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Shalini Shankar is researching the impact of the approaches of immigrant communities to competitive activities like spelling bees. Photograph courtesy Shalini Shankar
Shalini Shankar is researching the impact of the approaches of immigrant communities to competitive activities like spelling bees. Photograph courtesy Shalini Shankar

Generation Gap

Shalini Shankar seeks to include what’s missing from the demographic definitions of generations: immigrant and minority perspectives. 


How well do you fit the profile of your generation?

If you’re a member of Generation X—born between 1965 and 1980—do you have the prescribed cautious and skeptical personality? Are you highly independent and focused on job security? Or, if you’re a millennial—born between 1981 and 1997—do you fit the description of being always “connected” through digital technology and social media? Do you get along well with your parents, as studies suggest is common for your peers?

These questions seem like gross generalizations about large groups of people and, in many ways, they are. But they stem from empirical studies of people of the two generations. There’s a problem with the accuracy of these studies, however, as Shalini Shankar, Indian American professor of anthropology and director of the Asian American Studies Program at Northwestern University in Illinois, points out. The studies account mostly for white, middle-class experiences, and fail to accurately capture the cultural influence of immigrant and minority communities on each generation.

Shankar’s argument is not necessarily that every study has to be more diverse. But, some studies break down survey populations and the results by population composition. This leads to the predominant view being that of the most populous group in the region being studied. Thus, Shankar says there is a need to address what is missing in the conclusions these studies come to about entire generations of people. “I read the studies and I see we have a gap. I’m looking at what we have to gain by addressing that gap.”

Shankar is exploring the nature and impact of this “gap” through the research she’s conducting during the 2017-18 academic year as a Guggenheim Fellow. The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation offers fellowships to further the development of scholars and artists by assisting them to engage in research in any field of knowledge and creation in any of the arts.

Shankar takes an ethnographic, or qualitative, approach to her research and writing, which allows her to look at and share stories of the people behind the numbers reported in empirical studies. There are “no test groups” for her work, she says, nor are there preset positive or negative assumptions about what she’ll find. Rather, there are individuals—children and families she visits—histories she gathers and observations she makes over extended periods of time to see how people are changing or how the children in these families are learning and growing. Her focus now is on Generation Z, the generation that follows millennials, and how to define this group in ways that give more attention to the contributions of immigrants and minorities.

“There is so much diversity that is unaccounted for in Generation Z. The idea that these people will only be influenced by white American culture and will not have any influence on that culture is shortsighted,” says Shankar.

For her fellowship, Shankar is also building on her previous work. For example, she’s revisiting people she met during the research for her book, “Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley,” published in 2008.

“I met these people when they were in high school. They’re now in their 30’s. When I first started doing that project, I thought of them as teenagers or second-generation Americans from Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Indo-Fijian families. But now, I think of them as millennials who embody certain characteristics of a generation that doesn’t really account for their contributions,” says Shankar.

She also plans to consider the experience of these older subjects in relation to that of the South Asian spelling bee participants she began meeting in 2013. These children were aged between 6 and 14 at the start of her research, the conclusions from which will be published in her forthcoming book, “Beeline: What Spelling Bees Reveal about the Generation Z’s New Path to Success.” As part of her fellowship, Shankar is also revisiting the families of these spelling bee participants, to rethink “how people who are in these communities or are looking at these communities from the outside are understanding how parents and kids interact around an activity like a spelling bee,” she says.

With the inclusion of the perspectives of South Asian immigrants and minority groups, whose children participate in spelling bees, the bigger questions about Generation Z members and their parents then become: “Why do people hold such different values about what makes for a good childhood? How can we understand what people are doing now? How can we understand what’s at work now versus what used to drive kids?” says Shankar. 

And while her case study is about the South Asian population, Shankar is also interested in looking more broadly at what’s happening with childhood and competitive activities society-wide. She’s curious about whether these South Asian families are at the forefront of spelling bee participation as well as about what people are doing in business, theater and other facets of life. Shankar wonders how the approaches immigrant communities take to all of these activities change the way everyone else approaches the activities.

“The spelling bee has made me think about things differently,” says Shankar. “Why did these South Asians professionalize it? Does that change things for everyone? Is there a new way forward, or is there another way to do it?”

Shankar hopes to write another book based on the research she conducts during her fellowship year. She, however, acknowledges she’ll have to see where her findings take her. No matter the final product, Shankar is thrilled to have the opportunity to dig deeper into the topics that have been of interest to her throughout her career. “I’m very excited and want to make the best of this year because I feel very lucky to have it.”

Carrie Loewenthal Massey is a New York City-based freelance writer.