1 Introduction

Over the last few years, a series of ‘unsettling events’ has profoundly impacted on migratory projects (Kilkey & Ryan, 2021). As noted by Jakobson, King, Moroşanu and Vetik in the editors’ opening chapter of this book, migrants are impacted by ‘multiple layers of crises’. As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate emergency, the Taliban take-over in Afghanistan, the war in Ukraine and the evolving immigration regimes following Britain’s departure from the EU (Brexit), people’s migration plans and trends have altered in varied and complex ways.

In relation to Brexit and its aftermath, there has been a plethora of recent articles (e.g. Godin & Sigona, 2022; Grzymała-Kazłowska & Ryan 2022; Lulle et al., 2018; Markova & King, 2021; Ranta & Nancheva, 2019; Sotkasiira & Gawlewicz, 2021; Tyrrell et al., 2019). In this chapter, I contribute to this body of scholarship by using longitudinal data, a social networks lens and the conceptual framework of embedding to explore how migrants respond to unsettling events such as Brexit.

Along with my colleague Jon Mulholland, I introduced ‘differentiated embedding’ (Mulholland & Ryan, 2022; Ryan, 2018; Ryan & Mulholland, 2015) as a conceptual framework to analyse dynamic relationality, belonging and attachments in particular places over time. Unlike the notion of embeddedness (Granovetter, 1985), which suggests a static, achieved state, embedding acknowledges the need for continual effort, negotiation and adaptation over time and reveals how such processes are differentiated across various domains of society and by structures of inequality. Of course, the contexts in which migrants are embedding are also dynamic and subject to geo-political transformations with implications for migration projects – so-called ‘unsettling events’ (Kilkey & Ryan, 2021).

Unsettling events are ‘transformations on the structural level that have implications on the individual level in ways that provoke re-evaluation of migration projects’ (Kilkey & Ryan, 2021, 234). This chapter seeks to understand how unsettling events at the macro, geopolitical level, such as Brexit, can impact on the micro level to re-shape migrants’ embedding practices, potentially provoking dis-embedding or re-embedding. Moreover, between macro-structural forces and the micro agency of migrants is the important meso level of social networks. As noted by classic network scholars (Bott, 1957), structural influences can be mediated through an individual’s network of ties to family, friends, neighbours and colleagues.

Drawing on longitudinal data generated over a decade, I apply qualitative social-network analysis to explore how inter-personal relationships with significant others may shape the ways in which migrants respond to and cope with recent unsettling events. In so doing, I aim to advance understanding of the role of social networks in processes of differentiated embedding in the contexts of unsettling events.

2 Theory

The term ‘embedding’ (Ryan & Mulholland, 2015) seeks to describe the dynamic processes through which migrants develop attachments and belonging to particular people and places over time. In addition to being dynamic, we see embedding as multi-layered and spatially differentiated. It involves different degrees of attachment and depths of trust and reciprocity across various sectors. For example, migrants may establish deep embedding in local networks of family and friends, while simultaneously experiencing only superficial embedding in the economic sector, through precarious and insecure employment. Hence, it is useful to think of differentiated embedding (Ryan, 2018) as a way of understanding the multi-dimensionality of migrants’ attachments, connections and belonging in different contexts. Thus, rather than a single measure of embeddedness (Granovetter, 1985), differentiated embedding captures the dynamism, nuances and multi-dimensionality of diverse attachments across a range of places, relationships and sectors (Mulholland & Ryan, 2022).

However, this is not to suggest that all migrants are embedding in the same way or to the same extent. It is necessary to pay due attention to the different opportunities, obstacles and strategies. Thus, despite the agency of migrants in attempting to gain familiarity and belonging in new places, it is important to note that some places may enable migrant belongings, whilst other places may be marked by hostility (Hickman & Mai, 2015) and hinder migrants’ opportunities for embedding. Hence, embedding, through forging a sense of connectedness in place, takes not only time but also requires opportunities (Ryan & Mulholland, 2015). It should be acknowledged, therefore, that embedding in a particular place of residence is not inevitable. Indeed, some migrants may never develop this level of self-identification in a place and may continue to feel alienated (Trąbka, 2019). Moreover, as discussed below, embedding may be reversed over time. Changing personal circumstances, as well as wider socio-political contextual factors, may undermine belonging and attachment in particular places, resulting in processes of dis-embedding (Mulholland & Ryan, 2022).

In the opening chapter of this book, the editors refer to examples of turbulent times. Elsewhere, with colleagues (Ryan et al., 2021), I use examples of the Windrush scandal,Footnote 1 as well as Brexit, to show that, even for migrants who have lived in Britain for many decades, feelings of belonging in place may be conditional and contingent and undermined by anti-immigration policies and associated hostility in wider society. Therefore, while acknowledging migrants’ active agency in place-making, it is also necessary to pay attention to the changing materialities and symbolic meanings of places through time as well as the wider political processes that provoke unsettling events (Kilkey & Ryan, 2021). Thus, far from being static or taken-for-granted, processes of embedding in place remain complex, contingent and dynamic through the life course.

