Gabriele Cappai teaches methods of empirical research with special emphasis on qualitative methods. His interests also touch theory of culture, social theory and the sociology of migration. Over the past few years his work has developed along the following thematic lines:
Culture and Social Action
Considered as an ensemble of generalized symbols, legitimized through the necessity of orientation and transmitted through socialization, culture is an important dimension of human action. In its cognitive, evaluative or expressive manifestations, culture shapes actors’ beliefs, norms and tastes. Contrary to what neoclassic economists and other scientists sustain, culture is not a residual element that can be ignored by describing or explaining human action.
On the other hand, contrary to what cultural determinists sustain, culture influences do not take effect on their own. Culture has an important but not exclusive relevance for action. We have also to consider actors' interests and opportunities as two important determinants of action. To assess the specific power of these determinants is always an empirical question.
An “equilibrated” conception of action must take distance from both tendencies: to explain human action exclusively or mainly in terms of culture or, on the opposite, to explain action making no reference to culture. Cappai illustrates what is meant by an “equilibrated” conception of action, among others, in his research on Shari’ah implementation: Contested Shari’ah. One Law, many interpretations, diverging interests (Cappai 2013).
The “Migration Triangle”
A main element of this research area is the observation that today, in many cases, the decision to migrate is not necessarily followed by a stable process of integration into the host society. Especially in times of precarious labor market conditions and social insecurity, the reinforcement of ties between migrants and society of origin becomes a real need for both collective actors. Migrants look at the origin society as a possible place to engage in transnational activities and the origin society rediscovers “their” migrants, from which they expect support in terms of human and financial capital. These societies do not necessarily want “their” migrants back; what they want is that the stream of remittances will continue in the future. But it is also a matter of fact, that the migrant’s orientations and expectations change in time, and the main factor that causes this change is “learning” in the host society: especially for the second generation, life in democratic, tolerant, well-functioning host societies makes “home” appear less attractive. Migrant’s orientation and their willingness to integrate depend very much on the real opportunities that host societies offer to them. The concept of the “migration triangle” intends to shed light on the phenomenon of migrant orientation, considering contemporarily ongoing processes and interactions between the collective actors in the field. The book Im migratorischen Dreieck. Eine empirische Untersuchung über Migrantenorganisationen und ihre Stellung zwischen Herkunfts- und Aufnahmegesellschaft (Cappai 2005) is an attempt to illustrate these processes.
Making Empirical Research in Alien Cultures
The success of empirical research in alien cultures depends very much on the capacity to find an appropriate access into the field. As an outsider, the researcher is confronted with the task to choose methods that minimize mistrust, indifference and even hostility on the side of the informant and that maximize the acquisition of valuable knowledge for his research. This means giving preference to techniques of data collection that are not inquisitive and will encourage open narration.
But difficulties for researchers working in culturally alien settings result not only from the process of data-collection. Data-interpretation is also a challenge here. What is most important when accomplishing this task is not to fall into the trap of cultural determinism, limiting the efforts to the reconstruction of “conceptual schemes” or “belief systems” of the informants. The logic of the situation that involves opportunities as well as the informant’s wishes must also be part of the interpretive reconstruction. This again presupposes that both are adequately represented in the collected data. The contributions in the publication Forschen unter Bedingungen kultureller Fremdheit (Cappai 2008) intends to provide an introduction to this topic.