Integration: different logics and local factors

Common misconceptions and confusions in the debate on 'integration'.

Steve Garner
27 March 2015

Flickr/jo.sau. Some rights reserved.

How people envisage integration and its opposite lies at the heart of the immigration discussion in this country. It is the pivot between immigration and national belonging. The big story about integration changed dramatically in the aftermath of the London bombings. Since 2005, multiculturalism has been deemed a failure in many quarters. Policy, goes the argument, has encouraged groups of people to lead separate lives and not become part of the national community. So this is the backdrop to how our interviewees, in areas that have below average proportions of BME residents, talk about integration (1). I will present two aspects of the way this integration frame is constructed, with different logics applied to different people, and one example of how these logics sometimes come apart.

Who is integrating into what, and what is at stake in the integration frame?

Maybe we assume that incoming migrants are the only people to whom the need to be integrated applies. However, many white UK people we and other researchers have interviewed are keenly aware that they live in areas not fully integrated into the local economy, and feel that local and central government do not consider them as important as people living elsewhere. It is also worth noting that it is usually the poorer neighbourhoods where migrants first live, so the pressure to cope with change is disproportionately placed on people living in such areas.

With that caveat, one function of the concept of integration is to temporarily suspend distinctions within the white UK group, and focus attention on the perceived distance between this group and all the others. Most people say they want migrants to assimilate to local norms, but the overwhelming impression they have is that there is one-way traffic moving in the opposite direction. Integration is a crossover point of the frames through which people understand immigration.

What form does this traffic take? From the other frames indicated in the previous article, people are certain there is a transfer of a variety of resources (e.g. housing, employment, space and cultural recognition) from white UK to ethnic minorities; a different set of rules for each group; and the development of an all-encompassing political correctness that both justifies this transfer and casts all criticism as racist.

The statistics available do not show such a transfer between white UK and BME populations, rather an overall polarisation of wealth and life chances between the majority and a small minority. Moreover, although educational attainment is one area where some BME groups now consistently do better than white UK counterparts at some levels, poverty is the largest single explanatory factor in educational attainment. This is not an argument to say ‘race’ is irrelevant, but rather to point out that socioeconomic status (and gender) are also relevant, yet the transfer of resources envisaged by so many of our respondents gets reduced to being at a disadvantage because of white UK ethnicity.

So how do people discuss others becoming part of British society? The process is discussed as having a variety of markers: clothing, language, manners, residential patterns, and social interactions. The key logic applied is revealed in Jack’s positive evaluation of his friend, who: ‘is going up to Liverpool on a stag weekend that he's organised because he's a passionate Everton fan. He's a second-generation Asian, but you just wouldn't know it because he's a Scouser. And he waves the flag for England for the cricket. I play cricket with him. That's my kind of immigrant’.

Yet this good integrator/immigrant is already British: it was his parents who immigrated and had to integrate. The logic of integration is frequently applied to people who are already part of what there is to integrate into. Indeed, one of the major findings is that our sample usually think of ethnic minority people primarily as groups, without distinctions as to whether people are British, migrants, students, etc. They also see them as acting collectively because of culture (unless they know specific individuals), a logic that is not applied to other white UK people, who are individuals.

Space and Place

Segregation is the opposite of integration, and serves to exemplify the ‘cultural’ logic applied to ethnic minorities. People sometimes gave place names as summaries for segregation.

‘The idea of, you know, great swathes of people in Bradford, or Southall, or Birmingham, or Bristol, or wherever, not speaking English is absurd, if you're going to have integration. Otherwise, you do have cultural and racial ghettos, which is no good to anybody’ (Martin, Bristol).

Indeed, in the project where we had a 50/50 balance of middle and working class interviewees [2], while the theme of segregation was present in both sets of interviews, members of the middle-class sample used the term ‘ghettos’. Areas in cities where our interviewees live, or in other cities that they had heard of, come to symbolise a non-British space. Importantly, this frame casts minorities as self-segregating, granting them the agency to decide not to live elsewhere.