While embedding cannot be reduced simply to relationality and while structural conditions in the labour market and wider immigration regimes are also crucial, it is fair to say that inter-personal relationships are a key dimension of embedding (Ryan, 2018). Social ties to family, friends, neighbours, classmates, work colleagues etc., can support or, indeed, hinder opportunities for forging a sense of belonging in specific socio-spatial contexts. Thus, combining the conceptual framework of embedding with a network lens can provide useful insights, especially when seeking to understand how migrants may react to potentially unsettling events.

3 Using a Social Networks Lens

I have long been interested in the potential of social network analysis (SNA) as a well-stocked toolbox with which to help migration scholars explore, theorise and understand migrants’ webs of relationships and the resources therein (Ryan et al., 2008). In seeking to gain deeper insights into the diverse relationships between social actors, I have drawn on classic social network research.

One of the most influential early studies of networks was Elisabeth Bott’s (1957) research on conjugal roles and the division of labour among married couples in East London. Although not setting out to research networks, Bott quickly noted how relationships with family, friends, work colleagues and neighbours seemed to impact on couples’ everyday lives. Bott observed that social networks seemed to operate at a sort of meso level between individual actors and wider social structures. In this way, broader societal expectations, for example about gender roles, were filtered through the advice and influence of particular social ties, such as extended kin, in ways that could reinforce or challenge specific patterns of behaviour. Thus, rather than assuming that gendered divisions of labour were simply a product of social determinism or individual choice, Bott identified the mediating role of inter-personal networks.

Bott’s analysis has proven influential and underlines a key appeal of a social network perspective – by overcoming ‘methodological individualism’ (Wellman, 1979), while at the same time avoiding structural determinism. Within migration studies, this feature of network analysis has been especially helpful. As Monica Boyd noted in her seminal paper, a key advantage of a network perspective is being able to avoid an under-socialised view on the one hand, where all migration is motivated by individual choices and, on the other, an over-socialised view whereby structural factors determine international movement. ‘Social relations both transmit and shape the effect of social and economic structures on individuals, families and households’ (Boyd, 1989, 642). Echoing Bott’s earlier observation, Boyd concludes that networks ‘mediate between individual actors and larger structural forces’ (1989, 661).

Moreover, it has been argued that network analysis offers a snapshot of relationality and is of limited use in understanding change over time (for a discussion see Lubbers et al., 2021; Mazzucato, 2021). In this chapter, addressing the challenge of understanding temporal dynamics in network analysis, I turn to the life-course framework (Elder et al., 2003) and apply longitudinal methods to explore how interpersonal relationships are situated within the intersections of biographical and historical time.

The concept of the life course helps to bring together individual biographies and wider socio-historical structures: ‘Time operates at both a sociohistorical and personal level’ (Elder et al., 2003, 9). Through this principle of timing, Elder and his colleagues argued that the ‘same events or experiences may affect individuals in different ways depending on when they occur in the life course’ (2003, 12). So, the personal time of an individual (e.g. being a teenager, middle-aged or old-aged) needs to be contextualised in the wider context of historical time (e.g. in a global economic recession or during a pandemic). Hence, as Elder et al. argue: ‘lives are influenced by an ever changing historical and biographical context’ (2003, 7). However, this is not to suggest that these experiences are negotiated by individuals alone. The principle of ‘linked lives’ is especially relevant in understanding social networks within these temporally dynamic contexts: ‘Lives are lived interdependently and socio-historical influences are expressed through this network of shared relationships’ (Elder et al., 2003, 13). Hence, echoing earlier observations (Bott, 1957), we again see the salience of networks as a meso level between the individual and wider socio-historical structures.

Thus, in exploring migrants’ dynamic processes of embedding or, indeed, dis-embedding over time in response to wider geopolitical unsettling events, this chapter builds on my recent work to advance understanding of how social networks play a key mediating role. In order to understand these dynamic processes, it is necessary to consider the appropriate research tools, discussed in the next section.

4 Method

I have been researching migrants’ social networks for almost two decades in the course of which I have conducted hundreds of interviews across numerous qualitative studies. In so doing, I have sought to advance the field of qualitative social network analysis (Ryan, 2021). In a forthcoming book (Ryan, 2023), I bring my large dataset together but for the purposes of this chapter. I will draw upon three rich case studies to explore how interpersonal networks may help to mediate unsettling events.

