How embodied expectations affect immigrant incorporation


by Hana Brown

Each new wave of immigration to the United States has raised questions about whether immigrants will integrate into American society or undermine its core values. Public fears abound, but experts paint an optimistic portrait of immigrant adaptation. The available evidence suggests that incorporation proceeds apace, but that immigration integration trends are patterned by factors like geography, public policies, and legal status.

In a recent study, I identify another factor that influences immigrant incorporation: the physical body. I find that immigrants’ ability to incorporate economically and socially depends in part on their ability to incorporate bodily. That is, it depends on their ability to retrain their bodies to perform the kinds of physical movements required for full membership in the host society.

From a young age, individuals around the world learn how to perform the physical movements expected by their society. In the United States, children’s toys teach them to perform fine motors movements like pushing buttons on a telephone or tapping a keyboard with the appropriate level of force. These toys aren’t merely for entertainment. They teach children to perform the physical actions required to access the most influential institutions around them.

These socialized movements are so ingrained that we hardly notice them. But when people move between societies with radically different embodied expectations, the physical body can pose a real struggle in the adaptation process. This is precisely the situation in which the immigrants I studied found themselves.

In the three years I spent collecting data in a West African immigrant community in California, I routinely watched immigrants struggle to master physical movements that seem basic to most native-born Americans. Raised in rural, agrarian communities, their bodies were socialized to perform skills like bending low to the ground to harvest crops and safely and efficiently wielding machetes –skills that provided economic security and even opportunities for mobility in their countries of origin.

Physical movements that seem natural to most native-born Americans, like punching a time card or dialing a telephone, required a particular type of dexterity and coordination that they did not possess. As a result, the bodily incorporation process proved arduous and had profound implications on their ability to amass capital or achieve a modicum of economic security.

Encounters with the neighborhood ATM exemplify these struggles. Cash machines require customers to press a series of buttons to respond to automated commands. Patrons must hold a small, thin card and insert it in precise fashion into a narrow slot. For the immigrants in my study, visits to the ATM could take upwards of an hour. They struggled to position their cards in the right direction, insert them at exactly the right angle with the precise amount of pressure, and then navigate a sea of fine motor movements to retrieve their cash. If they failed at any one of these steps, their transaction would terminate prematurely, and they would start all over again.

The economic stakes were high at each visit to the ATM. Not only could a transaction time out, requiring a continued time investment, pushing the wrong buttons could be disastrous. They might withdraw more money than anticipated. If they did not withdraw enough money, each additional transaction cost them $2.00 in bank fees, a hefty sum for individual subsisting on low-wage work or public benefits. One time, single mother in the community lost $16.00 to failed transactions, five percent of her monthly cash budget.

Spending so long withdrawing cash from the ATM also posed safety risks. Passersby watched their efforts, including their multiple attempts to enter pin numbers. Given their bodily struggles, these individuals often relied on others to help with their transactions, but that made them legally vulnerable. Each time they passed their cards to another individual for assistance, they surrendered their legal rights should the card be used improperly. This was a risk not only at banks but at grocery stores where they often required help from store workers or the people behind them in line to swipe their cards to pay for food or to enter their pin numbers.

While many individuals in this community were able to amass and save some capital each month, their physical struggles with financial institutions (and their lack of confidence in their ability to withdraw their money at will) made them wary of using savings accounts which would allow them to accrue interest. Instead, they kept their savings in cash under their mattresses or hidden elsewhere in their homes.

The time they spent negotiating these bodily movements and the stress induced by the process limited their ability to acquire other assets, manage their resources independently, and incorporate economically in a way that would facilitate upward mobility or at least a more financially stable lifestyle. The physical body affected their economic incorporation even absent the legal status and skill barriers that commonly affect immigrants’ economic integration. Their struggle with bodily incorporation also proved a constant reminder to them of their outsider status in their new home.

Usually experts study immigrants’ economic, social, and linguistic incorporation, but these other more traditionally studied forms of incorporation are all predicated in part on bodily incorporation. My findings suggest that paying closer attention to the body and embodiment can help clarify the mechanisms driving immigrant incorporation and the inequalities produced by that process.

Hana Brown is an associate professor of sociology at Wake Forest University. This article summarizes findings from “Immigrant Bodily Incorporation: How the Physical Body Structures Identity, Mobility, and Transnationalism” in Social Problems.

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