FOCUS: Re-examining integration through the study of narrative, personal experience and the everyday

FOCUS: Re-examining integration through the study of narrative, personal experience and the everyday

Umut Korkut, Doga Atalay and Marcus Nicolson

The recent media footage of migrants trying desperately to cross the English Channel in dinghies and other small boats has been dominating everyday discussion of migration to the UK. Even if the UK is no longer an EU member migration still remains high on the agenda. In fact, despite the Brexiteers’ claim that leaving the EU would allow the UK to control its borders, an absence of collaboration between UK and its EU neighbours is actually likely to increase irregular migration into the UK.  At the same time, the acute increase in irregular crossings into Britain from the continent also presents a challenge and the migration system requires a comprehensive elaboration involving all policy fields from reception to integration. Thereby, the policy essence of migration politics should concentrate on essential issues of social inclusion.

The extensive academic literature (Phillimore, 2008, 2011) on migration is concerned with various aspects of integration such as employment, housing, language teaching, education and recreation activities recognising the pivotal role they fulfil for both migrants and members of host society. While recognising the essential role that such integration focused policies harness in building more inclusive societies we aim, in this special issue, to move away from policy to practice in order to delineate social inclusion in everyday sites which bring together migrants as newcomers and locals as their hosts. We also show what happens when communities remain polarised and not inclusive. Underlining social inclusion as the most fundamental element for diminishing the boundaries between the newcomers and their hosts, we argue that the current policy debates fall short of elucidating what makes social inclusion a blurred process.

Social inclusion is informed by social interactions between the migrants and the locals. Thanks to these interactions, newcomers and their hosts give cues about their identities to each other. People express their identities to each other using their self-narratives. Narrative is a way of explaining or telling of an event or a story. The same story can be told in different forms on different occasions (Wilson and Stapleton, 2017:6). Everyone is born into a narrative environment. People make sense of the world and position themselves in it through stories (Hammack, 2011; McAdams, 1996) informed by these narrative environments. Bruner claims that “narratives are our obligatory medium for expressing ourselves to others” (Bruner, 2002:89). There are not only one or two narratives in our lives, but a huge number on different aspects and topics.

Bruner also claims that people are generating their own narratives from a range of “possible” lives and life-styles available (Bruner, 2004:694). In other words, we are creating our own narratives and departing from existing “narrative templates” (Wilson and Stapleton, 2017) availed to us by our family and society. Every person creates their narratives by harmonizing their cultural codes and their personal experiences on particular topics. This is an important point. We see that people’s daily life experiences play role in the narrative making process that cannot be ignored. When people lack ‘story’ or experience in a particular topic, however, they tend to build their narratives on the template following what their societies laid for them (Wilson and Stapleton, 2017).

The association between particular lifestyles and particular identities becomes detectable via self-narratives. Moreover, understanding the relationship between identity and narratives is crucial in order to explore how narratives relate to behaviour in groups. That is, we bring our narratives into all kinds of societal relationships. In these, finding people who hold similar narratives to us is more important than finding people with similar identities. Sharing similar identities does not always mean that people share similar lifestyles. In order, for this to occur, we need to have accessible environments where we can express the narratives that represent our identities and foster social interaction with those others holding similar narratives.  What may make these environments accessible for all is the extent to which such environments accommodate the lifestyle choices of narrative holders – in the case of our research expressed through sports and art-related-volunteering activities. These accessible environments would also be the context where joint narratives emerge leading to joint belongingness accommodating the newcomers and their hosts in narrative communities.

The EU AMIF (Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund) funded VOLPOWER (Volunteer and Empower: Enhancing Community Building and Social Integration through Dialogue and Collaboration amongst Young Europeans and Third Country Nationals) Project, that Glasgow Caledonian University leads, examines the impact of volunteering in sports and arts activities for young adults in seven countries across the European Union. In particular, the research project investigates the experiences of young adult EU-national and Third Country National volunteers in Austria, Croatia, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Slovenia and the United Kingdom. Through working closely with focus groups of young adult volunteers in each location we explore the relationship between volunteering and social inclusion for migrant and non-migrant individuals. The project has arranged workshops and participatory research methods in the investigative process to understand how identity negotiation operates for migrant groups in each locality. Furthermore, we seek to build an understanding of the impact that narratives, and discourse around migration, has upon young adult’s lives in each country. In this special issue, based on our research in seven sites as well as in Turkey, we pursue a new interpretation for integration concentrating on the importance of joint belongingness that inclusive communities foster.

Integration Based on Assumptions and Indicators
Our position is that current social integration policies are not elaborate enough to explore how inclusive societies unfold. Current immigrant integration policies are highly influenced by integration approaches which tend to evaluate a process, that is, the process of migrants’ ‘integration’ into a new society (Ager and Strang 2008; 2010). Furthermore, integration policies informed by this literature are evaluated with the indicators that this literature avails. Thereafter, the nature of integration indicators assumes nominal figures in response to such questions as “how many migrants have proper housing in a particular area”, “how many migrants have access to health care” or “how many migrants are employed”.

While statistically these figures can be crucial in relation to housing, health or employment, their cumulative impact on building inclusive societies is immeasurable. That is why it is impossible to establish a relationship between integration-related indicators and one’s integration journey as a cumulative function of newcomers’ gaining employment, housing, or education in their new countries. In order to understand what makes societies inclusive, throughout the VOLPOWER project, we concentrate on everyday narratives not only as a reflection of hardships but also as a culmination of experiences. We turn to everyday social interactions in small locales amidst what may appear as mundane experiences of young people to follow how they participate in new environments and experience social inclusion.