In recent decades, SNA has become particularly associated with quantitative approaches influenced by advanced computational capacity and big data (Tubaro et al., 2021). Consequently, as Sue Heath and her colleagues note, SNA has developed into a quantitative approach ‘with a language, toolkit and methodology which often seem alienating to more qualitatively oriented researchers’ (2009, 646). However, in advocating the value of SNA, I am not proposing a quantification of social ties analysed through advanced statistical computation.

Following the cultural turn, there is growing interest in qualitative and mixed-methods approaches to networks (Ryan & Dahinden, 2021). Moreover, there have been calls for more attention to meaning-making and perception among some network scholars (D’Angelo & Ryan, 2021). I have long been interested in migrants’ relationships and attachments as a way of understanding feelings of belonging and dynamic processes of embedding in different places over time (Ryan, 2018). Hence, my work contributes to that of migration scholars who seek to go beyond taken-for-granted views of networks as fixed entities to be captured, studied and measured (Ryan, 2021). Rather than seeing networks as objective entities, I highlight the benefits of qualitative network analysis to understand relational meanings, emotions and tensions, including negative ties and power dynamics. Moreover, drawing upon narrative analysis and the concept of storytelling, I consider how the meaning of relationality gets filtered through processes of perception and self-presentation (D’Angelo & Ryan, 2021; Ryan, 2021).

The notion of telling stories – the interview as a story – has been particularly influential in my work (Ryan, 2021). Moreover, I am interested not only in how migrants tell their network stories but also in how these are visualised as pictures. Over the last decade or so, I have been using sociograms, incorporated within in-depth interviews, to generate richer data about relationality (Ryan et al., 2014) and embedding (Ryan, 2018).

I invite participants to indicate their contacts on a target diagram consisting of three concentric circles divided into four quadrants labelled as friends, family, work, neighbours/hobbies/others. This type of visualisation, especially when drawn directly by the respondent and combined with interviews, has enormous potential to add valuable detail on network size, structure and interpersonal closeness while also prompting memories and stories about particular relationships (Tubaro et al., 2016). The sociogram is completed by the participants in the context of an interview setting and I am present to observe the process. Hence, in addition to the completed image, I also have a record of the questions and remarks of the participants as they produce the visual representation of their social ties (Ryan, 2021). In order to generate rich data on how participants perceive their socially significant relationships, I do not place limits, a priori, on who is considered relevant. Thus, rather than a prescribed list, such as a name generator, I use ‘free listing’ (Widmer, 2006). Hence, I avoid prescribing how many or how few alters should be named and the size and boundaries of the network are left to the discretion of the participants.

Once the sociogram is completed, usually signalled by the participant saying ‘I can’t think of anyone else’, I begin to ask specific questions about particular relationships such as ‘If you had a personal problem, who are the people you would feel able to speak to?’ This sometimes prompts memories of other people not previously included in the sociogram. Of course, it is important to note that the sociogram is never an entirely accurate or objective record but, rather, reflects how a participant is feeling on the day and which relationships occur to them in that particular frame of mind (Heath et al., 2009). The sociogram is not a neutral tool for collecting pre-existing network data – indeed, the design and layout of the image shape which data are generated and how they are depicted (Ryan et al., 2014; Tubaro et al. 2016). Hence, the sociogram contributes to the co-construction of network data (Ryan 2021).

I analyse the data using thematic coding. A priori codes are generated from the original research questions but new codes are also allowed to emerge from the data. Each pair – the sociogram and the interview transcript – is analysed together, recognising the picture and the story as co-constructions which generated different but complementary data.

One criticism of sociograms is that they offer a snapshot of network composition at a particular moment in time and, hence, are not useful for capturing dynamism over time (Conway, 2014). Nonetheless, in my experience, as discussed elsewhere (Ryan & D’Angelo, 2018), combining a sociogram with a biographical interview enables that dynamism to unfold through the interaction between the visual tool and the interview discussion. Adopting longitudinal methods, such as follow-up interviews, is another important method with which to explore change over time.

There is growing recognition of qualitative longitudinal research (QLR) as a distinct methodological paradigm (Thomson & McLeod, 2015). Julie McLeod raises the concept of ‘perspectivism’ which comes from ‘comparing retrospective and prospective accounts of the self, from inciting degrees of reflexivity, and from self-consciously employing different analytical perspectives’ (2003, 209). This is particularly useful in understanding reactions to unexpected and unsettling geopolitical events, such as Brexit, through a longitudinal lens. In so doing, researchers can analyse how the shock caused by these social events can shift embedding practices over time (Mulholland & Ryan, 2022).

