When “integration” divides

5 minutes to read
Column
Janus Spindler Møller
20/11/2017

When theoretical concepts become politicized, they are re-interpreted in ways that fit political strategies. A prime example is the term “integration”. 

Integration has been debated intensively in Danish politics for the last three decades in discussions related to immigration. In fact, it has led to the naming of a ministry – namely “The Ministry of Immigration and Integration” and in the first part of this column, I will illustrate their current understanding of “integration” with examples from the ministry´s homepage. Then, in order to illustrate some of the potential consequences of political terminology, I will show an example of how the concept of “integration” plays a role in the social life among young Copenhageners.

Celebrating immigration regulation

When entering the home page of The Ministry of Immigration and Integration, an animated infographic starts counting. It ends (as of November 8, 2017) on 64. The text on the graphic informs us that this is the number of tightened immigration regulations enacted by the present government. The Minister of Immigration and Integration takes great pride in these regulations. She attracted a lot of media attention when she posted a picture of a cake on social media, celebrating regulation no. 50 for tighter immigration controls.

Next to the graphic we find a list of announcements from the ministry. One of the headlines (dated 31 October) states that: “Third-generation immigrants enter institutions later than their peers” where “institutions” refer to day nurseries and preschools. What I want to highlight here is the category of “third-generation immigrants”. This term has the obvious side effect that the people in question are not recognized as “Danes”.

In summary, the home page has two central messages: 1) Foreigners are generally not encouraged to migrate to Denmark (rather the opposite). 2) If they should achieve to get in anyway, this does not mean that they and/or their children can expect to be officially recognized as Danes. Their future children are “second-generation immigrants”, their grandchildren “third-generation immigrants”, and so on.

The official understanding of “integration” is that it is a normative tool to adjust behavior, rather than a process creating new unities.

It may seem ironic that a ministry of integration uses a vocabulary that does the exact opposite of integrating in the sense of being inclusive. There is, however, logic to this. In the most recent election, a large part of the campaign from the current government consisted of promises of a tough line against immigration. Furthermore, the ruling government depends heavily on the votes from the nationalist Danish Peoples Party, who view, what they term “demands to immigrants” as central to their politics.

The rationale behind comparing the attendance in nursery school is a worry that the “third-generation immigrants” will not learn Danish soon enough if they are under the care of their families at home. Thereby, the categorization of a group as “third-generation immigrants” becomes a means to compare descendants of immigrants to “Danes”, thus enabling the ministry to adjust the behavior of the descendants with political initiatives if deemed necessary.

In this manner, the official understanding of “integration” is that it is a normative tool to adjust behavior, rather than a process creating new unities. The tendency to view “integration” as a means of controlling immigrants politically is, however, not new. Every right-wing government that has been in charge of parliament in Denmark since 2001 has had a “Ministry of Integration” with this purpose.

It may seem ironic that a ministry of integration uses a vocabulary that does the exact opposite of integrating in the sense of being inclusive.

This type of “integration politics” no doubt takes place in many European countries. What stands out, in this case, is the lack of inclusiveness in the terminology as well. The use of the category “third-generation immigrants” by The Ministry of Immigration and Integration almost seems like a statement in itself. Therefore, an important question here is what this means for the social life of adolescents in Denmark whose parents happen to be immigrants.

Integration and the artificial divide

In a recent research project conducted by a team from the University of Copenhagen, we followed 40 adolescents over time as they engaged with everyday activities (see also the column “Voices of Nationalism”). The participants all attend the same school in Copenhagen and almost all of them are born in Denmark, with (very) few exceptions. Around 80% of the participants’ parents migrated to Denmark. Overall, the participants represent around 16 different linguistic backgrounds and a variety of different family histories.

One finding of the project was that participants in their teens were perfectly aware of the fact that some of the stakeholders in society viewed them differently. Depending on whether their families had migrated or not, some of them were regarded as Danes and some of them were seen as immigrants, or descendants of immigrants who need to “integrate” (i.e. adjust to yet another set of norms). This knowledge is traceable in their everyday communication. In schoolwork, the participants often address issues related to integration, and in their free time, the participants occasionally describe each other’s language or behavior as “integrated” (which in most cases was meant as an insult).

Let us look at an example where “integrated” relates to language use. Safa’s family has a background of immigration, where Henrik’s family has not. They are in the same class and in the example, the pupils are arranging a get-together for the entire class on Facebook:

Henrik:              If it happens how many are attending? :) could everybody please write whether they can make it or not or what they feal like doing

Safa:                   *Feel Henrik, you need to integrate yourself in the Danish language like the rest of us:)

(Translation by Andreas Stæhr, all names anonymized, more details in Stæhr 2017)

The girl, Safa, follows up on Henrik’s spelling mistake. In her formulation, she displays knowledge of a division of the students where one group has to integrate (i.e. the children of immigrants) and one group does not (i.e. the “majority Danes”). Another point is that Safa links the process of integration to a norm – here the norm of an orthographic standard. Finally, Safa’s use of a smiley in the end indicates that she intends her comment as friendly teasing. A later reaction by Henrik shows that he interprets it like this too. Based on this, we can interpret Safa’s teasing as a convivial way of dealing with the fact that somebody from the outside has divided the class into groups.

In this way, Safa’s comment leads to the central point: The integration discourse demanding that a particular group in school has to “integrate” produces an artificial divide, an obstacle the pupils in the classroom have to overcome in order to create unity and togetherness. I am not saying that there is a simple one-to-one relationship between what happens politically and what happens in the social life of Copenhagen adolescents. What I am saying is that political categorizations of people matter. It matters for the self-understanding of the children whose families migrated to Denmark and it matters for the formations of communities we all depend on in our daily social life.

References

Møller, Janus Spindler (2017): 'You Black Black': Polycentric Norms for the Use of Terms Associated with Ethnicity. In Engaging Superdiversity: Recombining Spaces, Times and Language Practices. ed. / Karel Arnaut; Martha Sif Karrebæk; Massimiliano Spotti; Jan Blommaert. Multilingual Matters. p. 123-146.

Stæhr, Andreas (2017): Languaging and normativity on Facebook. In Engaging Superdiversity: Recombining Spaces, Times and Language Practices. ed. / Karel Arnaut; Martha Sif Karrebæk; Massimiliano Spotti; Jan Blommaert. Multilingual Matters. p. 170-198.