2011-2012 – Sri Lankan social networks in Milan, Italy

In early 2011 I started a year of ethnographic work in Italy and Sri Lanka, which was followed by a social network survey in the Sri Lankan community in Milan, Italy. This fieldwork resulted in my PhD dissertation, “Bridging Across Nations: The Social Capital of Diversity, Brokerage and Closure in Transnational Migrant Networks”, and was funded by the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies in Economics, Psychology and Social Sciences (CISEPS), Centro Studi Luca d’Agliano in Milan, and the Doctoral Program in Urban and Local European Studies (URBEUR) at the University of Milan-Bicocca.

The first few months of fieldwork were devoted to familiarizing with the Sri Lankan community in Milan and building relationships with different key informants. In this stage, participant observation was conducted in several different contexts and events, both private and public. I took part to family get-togethers, birthday parties, dinners and trips among Sri Lankan friends. I attended political rallies organized by Sri Lankan politicians who campaigned among their co-nationals in Milan. I participated to Sri Lankan Catholic and Buddhist religious services and events, including masses in Sri Lankan Catholic churches, Buddhist services in Sri Lankan temples, and pilgrimages to Sri Lankan places of worship, like the Basilica of Saint Anthony in Padua, Italy. I also took part in non-religious community events, such as the celebrations for the Sinhalese New Year (April 2011) in one of the largest parks in Milan (Parco Mattei in San Donato). Qualitative data were collected through ethnographic observation and unstructured interviews with key informants, including political activists, religious leaders, and Sri Lankan business owners.

Participant observation also took place in Sri Lanka for around three weeks (June 2011), in the area of Kuliyapitiya, one of the largest towns in the Kurunegala District (North Western Province). I was there with Sri Lankan immigrants who were back from Milan to visit families, friends and business partners. This was an invaluable opportunity to observe the mobilization of transnational social networks in the immigrants’ home country; the complexity and ambiguities of the relationship between immigrants and families and friends left behind; the web of moral and economic obligations that immigrants have to navigate in their hometown communities; and the operations of transnational businesses that Sri Lankans establish in the Island while living in Italy.

Back in Milan, in July 2011, I started preparing a personal network survey that ultimately reached 107 Sri Lankan respondents. I was helped by a staff of two Italian research assistants and three Sri Lankan interpreters. Respondents were recruited in three ways:

  • With flyers and posters that were circulated in central places of Milan, especially those with a high residential concentration of Sri Lankan immigrants.
  • Through information booths operated by our Italian and Sri Lankan staff. These were set up in central places of the Sri Lankan community in Milan, including Sri Lankan street markets, front yards of Sri Lankan churches and temples, Sri Lankan bars, restaurants and other businesses, and Sri Lankan schools.
  • By letting key informants recruit further respondents.

Between September and October 2011, 117 Sri Lankan respondents were recruited.

All the interviews took place in Milan over around four months (December 2011 – March 2012).  The surveys were carried out by Italian interviewers, in most cases with the help of Sri Lankan interpreters. The interviews were computer-assisted and collected information about socio-demographic characteristics, history of migration, and a number of outcomes of social and cultural assimilation. In addition, we used the software program VennMaker to collect detailed information about respondents’ personal networks, including composition (characteristics of personal contacts) and structure (relationships between personal contacts). Each respondent provided information about 45 personal contacts. By March 2012, 107 Sri Lankans had been interviewed, and 102 of them had completed the survey.

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