Having previously interviewed my Polish participants in 2014, I was curious to follow them up after the June 2016 referendum and gauge their reactions to Britain’s impending departure from the EU.Footnote 2 I was especially keen to understand how Brexit might impact on their embedding in or indeed dis-embedding from the UK. Thus, as noted in the literature, while QLR studies may be designed as such from the outset, they can also grow out of other studies (Ryan et al., 2016). However, I had no funding to undertake such an unplanned follow-up study. Therefore, I was keen to find a way to contact them without incurring any costs and decided to email them a set of open questions.

While email-based surveys are familiar to most of us, the process of conducting interviews via email is emerging as a serious research method in the social sciences (Fritz & Vandermause, 2018). Unlike email surveys, interviewing via email is ‘semi-structured in nature and involves multiple email exchanges between the interviewer and interviewee over an extended period of time’ (Meho, 2006, 1284). Despite some challenges, Fritz and Vandermause argue that this is a ‘reliable method of data collection’ (2018, 1640).

In the summer of 2016, immediately following the referendum, I emailed 20 participants and eventually received 14 responses. Many replied to my open questions with lengthy and detailed answers. An advantage of this asynchronous method is that participants have time to reflect and respond at their convenience, unlike, for example, in a telephone or zoom interview. A disadvantage is the difficulty of achieving a rapport with participants via email. However, because I had already met all the participants, sometimes on several previous occasions, we had established a rapport together. For the 14 who replied, it seemed that they were pleased to hear from me – 2 years after our previous encounter – and welcomed the opportunity to express their views about Brexit. Given the volume of data generated over these various encounters, I have decided to focus in this chapter on three case studies in order to explore some of the most relevant themes in greater depth. As noted by Rachel Thomson (2007), QLR tends to generate a significant amount of data over various rounds of interviews. Without wishing to quantify these data, it can be challenging for those using QLR to present the richness, depth and nuances particularly within the limits of a journal article or book chapter. Therefore, it is not uncommon for researchers using this method to turn to in-depth case studies as a means of presenting their rich data (Thomson, 2007). The three case studies I present here are selected to indicate a range of different experiences and patterns in my wider dataset (for more examples see Ryan, 2023).

5 Case Studies

5.1 Case Study 1: Magda – Deep Embedding Across Varied Domains

Magda arrived in London in 2002. When first interviewed in 2006, she was a student at a London university. At that time her plans were short-term – to complete her degree and return to Poland with her Polish boyfriend to start a family: ‘because if I want to have babies, I want to have them in Poland’. Hence, it appeared that her embedding in London was rather superficial and narrowly focused on university life. She seemed to have no other connections with wider British society. I was curious to find out what had happened during the 8 years that had passed before our next interview in 2014. The follow-up interview revealed enormous changes in Magda’s life. Having decided to remain in London after completing her degree, she broke up with her Polish boyfriend and developed her career within her chosen specialism. Moreover, she had formed a new relationship with a British partner and they had moved to a commuter town outside London and had a baby daughter. Thus, contrary to her initial expectation that she would return to Poland ‘to have babies’, Magda had actually started family life in Britain. This mismatch between expected future plans and real-life experiences clearly illustrates the necessity for longitudinal research, as migrants’ projects evolve and change over time.

The extent of Magda’s embedding in 2014 seemed to have changed significantly across multiple dimensions:

I’ve made new friends over here, I’ve met the love of my life and we’ve started creating our home, our little family. I had [daughter] which kind of contributed to the feeling of, well, OK, this is my home; this is where my family is… I think this is where I will stay.

Magda’s narrative highlights the salience of specific social ties and so illustrates many features associated with relational embedding; her partner, daughter and new friends. Since the first interview, Magda had forged a completely new social network associated with a local Christian church. Most of her new friends, including her partner, were met through that congregation: ‘There’s quite a lot of dear friends that I’ve met through church’. It was apparent that this church network had facilitated Magda’s deep relational and spatial embedding in her new town and created a sense of belonging in place, among like-minded people. Asserting the true depth and trust of these relational ties, Magda recounted: ‘Through the church I’ve met one of my best friends that I know if anything happened I could pick up the phone and they will be there for me’. It is noteworthy that this was not a Polish church but, rather, part of an international Christian organisation. Hence, Magda’s friendship networks were ethnically diverse: ‘mainly English or South African, a few from Malaysia, Filipinos, it’s quite a mix to be honest’.

Economically, her degree had given her a foothold (Grzymala-Kazlowska, 2016; Grzymala-Kazlowska & Ryan, 2022) within a specific profession, facilitating access to a career and, as a result, Magda was successfully embedding within the labour market – over time she had put down roots and established deep embedding across a number of domains, including the labour market, a geographical locality and relationally through family and friendship formations.

