Middle East & North Africa · Sociology · Third year

Case study: To what extent does the concept of ‘second generation’, characterising the Maghreb immigrants’ children in France, engender a form of social division?

The notion of ‘second generation’ used in France since the 1980s designates the generation of immigrants’ offspring, especially Maghreb immigrants coming as a response to the expanding European economies’ labor demand (Hamilton, 1997, p.550). Moreover, this concept influences transnational migration studies because it is a specific categorization of the social sphere, particularly linked to young men issued from difficult neighborhoods, behaving outside the mainstream norms and values. This implicitly suggests that they will face difficulties or be a problem for French society. Therefore the ‘second generation’ has a conflictual dimension and using it implies a so-called social problem, for example regarding academic failure or unemployment. The notion of generation categorizes individuals in a homogeneous and uniform group, and the concept of ‘second generation’ adds a stigmatization component to it, which generates negative representations affecting the political and social space. Even though the notion of generation is extremely useful to social research (Pilcher, 1994, p.481), the representation created ignores the installation process, the ageing of the descendants and their overall place in French society. It also influences the construction of sociological issues from social facts, and denies the influence of the diversity of social paths and statuses.

As it is much mediatized, the expression ‘second generation’ must be explored to understand the necessity to be cautious when using it. Employing the intersectionality framework, this case study will explore how the idea of generation within migration studies is a social construct through a particular focus on French immigrants from Maghreb. The hypothesis is that this notion homogenizes a social group and raises many problems, although the generational approach can help to theorize research and bring a particular epistemological insight. To test this assumption, the first part of this case study analysis will define the concept of second generation and its limits, and will also outline in which context it has emerged. The second part will analyze the migration and family dimension of the use of a generational approach. Finally, the third part will question the very existence of the second generation.



The expression of ‘second generation’ appeared in France when the presence of Maghreb immigrants’ progeny (mostly from Algeria) became more visible in the public sphere. Indeed, in the last 60 years migration from the African continent has been steadily increasing, with Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria together representing 30% of permanent admissions in 1975, 50% in 1981-1982 and 40% since the mid-1980s (OECD, 1992 in Hamilton, 1997, p.558). Many debates emerged regarding the transit from an immigration composed of sole men temporary workers to the permanent installation of families, and especially social concerns about children. It should be noted that previous immigrants’ children did have problems to integrate French society, for example, the Italian diaspora at the late 19th century and early 20th century had an issue about being too catholic (Laurence & Vaisse, 2006, pp.30-31). However the label of ‘second generation’ appeared and became mediatized with the arrival of Maghreb immigration. This specificity can be explained by three arguments. First, the political context of the 1980s, with the election of President François Mitterrand in 1981, multiplied socio-cultural policies, political debates on foreigners and racism etc. Second, the colonial context engendered clear relations of domination which, according to Sayad, is what makes the Algerian immigration ‘exemplary’ in addition to the numerical importance and the conflictual nationality question (Sayad, 2004, p.63). Finally, the installation of non-European Muslim families was difficult in a French society that was facing an economic crisis.

These arguments do not however justify the use of ‘second generation’ and are not enough to understand the stigmatization faced by the Maghreb immigrants’ children. Nevertheless, Sayad argues that it was in the interests of French society to separate the parents from the children, because the assimilationist mode required the children to be integrated, without past or memory (Sayad, 1994, p.171), and the main policy was naturalization, that is to say an automatic imposition of French nationality through birth (Weil, 2004, p.146). This case study does not aim to explore the advantages and disadvantages of the main modes of integration and the correspondent migration policies, namely assimilation, integration and multiculturalism, which translate a certain response to ethnic and cultural differences (Modood, 2013, p.1974). However, it should be noted that assimilation was at the heart of the French integration policies especially in the 1970s-1980s, but still characterizes the country nowadays and has a strong impact on interethnic marriage and therefore on the acquisition of the language which increases employment opportunities (Meng & Meurs, 2006).


