The ethno-cultural position of second-generation Surinamese in the Netherlands

A.J. van Heelsum

Publisher: Het Spinhuis, Amsterdam, 1997
Dissertation Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Link to the full text in DARE



When we speak of the position of ethnic minorities in the Netherlands, it is increasingly important to include the children and descendants of the original migrants in the analysis. In the case of the Surinamese, the largest ethnic minority group in the Netherlands, the second generation currently makes up forty per cent of the total population of this group. Focusing on the second and subsequent generations is not only important because of their increasing numbers, but also because it permits a long- term analysis of the development of the position of immigrant groups. We focus in this research on the position of second-generation Surinamese in the Netherlands.

In order to operationalize the position of migrants and their children, a model devised by Penninx (1988a) is employed; this divides the position of migrants (and persons of migrant origin) into two components: (1) the social position, and (2) the ethno-cultural position. Both components have two dimensions: position acquisition and position allocation. The social position is defined as `the position of a minority group as a whole in the social stratification of society. Indicators for this position can be found in such domains as a) labour, income and social security, b) education, and c) housing' (Penninx et al. 1994: 104). The ethno-cultural position is `a) the extent to which a group is regarded primarily as a different group by the majority of society, and/or b) the extent to which the group defines itself primarily as such' (ibid.). Penninx named the first part of the definition (a) position allocation, and the second part (b) position acquisition. Indicators to measure the social position are readily available from social stratification research: the level of education and the unemployment rate are clear indicators. Up to now no instrument of measurement for the ethno-cultural position has been developed; in this research an attempt is made to construct an instrument that can be used in survey interviews.

Interviews are a widely used method of gathering data in the social sciences. The role of the interviewer is often taken for granted and it is not always recognized that the interviewer can be responsible for up to fifteen per cent of the variance in the answers of respondents. This is true not only in survey interviews but also in open interviews. The interviewees make assumptions about the views of the interviewer and may adjust their statements to accommodate the interviewer. In this study ethnicity plays an important role. American research shows that interviews about ethnic issues are sensitive to what has been called the race-of-interviewer effect. This research shows that a black interviewer obtains systematically different answers from respondents compared with a white interviewer. It is probable that the ethnic background of the interviewer will also influence the answers of the Surinamese respondents in this study. These issues give rise to three principal objectives. The first objective of this study is to construct instruments to measure the ethno-cultural position of individual migrants, which can be used in standardized survey interviews. The second objective is to reach conclusions on the situation of the second-generation Surinamese, using the instruments we have developed. The third objective is to study the impact of the ethnic background of the interviewers on the answers provided by the respondents.

Theoretical framework

In order to employ the broad general concept of ethno-cultural position for operationalization, a further breakdown of the theoretical concepts into empirical components was required. We used in our scheme of operationalization the process devised by Boesjes-Hommes (1970). We reason that position acquisition consists of three components: a) ethnic self-definition, b) group-differentiation, and c) orientation towards and contacts with other Surinamese. The other dimension of the ethno-cultural position, position allocation, is further specified as negative position allocation as experienced by individuals (or the experience of discrimination).

Research design

Two pilot studies were organized in order to realize a thorough operationalization of the ethno-cultural position. Starting from the literature, a set of multiple-choice questions was developed for each theoretical component and a preliminary questionnaire was constructed. Twelve second-generation Surinamese were interviewed, using the questionnaire in an open way, and were asked to give comments on the questionnaire and to give their opinion on the relevance of the subjects. They were also asked to suggest additional subjects and to comment on sensitive items. A great deal of useful information was gathered in this way, because the questionnaire appeared to trigger a willingness on the part of the respondents to talk about the whole issue. New subjects were added, and the wording of some items was improved in the course of preparing a second, revised questionnaire.

For the second pilot study and the main study, a set of addresses was received from the population registry of the Municipality of Amsterdam, which contained details of 4390 persons aged between 15 and 35 years old, with at least one parent born in Surinam. From this list obtained from the Municipality of Amsterdam, 600 people were randomly selected for a postal questionnaire; 225 persons (38%) sent us their written responses. This second pilot was used to improve the questionnaire still further and to refine the question sets and scales. The resulting final questionnaire was used in the main survey, which consisted of face-to-face interviews. A new group was randomly selected and approached, out of which 300 (58%) actually took part in face-to-face interviews.

To find out whether ethnic background influences the answers of respondents, we divided the interviews equally between Surinamese and Dutch interviewers. Instead of the contrast between black and white interviewers that we find in the American literature, we have employed a distinction between Surinamese interviewers (supposed to be members of the `own' group) and Dutch interviewers (as members of the `other' group). We argue that it is not so much the colour of the interviewer's skin that determines the contrast between Surinamese and Dutch interviewers, but the perception of whether the interviewer belongs to one's `own' group or not.