Minorities are seen as self-segregating entirely because of cultural reasons, while white UK people are not, as if the usual logic of economics does not apply to the housing choices made by BME people. Whereas the clearest case for self-segregation could be made for the very wealthy living in places that are financially unattainable for most. Elite ghettos? We seldom frame descriptions of residential patterns in these terms. Moreover, BME people deemed to be swamping are not distinguished in this discourse by status: British, EU national, student, non-EU national (as they are in immigration law). Is it possible for British nationals to ‘swamp’ a residential area in Britain? Places like Bradford, Easton (Bristol), Haringey, Birmingham, are both physical and figurative spaces into which our interviewees read narratives of invasion and displacement. The population figures for these areas usually show white majorities or that no group has a majority. Indeed Simpson and Finney provide a wealth of data showing actual patterns of population distribution and access to resources. However the assumption underpinning the claims of being taken over is that a high proportion of BME residents is a problem in and of itself. It is hard to envisage successful integration in that framing.

The Local and the Personal

However, in the eyes of our white UK interviewees (as in those interviewed by Mary Hickman’s team), local history is also significant. The assumptions about who is part of the community and who has to integrate do not always follow colour lines. In Thetford for example, people on the estate where the research was carried out saw newly-arrived Polish and Portuguese migrants as the threats, whereas the local African-Caribbean and Asian families with long residence were identified as being part of the ‘we’ feeling threatened. Similarly, during our fieldwork in various parts of Bristol, local African-Caribbean or Asian people seldom featured in the conversations, which usually identified Somalis, or Eastern European migrants as outsiders. It is interesting to note that despite this, the figure of the non-integrating Muslim was still the one people plucked out first as an example of lack of integration.

One element of this frame marking the discussions about integration is the distinction made between individuals and groups. People’s networks of friends, family and intimacy were important factors in how they engaged with the frames. A minority, with more extensive knowledge of black and Asian people accrued through friendships and other intimacies, saw negative attitudes toward immigrants as unfounded, and pointed to Britain’s history of involvement with former colonies as continuing into the present. Individuals known to our interviewees are held up as good integrators vis-à-vis the bad, who are always groups rather than individuals. Indeed, the capacity to see one’s own group as a set of diverse individuals and other people as always a group is a distinctive feature holding together the integration discourse: those people don’t want to integrate; they don’t make an effort; they stick with each other, etc. Non-integration is thus viewed as a choice made on the back of a cultural trait.


Many of the structural elements of the social world migrants inhabit (such as economic development, property prices, etc.) are out of their hands, as it is for most people. Yet the group that never has to integrate (at least not culturally) sees the move from outsider to insider as a choice of commitment, not seeing the structural limits for new migrants. Indeed a different set of logics is used on BME people: they are usually the integrators, even if they are British (unless locally known to our interviewees); they choose residential self-segregation; they are always a group; and an individual’s behaviour reflects group culture.

Moreover, the big political and media discussions of the day revolve around criticisms of multiculturalism and problems posed by the putative failure of Muslims to integrate. It is hardly surprising that the interviewees deploy similar frames in sifting the information available. When this gets bound up with the idea that resources are being transferred to those with a lesser claim on national belonging, the assumptions generate the conditions of backlash we now see expressed in a variety of identifications: with political parties and movements, with individuals, and social media campaigns.

I think the way the idea of integration is crosscut by the unfairness and pc-gone-mad frames poses a major issue for democratic politics, especially when the nation within which we operate means different things to different people. I shall explore that further in the last article, where we will examine claims to the nation, and how the politics of immigration impact on the way we do democracy.



[1] In only one of the projects did we have questions including the word ‘integration’. The rest is how people chose to answer broader questions about their communities and immigration in general.

[2] ESRC RES-148-25-003. See Clarke and Garner (2010) White Identities (Pluto Press)


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