In migration studies, the concept of generation is used in two different ways. First, it defines the immigrants’ children. Second, it designates the migratory wave to which immigrants belong, depending on their ‘age of emigration’ which Sayad defines as being first provisional men immigrants needed for agricultural work, second linked to modernity, industrialization and individualization, and third installation process of families in French society (Sayad, 2004, p.31).

Therefore, it is important to distinguish the notion of generation and the generational approach. The former can be dangerous if misused, whereas the latter holds a certain scientific value based on the articulation of three perspectives (Castagnone, 2011). First, a biographical perspective allows the family history to be reconstituted from individuals’ stories and then used to study the socialization process, both horizontal and vertical. This family history also enables to understand the intergenerational dimension by considering the inheritance, transmission, mobilizations and reinterpretation of situations. Second, a diachronic perspective enables the temporal dimension to become an essential analytical tool for contemporary social facts. Third, a structural analysis perspective takes into account the transformations of French society and their effects on individuals’ social paths. These three methodological assumptions are interrelated and allow the generational approach to positively contribute to the sociology of migration, in which the study of longitudinal facts is central and enables to understand the multiplicity of influencing factors on individuals’ paths in French society (Pilchner, 1994, p.494). Moreover, they can be particularly relevant when exploring socio-professional insertion.

It is important to clearly define the population concerned. However, research on the immigrants’ children has used changing criteria and the definition of belonging is too fluctuating. For example, must the two parents be immigrants to designate their children as ‘second generation’? According to Tribalat (1995) the ‘second generation’ is composed of children born in France and of French nationality. However, in most census French Muslims from Algeria are counted as foreigners and it is only since 1954 that they have been counted as French by birth (Hamilton, 1997, p.558). As in Santelli (2001), this case study will assume the following criteria: of two immigrant parents, the children were born in France or arrived very young, before primary schooling which creates a unit of socialization, and can have the French nationality or not. Therefore this generational approach presents two methodological interests, first the individuals are considered within their filiation and second, it allows us to analyze the impact of migratory history. These two advantages, the family and migratory dimensions, can be related to a biographic and comprehensible perspective, and will now be explored.



The intersectionality framework considers the crosscutting of social exclusions, the multiple dimension of experiences and goes beyond binary conceptualization of categories (Crenshaw, 1989). The generational approach allows us to collect information about the lineage and filiation importance. Other methods, by masking this evidence, seem to assume that generations arise only by a history of migration, that is to say, the immigrants are the first generation, their children the second one, their grand-children the third one etc. However, the possibility for the third or fourth generation to come only from one migratory history is very small because of the mixing of individuals from diverse origins. Thus using the notion of generation only pretends to designate a clearly identified population.

According to Saada, Sayad highlighted the ethnocentrism of migration studies by explaining that immigrants are first and foremost emigrants, which implies that the generational approach integrates what happened before and during the migration as well as the installation (Saada, 2000, p.30). The children are then included within a family history characterized by a transnational migration. Santelli’s research analyzed the social mobility course of Algerian immigrants’ children through retracing the family history in Algeria and during the installation in France. She compares and provide interesting data concerning the socio-professional category of the parents who tended to be workers (73%), with that of the children who were traders, business leaders, or in intellectual and intermediary professions (Santelli, 2001, p.296). She concludes that the individuals try to stand out of their heritage and become self-made citizens, in order to break the continuity and even deny transmissions between the generations (Santelli, 2001, pp.264-266).


In sociology, the notion of generation encompasses individuals in their filiation. In this perspective, the parental and generational effects are explicatory elements and their combination and interaction must be analyzed. There is a paradox when, in France, the discourse on immigrants’ children does not come with any reference to genealogy and intergenerational inheritance. For example, in the 1980’s the major political actions against racism were led by the children of the militants for the Algerian independence (Stora, 1992, p.438). Indeed, even though it is possible to study generations without considering the importance of intergenerational ties, it does not allow to analyze fully the influences of intergenerational inheritance. However, this ignorance has partly been voluntary as it provokes a distance between the first and second generation in order to diminish the importance of memory, conflict, inheritance and re-appropriation that are part of intergenerational ties.

