Stad en Migratie: dive into Rotterdam’s living laboratory

Global migration has permanently changed the face of European cities. Arrival cities like Rotterdam embody this new super-diverse like no other. 

Knowledge workers, refugees, migrant workers, undocumented migrants and second and third generation migrants come together in a place like Rotterdam and create the city together. The urban challenge that diversity entails raises important and diverse sociological issues in the areas of living, working, coexistence and local participation in the city. How should we deal with such sociological issues? Subject coordinator Dr. Thomas Swerts and lecturer Lena van de Lande have created a course with “City and Migration” that introduces young sociologists to both theory and practice in the search for answers to these sociological issues.

The course

During the course “Sociological Issues IV: City and Migration” students will work with Rotterdam as a living laboratory. This course draws insights from the intersection between urban sociology and migration sociology to investigate the relationship between cities and migration. The challenges in the field of migration and diversity for cities are highlighted and a distinction is made as to what role Rotterdam currently occupies as a place of arrival, settlement, and departure of migrants. Swerts says:

Thomas Swerts:

"By doing this, we want to impart to our students that adopting a sociological perspective can add real value in the search of various social actors for answers to often complex contemporary issues."

“During the revision of the curriculum of the Bachelor of Sociology, we asked ourselves the question: what makes Rotterdam sociology so unique? In my opinion, this is the fact that it is emphatically public sociology, where prospective sociologists are taught not to watch from the sidelines or from a distance, but to investigate how they can contribute to practice. We want to convey to our students that adopting a sociological view can provide real added value in the search of various social actors for answers to often complex contemporary issues.”

The field

What is the impact of the rise of global migration and superdiversity on a city like Rotterdam? Through a practice-oriented trajectory, students were given the unique opportunity to step out of the lecture hall and work together with partners from society.

“When setting up this course, Thomas [Swerts ed.] actually came up quite quickly with the idea of really introducing students to the practice, through a neighborhood/city study in which students are really sent into the city,” says Van de Lande. “We really wanted them to give something back to the city, in the form of some kind of volunteer work. In addition, they could test their qualitative research skills in practice, through interviews and observations. A kind of win-win situation, students could sharpen their knowledge and skills while giving something back to others.”

Collaborate with partners from the field

Together with Impact at the Core, a working week was organized with various events in which students had the opportunity to collaborate with partners from the field. This allowed the students to personally experience the impact of volunteer work and the work that organizations do every day on migrant communities in the city.

“During the working week, they [students ed.] learned first-hand what barriers people with a migration background experience on the labor market and in education,” says Swerts. “In addition, the working week offered an opportunity to 'give back' from Erasmus University Rotterdam to organizations and communities that regularly participate in sociological research.”

“Students really had to maintain contact with the partners themselves,” Van de Lande adds. “They not only learn what it is like to work together with (almost always busy, voluntary) partners, but also to organize events and present them there, for example. Things that, I think, can be useful for the rest of their working lives. Finally, they were introduced to the 'research field' and the different groups that are often investigated from an ivory tower, but with which the students have now had lunch, walked around, and chatted together.”

Lena van de Lande

"We really want the students to give something back to the city."

The working week

On Thursday, December 7, the students organized various activities for newcomers to Rotterdam. They did this together with MDT op Zuid and De Werkshop, among others. The aim was to introduce young refugees to higher education and what the university has to offer them.

“Students were able to put their research skills into practice by practicing with real respondents, whereby they actually gave something back to the city of Rotterdam and its (new) residents by co-organizing important meetings, training courses or tours of the campus,” said Van de Lande. “As a bonus, students also learned a whole range of other skills, such as collaborating with partners, organizing an event, supporting training, thinking about a playful way of learning (many games were devised during the campus tour). and presenting to groups.”

Swerts adds: “The collaboration with partners holds a mirror up to the students, making them aware of their own actions and how they need to translate this to make the knowledge they gain in the training optimally useful in achieving a common goal. This type of impact-oriented education also places a lot of responsibility on students to organize events, communicate clearly and learn to justify themselves to the outside world. These are important skills that future sociologists will also have to deal with in their further careers.”

The students

It was the first time that the students were able to see what was happening in practice, instead of just working based on literature. But what did the students themselves think of it? Tutor Geerke Visser, who closely supervised and followed up the assignment, said the following: “Most students initially found it exciting to go 'in the field' themselves. They found it a challenge to reach out to the partners, approach respondents and conduct interviews. Yet in the end everyone looked back positively on the fieldwork experience.” This experience was indeed experienced by the students as exciting and fun. But the lessons went further than that. For example, one student indicated: “By really talking to the people behind the name 'immigrant' or 'status holder', completely new insights appear to exist about the theories that explain phenomena in our society surrounding immigration. In addition to these new insights, we were also able to think about how we could give something back to participants by helping them with our knowledge about education and studying in the Netherlands and Rotterdam. We found this to be very valuable. This has allowed us to get to know a new side of sociology where you can really give something back to society.”

Geerke Visser

"Most students initially found it exciting to go 'into the field' themselves. They found it challenging to reach out to partners, walk up to respondents and conduct interviews. Yet in the end, everyone looked back on the fieldwork experience positively." 

Finally, during the last lecture of the course, students were given the opportunity to enter direct dialogue with policy officers from the Inclusive Society Team about the role that the municipality of Rotterdam plays in reception, integration and promoting opportunities for meeting and feeling at home for newcomers in Rotterdam. In the search for solutions to complex social challenges such as migration and diversity, it is crucial for students to step outside the lecture halls and collaborate with partners from the field. This is valuable for the development of the students as public sociologists, but also for society. That is why it is good that there are courses such as “City and Migration” that offer students the opportunity to enter the living laboratory of Rotterdam and work on understanding complex issues. It is these types of impact-driven forms of education that prepare students for their place in society, where they can contribute to solving the complex issues of our time.

More information

Impact at the Core is a central innovation program at Erasmus University Rotterdam that works on education within which students work together on solutions for societal problems. We do this by designing, strengthening and co-developing initiatives for so-called impact-driven education. By that, we mean education in which our positive contribution to society plays a central role.

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