The Concept of Integration as an Analytical Tool and as a Policy Concept

Rinus Penninx and Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas


The term integration refers to the process of settlement, interaction with the host society, and social change that follows immigration. From the moment immigrants arrive in a host society, they must “secure a place” for themselves. Seeking a place for themselves is a very literal task: Migrants must find a home, a job and income, schools for their children, and access to health facilities. They must find a place in a social and cultural sense as well, as they have to establish cooperation and interaction with other individuals and groups, get to know and use institutions of the host society, and become recognized and accepted in their cultural specificity. Yet, this is a two-way process. The host society does not remain unaffected. The size and composition of the population change, and new institutional arrangements come into existence to accommodate immigrants' political, social, and cultural needs.

The scientific study of the process of settlement of newcomers in a host society has a long history. Popularized by the Chicago School of urban sociology in the early twentieth century, it has been approached from different perspectives and using a variety of concepts. A first area of variation has to do with the object of study. Whereas some researchers have focused primarily or solely on the newcomers and (changes in) their ideas and behaviour, others have concentrated instead on the receiving society and its reactions to newcomers. A second area of differentiation lies in the dimensions of the process of settlement that are considered. Whereas some researchers have examined the legal and political dimensions of becoming part of a host society (e.g., legal residence, citizenship, and voting rights), others have concentrated on the socio-economic dimension (e.g., immigrants' access to health care, education, housing, and the labour market) or on cultural-religious aspects. Finally, the level of analysis has varied from that of individual newcomers and collective groups of newcomers and civil society to the institutional level, with questions being asked such as whether immigrant collectives have established their own institutions in the new society and, conversely, to what extent and how have institutions of the receiving society reacted to newcomers. While concepts such as adaptation, acculturation, and assimilation have tended to be focused on the cultural dimension of immigrants' settlement, others, such as accommodation, incorporation, and inclusion/exclusion, have shifted the focus to the host society and concentrated on the legal-political and socio-economic dimensions.

All of these approaches and concepts are highly contested within the academic literature. As for any term that stems from policy documents and debates, their definitions and the related discussions have been highly normative in nature. In relation to the concept of integration, the major point of criticism is the fact that it continues to assume—as did the old conception of assimilation—that immigrants must conform to the norms and values of the dominant majority in order to be accepted. This assumption elevates a particular cultural model, in the USA that of middle-class, white Protestants of British ancestry, and in many European countries that of a collectively claimed national language, culture, and tradition; a model that expresses the normative standard towards which immigrants should aspire and by which their deservingness of membership should continuously be assessed.

Integration is presented not only as a must but also as a straight-line process. Again, informed by policy discourses and policy goals, many studies of immigrant integration assume a more or less linear path along which the minority group is supposed to change almost completely while the majority culture is thought to remain the same. Nonetheless, as Lindo (2005, 11) observes, taking integration as a selfevident and inescapable process ignores that the 'complex interplay of culturation, identification, social status and concrete interaction patterns of individuals may produce many different “outcomes”, much more varied in fact than a more or less linear shift from “immigrant” to “host” ways of doing things'.

Finally, the mainstream into which immigrants are expected and said to merge is seldom clearly defined (Favell 2003; Waldinger 2003). Some scholars argue that the concept of integration continues to adhere to an essentially functionalist vision of society in which immigrant success is still charted against a set of taken-for-granted mainstream norms bounded by the notion of a host society as a wholly self-contained unit of social processes (Gibney and Hansen 2005). Similarly, Joppke and Morawska (2003, 3) observe that this concept 'assumes a society composed of domestic individuals and groups (as the antipode to “immigrants”) which are integrated normatively by a consensus and organizationally by a state'. More recently, in the Dutch context, Schinkel (2010) coincides to note that the very notion of society is problematic, as it implies the existence of a more or less homogeneous and cohesive social environment in which only certain types of people—namely migrants—need to integrate.

Despite being a contested concept, integration continues to be central in many studies and debates on the settlement of newcomers in host societies. In Europe, several authors have attempted to strip the concept of its normative character and build a more open and analytical definition (Hoffmann-Novotny 1973; Esser 1980; Heckmann 1981, 2015; Penninx 1989, 2005; Bommes 2012). Esser (2004, 46) defines integration as 'the inclusion [of individual actors] in already existing social systems'. For Heckmann (2006, 18), integration is 'a generations lasting process of inclusion and acceptance of migrants in the core institutions, relations and statuses of the receiving society'. According to Bommes (2012, 113), 'the problem of migrant assimilation refers to no more (and no less) than the conditions under which they succeed or fail to fulfil the conditions of participation in social systems'. In order to work or to gain access to goods, education, rights, and social welfare, Bommes (ibid.) argues, every individual must have some knowledge of what it means to work or how to behave as a patient, a client, a pupil, a student, or an applicant. From this perspective, there is no alternative to integration.

Interestingly, all of these approaches have in common the assumption that actors (immigrants in this case) are partially engaged in multiple autonomous and interdependent fields or systems. This implies a shift away from a holistic approach that conceptualizes integration into a taken-for-granted reference population—the “core culture” or national society as a whole—towards a disaggregated approach that considers not only multiple reference populations but also distinct processes occurring in different domains (Brubaker 2001, 542–544). For instance, Esser (2001, 16) refers to four dimensions: culturation (similar to socialization), placement (position in society), interaction (social relations and networks), and identification (belonging). Similarly, Heckmann and Schnapper (2003) distinguish between structural integration, cultural integration (or acculturation), interactive integration, and identificational integration. From this perspective, integration dynamics and tempos are viewed as different for each dimension, and processes of structural marginalization and inequality become key.

In line with these more recent approaches to the concept of integration, this chapter aims to set up an analytical framework for the study of integration processes and policies. For this purpose, we focus in the first part on the concept of integration, introducing an open non-normative analytical definition and identifying the main dimensions, parties involved, levels of analysis, and other relevant factors such as time and generations. In the second part, we define integration policies and propose a distinction between policy frames and concrete policy measures as well as a shift from government to governance in order to account for the complex, multi-layered, and often contradictory character of integration policies. The conclusion returns to the concepts of integration and integration policies and suggests lines for further research.

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