By contrast, after over a decade of living in Britain, Magda’s sense of embedding in Poland was weakening: ‘I don’t miss it as much as I used to. I don’t feel as attached as I used to be. I’m still quite proud to be Polish but I think that my loyalties are starting to lie more with Britain’. Interestingly, when interviewed in 2014, despite feeling more attachment to Britain than to Poland, Magda had not applied for British citizenship but thought that she might eventually do so:

I feel like I’m a little bit torn in between labelling myself as a truly Polish person or actually calling myself British. I don’t have British citizenship but I feel like I finally have grown up to apply for one…. I think everyone needs to belong somewhere. And I think this will give you even more, like, a greater feeling of belonging.

Magda’s story clearly reveals the differentiation of embedding across temporal and spatial contexts. When initially interviewed in 2006, her sense of embedding in Britain was superficial and temporary. Her strongest attachments were in Poland and she planned to quickly return there and start a family. Over time her plans changed as she established deep economic embedding through her career, forged new friendship networks through her church, started a new romantic relationship and had a baby, leading to deep relational embedding in a new town. However, she had been somewhat slower to establish what can be termed ‘political embedding’ (Mulholland & Ryan, 2022) via acquiring British citizenship. That decision required more time and thought. Back in 2014, there seemed to be no urgency in applying for citizenship. Instead, for Magda, this was an existential issue of identity, loyalty and feelings of national belonging. However, given her weakening attachment to Poland (dis-embedding), she speculated that British citizenship would be a likely prospect. This was borne out when I contacted her for the third time, 2 years later in 2016, following the Brexit referendum. Of all my participants she was the most adamant that, despite the referendum results, she was determined to remain because her life, work, home and family were in Britain.

I do not have any negative or positive feelings. I have dual citizenship and the ‘OUT’ vote will not affect me in the slightest. No change in plans. I already have one [British passport].

Magda’s story, unfolding over three interviews in 10 years, clearly reveals the temporal and spatial dynamism of embedding across multiple dimensions: from somewhat superficial in 2006 through to deep connectedness and attachments in 2016 that even Brexit could not unsettle. The key role of relationality, through her evolving social networks over time, is clearly apparent and both reflects and reinforces her embedding practices. However, this is not to suggest that all participants were embedding across multiple spatial and relational dimensions simultaneously. Many narratives reveal the differentiated nature of embedding and the enduring complexity of relationality, attachment and belonging over time.

5.2 Case Study 2: Mateusz – Embedding, Dis-embedding, Re-embedding

Mateusz arrived in the UK as a student in 1998 and took various jobs, including as a waiter. In those years, before Poland joined the EU, Mateusz had very limited opportunity for embedding in London. As someone without official status, his work situation was precarious and his right to enter and leave the UK had to be continually re-negotiated at border crossings. Despite these limitations, he began to make friends and established an important relationship with his landlady – who was Polish – and her English husband. The couple were a great source of support and provided Mateusz with advice and information, as well as a friendly home environment. Over time, this older couple became ‘super friends’: ‘They are like friends who became like family… like parents’ (Interview 2014). Indeed, Mateusz placed this couple as his closest friends on his sociogram, reflecting their deep and enduring friendship over almost 20 years. Thus, despite his insecure legal status, Mateusz had started embedding into a pleasant domestic environment and strong supportive inter-personal relationships.

EU enlargement and the expansion of mobility rights to eight new ‘eastern’ accession countries in May 2004 made a huge difference to the mobility and settling opportunities of many millions of people, including those, like Mateusz, who had already moved to the UK prior to accession. Newly acquired rights as an EU citizen marked a major transformation in his lived experiences in British society. He then began embedding across multiple dimensions of society. With the advice and support of his landlady/friend, who was a former health worker, Mateusz registered to train in the health service and now works as a healthcare professional. He married a Polish woman whom he met in London and had two young children. When I interviewed him in 2014 he felt very settled in London. He said that parts of his Polishness were ‘evaporating slowly’ as he had never known adult life in Poland. By contrast, as his sense of Polishness was decreasing, his sense of being a ‘Londoner’ was gradually increasing. Having lived in the city for 16 years at that time, he felt at home in London and had no plans to leave.

Interestingly, Mateusz noted that, when he visited outside London, he felt more foreign: ‘I spent a holiday in Nottingham after being here in London and it was dreadful to go in the countryside to some rural area where I think my status as an immigrant could stand out more’. For migrants like Mateusz, becoming a Londoner is a process that may take time but, unlike Englishness or Britishness, is possible. As a world city, London is not particularly British. It does not belong to the British: ‘Migrants in London enter a space that is not only already marked by diversity, but also understands itself as such’ (Hatziprokopiou, 2009, 26). The narrative of the multicultural city ‘reflects a powerful imaginary’ in which the visibility of migrants is apparently reduced (2009, 24). Hence, it can be argued that Mateusz was embedding in London but not in Britain as a whole, a point which becomes important when Brexit occurs.

