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Essays on Society: On the Violence of "Integration"-Policies in Europe

Besides the aspiration to render immigration more sustainable, the issue of integration remains of interest because a critical analysis of its relation to certain policies is productive of insight into the workings and quality of liberal democracies. In this essay, I situate contemporary ideas of integration at the heart of immigration and citizenship policies and argue that the concept of integration is transforming and strategically appropriated for ideological and political purposes, at the detriment of the very values liberalism seeks to advance. Firstly, I provide an introduction into the concept of integration. Secondly, I consider a set of concerns that have emerged in the context of globalisation and expose how immigration and citizenship policies are geared towards addressing these concerns. This will illuminate why the demand for integration has become as significant as it is. Finally, I show how the concept of integration is transforming, how it slots into these policies and I discuss some of the societal implications of this development.


In the midst of mass migration to the New World in the late nineteenth century, which lasted well into the post-WII period, ‘social cohesion’ increasingly became an object of public concern. Adhering to a Durkheimian account of society, anxieties about the loss of a shared set of values and norms and a decline in civic participation led scholars to theorise about how to manage the consequences of immigration (Reisch 2008; Jansen et al 2006). Initially, the central thesis revolved around the idea of assimilation. This denoted a unilinear process whereby minorities shed their particularities as they are absorbed into mainstream society. Capturing this idea was the melting-pot theory which anticipated processes of acculturation to create a novel, unified society. While assimilationist theory has been fiercely criticised due to its ethnocentric, patronising undertones and rigid, monolithic notion of culture, the idea of the melting-pot has simply been dismissed as sociologically unviable (Glazer 1993; Brubaker 2001).

Coinciding with these criticisms is the so-called ‘differentialist turn’, which marked the rise of multiculturalism. This ideology allowed for hyphenated identities, took cultural diversity as its basis and called for a political framework responsive to the demands for autonomy and integrity made by minorities (Steinberg 2014; cf. Kymlicka 1995). Despite the acceptance of society’s pluriformity, social cohesion remained a matter of concern. In this context, integration came to be regarded as an important political project. In contrast to assimilationist theory, it favoured the idea of a two-way process of change by which diverse individuals and communities would become incorporated into a privately pluriform yet publicly cohesive political community. Based on this ideal, that places demands on the immigrants and the host society, Ager and Strang recently defined integration as an enterprise with distinct public outcomes in terms of employment, housing, education and health. While they take citizenship or a set of rights to be foundational to integration, they posit that facilitators such as lingual and cultural competence, a sense of safety and stability and the forging of social connections are key to the achievement of these public outcomes (Ager & Strang 2008).

In its movement towards accommodation and mutual adaptation, the concept of integration seems to constitute a final departure from assimilationist theory. However, in the following sections I consider how immigration and citizenship policies have become instrumental in addressing a particular set of concerns, how integration is appropriated to enforce and legitimise these policies and how in the process integration is increasingly coming to resemble those assimilationist approaches, which it initially seemed to have overcome.


Whereas early globalising processes such as colonisation and the concomitant slave-trade served expansionist purposes, which subsequently –particularly in the context of decolonisation– consolidated the nation-state as modernity’s universal organising principle (Anderson 1983), globalisation in its contemporary guise seems to have outgrown the narrow confines of the very West-Phalian political structures it solidified. Whether it is productive of a sense of spatial proximity and cosmopolitan consciousness (Robertson 1992), or engenders corrosive effects dramatised by projections of anonymity, loneliness and the precedence of the experiential unfamiliar (Augé 1992), globalisation is undeniably implicated in the rise of a set of concerns over the utility of the nation-state. In support of these so-called declinist narratives some have argued that the emergence of international institutions, transnational actors, intensifying migratory flows, technological advancements, human rights discourses and novel forms of cross-border political participation, undermine the ‘traditional’ modern nation-state (Appadurai 1996; Soysal 1994). As expected, there are voices countering these arguments pointing out that states play an important role in forging transnational structures and are crucial to the realisation of certain global objectives (Levitt & de la Dehesa 2003; Isin & Turner 2007).

