Framing Integration – the new assimilation

Framing Integration – the new assimilation

Naaz Rashid, University of Manchester 

As Trevor Phillips writes, ‘few topics inspire more heat and less light than integration’.  Many readers will be aware that the term integration was originally promoted by Roy Jenkins in 1966 and was defined as a move away ‘from the flattening process of assimilation’. In contemporary debates about integration, however, the term (where it is defined at all) has become almost indistinguishable from assimilation. This reflects the ever increasing depoliticisation of debates around racial equality and justice, where the responsibility for inequality and marginalisation is increasingly laid at the feet of minorities themselves.

The recent launch by Demos of a new project Mapping Integration reflects this new orthodoxy. In this piece, I will explore the objectives of the project, illustrating how it epitomises assimilationist interpretations of integration.

The Mapping Integration project aims to create a Demos Integration Hub through collating a range of quantitative research from government and academic sources on integration and segregation at local and national levels. The plan is to include a separate section for debate prompted by the data. Whilst at first glance the separation of, what Demos describes as, ‘neutral’ data and debate in the project seems sensible, recent controversies around data on immigration show that government statistics are not the most reliable. Rather, data can and will be constructed and manipulated to prove a particular political or ideological point. Such tit for tat exchanges of ever more ‘accurate’ data to suit whichever political agenda needs to be supported ignores the key underlying issues which data is intended to inform. This is equally true of the integration debate.

This project launch was accompanied by the publication of a pamphlet and a panel discussion at the House of Commons. The timbre of both leave little doubt as to the assimilationist impetus at the heart of the project. The launch event was bookended by contributions from Trevor Phillips and David Goodhart, both renowned for their controversial interventions in debates on multiculturalism, with Phillips famously suggesting we were a country sleepwalking into segregation, and Goodhart, as editor of Prospect magazine, tolling the death bell of multiculturalism. A range of other authors contribute to the pamphlet although notably there are no sociologists amongst them.

With a few exceptions, such as Jon Yates who considers age and income diversity in exploring issues of social cohesion, and Sam Scott’s piece on the impact of parental socioeconomic background on second generation Polish migrants’ opportunities for social mobility, the overall project is focused on “ethno-cultural differences” and there is little intersectional analysis of how these differences play out in combination. Trevor Phillips’ discussion of benign clustering, prompted by his realisation that he was only one of a few black people at a Bruce Springsteen concert, offers the possibility that segregation is not necessarily problematic. Whilst superficially encouraging, such a perspective is nonetheless imbued with the neoliberal rhetoric which suggests that clustering is the outcome of ‘rational’ choice or informed self-selection. The choice to go to a Bruce Springsteen concert (which is admittedly only a choice open to those with sufficient disposable income) is not the same as being unable to leave a deprived inner city; there is little recognition of historical and structural exclusionary marginalisation in Phillips’ discussion of clustering.

Not only are definitions of integration diffuse, integration emerges as the prism through which a variety of social concerns are articulated. If a social phenomenon involves ‘ethno-cultural’ minorities it is regarded de facto as an issue of integration. For example, Balbirsingh’s contribution is a tirade against state education arguing that entanglements between race, progressive pedagogies and black political antipathy towards to the Tories has destined an entire generation of young people to poor educational and employment outcomes. Her argument is confused in general but it is especially unclear in identifying how such concerns relate to integration. If she is critiquing pedagogical styles, then all children in state education, irrespective of their ‘ethno-cultural’ background, will have suffered. Or, if her piece is a lament about the shortcomings of state education vis a vis private schools, then again the issue to be considered is not one of ethno-cultural integration per se, but rather one of access to private schools.

Similarly, Jasvinder Sanghera suggests that forced marriage is principally an issue of integration. Notwithstanding the important work that her charity does in helping those at risk of forced marriage, attributing such crimes to a lack of integration is problematic to say the least. In her piece, inflammatorily entitled, “The village in the city: illiberal minority behaviour” she argues that the primary motive of the perpetrators of forced marriage is about resisting cultural integration. This problematic framing reflects the way that culture is asymmetrically attributed to anything which minority communities do. Is it reasonable to argue that crimes constitute a lack of integration? If domestic violence and child abuse were not also a feature of ‘mainstream ‘ majority British life then perhaps it could be argued as such. Instead, the reality of sexual violence and child abuse and its incidence across ‘ethno-cultural’ boundaries reflect issues around power and control on the one hand and the failure of mainstream services to provide adequate care and support to (potential) victims on the other. Acknowledging this is not, however, the same as cultural relativism or succumbing to multicultural sensitivity as is often suggested. Rather it is to highlight the continuities between and across different groups to build solidarity and recognise how a lethal cocktail encompassing both a culture of disbelief amongst the police and swingeing cuts in the provision of services for women are more to blame.

Shamit Saggar was one of the few voices of reason who did not rely on crude culturalist explanations for all social phenomena involving ethno cultural minorities. During the panel discussion he pointed out that integration could simply mean that minorities were exhibiting the same behaviour as the majority population, irrespective of whether that was good or bad. For example,  Max Wind Cowie talks about the “poisonous and unhealthy politics of ethnic division” in relation to Tower Hamlets, even going so far as to suggest that the local authority should be abolished.  The recent Panorama documentary explored this in the context of Tower Hamlet’s mayor, Lutfur Rahman.  Despite recent controversies about the local elections in Tower Hamlets, Rahman has been partially exonerated by initial police enquiries. Furthermore, mainstream politics, dominated by middle class white men is hardly an environment to be emulated.

Finally, we need to be clear about who integration is for.  According to Goodhart, integration is fundamentally about ethno-cultural assimilation of the minority to the majority. A recent report by British Futures marking ten years of Polish migration to the UK focused on British attitudes towards Polish migrants yet there was no analysis of how Polish migrants felt they were received by the ‘ethno-cultural’ majority and to what extent this facilitated integration. Furthermore as Liz Fekete argues with regard to Europe more broadly, racist or Islamophobic discourses themselves are barriers to integration by minorities. In the wake of the success of right-wing parties in the recent European elections and evidence of increasing racial prejudice in the UK, integration needs to be seen as a two way process.

Of course it remains to be seen how the Demos project and its Integration Hub will pan out and it would be refreshing, albeit surprising, if there was genuine debate and a wider range of views was represented. What is clear is that before we can map integration, we need to frame it and have a clear idea of what it means, why it is important and for whom. As Sivanandan (cited in Fekete above) identifies, “the problem of integration lies in the interpretation of integration itself”. This is something those of us in academia need to be sensitive to in considering how we frame our research on this topic. The most difficult thing is to change the rules of the game, the tenor of the debate in the face of ever entrenched platitudes and orthodoxies.


Naaz Rashid is a Research Associate in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester. She is the author of “Giving the Silent Majority a Stronger Voice: Initiatives to empower Muslim women as part of the UK’s ‘War on Terror’.” Ethnic and Racial Studies (2013): 1-16.