Michał P. Garapich (2016), London’s Polish Borders. Transnationalizing Class and Ethnicity Among Polish Migrants in London.


This long-awaited book is a recent addition to the considerable volume of important research on post-enlargement Polish migration in the UK. Originally guided by a methodological nationalism paradigm, Garapich’s study on Poles in London approaches the topic of migration and ethnic identity from a different perspective. In contrast to other works within this field, which prefer to study sameness and uniqueness, the author focuses on class and intra-ethnic divisions within migrants’ boundaries, deploying other important concepts from related disciplines, such as ‘imagined community’ and discourse. But what makes this book even more special is its examination both of how Poles makes sense of the super-diverse locality of a global city with its own complex ethnic relationships, and of how they use, perform, thrive in, but also sometimes struggle with, transnational living. By the same token, a vigorous ethnographic methodology, rich sites of data collections, a thorough examination of multi-genre data (i.e., qualitative interviews and focus groups coupled with field notes from participant observations), as well as a richness of examples from the field to illustrate the author’s point, all turn this book into a fine example of a distinguished research monograph. The author chooses to collate and to blend data harvested from several of his ethnographic projects, including his original PhD thesis, spanning roughly the first decade of Polish EU membership between 2003 and 2013.

Thematically, the book is organised in eight chapters, and a preface, which sets the scene not only for Poles in London but also of the multicultural politics of the city. It draws on a range of settings, both institutional and formal (Westminster, Polish cultural centres) and informal (workplaces, homeless shelters). The author analyses the top–down hegemonic discourse of ethnic and national identity and its convergence with meta-narratives of Polish migratory ways, including those that are politically motivated. In addition, however, the volume brings together a multitude of bottom–up voices of migrants coming from diverse socio-spatial settings (chłoporobotnicy, blokowiska). Mobility is discussed as a strategy to cope with the social, economic and political changes of the Polish post-communist transformation, but also as a transnational way of life in the enlarged European Union. What brings these two types of discourse together is a notion of class and in-group power play within a migratory context.

Thus, in Chapter 1, Garapich presents relevant sociological and anthropological concepts, and their application to his ethnographic material. He writes: ‘My theoretical position followed here is based on a classical notion of an anthropological enquiry as a search for the meaning of people’s actions, practices, discursive performances, and agency’ (p. 21). Such meaning can only be understood in a certain time and place. Therefore, the complex historical discourse of Polish migration and its present manifestation is not only shaped by a notion of ethnicity and class, but also contextualised in globalisation and transnational modernity. As the historical roots of Polish settlement in the UK cannot be marginalised in a discussion about present-day Polish Londoners, the continuity of consecutive waves of Polish migrants, seen through a lens of class, moral obligation and political responsibility, is scrutinised and challenged in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 connects the topic of post-Second World War groups with present migrants, focusing on the early 1990s and the process of EU enlargement. The chapter describes how both processes influenced and shaped development of the ethnic community. The following chapters (4, 5 and 6) are devoted to a detailed examination of the everyday practices of post-enlargement migrants in a transnational social field; here individuals and their agency become a core topic of this study. Next, in-group power play, competitive discourses of hierarchy and moral rights of representation, together with internal forces of group-making, are explored in Chapter 7. Finally Garapich once more shifts his interest from the group to the individual in Chapter 8. Here, the reader learns that ‘the major conclusion of this book is that from the perspective of social actors, this transnational reflexivity through physical and mental manoeuvring across borders and the complex reconstructions of social class and ethnicity combine ways of being and ways of belonging, which paradoxically reproduce national borders’ (p. 318).

I am particularly interested in how this conclusion raises the question of individual migrants’ subjectivity and agency, as well as their ability and power in the context of (social) change making (Grabowska, Garapich, Jaźwińska and Radziwinowiczówna 2016). As Garapich argues, there is a duality of potential in transnational social fields. First, they can be seen as an arena that provides an opportunity for an individual to take action, which weakens the influence of the nation-state. Second, on the other hand, the nation-state has the ability to fire back with a dominant nationalistic discourse that penetrates both ‘leaver’ and ‘stayer’ groups. This kind of discourse influences the competing narratives about post-enlargement migration that are produced and circulated within public as well as private and semi-private spheres, both at home and abroad (see also Galasinska and Horolets 2012). The complex interdependence of these forces creates tensions between the dominant narratives and their everyday practices, and this book elegantly depicts how people negotiate, challenge and indeed succeed in easing these tensions.

The diversity of topics considered by the author in this book, as well as the broad range of rich ethnographic data, make the volume a good point of reference for academics and students interested in a specific case study of post-enlargement Polish migration. But this diversity, while a clear strength of the book, is also its shortcoming. At times the text drifts between historical underpinnings of the recent wave of Polish Londoners evaluated by the author and his take on the present-day practices of migrants; between the lens of the group and that of the individual; between the local and the transnational; between the macro and the micro. Having offered this minor critique, I do wonder whether a more robust and clear thematic cohesion is possible when one is trying to depict the complexity of the field. However, I would definitely welcome a more focused methodological approach in the application of terms such as ‘discourse’ and ‘narrative’, which at times are taken for granted by Garapich. Indeed, while investigating developments of the discursive construction of ethnicity and identity within the migratory context, researchers do pay particular attention to political processes influencing and shaping the discourses under investigation and see discourse inter alia as ‘integrating various different positions and voices’ (Wodak 2009: 39). Such positioning should be acknowledged and discussed further by the author. Regrettably, this interesting volume is pitted with editorial and technical errors which are quite irritating and spoil its enjoyment.

Overall, I recommend the book as an important and informative contribution to the current debates on both Polish migration and transnationalism, where issues of class and ethnicity within the migratory context of a global city are explored in interesting and intellectually stimulating ways.


Galasinska A., Horolets A. (2012). The (Pro)Lo-ng(ed) Life of a “Grand Narrative”: The Case of Internet Forum Discussions on Post-2004 Polish Migration to the United Kingdom. Text & Talk 32(2):125 –143.

Grabowska I., Garapich M. P., Jaźwińska E., Radziwinowiczówna A. (2016). Migrants As Agents of Change. Social Remittances in an Enlarged European Union. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Wodak R. (2009). The Discourse of Politics in Action. Politics As Usual. Basingstoke, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Aleksandra Galasinska
University of Wolverhampton, UK