Despite these disagreements over the relevance of the nation-state, both perspectives allow for the idea that nation-states are undergoing processes of reconfiguration. These changes do not merely refer to economic, legal and political structures transcending geographical borders, but also to processes of re-bordering at the sub-national level (Sassen 2005a). Central to these reconfigurations aimed at safeguarding economic advantage, security and identity is a marked concern over sovereignty, which is generally defined as the supreme authority over a territory (Philpott 2010).

Although this definition suggests the territorial dimension to be of paramount importance, it must not be forgotten that from a liberal democratic perspective the actual locus of sovereignty resides not in the place, but in those citizens that ‘belong’ to this place and have the right to determine who from among themselves is best fit to govern their affairs and how they are governed (Jacobson 1996). This recognition sheds light on why immigration and citizenship policies constitute the fundamental tools by which states aim to secure their sovereignty. In fact, it has been argued that migration law is ‘the new last bastion of sovereignty’ (Dauvergne 2004:589). Departing from the idea that controlling the movement of people equates to control over territory, migration law serves to redraw a state’s borders in its pursuit of regulating who may come to belong and who stands to be excluded. In order to illustrate how migration law is utilised to secure sovereignty, Dauvergne surveys the complexities of refugee law, irregular migration and the international battle over the highly-skilled. Firstly, with regard to refugee law, she posits that the admission of immigrants on humanitarian grounds serves to project a nation-state’s identity as generous and good. Secondly, irregular migration is perceived as directly undermining a state’s capacity to control its borders and labelling one an ‘illegal’ migrant, in her terms, effectively imprints sovereignty. Lastly, attracting highly-skilled migrants to advance economic competitiveness in pursuit of prosperity is another example of how migration law is appropriated to secure sovereignty (Dauvergne 2004).

There is a certain logic underlying the perception that immigration may pose a threat to sovereignty. If we conceive the democratic enterprise to be dependent on a degree of social cohesiveness and uninhibited immigration is read as a socio-politically corrosive factor (which has not been empirically verified, Bloemraad et al 2008:164), then its management is central to the maintenance of a state’s legitimacy. Furthermore, if democracy implies that a state’s course of action should reflect the values and aspirations of its citizens, within the limits of the constitution, and we consider immigrants to be more than mere bodies, but humans with particular beliefs and cultures, then deciding on who is admitted and accorded citizenship is key to determining the substantial course a nation takes. In addition, and perhaps illuminating why migration law can be seen as the last bastion of sovereignty: according to Sassen (2005b), the management of immigration stands as one of the few unilateral, autonomous, policy domains.

Yet, despite the state’s power to design immigration and citizenship policies at its own behest, its capacity is significantly restricted. While some may attribute this to globalisation, I find Hampshire’s (2007) argument most compelling. Building on the concept of the ‘liberal paradox’ (Amartya 1984; Hollified 2004), he argues that the liberal state’s relative incapacity reflects contradictions inherent in liberalism itself. On the one hand, due to its commitment to representational democracy, the state cannot but partially yield to public opinion which may push for closed borders. On the other hand, the state’s commitment to capitalism, which renders states susceptible to the pleas of corporate lobbyists, and to ‘universal’ values, subsumed in the constitution and human rights conventions, renders borders open. We do have to remember, however, that this paradox operates differently in relation to different migrants. Borders are significantly sharper for those with ‘deviating’ cultural traits and whose integration seems problematic (Stolcke 1995). In this regard, it is interesting to note that Hampshire (2007) argues that if integration were to be more successful, the public may be swayed to be more welcoming of immigration. Although this may be true, I argue in the following section that instead of pursuing integration to render migratory flows sustainable and political rhetoric more in line with policy-designs, it is used to the opposite effect: to enforce and justify restrictive immigration and citizenship policies that attempt to overcome liberalism’s inherent contradictions and reclaim sovereignty.


