Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Exploring the complexity of emigration and its impact

In the coming weeks and months UCC researchers will be criss-crossing the country, personally visiting more than 2,000 households as well as surveying and interviewing emigrants themselves around the world to try to get an accurate picture of exactly who is emigrating and why, writes Piaras Mac Éinrí

Wed, Jan 30, 2013, 12:36



After months of painstaking planning and preparation here in the Department of Geography at University College Cork, our extensive survey on emigration – based on 2011 Census data -  is finally about to launch nationwide. In the coming weeks and months we will be criss-crossing the country, personally visiting more than 2,000 households as well as surveying and interviewing emigrants themselves around the world.

Any research on social issues has to pass one litmus test: how representative is the sample? To put it another way, can we generalise from the necessarily modest amount of data collected, to say that our findings are true for the whole population and not merely for those contacted? After all, most people may never have been stopped by a pollster with a clipboard, or interviewed by an academic. How do we know that the results of this kind of research are a fair picture?

For an illustration of the challenges of this kind of work, one may look no further than the esteemed Irish Times itself. Its valuable and fascinating survey of emigration, published on the weekend of St Patrick’s Day 2012, contained many nuggets of information and insights. But it was not necessarily a representative sample. One clue – 85 per cent of all emigrants surveyed had a third level education. Whatever may be said about education in modern Ireland, and the increasingly well-educated young Irish leaving the country these days, this is not the full picture – many emigrants do not have a third level qualification.

To be fair to The Irish Times, this is not a simple issue. Almost any sampling method has its flaws. Yet if we want to be truly comprehensive we cannot confine our efforts to people who belong to a particular organisation, socialise in a particular place, read a particular newspaper or have a particular level of education. That will never give us the full picture.

Many emigrants are doing well and leading rewarding lives. Others may find the competition stiff and circumstances challenging in an increasingly competitive and globalised labour market. Some feel marginalised and struggle with a range of personal, social, professional and psychological issues. Earlier generations of emigrants, for instance, included many who left not merely for economic reasons, but because their religious, political, social or sexual views made Ireland a hard country to stay in. Some wanted to keep their links with Ireland, others wanted to forget them; some felt embittered while others dreamed of an early return.  Is this still the case?

Serious research must be dispassionate, fair and comprehensive. It should not begin either with the view that emigration today is merely a ‘lifestyle choice’ or that every emigrant is forced abroad as s/he was in the days of the coffin ship. If we are to have a balanced and comprehensive understanding of the lives of emigrants today we need to find a way of reaching a truly representative sample which captures the complexity and variety of peoples’ experiences.

Fortunately, help is at hand. Thanks to an exciting and innovative development by the Central Statistics Office, the Ordnance Survey and our colleagues at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, the 2011 Census offers an entirely new perspective. This lies in the division of the entire State into more than 18,000 new ‘Small Areas’ – units of a hundred or so households which offer a more fine-grained approach to social research than ever previously possible.

Our project has sought to exploit the potential of these new Small Areas. Geographer-mathematician Tomás Kelly, also a specialist in Geographical Information Systems (GIS), used a number of key variables from the 2011 Census including age profile, employment levels, education levels, degree of rurality, family structure and housing stock, to build a new map of Ireland embodying a level of complexity and fine-grained detail never previously possible.

Tomás’s work has identified six key clusters of small areas. These are (a) the typical sparsely populated rural area, (b) urban areas characterised by high education and low unemployment, (c) densely populated urban areas with a preponderance of young professionals, (d) aging areas with a high proportion of mortgage-free households, low levels of third level qualifications and a high percentage of families with adult children, (e) extremely marginalised communities with high rates of unemployment and public housing and finally, (f) areas characterised by young families with recently acquired houses at some distance from nearby conurbations (the classic Celtic Tiger estates). Although category (b) is often misrepresented as the ‘squeezed middle’ in public and media debates – in part because such people are over-represented in these debates -  the largest category, and that which could most accurately be characterised as ‘middle Ireland’ is actually (d).

Using this analysis, we have identified a sample of the ‘most typical’ small areas within these various categories, bearing in mind such factors as the percentage of the overall population found in each cluster and in each part of the country. We have now finalised a list of just 20 of these ‘most typical’ areas, each containing up to 120 households. We believe that this approach is the best which can be achieved in the search for a genuinely representative sample which will enable us to explore the full complexity of current emigration and its impact on those left behind.

With a number of postgraduate students to assist us, we (Tomás Kelly, Dr Irial Glynn and myself) will be rolling out the first phase of our survey on the ground this weekend. Ultimately we aim to reach all parts of the country, from Cork to Donegal. A key element will be the identification of those households which have emigrant members abroad, enabling us to survey and interview these emigrants online. Finally we hope to use social networks and other methods to contact an even wider range of emigrants abroad while bearing in mind that our work with the new Small Areas offers an invaluable core representative sample.

Our website has all the details as well as an online emigrant survey.