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The Study of Integration Processes


A Definition of the Concept

We define integration as “the process of becoming an accepted part of society”. This elementary definition is intentionally open in two regards. First, it emphasizes the process character of integration rather than defining an end situation. Second, in contrast to the normative models developed by political theorists, it does not specify beforehand the degree of or even the particular requirements for acceptance by the receiving society. This makes the definition highly useful for empirical study of these processes. Measuring the degree of becoming an accepted part of society will allow us to capture the diversity of (stages of) the process. We do need to specify within this basic definition what should be measured; that is, what are the indicators of integration and where might we find them.

Three Dimensions

The basic definition of integration encompasses three analytically distinct dimensions in which people may (or may not) become an accepted part of society: (i) the legal-political, (ii) the socio-economic, and (iii) the cultural-religious. As pointed out by Entzinger (2000), these dimensions correspond to the three main factors that interplay with immigration and integration processes: the state, the market, and the nation. Focusing on these dimensions instead of the ones mentioned earlier (e.g., culturation, placement, interaction, and identification) allows us to shift the focal point from immigrants to their relationship with a host society. The question is not only what immigrants do, with whom do they interact, and how do they identify themselves, but as much whether they are accepted and how they are positioned in each of our three dimensions.

The legal-political dimension refers to residence and political rights and statuses. The basic question here is whether and to what extent are immigrants regarded as fully-fledged members of the political community. The position of an immigrant or the “degree of integration” has two extreme poles. One of these is the position of the irregular immigrant who is not part of the host society in the legal-political sense, though perhaps being integrated in the other two dimensions. The other is the position of the immigrant who is (or has become) a national citizen. In between there is enormous variety, which has increased in recent decades as a consequence of attempts of European states to “regulate” international migration and the new statuses and rights stemming from the EU migration regime (among others, EU nationals versus third-country nationals or “TCNs”).

The socio-economic dimension refers to the social and economic position of residents, irrespective of their national citizenship. Within this dimension, the position of immigrants can be analysed by looking at their access to and participation in domains that are crucial for any resident. Do immigrants have equal access to institutional facilities for finding work, housing, education, and health care? Do they use these facilities? What is the outcome of immigrants' participation compared to that of natives with the same or comparable qualifications? Since needs and aspirations in these domains are relatively universal (basic needs are largely independent of cultural factors), access to and participation of immigrants and natives in these areas can be measured comparatively. The outcomes, particularly when they are unequal, provide useful inputs for policies.

The cultural-religious dimension pertains to the domain of perceptions and practices of immigrants and the receiving society as well as their reciprocal reactions to difference and diversity. If newcomers see themselves as different and are perceived by the receiving society as culturally or religiously different, they may aspire to acquire a recognized place in these respects. For their part, the receiving society may or may not accept cultural or religious diversity. Here again we find two extremes. At one extreme, new diversity may be rejected and immigrants required to adapt and assimilate into mono-cultural and mono-religious societies. At the other extreme, ethnic identities, cultures, and worldviews may be accepted on an equal level in pluralistic societal systems. Between these two extremes again are many in-between positions, such as accepting certain forms of diversity in the private realm but not, or only partly, in the public realm.

This third dimension, and the specific positions of immigrants and immigrant groups, is more difficult to measure, basically for two reasons. Firstly, it is less about objective differences and diversity (ethnic, cultural, and religious) than about perceptions and reciprocal normative evaluations of what is defined as different and the consequences of such categorizations. Categorizations may become stereotypes, prejudices, and ultimately part of immutable racist ideologies. Moreover, the basis of categorizations may change. For example, in the guest worker period (1960– 1975), the fact that an increasing share of immigrant workers were Muslims was not seen as relevant. It was only from the 1990s forward that such migrants and their families were categorized as coming from Muslim countries. Secondly, categorizations and reciprocal perceptions manifest differently at different levels (i.e., at the individual, collective, and institutional levels), and their consequences may also differ. If contacts between individuals are coloured by prejudice, interactions may be uncomfortable but have a limited impact. Yet, at the institutional level, if employers base their recruitment of workers on stereotyped or prejudiced perceptions and procedures, the consequences for individual immigrants may be quite negative.

It is important to realize that these three dimensions are not fully independent of one another. The legal-political dimension may condition the socio-economic and the cultural-religious dimensions (represented by arrows in Fig. 2.1). From the perspective of individual immigrants, factors such as illegal residence, extended uncertainty about future residence rights (compounded in the case of asylum seekers by long-term dependence on charity or the state), and lack of access to local and/or national political systems and decision-making processes have negative implications for opportunities and participation in the socio-economic and political realms. From the perspective of the receiving society, exclusionary policies are an expression of a general perception of immigrants as outsiders, which inevitably adversely affects immigrants' integration. The cultural-religious dimension may similarly impact the socio-economic dimension (represented by another arrow in Fig. 2.1). For example, negative perceptions of certain immigrants may lead to prejudice and discrimination by individuals, organizations, or institutions in the receiving society, and this may reduce immigrants' opportunities—even if access is legally guaranteed—in domains such as housing, education, health care, and the labour market.

  • [1] This section expands on Penninx 2005 and 2007.
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