Finding Love Migrants in Brussels

Place de la Monnaie

When I arrived in Brussels in January, I was cold, and I didn’t know anyone. But I needed to find people who might take part in my research about how migration affects love relationships and vice versa. There was no immediately obvious place to target as lots of people are in love relationships which made it quite overwhelming at first. The upside is that everyone in Brussels was potentially a participant, so I could pretty much publicise the project anywhere. I’ve used a variety of ways to find people to take part in the project. Here is what has worked, and what hasn’t.

The website

This has undoubtedly been an essential part of the process. It is not so much a way for people to find about the project, but it provides a place where, once they have heard about it, they can find out more. It’s quite confidence boosting when you’re trying to sell your Phd research to be able to say ‘have a look at the website later’, it shows competence, organisation, and that this is a serious project. It provides a way for people to contact you, so they can go and have a think and get back to you. The title of my project helps here, because it is memorable, and Google takes you straight there. Many of the people who have done interviews said it made them want to be part of it, because they could see others like them doing it when they looked at the website, and wanted to be part of that community.

Twitter and Facebook

Neither of these two social media networks has been particularly productive for finding people to take part. I was tweeting to accounts which people living in Brussels might follow, but I don’t think I found any participants through Twitter. This is similar for Facebook, although I can’t say I have particularly spent a lot of time on the Facebook page. These two social media platforms still raise the profile of the project though, and perhaps I’ll dedicate more time to them for the next phase of the project.

Email mail out

The first few days I was here were spent in front of my laptop sending out emails to the organisers of the cultural groups and institutions which exist in Brussels for people who live here. I was trying to get people to include something about the project in their newsletter and I had a good amount of success. In each email I included a short blurb which could be copied into a newsletter, or forwarded in an email. This led to several interviews. I was also invited to do an interview on a local radio station on the back of this newsletter, which led to three more participant interviews. This also got the website a lot of hits.


I was surprised to find that these worked. They were quickly-made flyers, put together in Word and printed out at home. I left them in various places and assumed that I had just contributed to wasting paper and creating litter. In fact, only a couple of days after distributing them, I was contacted by people who wanted to take part. The flyers had a very brief, to-the-point description of the project, helped in part by the title, and stated clearly that I was looking for couples to interview. They directed people to the website, which I am sure helped to build confidence and convince people to take part.  On reflection I would have used this method earlier had I thought such a low-tech thing would work, but now I  know that it does, I will be using more flyers, of a slightly better quality, in Barcelona.


In the planning stage of the project I had designed an online survey to get people to answer some questions and then leave their email if they wanted to do an interview. My conclusions about this are that mostly people who do surveys are not the same kind of people who do interviews. The responses were often only half done, and more people didn’t leave their email than did. Also, when I was publicising the project, it made it more complicated – do I want them to do a survey or an interview? – so I focused on the interviews and put the survey to one side. I am utterly glad that I made this choice.

Personal Contact

Coffee mornings turned out to be great ways of meeting people, not just to take part but to spend time with generally. There are coffee mornings for all sorts of groups, and I’ve been to lots including ones for ‘expats’, ones for women in Brussels, ones for Phd researchers in Brussels. The morning socials were more useful than the boozy, evening ones. I found going on my own attracted all the wrong kinds of attention, and people weren’t particularly interested in hearing about a Phd project.

I also met several friends on French course I did which, as luck would have it, had several people in who fitted the Love Migrant profile who took part. While personal contact is one way of finding participants, I didn’t find that meeting people personally meant they were more likely to take part. In fact there was a high number of people who said they would and then never did. It is, I think, best to let people know about what you’re doing and then let them contact you, which they will if they can and want to take part.


Once someone has done an interview, they can personally recommend you and the project to others. This is known as snowballing, when one person leads you to another and the number of participants keeps getting slowly larger. It has been the most effective way of finding people, followed closely by the newsletter. This is unsurprising as both of these methods come with the backing of a person or an institution which the potential participant already knows and trusts.

This mixture of approaches to finding participants seems to be working, so I intend to keep using it for the next phase in Barcelona, albeit with a few changes; I’m going to start the email mail before I arrive in Barcelona to try to get some interviews started as soon as I arrive; and I’ll be out with flyers earlier this time. Overall it seems that the more traditional methods have found me more participants than social media. I’m not starting from zero this time though, as I have some contacts there and one interview scheduled already. I am also hoping that I won’t be cold.



One of the most motivating aspects of doing the fieldwork for this project is that there is loads of public interest, despite it being Phd research which can be quite dry and off-putting. The comments which I get about this being interesting and worthwhile research from the people I meet continually validates my reasons for doing the research in the first place; namely that while economics, politics, and transport links are factors in people’s decisions to move (or not), those factors are almost always weighed up in conjunction with the outcomes they will have on personal relationships. Transport links take you somewhere and who or what is at the other end of the line is key to deciding whether those links qualify as good or not to you.

The project appeals to a wide array of people and one reason for that is there are a multitude of different understandings of love. There are numerous kinds of relationships which involve love – parents and children, friendship, siblings – they are just a few examples of relationships which can involve love and loving (and annoyance, and jealousy, and tedium etc.). No matter how I define love in the academic context, and there is a rather convoluted definition in the official outline of the project which tries to pin it down to the sort of thing we might call ‘couple’ love (though that is too short a definition for academics).

