‘Integration’ is of course a well-known sociological concept that figures prominently in the work of theorists such as Durkheim, Parsons and Habermas. From the Latin integer, it connotes an ‘unscathed whole’. And indeed in the work of said theorists, ‘integration’ has reference to a social whole. The larger history of the concept lies in an organicist tradition in which the social was conceived as an integrated body. Integration, in that sense, had to do with the internal adjustment of the parts of a whole, but it was ultimately a property of the whole. As I discuss below, there many problems with such a part/whole conception, according to which there are ‘societies’ that consist of ‘members’. But even if one were to subscribe to such a dualism of organicist origin, one still wouldn’t end up with the theoretically impoverished conception of integration that underwrites conventional immigrant integration research, and that currently still operates as the primary way in which Western European nation-states can imagine the immigrant populations in their midst (Favell, 2003; Korteweg, 2017). In that research, integration ceases to be a property of a social whole, and becomes individualized by turning into a property of individual people, such as migrants, their children, unemployed persons, or convicted criminals. In other words, in conventional integration research, individuals can be integrated in various degrees. But this individualization of integration is entirely without theoretical underpinnings. Instead, it rests on commonsensical notions of ‘society’ and its individual ‘members’, and on the historically particular plausibility of the individualist (neo)liberal assumptions of this society as consisting of individual members to whom any ‘misfit’ between the two can be one-sidedly attributed. ‘Integration’ thus changes from a system state to a state of being of an individual. Lack of immigrant integration thus turns out to have to do with the being of immigrants, and the resulting picture of course ends up pitting ‘society’ over against individuals that are racialized in particular ways, because in order for their being to affect their integration, that being must be somehow problematic.
That the application of ‘integration’ to the level of individuals is in fact rather weird becomes apparent when the antonym of ‘being integrated’ is considered. For the opposite of ‘integrated’ is, of course, ‘disintegrated’. And one can say of a whole that it can be integrated or disintegrated, but obviously one cannot consider an individual as ‘disintegrated’, unless of course one considers the individual as a biological whole, a body that is disintegrated. That individuals cannot be socially distintegrated should signal that they can neither be integrated, i.e., that ‘integration’ is not a description of individual states of being. And yet precisely this strange conceptual concoction is at the very heart of immigrant integration research, in which ‘integration’ in fact goes without antonym and is now internally partitioned in degrees of integration. One can thus be ‘well integrated’ or ‘less integrated’ than someone else. This internal partition is thus charged with the task of providing conceptual clarity to a concept without antonym, which thus has a purely internally propped up semantic plausibility. But as a result the concept amounts, in fact, to little more than a floating signifier that works well first and foremost because it translates easily across academia and policy, popular discourse and common sense descriptions, i.e., precisely because it lacks all the friction that a theorized, complex concept gives rise to when it travels across communities of practice. The effect is, of course, that ‘integration’ becomes a decidedly un-social and non-relational concept, which posits a static object (‘society’) over against individuals whose being signifies a certain degree of ‘integration’ as an individual-level trait.
Of course individual-level measurements of immigrant integration are usually immediately aggregated into group-level data. After both conceptualizing and measuring ‘integration’ as an individual state of being, this then constitutes a jump in scales that is, again, wholly without theoretical underpinnings and that constructs ‘groups’ out of mere ascribed statistical population categories. The end result is a combination of individualization and de-individualization. ‘Integration’ is the state of an individual, and hence – in line with the neoliberalization of migration and integration policies (Van Houdt, Suvarierol & Schinkel, 2011) – ‘integration’ becomes a matter of ‘individual responsibility’. But at the same time it is explained by means of a de-individualizing maneuver, which clusters people in various states of integration in ‘ethnic groups’, and this chimes well with the communitarianism that Western-European neoliberal citizenship policies are often combined with (Schinkel & Van Houdt, 2010). So if an individual is lacking in ‘integration’, the individualized responsibility for this is at once extended to all members of the ‘group’ to which that individual is considered to belong (again, ‘group’ here means nothing more than an aggregation of attributed ‘ethnic identity’). Lack of integration, so to speak, works infectious, but the very reason for aggregating at group level is, of course, that such aggregation is meaningful in an explanatory sense. Otherwise, why not study all members of a population without separating them into statistically constructed ‘ethnic groups’? And ‘ethnicity’, which of course stands in for ‘race’, is in fact the only explanatory element in what is otherwise an exercise of description, of classification and of monitoring. No economic factors can emerge in any explanatory way, for instance, because they are part of the variables (in the form of SES scores, for instance) that define ‘immigrant integration’. They are thus, by design, excluded from any explanatory role in the differentiation between degrees of ‘integration’ that is measured.
