Adolescent immigrants in Germany

A dual identity increases the likelihood that young immigrants will become happy, self-confident citizens of their new country
1767892,, CC0 1.0

People move to another country for a wide variety of reasons: climate change, unemployment, armed conflicts, or political persecution in their home countries; or the prospect of greater freedom or an attractive job or study opportunity in another country.

As migration is increasing around the globe, more people than ever before are living in a country other than the one in which they were born. In Germany, one out of three adolescents was born abroad or has at least one foreign-born parent; in the neighboring country of Switzerland, the rate is one in two. Successful integration of young immigrants is a pivotal issue, not only for these young people themselves, but also for the societies in which they are now living.

I am particularly interested in what cultural identity means for a young immigrant’s integration. An immigrant’s cultural identity includes a sense of belonging to the mainstream society as well as a sense of belonging to the respective ethnic minority.

International studies of cultural identity have found that adolescents from immigrant families can identify strongly with both the society in which they are living and their ethnic minority. However, these studies have not determined whether this holds true in the German context.

To answer this question and gain a better understanding of the cultural identity of adolescent immigrants in Germany, my colleagues and I analyzed the representative supplemental national sample of the PISA study.

“Young immigrants do not have to choose between a mainstream and an ethnic identity. They can, for example, identify as both German and Turkish.”

Our study confirmed that it is indeed possible for young immigrants in Germany to identify with two groups. More than a quarter of the adolescent immigrants in the sample reported a strong sense of belonging to both the mainstream society and their ethnic minority. This shows that young immigrants do not have to choose between a mainstream and an ethnic identity. They can, for example, identify as both German and Turkish.

This contradicts a misconception that appears to be widespread, at least in Germany; many people are convinced that a strong sense of belonging to the mainstream society is incompatible with an equally strong sense of belonging to an ethnic minority.

How are mainstream identity and ethnic identity related to integration?

My next goal was to find out what role the cultural identity of adolescent immigrants plays in their integration into their new country. Together with my colleagues Kristin Schotte und Petra Stanat, I examined how adolescent immigrants’ ethnic and mainstream identities relate to their school success and psychological adjustment.

In particular, we wanted to test a common assumption among researchers who study integration, namely that a dual identity is associated with the most positive outcomes.

School success is a function of mainstream identity

Based on analyses of data from the National Educational Panel Study (NEPS)our study found that adolescent immigrants are more likely to succeed in school when they identify strongly with mainstream German society than when they do not. Young immigrants’ ethnic identity, in contrast, was not significantly associated with either success or failure in school. In other words, the academic success of adolescent immigrants is affected only by their mainstream identity.

A dual identity promotes psychological adjustment

Ethnic identity plays a significant role in an adolescent immigrant’s integration. Young immigrants who identified not only with the mainstream society, but also with their ethnic minority, were most likely to be satisfied with their lives and reported higher self-esteem. A dual identity is thus associated with positive psychological adjustment.

However, we were unable to determine whether cultural identity is the cause or the effect of adolescent immigrants’ school success and psychological adjustment; this would be a fruitful area for future research. At any rate, it seems most plausible to assume that cultural identity and successful integration mutually influence each other.

Practical implications: Facilitating a dual identity

Our findings have several practical implications for the successful integration of young immigrants. First, it is important to recognize that ethnic identity and mainstream identity are not in competition with each other. A strong sense of belonging to an ethnic minority does not preclude identification with the mainstream society. Rather, a strong ethnic identity promotes psychological adjustment.

Accordingly, it is important for educational institutions to encourage adolescent immigrants to cultivate their ethnic identity. However, since young immigrants with a strong mainstream identity are more likely to succeed in school, they should also be encouraged to identify with the mainstream society.

“A strong ethnic identity promotes psychological adjustment.”

Yet they will find it difficult to do so if they perceive a mainstream identity to be the privilege of a particular ethnic group or limited to people whose families have lived in the country for generations. It would be much easier for immigrants and their offspring to develop a strong mainstream identity if greater emphasis were placed on conditions that immigrants, too, are able to fulfill, such as fluency in the national language.

If adolescents from an immigrant background succeed in developing a dual identity, this will increase the likelihood that they will succeed in school and ultimately become happy, self-confident citizens. And that is the ultimate goal.

Further reading:

Edele, A., Stanat, P., Radmann, S. & Segeritz, M. (2013). Kulturelle Identität und Lesekompetenz von Jugendlichen aus zugewanderten Familien. In N. Jude & E. Klieme (Hrsg.), PISA 2009 – Impulse für die Schul- und Unterrichtsforschung. 59. Beiheft der Zeitschrift für Pädagogik,84-110.

Schotte, K., Stanat, P. & Edele, A. (2018). Is integration always most adaptive? The role of cultural identity in academic achievement and in psychological adaptation of immigrant students in Germany. Journal of Youth and Adolescence,47(1), 16-37. doi:10.1007/s10964-017-0737-x

Weekly newsletter