An emphasis on individual achievements

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‘One of the Few’ was the title of sociologist Ali Konyali’s dissertation. In the context of his research he interviewed descendants of Turkish migrant workers in high positions at banks and consultancy firms, and asked them about their journey to the ‘top’. His conclusion: people from poor and marginalised minority groups attribute success to individual efforts and achievements.

TEXT: Karin Koolen
PHOTO'S: © Claudia Broekhoff


Ali Konyali worked as a junior lecturer at Maastricht University when he saw an enticing PhD position come by at Erasmus University’s Sociology department. ‘It was part of ELITES: Pathways to Success, a project focused on the upcoming Turkish elite in sectors such as law, education, and corporate life in Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Sweden.’ He did hesitate for a moment: ‘I’ve always been very critical of ethnic categories. My parents are from Turkey, but my interests vary wildly – I wanted to make sure I wasn’t pushing myself into a niche.’ But the research seemed to have been made for him: ‘I was born in Germany, had gotten to know Sweden and the Netherlands during my other degrees and I wanted to get my PhD.’


In general the second generation of Turkish immigrants don’t come from highly-educated households, and have more often lived in underprivileged environments. This is in part due to society’s persisting prejudices. ‘A good few of them have still made it: how did they do it, how do they explain their own success? Those were my main questions.’ Konyali believes his research is important in that it illuminates previously-unquestioned processes and counters further stereotyping. After many in-depth interviews, at times in offices – at times in luxurious skyscrapers or small cafés – Konyali’s conclusion is a clear one: his demographic believes their success was achieved on an individual basis, and with much effort. ‘Almost all of them emphasized their migrant background – some of them even made it their gimmick, aiming at the Turkish market. Surprising: I was expecting that they’d present as professionals in an international environment who’d rather minimise the story of their background. But instead they made a point of saying, “I come from an underprivileged environment, but I got to where I am by working really hard.” They emphasised their own achievements. By framing it like that, you’re also implying quite a lot about the people who haven’t made it. It’s their own fault, essentially, there’s no reason not to make it this far if you’re working hard enough. By putting the emphasis on individual effort you run the risk of glossing over certain systematic societal issues.’

It’s not that they haven’t worked hard, Konyali hurries to add. ‘And we do live in an age where individual achievements are lauded. But it’s good to take a moment to realise that it’s not an equal playing field. What seemed to be missing from their reflection is a realisation that they, considering their background, had to work harder than most to get to go to Gymnasium, had to prove themselves even more to get that one internship – that scholarship. It’s a shame. It makes it more difficult for others and feeds into the same system of inequality.’

Does Konyali think that this group has a responsibility to help along the less successful descendants of migrant families? He thinks about this, then decided: ‘They can be a source of inspiration, could maybe even made a difference from their privileged position within a company. But responsibility? We all have that responsibility.’


His research has made him reflect more as well. ‘I’ve started looking at my own achievements differently, how certain people played a role in them. But I’ve also become more reflective when it comes to society. Companies, universities, they all aim for more diversity. But how many women, how many second-generation immigrants, actually get that high-end position? Or have tenure as professors?

He himself isn’t vying for professorship. ‘Way too stressful – writing my dissertation was intense enough! But I hope to contribute to a society where persisting inequalities are made as explicit as the individual stories of success.’

  • Name: Ali Konyali
    Education: Arts & Culture (BA), European Studies (MA) at Maastricht University. PhD in Sociology at Erasmus University
    Position: Researcher at Osnabrück University

  • ‘By putting the emphasis on individual effort you run the risk of glossing over certain systematic societal issues.’