When I reconnected with him a few months after the referendum in 2016, Mateusz seemed to be experiencing an emotional dis-embedding, as his sense of belonging and attachment was dramatically undermined. Indeed, of all the interviewees’ reactions to Brexit, that of Mateusz was the most powerful, angry and emotional. This may be because he had lived in London longer than any other of my participants. Having lived in the country for 18 years and despite having a British passport, Mateusz now felt like an ‘immigrant’ in the midst of rising xenophobia – like he was living ‘in a different country’. This is a revealing observation and reminds us of his earlier statement about London being different from the rest of Britain. However, despite London voting with a large majority to ‘remain’ in the EU, the results of the referendum made it clear that London was part of a wider country and had to accept the results of the British electorate. As Russell King (2021) noted, Brexit posed a ‘wicked problem’ for many migrants who had hitherto felt a sense of belonging and acceptance. Being a ‘Londoner’ may be an open and available identity but it is not a legal entity and does not confer a special relationship with Europe, regardless of how cosmopolitan the city may feel.

Nonetheless, Mateusz planned to stay, reflecting the extent to which he had been embedding over many years across a range of domains, including his healthcare career, friendship networks and family ties. He stated succinctly in 2016: ‘My home, my family, my work are all here’. Therefore, he now had to undertake a form of re-embedding in Britain as a country outside the EU.

Embedding is not an all-or-nothing state; one can be embedding in one sector of society – e.g. interpersonal networks or the labour market – but not in other areas such as the nation-state as a whole. Hence, I argue that the multi-dimensional and multi-spatial concept of embedding captures differentiated degrees of attachment and involvement in diverse dimensions of societies. A differentiated conceptualisation of embedding helps not only to go beyond a simplistic, one-dimensional, ‘all or nothing’ view of migrant settlement or ‘integration’ but also to understand the complex and diverse ways in which migrants may respond to Brexit and its aftermath.

Moreover, adopting a qualitative social networks lens, and drawing upon the classic analysis by Bott (1957), reveals the ways in which inter-personal ties at the meso level can help individuals to adapt to and make sense of macro-level structural transformations like Brexit, as discussed in more detail in the final case study.

5.3 Case Study 3: Martyna – The Salience of Relational Embedding to Withstand Unsettling Events

Martyna met her London-based boyfriend during his frequent visits back home to Poland. For a while the couple commuted back and forth but then, in 2005, Martyna decided to join him in London to give the relationship a chance to develop. She arrived with ‘open’ plans, unsure how the relationship would proceed. Underpinned by the rights associated with EU freedom of movement and, indeed, the freedom to settle at that time, Martyna explained: ‘So I sort of thought, OK, I’ll give it a go and, well, I’ve stayed’.

By the time we met in 2014, Martyna had been living in south-east London, in a largely English working-class neighbourhood, for almost 9 years. Her two sons attended the local primary school. Her sociogram was very densely populated with many ties to family, friends and neighbours (see Fig. 2.1). It was apparent that the school was a hub for local connections. Martyna described how she had made lots of friends through the school:

Fig. 2.1
A concentric circle of Martyna’s sociogram depicts the data of the family, work colleagues, neighbors, and friends.

Martyna’s sociogram

We go camping together, we do drinks, and went for a wedding last month, almost the whole school was there. So it’s really nice. It’s a very small primary school, so people are quite close.

The school provided a chance to develop friendships with diverse local people: ‘Polish, English, Chilean, Spanish, French’. Schools can provide opportunities for sustained interaction and so enable embedding in local forms of sociality (Ryan & Mulholland, 2015). Attending the same primary school for over 5 years afforded opportunities for Martyna to engage in regular social encounters with other parents which carried over into shared social activities such as camping holidays.

In the neighbourhood quadrant, Martyna’s sociogram was particularly densely populated, especially in the outer circle of closeness. While completing the sociogram she remarked: ‘I’ve got really nice neighbours’. As noted in the network literature (Wellman, 1979), although neighbours may not be intimate friends, nonetheless, because of their close spatial proximity, neighbours can be a valuable source of practical support and assistance. Beyond merely vague metaphors of networks, I was keen to understand the nature of local ties and if participants, for example, exchanged favours with neighbours. Martyna told me: ‘One of the neighbours, she has our cat for the holiday every time we go’. This example suggests a trusting and reliable relationship with a neighbour and is indicative of embedding in neighbourhood-level supportive ties.

Language can be the key to local embedding. Although Martyna spoke some English prior to arriving in London, she found it very hard to understand local accents. She joked that, while she had expected people to ask ‘How do you do?’ (imitating a posh English accent), she found that people actually said ‘Alright mate?’ (imitating a cockney accent). However, over time her linguistic confidence and familiarity with local accents grew – another indication of her local embedding.

