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A Framework for the Study of Multilevelness

Regulation of international migration has traditionally been a competency of the nation state, with the voluntary transfer of competencies to the EU being only a recent exception to this rule. Migrant integration, similarly, has largely been a purview of the nation state, as ideas about how to integrate migrants are often strongly correlated with ideas about national identity or the “national imagined community”.

Various scholars have argued that such nation-based views (Favell 2005) have also affected migration research. Wimmer and Glick Schiller (2002: 301) describe this as “methodological nationalism”. Bommes and Thränhardt (2010) show that migration research has evolved in distinct national paradigms or national models of integration (Thränhardt & Bommes 2010). These models are national 'not just because of their context dependency and insufficient clarifications on the conditions of generalizability, they are national because the modes of presenting and questions are politically constituted by the nation-states for which migration becomes a problem or a challenge' (ibid.: 10). Favell (2005: 47) argues that national models have been sustained in policy and politics as 'self-justificatory discourses', and that this is to some extent also true of migration research because of the strong policy orientation during the development of this research field. Indeed, in some countries, nation state-centeredness has been reinforced by strong institutional relations between researchers and policymakers in the fields of migration and integration (Scholten 2011; Scholten and Verbeek 2014; Scholten et al. 2015). A national orientation, however, could hamper the comparative and theoretical development of migration research. National paradigms of migration and integration reduce complexity and also introduce a historical-institutionalist bias in explaining and inadvertently reifying national differences. Bommes (2010) in particular argues that this has restricted the urge of migration scholars to look for more generalizable theoretical accounts of differences as well as similarities between countries. Furthermore, national frameworks obscure views of developments at other levels. Only in the 2000s did, due to concerted efforts of EU institutions, attention to the European level increase. For instance, the European Integration Fund and European framework programmes have promoted cross-national comparative research in the European setting. Attention to the local level is of a more recent date, and many times seems to be supported by EU research funding in particular.

Thus, while our understanding of how policies develop at various levels has increased, there is still a layering of knowledge per level. Studies and literature, too, tend to focus on just one level, rather than seeking an understanding of the interactions between levels. A next step to widen the scope of studies of migration and integration policies at different levels would be to explore their consequences in terms of the relations between the different levels. What sorts of interactions or relations (or absence thereof) can be identified between various levels of government, and what are the consequences? The literature on governance in multilevel settings defines various ways of configuring relations between government levels. Scholten (2013) brings these different ways together in a typology that distinguishes between four ideal type configurations of relations between government levels: centralist (top-down), localist (bottom-up), multilevel, and decoupled.

First of all, the centralist ideal type exhibits a clear hierarchy and division of labour between government levels. In a multilevel setting, this involves a top-down relationship between the different levels of government, such as a clear central codification of the division of labour between levels and control mechanisms to ensure that policy implementation at the local level follows central rules and reflects the central policy frame. This implies a strong institutional structure for policy coordination, for instance, at the European or the national level. The centralist type is expected to produce policy convergence between the different levels of government. As such, this type of governance setting corresponds with the idea of national paradigms of migration or integration.

The second ideal type involves a more localist and bottom-up perspective on governance in multilevel settings. In this type, policy competencies follow the principle of subsidiarity; that is, what can be done locally should be done locally. Local governments do more than just implement policy; they formulate policies, respond to local policy agendas, and exchange knowledge and information horizontally with other local governments. The localist type may lead to greater policy divergence between the national and the local level. It speaks to what some scholars describe as “the local dimension of migrant integration policies” (Alexander 2007; Caponio and Borkert 2010; Penninx et al. 2004), which stresses that local governments are often confronted with integration problems in different ways than the national or European level. This leads them to frame migrant integration policies in a specific local way.

As distinct from these centralist and localist types, multilevel governance refers to interaction and joint coordination of relations between the various levels of government without clear dominance of one level. This means that “vertical venues” are needed where governments from different levels jointly engage in meaningful policy coordination. These might involve forums or networks in which organizations from different government levels meet. Multilevel governance is thought to be most effective when the idea of there being different government levels shifts to the background, or in other words, when in terms of power a degree of “levelling” takes place between the different government levels. In terms of policy frames, the multilevel governance type is likely to engender some convergence between policy frames at different levels, produced and sustained by their mutual interaction.

The fourth type is decoupled relations between government levels. Such a situation is characterized by the absence of any meaningful policy coordination between levels. Thus, in any single policy domain, policies at different levels are dissociated and may even be contradictory. This type can lead to policy conflicts between government levels. It can also send conflicting policy messages to the policy target groups, thereby diminishing policy effectiveness. It is associated with divergence between different levels of policy, reflected in studies finding that national and local integration policies have increasingly become “two worlds apart” (Jørgensen 2012; Poppelaars and Scholten 2008).

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