This approach brings us to a critical position whereby we point at the impossibility of making assumptions regarding integration based on an indicator induced regime – a process that tends to attract the attention of politicians. A major part of the current integration policy is based on assumptions directed at social relationships at macro- and micro-levels whose relevance to inclusion cannot be ascertained without seeing if they lead to the formulation of joint narratives between the newcomers and hosts. At the same time, concentrating on integration indicators turns migrants into abstract identities with generic experiences and excludes what their hosts experience. Leaving the hosts out may suggest that they are almost irrelevant to building socially inclusive societies that should include both the locals and migrants. That is why making social inclusion a tangible aspect of integration is our priority so that the current research can focus on how migrants and their hosts interact with each other. While we reflect on the importance of such interaction, we also propose how this interaction can take shape.

In this special issue you will find different articles around migration and tenets of social inclusion. In all articles the importance of narratives, lived experiences, shared dialogue, discourse and interaction is highlighted. We investigate how these factors impact on individual everyday actions and relations between young adult migrants and the host society. Existing ‘migrant’ and ‘migration’ narratives feed into assumptions about migrants within host societies. These assumptions can lead people to create new racist narratives in social media, as Ozge Ozduzen and Umut Korkut identify, taking examples from Twitter debates on Syrian refugees in Turkey. Maggie Laidlaw, Ilona van Breugel, Eleonora Psenner and Francesca Lori ask ‘How can youth empowerment and sense of belonging benefit from creative arts?’. Within their article, we see that existing narratives of individuals are challenged through creative arts activities drawing on cooperation between migrant-background and non-migrant background young adults. Susan Rottmann criticizes current integration policy debate and emphasises the role which a ‘sense of belonging’ plays in integration processes, supported by empirical data on how host society’s narratives on migrant’s shape attitudes in everyday encounters. Astrid Mattes, Marie Lehner, Ilona van Breugel, Ursula Reeger’s article illustrates how volunteering can lead to interaction between migrant and host society young adults and can provide a catalyst for the development of new narratives between participants. Marcus Nicolson and Andrea Carla investigate the role of diversity discourse and inclusive narratives in Scotland and South Tyrol. In particular, the authors look at how these factors impact upon young adults who are negotiating their own identities in spaces where there is prevalent discourse surrounding civic nationalism and harmonious multiculturalism.

The research presented in this special Discover Society issue supports the view that current integration policies should move beyond a thinking that migrants and their host society are homogenous groups in their own right.  The ever-increasing diversity and uncertainty in our societies have the effect of forcing both migrants and their hosts to cope with the challenges of building inclusive societies. In this process, it is common for individuals to acquire multiple identities. That is, groups are not and cannot remain monolithic entities making any assumption that migrants compose a homogenous group likely to fail. Neither the place nor the language that we are born into should affect the course of the life we want to lead. Instead, it should be the narratives that we produce, which subsequently affect the societies that live by set the course of the life that we aim to lead. Knowing the codes of the environment where they live has a strong impact for people’s feelings about the place they live.

In our VOLPOWER project survey carried out in Scotland, Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Malta and Croatia with around 2000 people between the ages of 18 and 27, we asked that ‘what makes you feel at home?’ to people with or without migration background. The majority in both groups (80% with migration background and 92,4% migrant background) say that being familiar with the way of life and everyday routines are the most important aspects for their feeling at home. Thus, we can say that when people find themselves in an environment where they familiar with the codes, they feel more relaxed and safer. When we know both migrants’ and host society members’ self-narratives on socializing then we can also know the circumstances and environments that would make them feel more relaxed and safer. This is where people can build joint narratives that support joint belongingness.

Phillimore, J. (2011). Refugees, acculturation strategies, stress and integration Journal of Social Policy, 40(3), 575–593.
Hammack, P. (2011). Narrative and the politics of identity: The cultural psychology of Israeli and Palestinian youth. New York, NY and Oxford, UK: University Press.
Bruner, J. Life as narrative Soc. Res., 71 (2004), pp. 691-710.
Stapleton, K., & Wilson, J. (2017). Telling the story: Meaning making in a community narrative Journal of Pragmatics, 108, 60–80.
Ager & Strang Understanding Integration: A Conceptual Framework; Journal of Refugee Studies 21:2 2008


Umut Korkut is a Professor in International Politics at Glasgow Caledonian University. He is interested in how political discourse, aesthetics and visual imagery create audiences, following this theoretical interest across various empirical fields central to European politics such as gender and politics, populism and migration. From December 2020 he will lead a new Horizon 2020 project entitled D.Rad: De-Radicalisation in Europe and Beyond: Detect, Resolve, Re-integrate (2020-2023). Doga Atalay is a PhD candidate at Glasgow Caledonian University. His research focuses on narrative and meaning-making processes and their relation with identity construction and resiliency. His research investigation is built on mixed theory and methods from sociology, anthropology and political science. Marcus Nicolson is a PhD candidate and Project Manager for the VOLPOWER research project at Glasgow Caledonian University. His research focuses on the identity negotiation processes of young adult migrants in Scotland. His research predominantly uses qualitative methods, including photovoice and creative arts practices in a participatory manner which foregrounds the lived experiences of young people living in Glasgow.@NicolsonMarcus

Image: Copyright Natalia Nakazawa ‘Our Stories of Migration’

Acknowledgements: This project has received funding from European Union’s AMIF Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund project Volpower: Volunteer and Empower: Enhancing Community Building and Social Integration through Dialogue and Collaboration amongst Young Europeans and Third Country Nationals under grant agreement No. 821619. Any dissemination of results here presented reflects only the authors’ view. The Agency is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.