It should be highlighted that this approach is the opposite of what is usually used in research in the sociology of family. An explanation for the absence of intergenerational considerations in research on Maghreb migration can be that the breaking away both from family and community is seen as a sign of social success. The ensuing social estrangement shapes the absence of continuity between generations and thus assures a complete individual integration. It also corresponds to the structural-functionalist public opinion that family ties identically reproduce situations whereas an individual free from conservative family traditions is more likely to undergo social changes (Charles, 2012, p.439). Therefore, the tendency to believe that immigrants will automatically fail to integrate paradoxically values the distancing from the family. From both assimilationist and multiculturalist approaches, these individuals are apprehended as disconnected from family history and inheritance. They are then socialized mostly through school, media, norms and rules that govern social rather than family life. The idea that the second generation is a new generation to assimilate could explain why many studies on immigration focus so little on family and more generally all social paths based on biographies.

Although there are some pieces of research in which the family milieu is important, these are mostly multicultural and thus aim to describe the specific cultures of the families and the impact of these cultures on the relationship, especially confrontational, with the host society. For example, the urban suburbs riots of November 2005 illustrates a popular conflict regarding the failure of the socio-economic system, involving an unemployed youth of immigrant origins and leading to an emergency state (Koff & Duprez, 2009). However, it should be noted that recently some research such as Anthias (2012) has acknowledged the importance of the family dimension.

Moreover, disconnecting the descendants from their ancestry also contributes to creating the impression that it is always a young generation. Using the term ‘children’ not only reinforces this impression but also leads to the ignorance of temporal dimensions. They are indeed immigrants’ children but the insistence on these terms develop the idea of young individuals causing problems. It is obvious that those who were immigrants’ children in the 1980’s and are considered the second generation are now at least 40 years old. However when they got older they became invisible and the focus moved to younger immigrants’ children. This is why ignoring the way families integrated in French society throughout the years adds a mistaken temporal feeling that they constantly just arrived. Therefore it ignores the fact that the majority of these Maghreb families have been in France for many decades, and it is unwise to assume that individuals who have been taken active part in the French society are still undergoing an installation process (Tribalat, 1995). The consequence is the non-recognition of their legitimate place in French society, in order to focus on what causes problems, that is to say a small minority facing social integration difficulties.

To conclude on the use of migratory and family dimensions, the concept of second generation has a strong impact on today’s youth. The context is important because it is difficult to compare the conditions of Maghreb migratory waves in the 1960’s economic growth and in the 1990’s recession period. Nevertheless, the use of the notion of generation blurs these migratory histories and therefore the different processes of installation.



As explained previously, the notion of second generation presupposes a homogeneous group, but immigrants’ children are far from being possibly characterized by homogeneity. Unlike Thomson and Crul (2007), this case study analysis argues that the second generation does not exist as such, because of the plurality of situations noticed by all empirical research. Until now a macro-social analysis has been used, but at a more precise level this diversity can be apprehended through three significant modes, with the example of Maghreb immigration to France and especially Algerian.

First, the Algerian immigrants’ children, the second generation with reference to their parents, form several generations. The term generation here is taken in the demographical definition, that is to say that the immigrants’ children can be in several and very different life cycles. For example approximately six categories can be distinguished: over 50, 45-50, 35-45, 25-35, 15-25 and under 15. Therefore it should be noted that they are not all young, as the notion of immigrants’ children suggests. Indeed, they find themselves at various biographical phases, some being in school, others being active workers or even close to or over retirement age; some are still children, others are starting a family or are even grand-parents. Even if only the criterion of having both Algerian parents is taken, the age diversity is very wide, approximately between 25 and 55.

