Blog | December 2018

Do Policies Have Worlds? Some Reflexions on “Integration” and Local Governance

by Bob White

In a recent workshop organized at MPI-MMG, Maria Schiller and Bob White, following a series of exchanges with Steve Vertovec, decided to take on some of the issues that have been emerging in recent research on the ways that cities understand and mobilize around integration policy. Obviously the word “integration” is loaded and its meaning changes over time and space and comparing Canada and Germany on this question is particularly interesting.

In fact in our attempt to find a “neutral” language with which to talk about how cities organize around these issues, we were struck with how difficult it was to find the right words. In an attempt to turn this situation to our advantage we decided to use the workshop to focus on keywords in policy design and implementation. In order to avoid getting lost in the semantic weeds, we decided to talk about what different actors do with these words and also the different political and social worlds that give these words traction.

The workshop began from a preliminary formulation of how to think about policy worlds:

Cities are increasingly involved in the work of defining and operationalizing concepts that set out  to accommodate difference and promote social equity in rapidly diversifying urban spaces : 1) How do public/civic institutions understand these concepts and how do they mobilise public resources in order to affect particular outcomes? 2) How can we study these “policy worlds », for these purposes defined as a constellation of understandings, structures, and practices

After some introductory remarks from Steve, which gave context to the links between the various research projects but also set the stage for the questions we set out to answer in the workshop, Maria gave a presentation about her current research on integration policy and organizational structures in one regional state of Germany. Based on current ethnographic research examining institutional actors and structures she was able to tell us about interactions and intersections between the ideology of “integrationism” and what she referred to as “diversityism”.

Bob began his presentation by talking first about the idea of “policy worlds”. Initially we considered using the phrase “policy worldviews” in order to get at how decisionmakers constitute frames of reference and cultural logics, but this formulation seemed too overdetermined. Using the expression “policy worlds” made it possible to account not only for policies and practices surrounding policies, but also the rapidly evolving policy frameworks and policy environments (see « What is an Intercultural City and How Does it Work? »

We all agreed that the study of policy worlds cannot be limited to local authorities or other public institutions and this is precisely one of the strengths behind the “City Div” project (see which examines not only municipal actors but also various fields of action in civil society. We also agreed that given the complexity of keywords associated with integration policy it would be important to focus not just on the way that policy keywords are defined but also how they are negotiated and interpreted in the everyday practice of policy-makers and elected officials. Taking inspiration from the original literature on linguistic performativity, we thus started from the premise that words are not just words but they crystallize fields of action and power relations. What are the words that make up these policy worlds and what are people doing with them?

In the context of the workshop it took us some time to get to the point where we could actually talk about these different terms in comparative terms. Maria began with a detailed ethnographic description of how the notion of “integration” has been used, especially through a series of important recent organizational and structural changes in the regional government of Baden-Württemberg. She also commented on how the pragmatism of policymakers makes them skeptical of new concepts, despite the fact that the regional government invests considerable resources into the process of developing concepts and related tools.

Bob discussed the case of Québec, suggesting that the word integration is slowly becoming eclipsed by the notion of inclusion and that a number of cities have begun to see this word as a means of avoiding the debate between multiculturalism and interculturalism (a debate which mobilizes a great deal of public sentiment in Canada). He then presented an analytical model that has gained some traction in Québec around the notion of pluralism, suggesting that this idea can serve as an umbrella term for people working from different ideological or institutional perspectives (in his recent article in the journal Anthropologie et sociétés White discusses this model in detail).

The discussion following the presentations was very interesting. Steve presented briefly his analysis of the different worlds surrounding the use of the term “diversity” and he called attention to the importance of examining how actors mobilize resources in order to affect particular outcomes, some of which are measurable and some of which act simply as “intangible goods”. A number of people who participated in the workshop called attention to the difficulty of finding some form of “neutral language” for describing policy worlds. Perhaps acting as a thought experiment, the workshop organizers set out to see, in the context of the workshop itself, what terms would rise to the top in order to facilitate discussion and debate between the workshop participants.

We had very stimulating exchanges about varying degrees of pragmatism in policy worlds. Some participants commented on the fact that policymakers use policy concepts in order to push through political ideologies or agendas but that they also use concepts as a means of navigating complex moral debates. In most cases they are concerned with words only to the extent that they enable concrete results and tangible outcomes. Several participants called attention to the fact that certain types of actors are impatient with the idea of policy concepts or frames. This can be the case with elected officials who are playing out a certain “politics of avoidance” or with civil society actors who see policy concepts as suspicious because they embody the will of the state to impose particular ideas or ideologies. One participant proposed that this play between semantic and pragmatic frames should be seen not so much as a binary opposition, but as an analytical field for the exploration of how meaning is created and contested.

In the last part of the workshop we heard insights from the different teams who make up the ZOMIDI and CITYDIV projects at the institute. One participant asked what motivates policy worlds and responses to this question referred to recent concerns about the rise in populist anti-immigrant sentiment and a public sphere that is increasingly hostile to diversity. There was also discussion about how local actors attempt to link concepts to practice and how the “local turn” discussed during the workshop has led to various forms of decoupling between regional and local networks of governance (both in Europe and North America).

In the particular cases that we heard emanating out of civil society (LGBT organizations, organizations lobbying for the rights of disabled people, health (HIV) organizations, and labor unions) we were often faced with dynamics that pit certain minority groups against each other, either in the competition for resources or because traditions of solidarity in different national contexts are not sure what do about new forms of diversity in their communities.

There was discussion of how policy frames or policy worlds are linked to other imaginaries such as the long history of colonialism and settler capitalism. It was noted that at the heart of modern nation-states there is a pluralist paradox (the need to recognize diversity, the need for unity) that has been the source of a great deal of violence, whether it be in the name of nationalism or in the name of democracy. These legacies of Western political thought cannot be separated from the analysis of contemporary policy worlds. In fact, one of the challenges faced by local actors is how to explain the political and institutional traditions that have so much impact on the lives of migrants and their children without imposing the majority group’s vision as a moral imperative or a historical given.

In the end we were perhaps not able to come to any conclusive statements about the particular words to use and why, though we did receive some help from Steve who used the white board to construct a first version of what might be a policy worlds word cloud: diversity, multiculturalism, interculturalism, integration, inclusion, social cohesion, living together, pluralism…To this list, following from the discussion, we should probably add other words such as solidarity, intersectionality, civility…

If words give us access to worlds, then there is clearly a great deal of work to be done to make sure that these worlds are accessible to everyone who gives them meaning.

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