When interviewed in 2014, Martyna eloquently described her gradual process of embedding in London through her shifting sense of home and belonging over time.

One leg there but one leg here and I, I think I had to decide, you need to know where your home is and you know, I know plenty of people who, when they go to Poland, they say ‘We’re going home’. Well, we sort of were coming back home from Poland maybe two or three years ago… home is here… I belong more in London than Gdansk.

This quote reflects Magda’s earlier observation that everyone has to belong somewhere and Mateusz’s remark about gradually becoming a Londoner. Martyna gave a clear example of that sense of belonging in south-east London: ‘I drive without satnav – Oh, I know my bit here’. Thus Martyna had come to know her local neighbourhood in south-east London and could confidently navigate this familiar terrain. Her story illustrates a key marker of embedding – growing familiarity with the geographical markers of a specific place (Trąbka, 2019).

In 2014, I asked Martyna about any plans to return to live in Poland.

We can’t see actually starting our lives from the beginning when we’ve built quite a lot here. My husband has got very good job and he’s been promoted. The older boy, he wouldn’t, I don’t think he would cope in Polish school.

It is noteworthy that her response is told relationally. Her reasons for not returning to Poland relate to her husband’s ‘very good job’ in London and her older son’s projected inability to cope with school in Poland (see Grosa’s Chap. 14 in this book). Thus, her embedding is not an individual experience but, rather, is illustrated by what ‘we’ have built in London.

Although she retained strong ties to her family, she described how relations with friends in Poland had weakened over time. She explained this change in terms of differing lifestyles and attitudes:

We started to think differently… you meet and they’re getting older, we’re getting older and we don’t see each other very often, and … people have got their different things, different matters, you know, and I’m not part of it any more.

Her statement that she is ‘not part of it anymore’ suggests a sense of dis-embedding from friendship networks in Poland. Although the friendship quadrant of her sociogram was densely packed, she explained that these were primarily people living in London. This is underlined by the statement that, in Poland, she and her family are often perceived as ‘you Londoners’. Martyna’s narrative illustrates how networks can operate at a meso level (Bott, 1957) between the individual actor and the wider macro socio-structural context. Martyna describes her shifting relationships with Poland through her interactions with networks of friends and relatives back there. In other words, the attitudes, beliefs and reactions of her contacts in Poland serve as a marker of her own shifting positionality over time.

Given her apparent embedding in London and somewhat dis-embedding from Poland, I was very curious to see how Brexit had impacted on Martyna and her family. When I reconnected with her, asynchronously after the referendum, Martyna described being ‘upset seeing the results on Friday morning, I felt unwanted at that point but have lots of British friends who actually came to me to say that they were ashamed of what happened’.

This statement clearly illustrates two important points. Firstly, as noted earlier, Martyna lived for many years in a suburb of south-east London and had made a lot of local friends through the school and her good relations with her neighbours (as illustrated in her densely populated sociogram). Given the ethnic composition of the neighbourhood, she had many British friends. They appeared to rally around her after the shock of the referendum result. Secondly, this example also clearly illustrates the power of networks to mediate between individual actors and wider socio-political contexts. Her local friends helped to assuage her sense of shock and feeling unwanted after the referendum. They assured her that she was still their friend and that they did not reject her. Thus, her sense of local embedding was re-affirmed by her social ties to British friends and neighbours.

Having lived in the UK for over a decade, Martyna was concerned about how Brexit might impact on her family but also asserted the contribution that they had made to British society: ‘I hope it won’t affect my family too much; we’ve been in the UK for ten years, rather giving than taking, but we may be hit by some restrictions that would make our lives difficult’.

As noted elsewhere in the literature (Genova & Zontini, 2021; Godin & Sigona, 2022; Mas Giralt, 2021), post-referendum, many EU migrants sought to assert their right to belong in the UK through their hard work and active contribution to society. Moreover, using the lens of embedding, it is apparent that Martyna’s deep-rooted sense of belonging in Britain sought to withstand the potentially unsettling impact of Brexit: ‘We don’t plan to move away now as we haven’t planned before, our home is here and our kids consider themselves more British than Polish...’.

Of course, as noted elsewhere (Mulholland & Ryan, 2022), following Brexit, EU migrants cannot simply continue as before but are now confronted with the need to formalise their embedding through securing their immigration status (Sotkasiira & Gawlewicz, 2021). Unlike Magda and Mateusz, Martyna had not secured British citizenship. She explained: ‘We never thought we needed the citizenship’; however, now she was concerned about the expense and bureaucracy. Her situation reveals the multi-dimensionality of embedding across diverse domains. Despite deep relational and spatial embedding in south-east London, Martyna seemed reluctant to engage in political embedding through citizenship. Now the reality, cost and complexity of that official process confronted her as uncomfortable and unwelcome but probably necessary.