Results of the operationalization of the ethno-cultural position

Sets of questions covering each theoretical component were part of the questionnaire. From these sets we selected the questions on which responses could be scaled. The feasibility of constructing a scale was determined on the basis of Mokken's criteria, which include a stated level of homogeneity and reliability. For every component, homogeneous and reliable scales were successfully constructed, except for the component `group differentiation'. It was concluded that this component had been formulated too broadly. With a subsection of the questions on group differentiation, however, it proved possible to construct a homogeneous and reliable scale, namely on the orientation towards Surinamese language and culture. For the component concerning `contacts with Surinamese', four instruments turned out to be successful. The process of constructing the scales resulted in seven instruments that can be used as indicators for the ethno-cultural position: 1) an ethnic self-definition scale, 2) a scale of orientation towards Surinamese language and culture, 3) a scale that measures orientation towards contacts within the Surinamese group, 4) a scale for the intensity of contact by telephone or post with persons in Surinam, 5) a measure for the quantity of contacts among Surinamese in the Netherlands, 6) a measure for the quality of contacts among Surinamese in the Netherlands, and 7) a scale for position-allocation as perceived by the respondents.

The seven indicators were tested for representation of the concept of ethno-cultural position. For this purpose we used a factor analysis, which produced two factors that can be interpreted as position acquisition and position allocation. Most of the scales loaded on the expected dimension, except scale 3, on orientation towards contacts with Surinamese. We can conclude that perceived discrimination and a stronger orientation towards the Surinamese group are connected. The correlation between the two factors acquisition and allocation (.64) is high enough to warrant the conclusion that these two dimensions are indicative of one underlying construct. Thus the attempt to construct a coherent set of instruments to measure the concept of ethno-cultural position, with its dimensions of position acquisition and position allocation, has been successful.

Results indicating the position of second-generation Surinamese

The second objective of this study was to draw conclusions on the situation of the second-generation Surinamese. In order to implement this objective the constructed measurement instruments were employed, together with indicators of social position and certain demographic variables like sex, age, and the number of Surinamese parents. The characteristics of the second-generation Surinamese respondents in this study refer to the first phase of the history of the migration of Surinamese to the Netherlands, which occurred in the 1960s. The sample in this study is aged between fifteen and thirty-five years old. The respondents are children of the first immigrants from Surinam to the Netherlands.

Among the older respondents (30-35) were found a relatively large number of children of mixed parentage, namely with one Dutch and one Surinamese parent. This is explained by the fact that the first group of Surinamese who came to the Netherlands during the colonial period consisted mainly of men from middle or upper-class Creole families (to study at a university) often married Dutch women. Around the time of the independence of Surinam in 1975, the Dutch government gave the Surinamese the option of either confirming their new Surinamese nationality or taking up Dutch nationality and settling in the Netherlands within a period of five years. In view of the apparent instability of the young nation, a significant percentage opted for Dutch nationality, which led to substantial migration to the Netherlands. The migrants were no longer an elite group, but represented all parts of the Surinamese socio-economic and ethnic groups.

This development is also visible in our sample aged between fifteen and thirty-five. Among the oldest respondents many have one Dutch parent, and in the younger group the percentage of people with two Surinamese parents is higher. Interestingly the percentage of mixed parentage in the sample remains high, also among the younger respondents. This can be considered a sign of the rapid integration of the Surinamese into Dutch society. The development is confirmed by data from the Central Bureau of Statistics, so it is not a special characteristic of our sample in Amsterdam. Because of the high inter-marriage rate the Surinamese will not remain as a distinct and separate ethnic group in the future, and it would seem taht Dutch society is changing faster than we have hitherto realized.

Two indicators of the social position of immigrants are their position in the labour market and their educational achievement. Our respondents have a low participation rate in the labour force (47%), compared to Amsterdammers aged 15-35 years (74%). The labour force is defined as those who are available for the labour market (employed and unemployed persons). The low percentage is caused by the considerable number of students in the sample (51%). These students participate in higher levels of education than is usual among their age group in Amsterdam. Respondents who had finished their education also reported a higher final level of education. The educational level of the sample in this study not only compares favorably with that of Amsterdammers of the same age, but is higher than that of the first-generation Surinamese in Amsterdam. This positive picture can partly be explained by a selective response on the part of relatively highly educated people. On the other hand, the sample consists of children of the first migrants from Surinam, who are relatively well-to-do compared to the rest of the Surinamese in the Netherlands.