Whereas diversity was previously celebrated as being conducive to the cultivation of autonomy, over the last two decades the politics of recognition, that aims to accommodate this diversity, has become subject to much criticism and charged with leading to separatism. The bombings in London and Madrid and the murder of a prominent artist in the Netherlands served to intensify these criticisms and arguably marked the so-called ‘retreat of multiculturalism’ (Joppke 2004; Brighton 2007). As discourses on social cohesion and assimilation seem to displace multiculturalism, according to Kostakopoulou (2010), the idea of integration as a ‘two-way’ process no longer holds. Firstly, because instead of a shared responsibility, it is the immigrant who is charged with the sole duty to secure her own integration. Secondly, over the years integration has become firmly tied to a scheme of conditionality that in some cases even extends beyond the state’s borders, prior to migration. Besides exposing integration as a control mechanism in the context of citizenship policies, this linkage to conditionality also reveals how integration has become central to the exercise and legitimisation of restrictive immigration policies. Thirdly, the recurrence of discourses on social cohesion and integration seems to have coincided with a shift from technical debates, focussed on disadvantage and positive affirmation, to a generalising language that essentialises culture, renders it overly rigid and determines its moral worth on the basis of its compatibility with the nation-state’s core values (Kostakopoulou 2010:836-837; Bloemraad et al 2008:163).

Kostakopoulou’s points do not only signify a return to assimilation. The first two points in particular also reveal how the pursuit of integration slots into immigration and citizenship policies. With respect to the latter, van Houdt et al (2011) posit that novel citizenship policies in the UK, the Netherlands and France have come to follow both a neoliberal and a communitarian logic. From a neoliberal perspective, citizenship has become a right to be earned. Its acquisition depends upon an immigrant’s effort to commit to a certain ‘social contract’ that stipulates the obligation to integrate into the host society. In the UK, for example, the pathway to citizenship moves through stages of temporary residence and ‘probationary citizenship’ to permanent residence or citizenship. Immigrants can accumulate points as they become proficient in the English language, acquire knowledge of British life, pay taxes, become self-sufficient, forge authentic relationships, prove to be law-abiding and become active participants in civil society. From a communitarian perspective, integration demands the immigrant’s acceptance and internalisation of a set of core values and cultural attitudes (van Houdt et al 2011). This latter aspect, which entails an assimilationist process of subjectification and stands in stark contrast to earlier developments that sought to ‘de-ethnitise’ citizenship (Joppke 2010:15), assumes a pre-defined ideal of ‘the good citizen’. Naturalisation ceremonies, the swearing of oaths and obligatory exams that seek to test the immigrant’s knowledge of the host society not only ‘anchor’ citizenship deeply within this ideal (Goodman 2012:692), but also establish the state as an object of desire (Fortier 2013).

This shift towards coercive integration is also noted by Joppke, who argues that the ’two way’ process has actually been split into two ‘one-way’ processes. According to him, civic integration, that places a demand on the immigrant, and anti-discrimination policies, that fall within the purview of the state, have become separated. The problem is that anti-discrimination policies that aim to secure equality essentially apply only to citizens, effectively allowing the state to be selectively liberal: illiberal with respect to group differences when dealing with immigrants; liberal in its positive affirmations of differences among citizens (Joppke 2007). As I understand it, integration, in its contemporary assimilationist form, therefore functions as a filter through which undesirable differences can be modified or eliminated, before discrimination law sets in to operate.

Although Joppke conceives this development to constitute a converging trend taking place across Western Europe, in highlighting the variety of integration programmes, political experiences and rationales underlying domestic policy formations, Goodman (2012:692) seeks to diffuse some of Joppke’s claims and warns against over-assertions about large-scale trends. A more pronounced critique is that of Meer and Modood (2009), who dispute the very idea that the multicultural moment (in the UK) has passed. They argue that the proliferation of discourses on social cohesion and integration and the concomitant development of more stringent naturalisation schemes should be interpreted as a ‘civic re-balancing’ that seeks to redress national identity as a ‘meta-membership’, capable of accommodating multiple cultures and in search of balance between diversity and civic incorporation. While I am amicable to the idea that we should be cautious not to declare the demise of multiculturalism too readily, and I strongly support Modood’s (2008:88) argument made elsewhere that we need to develop a vision of citizenship, compatible with multiple cultures and constructed through a dialogue that avoids privileging one particular mode of being, I highly doubt that contemporary integration schemes are oriented towards this ideal.