So what we end up with is a concept, and a practice, that is thoroughly purified both from notions of class and of race. And such purification can be said to be part of the social ‘function’ of the measurement of immigrant integration, that is, it is part of the contingent way in which ‘immigrant integration’ sustains a classed and raced form of dominance that is less precisely called ‘native’ or even ‘nativist’ than ‘white’. In order to understand this, one must consider what I have discussed in the book as dispensation of integration. This is what is ‘granted’, so to speak, to white citizens. And this is the ‘positive’ way of describing the fact that these do not appear on the integration monitor. It is the active way to describe an omission that is consequential, and which already does all the work of separating those who are considered to make up ‘society’ and those who do not and who thus need to further ‘integrate’. Dispensation of integration means that white citizens are not researched or described in terms of their ‘integration’. Dispensation of integration is not granted to ‘native’ citizens, because those of the so-called ‘second generation’ are born in Western Europe, but they generally do not ‘get’ a dispensation of integration. Neither is it granted to ‘non-immigrants’ (in whatever definition this can have, given the genealogization of integration into ‘nth- generation immigrants), because Canadian or US immigrants are generally not included in immigrant integration research reports (and often not even in the research itself), because research focuses on the main ‘problematic groups’. The very calibration of who to include in research is thus crucial, as it of course always is in social science research. In this case, those who are included in research constitute a perfect negative image of who are included in ‘society’.
With a Nietzschean ‘good will to power’, an a priori separation is thus enacted that already does all the work in separating ‘society’ from its ‘immigrants’, but that occurs out of the good will of overcoming – by contributing ‘objective facts’ to the policy issue – precisely that separation. All that can follow are details, numbers, relative differentiations in the ‘distance to society’ that characterize supposed ‘ethnic groups’. These are the things behind the comma, so to speak. What is always already decided, is that all ethnic groups are at a remove from ‘society’. People may be well integrated, indeed they may be very well integrated, but that still means they are at the other side of the defining divide – a divide produced, no doubt, in a variety of social spheres, but produced in highly specific ways, with the authority of ‘science’ and the legitimacy of ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’, in the social science of immigrant integration. The really decisive difference, after all, is not the difference between the ‘well integrated’ and the ‘less integrated’; it is the difference between those for whom integration is not an issue at all, and those for whom it is. To the former, a dispensation of integration applies, and this in effect codes them as ‘society’, and it in turn codes that ‘society’ as ‘white’, precisely by never having to characterize it as such, since ‘whiteness’ is a racial category that is experienced, certainly in the Netherlands, as ‘uneasy’ (Essed & Trienekens, 2008), i.e., as a concept that threatens to undo precisely a whiteness that claims neutrality, non-racial universality.
The specific ways in which immigrant integration is applied to the level of the individual thus in effect purify and immunize a preconceived ‘society’. For as soon as one of a variety of problems occurs – unemployment, incarceration, homophobia – it becomes apparent that these are not problems that exist and occur within society. Rather, these become problems of individuals who (still) reside ‘outside society’ and need to be ‘integrated’. ‘Society’ therefore has no problems¸ because any problem there might be is relegated to the individual level of immigrants, who can then be framed group-wise in terms of these problems. This way, ‘society’ is imagined as a pristine, pure domain that is without problems. Problems are problems of ‘integration’, and integration has to do with the position and opinions of non-white individuals. This ‘bringing people into society’ is the rhetoric with which ‘immigrant integration’ is sustained, and it performs the idea that immigrants that have arrived in Western Europe are in fact still in the process of arriving (Boersma & Schinkel, 2018). This very presumption of still arriving, of being on the move, in effect renders the children of immigrants into immigrants, which is to say it renders them ‘mobile’, in the sense of somehow still being under way, on their way to ‘society’. The purification performed by ‘immigrant integration’ thus signals the fact that rather than a neutral, theoretical concept (which doesn’t exist anyway), it is a concept of social hygiene.