The unemployment rate in this sample (21%) was higher than the unemployment rate among Dutch young people (aged 15-35) in Amsterdam (16%). Compared to the first- generation Surinamese in Amsterdam -- 45% unemployed -- this is an enormous improvement, but compared to Dutch people of the same age, the arrears are still evident. This is revealing because the level of training is higher than that for the Dutch of the same age-group.

The answers provided by the respondents on the question of ethno-cultural position are divergent. Answers range from those who are not attached in any way to the Surinamese part of their background or the Surinamese branch of their families and who have no Surinamese contacts, to those at the other extreme, who claim not to have any Dutch friends at all.

The respondents in this study seldom referred to any kind of ethnic background when asked to describe themselves. When faced with a multiple-choice question, many of them asserted that they are Dutch, and only a small minority labeled themselves primarily Surinamese. The labels Creole or Hindustani, which are significant in Surinam and among the first generation, are hardly used by the second generation in the Netherlands.

Most of the young people in this sample have friends from different backgrounds, and identify to a greater or lesser extent with both the Dutch and the Surinamese groups, or alternate between them. Only 24% of the respondents speak the Surinamese language Sranan Tongo well; 74% speak Dutch with their parents, and 80% speak Dutch at home. In addition many of the respondents are not particularly strongly orientated towards having Surinamese friends: 53% put a Dutch friend first on the list of friends, 31% a Surinamese friend, and 16% put someone with a different background first on the list. Of those interviewed who live with a partner, most have a Dutch partner. This is true for young people with two Surinamese parents, but to an even greater degree for those of mixed background. No more than a quarter of the respondents maintain contact by post or telephone with people in Surinam. No more than 20% had received from or sent to someone in Surinam any letters or parcels in the month before the interview. All these indicators show that orientation towards the Surinamese group is not very strong.

The perception of respondents of the views of themselves held by the people around them, or in other words the perceived position allocation, is also part of the ethno- cultural position in our theoretical framework. Experience of discrimination plays an important role. The respondents did not often report discrimination, in the sense of distinct negative behaviour, and the majority stated that they never experienced any discrimination in their work situation. The same is true for the school situation. However this cannot be said about opportunities in society in general: respondents estimated that their chances in society are fair and that their achievement is connected with the effort they make, but that does not mean that they think of Surinamese and Dutch chances as equal. They experience small signs of mistrust and unfair assumptions, like that of the surprised face when the black gentleman turns out to be the lawyer and not the secretary who accompanies him.

Respondents also perceive position allocation when they see how information services like newspapers write negatively about Surinamese. They think that the image of Surinamese employees in Dutch companies is more negative than the image of Dutch employees held by both employers and colleagues.

Students report higher position allocation than those in employment. The number of unemployed persons in the sample was too small to compare them with students and working respondents. Gender plays a role in the process of position allocation: men with two Surinamese parents report the highest level of allocation, while women from mixed Surinam/Dutch backgrounds report the lowest.

Results concerning the impact of the ethnic background of the interviewer on answers by respondents

The third objective of this research is to study the impact of the ethnicity of the interviewer on the answers by respondents. When we look at the answers on measures of the ethno-cultural position, it transpires that the mean scores of those questioned by a Surinamese interviewer were systematically higher than those of respondents with a Dutch interviewer. Comparison of the mean scores is a limited method of determining the `interviewer effect'. We applied a multi-level analysis and took the background of the interviewer and the parentage, gender, age, educational level and occupation of the respondent, and the interaction between the ethnic background of the interviewer and the respondent, all into consideration. The background of the respondent (in particular being a descendant of a mixed marriage or not) influences the answers of respondents more than the background of the interviewer does. The background of the interviewer was found to exert significant influence only in the scale concerning orientation towards friendship among Surinamese and not on any of the other subjects, whether ethnic or otherwise.


Our study shows an example of the operationalization of the ethno-cultural position. Using the indicators of the ethno-cultural position, it is possible to show the diversity of ethnic identification among the second-generation Surinamese. Most of the respondents regard the Netherlands as their own country and are not exclusively oriented towards their Surinamese background. The indicators of social position point in the same direction. The group is well educated compared to their Dutch counterparts. The high percentage of people with Dutch/Surinamese parentage as well as the high percentage of ralationships with a Dutch partner among this age group can also be considered a sign of integration.

A relatively large number of our respondents are descendants of the earlier elite migrants who came mainly for purpose of study. It is for future research to show how the social and ethno-cultural position of second-generation Surinamese will develop when the descendants of the mass migration representing all sections and ethnic groups of Surinamese society become older. The relatively high rate of unemployment of the second generation, despite a higher level of education, indicates a problem. The tendency towards integration and the good school results of the younger group are reasons for optimism about the future.