Ciara Kenny

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

Emotion associated with emigration cannot be represented by statistics

Surveying emigration trends is a complex process, writes Tomás Kelly of the UCC Emigre Project

Sat, Apr 13, 2013, 15:47


Tomás Kelly

Social research is traditionally divided into two categories and purist academics tend to fall on either one side or the other. On one side, quantitative research emphasises the power of numbers and the scientific method to describe a phenomenon under study. On the other, qualitative research emphasises the diversity of human experience and the significance of perception.

In the natural and formal sciences, things tend to work in a mechanistic and objectively observable way. Social phenomena, on the other hand, have a strongly subjective component. Questionnaires are a common tool used by quantitative social researchers, whereas in-depth interviews are often used by those with qualitative leanings. Both qualitative and quantitative methods have contributed a lot to social research, however, long-standing divisions between researchers of different philosophies have worked against them being combined.

One of the key strengths to quantitative research is that findings from a properly constructed sample can be generalised, at least to some degree, for the entire population. Unfortunately, there is a lack of generalisable research findings on Ireland’s current emigration. Quantitative data identifying motivations underpinning people’s decision to leave and their intentions to return, which are central foci of University College Cork’s EMIGRE Project, could prove useful in a number of ways. One example would be to inform any potential policy approach that might attempt to address some of the issues relating to emigration. The EMIGRE Project has gone to great lengths to develop a representative sample based on more than 2,000 households, as previously outlined by Dr Piaras MacÉinrí in Generation Emigration.

The strength of qualitative research, by contrast, is attributable to the depth and detail that it can provide. Emigration is an individual and emotional experience, motivated by a wide range of factors that are often difficult to summarise or generalise to the entire population. Take, for example, our survey at the Working Abroad Expo, which found 27 per cent of potential emigrants to have children and 22 per cent to have a mortgage. These statistics provide a picture of the overall patterns that exist among those at the event, but do they adequately represent the stark reality of a couple having to leave friends and family, move their children abroad and work to service a mortgage at home?

The act of emigrating is such a complex experience that it is difficult for anybody to truly understand it, or empathise with people who have left, without having experienced it themselves. The depth of emotion involved can never be represented by a statistic. However, in-depth descriptions of individuals’ experiences can make it easier for those who have not experienced emigration to look at it through a lens similar to that of an actual emigrant. A descriptive quotation or deep insight can evoke a more emotional response than a statistic, allowing people to understand the personal experiences of emigrants, at least to some extent.

The approach adopted in the EMIGRE Research Project is one of ‘mixed methods’, where the strengths of both qualitative and quantitative research will be combined in a complementary manner. The project involves a household survey, an online emigrant survey and in-depth interviews with emigrants. In our final report, due in October 2013, statistics and data concerning a large amount of emigrants/households will be paired with quotations and insights from a smaller sample of people to give a better overall picture of emigration today – one that is more easily interpreted by a diverse range of people.

Soliciting responses to our emigrant survey is a major focus of the team at the moment. We would very much appreciate Irish emigrants abroad filling out our survey. Ireland needs to know more about those that have left and every response counts.

Tomás Kelly is a researcher on the EMIGRE Research Project being conducted at the Department of Geography in University College Cork, funded by the Irish Research Council. The team contributed to a Prime Time special on the affect of emigration on the rural communitiy of Carna in Galway this week, which can be watched here for the next three weeks.