6 Concluding Thoughts

We are living in turbulent times as migrants are confronted by multiple layers of crises. While Brexit can clearly be described as one such a turbulent or unsettling event, it is not experienced in the same way by all EU migrants living in the UK. This chapter has combined two approaches, qualitative longitudinal research and qualitative social network analysis, to explore migrants’ dynamic processes of embedding or dis-embedding in the context of Brexit. Inspired by classic network studies (Bott, 1957), I have sought to advance understanding of the mediating role of inter-personal networks on the meso level between individual actors, on the micro level, and wider socio-structural forces on the macro level. Based on my extensive dataset generated over two decades of migration research, I selected three case studies to convey the nuances and richness of experiences (Thomson, 2007). Even though the case studies discussed in this chapter are all of relatively long-term residents who might be seen to be quite settled in Britain, nonetheless there are differences in their situations and experiences. This chapter shows that, despite their long-term stay in Britain, Brexit still confronted them in different ways.

Magda, for example, stated that Brexit would make little difference to her because of her deep embedding in local relationships through strong attachments to her faith community and the sense of home she had created with her British partner and their daughter. Moreover, because of this commitment to stay and make her life in Britain, she had already secured her political embedding through obtaining British citizenship prior to the referendum.

Martyna, by contrast, had felt upset and unsettled by the results of the referendum but her strong local ties to friends and neighbours (refer back to her sociogram in Fig. 2.1) helped to assuage these concerns by asserting a sense of solidarity in the face of anti-immigrant hostility. Furthermore, Martyna’s familial ties also secured her embedding. Her husband’s career and her sons’ schooling reinforced her own sense of belonging in London. Hence, although they had not yet secured their embedding by obtaining British citizenship, Martyna and her family were now confronting the need to do so in order to protect the life they had built in London.

Mateusz expressed the most anger and concerns about Brexit. He had lived in Britain for almost 20 years at the time of the referendum. Having migrated in the 1990s, prior to Poland joining the EU, he had a strong memory of the complex and precarious process of crossing borders with insecure immigration status. In our 2014 interview, he seemed to be deeply embedding in London, through establishing his career in the health sector and starting a young family. He said he was becoming a Londoner. The referendum result deeply unsettled his sense of embedding. When re-interviewed in the light of Brexit, he said that he felt like a foreigner, an immigrant, in a hostile land. Nevertheless, his ability to withstand that unsettling impact was shaped, in large part, by his social networks. His strong friendship ties, his wife and child, as well as his job, reflected but also reinforced his sense of embedding in London. He had made a life, a family, a home in the city. So, despite his anger at the referendum, he was determined to stay and begin re-embedding in a post-Brexit Britain.

Therefore, in exploring migrants’ responses to Brexit, this chapter shows, firstly, the salience of adopting longitudinal methods to track how migrants’ plans evolve over time. Conducting research at one point in time reveals very little about how migratory projects may adapt and change with unfolding life events and wider spatial-temporal shifts. For example, Magda’s assertion in the 2006 interview that her migration was purely temporary and she would soon return to Poland to marry and start a family proved to be very different from her life choices as revealed in subsequent interviews over 10 years.

Secondly, the chapter has shown that adopting the concept of embedding can offer valuable insights into the unsettling impact of Britain’s departure from the EU. In other words, the potential of Brexit to unsettle migrants depends, to a great extent, on the depth of their embedding within British society. As discussed elsewhere (Ryan, 2018; Ryan & Mulholland, 2015; Ryan et al., 2021), embedding takes place across a range of domains from the economic, to the spatial and relational. Rather than being separate processes, these are often intertwined so that deep embedding in one domain, such as the economic sector, may facilitate embedding within specific local contexts. However, as the notion of differentiated embedding suggests, embedding is not a single, one-dimensional, entity but may involve varied depths of embedding across a range of societal domains. Indeed, for many EU migrants, it was their very shallow ‘political embedding’ (Mulholland & Ryan, 2022), despite deep embedding in the economic sector, which caused the most practical challenges following the Brexit referendum.

Thirdly, this chapter has shown that the impact of Brexit should not be examined purely at an individual level. By adopting a qualitative social networks lens, informed by classic network scholarship (Bott, 1957), I have explored how macro socio-political events are experienced, negotiated and assessed at the individual micro level, through the mediating role of relations to significant others.

Therefore, in understanding the impact of unsettling events, not just Brexit but also other macro-structural transformations such as global recessions, pandemics or wars, I suggest the usefulness of combining longitudinal research, a qualitative social networks lens and the conceptual framework of differentiated embedding to help study and analyse the ways in which migrants navigate and resist such unsettling forces.