How To Turn Ethnicity into Migration-Facilitating Capital: Bourdieu, Ethnic Capital, and Stepwise Migration of Korean Chinese to the U.S.

Jaeeun Kim

Tuesday, March 8th 2016
8:30-10:30 Panel 4: Citizenship, Inequality and Mobility


This paper critically examines the shortcomings of the literature on ethnic capital: a failure to theorize the relationship between ethnicity, migration, and stratification beyond ‘methodological nationalism’; the inadequate theorization of the state’s role in shaping the capitalization of ethnicity; and the tendency to conceive ethnicity in a ‘groupist’ manner. Building on Bourdieu, I propose an alternative approach, focusing on how the dynamic interplay among the state, the migration industry, and migrants turns ethnicity into migration-facilitating capital. I highlight the cardinal importance of state power in the valorization, conversion, and legitimization of ethnicity as migration-facilitating capital. I conceptualize the migration industry as a ‘conversion’ expert that helps migrants convert their economic capital into migration-facilitating resources, including ethnic capital. Instead of treating ethnicity as what migrants are, I analyze how migrants cultivate specific ethnic markers for migration purposes. I flesh out these arguments through the analysis of the stepwise migration of ethnic Korean migrants from China to the US. I show how migrants, state authorities, and migration entrepreneurs partook in the struggles over the capitalization of ethnicity, which took various forms: coethnic networks, Korean language proficiency, perceived phenotypical characteristics, official documentation of kinship relations, and South Korean citizenship/passports (obtained legally or illegally).

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