Danish

Aisha 29 Female Danish
Amina 27 Female Danish
Memuna 22 Female Danish

Mohammed is 26 years and has lived in Denmark since he was three years. He was born in Somalia but lived in Kenya as well as Ethiopia because of the civil war in Somalia and arrived in Denmark in 1993. He is currently enrolled in a Master program at the University of Copenhagen and works as a student assistant at the Danish Refugee Council. Mohammed is not married and lives in Nørrebro in Copenhagen.

Fawza is also 26 years old and recently married. She is currently on a study leave from her studies and will be returning later this year to complete her studies. She lives in Copenhagen as well. Fawza was born in Somalia but grew up briefly in Ethiopia before moving to Denmark in 2001 due to the civil war. She arrived in Denmark when she was eleven years old.

Illam is Fawza’s sister and came along during my interview with Fawza. Illam is 22 years and like her sister also grew up in Ethiopia. She is currently studying her Bachelors and works in a Kindergarten as a part-time job. She came to Denmark when she was six years old. She lives in Copenhagen with her family. Illam and her friend have set-up a homework/mentor group for young Somali living in Copenhagen[8].

Aisha is 29 years old. She has completed her Masters and currently works with an NGO in Copenhagen. She was born in Somalia and lived in Ethiopia for two years (age 5 – 7) before arriving in Denmark at age seven. She is not married and lives in Copenhagen.

Amina is 27 years and lives in Copenhagen. She was born in Somalia and is studying for a degree in Pharmacy at the University of Copenhagen. She arrived in Denmark when she was two years old. As a hobby, together with a few friends organize events about Somali culture and identity in Copenhagen. I attended a photo exhibition[9] organized by her.

Memuna is 22 years old and lives in Copenhagen. She is currently working and not schooling but hopes to continue her education later. She arrived in Denmark when she was five years old. During the time of the interview, Memuna did not hold a Danish passport, as she arrived in Denmark through a family reunification visa. But she held a pass that allows her to travel around Europe without a visa but cannot go outside Europe or the Schengen area. Before she can get a passport, she needs to pass e a citizens’ test and meet some requirements[10]. When I contacted her again during the writing up of the thesis period, she had written the exams and passed successfully and was awaiting the Danish passport to be mailed to her.

1.8         Limitations Of the study

Just like any research, this study has its own limitations. I conducted this study with a rather small number of informants – typical of qualitative explorations – and this can be attributed to the limited amount of time for the conduct of this study. Because of this, the generalizability of this study should be taken with a pinch of salt – as the findings and analysis draw on the empirical data collected from transcribed data and field notes. Despite this being a relatively small study, I believe that the findings from this study provide an in-depth insight and understanding which represents my informants and their experiences in a meaningful way.


[1]  2   I present more information about the informants under the heading ‘Presentation of informants’.

[2] I elaborate on accessing the ‘field’ further under the heading ‘Negotiating Access and Sample Selection’.

[3] Griffenfeldsgade is a street in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen, which runs from Nørrebrogade in the northeast to Åboulevard on the border to Frederiksberg in the southwest from where it continues as H. C. Ørsteds Vej. The street has a multiethnic character and is home to many African specialty stores, coffee shops and restaurants (Kongsgaard, Pedersen, & Jakobsen, 2016). To many Danes residing in Copenhagen, the street is known as ‘Lille Afrika’ (Little Africa) but Somalis residing there call it Somali Street (ibid.).  One resident recalls that the first Somalis arrived there in 1993 and since then it continues to be a vibrant community of not only Somalis but other immigrant groups especially East Africans.

[4] The criteria for selecting informants were that they should be of Somali descent, young within the ages 18- 30, were not born in Denmark but arrived here either on their own or with their family because of the civil war in Somalia and have lived in Denmark for more than ten (10) years.

[5] My supervisor, Anja Simonsen, has been working with Somalis for her thesis and as result had a Somali network.

[6] This event took place on the 3rd February 2017 at VerdensKulturCentret in Copenhagen. The event was about Hyphenated identity. During the breaks, I got into informal chats with some informants and some agreed to an interview for my thesis. The people from this event formed the crust of my informants. My supervisor informally translated some of the debates that went on since the event was in Danish.

[7] I have been in Copenhagen for my Masters study and have been living there for the last 15 months mostly for my education.

[8] The homework/mentor group is a safe space for young Somali girls to meet and get help from Illam and her friend in working through their school assignments. The group was started in 2015 by the two friends to help young Somali girls navigate the challenges they faced while growing up in Denmark. The group met once a week on either a Saturday or Sunday, which I visited as part of my field work

[9] Details of the photo exhibition can be found under the Participant Observation Section

[10] The specific requirement can be found on the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Integration (http://uim.dk/arbejdsomrader/statsborgerskab/in-english)



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