This was brought home to me the other day when I was talking to an Italian man who moved to Brussels because his wife was coming here to work. When I suggested that he was a love migrant, he was surprised, and, pointing to his wedding ring, told me that ‘this’ (meaning his marriage) was not the same as love. He felt that once married, obligation and duty become more salient and that his case was not romantic enough for the way he understood the Love Migration Project (though I beg to differ).

I was talking to another man who had found a job in Europe and his wife and young children had come with him to live here. This fits in to research which often terms this ‘trailing spouse’, where one partner (often the wife) follows the other. But what he said was that he had looked for this job in the first place because his wife was unhappy in the US. As he saw it, he left his old job and moved continents so that she and his children could also do that. In other words love could be seen as a ‘push’ factor in his migration.

One woman I spoke to explained in great detail how she had followed her partner to several different countries, as he had to move around so much for his job. She has been doing this for over twenty years. The couple have lived together at some points in their relationship, and at other times they have lived separately in the the same country, and in different countries. Despite upping and leaving several times to be near(er) to her partner, she did not see herself as a love migrant because she found work in the places she moved to.

The ways which people identify (or not) with the project are endlessly fascinating and hearing how people understand what I’m doing is hugely valuable. As these people’s stories indicate that there is more to it than categorising migrants in terms of ‘trailing spouse’ or ‘labour migrant’ and shows how important personal life is in people’s decisions to migrate.

Googled to the Face

Business cards make a difference

When I started this project, there wasn’t a website and I didn’t have any business cards. I must admit that I had thought that business cards were a bit of a pretentious waste of time. This is partly because my experience of business cards is that they just sit at the bottom of your bag, or in your pocket gathering dust and you can’t remember why you would want to contact that particular person ever again. I can’t remember a time when I’ve used a business card to contact someone, and when I have needed to find out more about a person or place for most of my adult life I’ve been able to use Google.

As I began my fieldwork, I found myself at various ‘expat’ events with a view to finding participants and to publicise the project. In this sort of networking event you need to be able to tell people what you’re doing in less than a minute, because if you don’t grab their attention, the waiter circulating with the tepid cava certainly will. It was at one of these events that I realised the words ‘phd research’ cannot compete with a tray of free plonk, and quickly re-vamped the project with a more catchy name. Thus the Love Migration Project was born.

What I then realised is that once attention is being paid, there is the possibility that someone might want to know more. Queue Google. I hadn’t anticipated that people would be Googling me to my face, though, but once I realised that this is exactly what was happening, and that they were not impressed with what they were finding, I knew I had better get my web presence sorted out.

This blog, still very much in an embryonic form, is one result of that networking encounter, one which I hopefully will serve as a public face for the project as well as a place for people to do an online survey. After that networking affair, I also got some business cards sorted out, which is probably quite useful, but as yet I am still in the process of working out at what point to hand one over.

Ethical Responsibilities

After rather a lot of filling in of forms, my research got ethical approval a couple of weeks ago. This sort of approval is necessary to stop the kind of terrible research which used to take place with complete and utter disregard for the participants (usually known as subjects to minimise the fact that they were human), so the forms need to be waded through for good reason. What I was struck by was how much of the approval is about how the information, data, material will be collected and how little consideration is given to what might be done with it.

Most university ethics departments insist on some sort of anonimisation of interview transcripts, which is intended to protect the respondents. This usually involves taking out names and any other key information which could mean that the person could be identified by a reader, so if I use a synonym instead of a participant’s real name and then mention that they prefer the view from their bedroom at Buckingham Palace to that at Sandringham, I haven’t really done my bit. But making something anonymous is more complicated than just replacing key words. The amount and type of information which needs to be changed depends on the particular research and the participants. This means that making information anonymous can only ever go so far. In the case of my research if someone tells me their highly unique life story, it might be difficult to present that in its entirety without others who knew then being able to work out that its their story.

Their are other problems with this sort of ethical practice. Some participants don’t want their stories to be anonymous; they want their name on their work, so to speak. If they give what is often called informed consent to have their words attributed to their name, perhaps researchers should not be too worried. After all, research which is political in nature or deals with stories of resistance, for instance, might attract people who want their stories to be told so they can contribute to wider debates. And that must surely be their right. But what happens if their situation changes and revealing their identity is no longer the most apt thing to do? Should researchers insist on anonymity to protect participants from their future selves, perhaps? This is not an easy question to answer as one way seems to deny people the right to decide for themselves, and puts the researcher in the position of ‘the one who knows better’, and the other way does leave open the possibility for participants to regret their actions and cause potential embarrassment or worse.

So, much effort is made to try to help people understand what is involved in taking part in research. But it seems to me we might take this a little further. There is little to say how researchers might analyse the information, and few if any restrictions. Once ‘gathered’, this ‘data’ seems to be, in the eyes of the ethics department, the sole possession of the researcher. For many, this is unproblematic, but for those researchers who take the view that interviews are co-constructed, that is, the participants have a key role in creating the ‘data’, should they not be allowed to have a say about how it is later discussed, or analysed?

Perhaps, then, the involvement of participants should not stop when the interview does. Academic research might adopt some of the forms of interactive discussion which journalism has undergone, where articles are open for comments. Many researchers have done this by writing about their research in public spaces, such as blogs. Others have taken the step of asking participants to comment on drafts of chapters. While there may be no space for this on an ethical approval form, knowing that ‘they’ will read what ‘we’ write is perhaps the right ethical direction.