In fact, as concerns over religious -instead of racial or ethnic- diversity have increasingly come to dominate debates on multiculturalism and test the limits of tolerance, beyond linguistic or work-related requirements, integration has come to demand adherence to a particular set of liberal (or so-called ‘universal’) values. In my view, this is a problematic development. This relates to Iris Marion Young’s critique of impartiality. She argues that the search for the universal which assumes a standard-bearing quality in the public sphere banishes unwanted particularities into the private sphere, renders minor differences absolutely different, produces hierarchical dichotomies and renders universal participation and inclusion impossible (Young 1990:96-120). Following her logic, it seems to me that by utilising integration in its current form, positioning it at the heart of immigration and citizenship policies as a condition for entry, residency and naturalisation, and, most significantly, by orienting it towards a limited and rigid conception of ‘the good citizen’, the actual object of both multiculturalism and integration, which is to allow citizenship to accommodate plurality and be open to innovation, is seriously jeopardised.

In no way should my critique be taken as a rejection of values such as gender equality, democracy or tolerance as baseless, as if citizens cannot be expected to adhere to them. I do not argue for a return to a post-modernist form of dead-end relativism. Rather, from a non-foundational perspective that acknowledges the existence of reality but conceives knowledge to be mutable, the capacity for human understanding to be limited and therefore requires an ongoing effort to gain deeper insight into reality, I would argue for citizenship to be conceived of as an open-ended process (Bernstein 1983; Lample 2009:173). Integration should then entail the ‘unfiltered’ influx of different peoples and experiences into the public sphere, enabling society to benefit from this diversity and collectively engage in an ongoing learning process that aims to gain inter-perspectival insight into what values such as equality or democracy actually mean in theory and practice. The implicit claim that their meaning has already been exhausted, to reify and render fixed a particular conception of the good citizen, and to demand uncritical assimilation to these ideals, is in my view detrimental to the advancement of society. Instead of aiming to control the movement of people and monopolise processes of subjectification, immigration and citizenship policies should be geared towards the economic, intellectual, political and moral advancement of society by allowing for an intercultural learning process. This would require a different way of perceiving migration and integration, a reconsideration of how sovereignty is to be employed and a genuine democratisation of citizenship.


Whereas efforts have been made to transcend colonial mindsets, which captured culture in hierarchical, monolithic and rigid terms, over the past two decades some of these ways of thinking have reverberated back into political rhetoric and policy designs. I have argued that, in the context of globalisation, declinist narratives have emerged that perceive national identity, security, legitimacy and state sovereignty to be under threat, and that immigration and citizenship policies are instrumental in addressing these concerns. As multiculturalism has come under pressure, particularly in the wake of domestic terrorist attacks, the demand for integration as assimilation has come to be positioned at the heart of these policies. Placing a greater demand on the migrant to secure her own integration as a condition for naturalisation, residency and in some cases immigration itself, states have narrowed the pathway to integration significantly by coercing immigrants to reshape themselves in the image of a pre-determined depiction of the good citizen. In response to counter-arguments challenging the diagnosis that multiculturalism is dying, I questioned whether we are truly witnessing a civic re-balancing. Although I do concur that a civic re-balancing that opens up citizenship to accommodate pluriformity is desirable, I posited that current developments actually hinder such a process. In closing, I briefly put forward some preliminary ideas that may assist us in thinking about just how a civic balance may be found between adherence to a set of core values and the flexibility required to welcome alternative modes of being.


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