Considering the work of ‘integration’

by Steven Vertovec (MPI-MMG)

Working Papers WP 20-04
June 2020
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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A revised version of this paper will appear as the Afterword in Digesting Difference: The Anthropology of Migrant Incorporation in Europe, K. McKowen and J. Borneman (eds), Basingstoke: Palgrave, in press.

The concept of immigrant integration has been contested by academics for a long time. There have been at least twenty grounds for objection to the concept. After a brief look at these objections – such as, that integration asserts a linear and teleological process, integration is based on a ‘groupist’ understanding of immigrants, and integration is founded on an assumption that national societies comprise singular, pre-existing, historically unchanging, ‘integrated’ wholes –  I go on to probe the question: “if it’s so bad, why is ‘integration’ so successful in the public sphere?”
My answer is based on an observation that, for many policymakers as well as members of the public, ‘integration’ works. It works as a cognitive organizing principle in people’s heads, and it thereby, subsequently, works as an organizing or central reference concept for a set of public policies and practical mechanisms. Therefore, the concept is especially hard to displace in the public sphere, despite all of the problems associated with it by academics. The paper concludes with some thoughts about moving toward ‘thicker’ or more complex understandings of processes surrounding newcomers to societies.

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