Second, a same age population can have several generations. The term generation here is taken in the family definition, that is to say that a cohort comprises several kinship descents. For example, in a group of 20-30 year old people from Maghreb origins, three situations of descendants can be found: the eldest of families that immigrated recently, the youngest of families that immigrated a longer time ago, and the eldest grand-children of families that immigrated an even longer time ago. Therefore, these individuals belong to the same cohort and lived the same event – to grow up in the same environment, at the same time – but they are very different from one another because of their different family history and their place in their respective families.

Third, Algerian immigrants’ children grow up in very different socialization contexts, due to the diversity of family situations, the migration journey, the place in the family, the sex, the place of residence etc. For example, the economical context and the modes of professional insertion in the workplace vary from a time period to another. Therefore, the children of immigrants who arrived in France in the 1960s-1970s faced an economic situation that is extremely different from the current one. The modes of professional insertion have changed drastically, regarding the type of work contract, the sheer number of employments available, the access modes etc. as well as the possibility for social promotion. The careers of these individuals illustrate the theory of inequalities generated by the year of birth, because people from Maghreb origins are also victims of this phenomenon: the youngest entered the workplace with more difficulties than their eldest, and are also more subject to unemployment and precarious contracts.

Moreover, if the migration dimension allows some comparisons within social groups, it does not explain the individuals’ social characteristics. It is not possible to regroup these individuals together and categorize them as a homogeneous group with the pretext that they form a generation and descent from a population also characterized as uniform. It is important that the approach of questioning migration history and of taking into account individuals’ filiation has the objective of exposing the diversity of positions, practices, aspirations, trajectories etc. of individuals and their families.

This is why it is crucial to define with precaution the different immigrants’ children groups constituted for any study or research, such as statistical citizenship classification (Simon, 1999), and that for two reasons. First, parents have very diverse paths, both in the origin and the installation societies. Second, their children grow up in different socialization contexts. Therefore, sociological studies on generations must precise the family, economic and migratory context as well as the parameters of a notion that can seem scientific but actually depends entirely on the social context. Furthermore, generational and intergenerational approaches highlight differences that would have been ignored in a reasoning based on the concept of second generation. These approaches also allowed to underscore that it is more important to analyze the different social processes (individual, family or collective) and their role in the formation of differences and similarities, than the belongingness to a generation of immigrants’ children. Indeed, these methods are useful to understand the reasons why there can be more similarities between the paths of two Algerian immigrants’ children that belong to different generations (in terms of kinship descent), than between two individuals from Algerian origins and with the same age but with very different social characteristics. For example, some explanations can be a similar scholar path, identical contributions from family mobilizations etc.



To conclude, this case study of the generation of the Maghreb immigrants’ children in France implies to also analyze the previous generations and the diverse paths formed in the installation society. It is at the intersection of these different dimensions that the ways in which individuals take place in French society can be understood. Indeed, social research should focus more on the country of origin and the continuity to the country of destination rather than on the exclusion and inclusion processes in the host society (Anthias, 2012, pp.103-104). In other words, the deconstruction and construction process imposed by the scientific use of categorization, that is to say the notion of generation, is essential to avoid negative representations. If the concept of second generation is not used carefully, there is a risk to present a dominant and uniformed image of the generation of the Maghreb immigrants’ children and thus impact for example the integration or migration policies.

As Sayad argues, the notions of contemporaneity and simultaneity should be distinguished, because what happens at the same chronological period does not involve being sociologically contemporary. On the one hand, some individuals who live simultaneously in the same period can belong to different social generations because they have been impacted by different social conditions. On the other hand, some individuals can be contemporary even though chronologically separated, because they are the products of the same mode and social conditions of begetting, that is to say the same social generation (Sayad, 1994, p.158). However, it should not be concluded that social conditions are homogeneous within each migration period, but rather characterized by diversity (Santelli, 2001).



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