Kim Yi Dionne: This guest post is the third in our series on immigrant integration in Europe. Find earlier posts here.
What is the best way to integrate immigrants? One common answer is that countries should only admit the right kind of immigrants, those who will be most likely to adapt to the host society’s norms. Scientific research in this paradigm finds that immigrants with higher socio-economic status and/or more cultural similarities with the host country will be more likely to integrate successfully. For example, immigrants with higher levels of educational attainment and higher occupational status are more likely to get good jobs and culturally assimilate over time. Immigrants who arrive speaking the host country language and sharing religious and cultural practices with the host society will also be more likely to integrate over time.
Research on which immigrants are more likely to integrate successfully has generated important insights. Yet, I argue that it may lead to a misguided attempt to label some immigrants as ‘good’ and others as ‘bad’ for integration. My recent research explores the ways in which contextual and situational factors shape integration. In other words, immigrant integration is not always about the individual. This basic insight is not new. There is a long academic tradition of studying the national-level policies that are most likely to promote successful integration. However, my recent work suggests that integration is often better understood by analyzing the local community in which an individual lives or the various situations an individual may experience during daily life.
One example of how studying context provides a different perspective on immigrant integration is the study of political attitudes. My recently published research suggests that for certain key political attitudes (most notably trust in government and satisfaction with the government) immigrants take their cues from native neighbors, irrespective of their socio-economic status or cultural assimilation. I find that the strongest predictor of how immigrants in 22 European countries feel about their government is not how well they are doing economically or how close they are to the host society culture, but instead how natives living in the same sub-national region feel about the government. This suggests that immigrants may become well-integrated into the local civic and attitudinal norms just through living in the community.
A key implication of my finding is that since immigrants’ political attitudes are not necessarily related to their economic attainment or cultural assimilation, we need to think more carefully about the multiple dimensions of integration. This builds on findings from my 2012 book which argued that economic, political and social aspects of immigrant integration are often at odds for any given immigrant individual or immigrant group. In short, searching for the ‘right’ kind of immigrant to integrate ignores the complexities of immigrant integration.
Another branch of research focuses on what kinds of natives are most likely to accept immigrants as part of the host society. The assumption here is that if host societies can promote the individual-level traits that make natives more welcoming, there will be a more positive environment for immigrants to integrate. This work identifies a wide range of factors, including higher levels of educational attainment, more positive interpersonal contact with immigrants, an ideological preference for social equality, and a willingness to accept diversity, which make some natives more likely to have positive feelings about immigrants. However, a recent wave of research places this individual-level variation in perspective by highlighting the more general trend of agreement among natives about which types of immigrants they are more willing to accept.
Moreover, in a recent working paper, I find that natives’ willingness to accept immigrants depends on the immigrants’ occupation. Previous research viewed immigrants’ occupation as an indicator of socio-economic status, and argued that natives’ preference for highly-skilled immigrants was an example of choosing the ‘right kind’ of immigrants. In contrast, my working paper explores the symbolic aspects of occupation, and argues that natives are less likely to accept immigrants who are employed in occupations that are culturally important for national identity (e.g. chefs and winemakers in France, or brewers and symphony employees in Germany). These results are consistent for both high and low-skilled immigrants and for various subsets of natives. This is further evidence that immigrant integration is not just about whether immigrants have better socio-economic status or more cultural assimilation, or whether natives are more or less open to the idea of immigration. Instead, integration will depend on the particular cultural context in which a given set of immigrants and natives interact.
The intense salience of immigrant integration suggests continued debates about what kind of immigrant and what kind of native will best facilitate immigrant integration. However, my ongoing work explores the ways in which all immigrants and all natives are capable of both successful and failed integration. This draws our attention to the ways in which integration varies across indicators (e.g. some immigrants will be better integrated economically than culturally) and across situations. For example, in a current study I am exploring how an immigrant’s likelihood of being accepted by natives depends on various mundane situations that occur in daily life. There is no perfect state of integration nirvana that will insulate an immigrant from all difficulties. Instead, immigrants are likely to experience a range of integration outcomes as they move through their lives, and understanding that complexity is essential for understanding the integration process.
Rahsaan Maxwell is associate professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. His book, “Ethnic Minority Migrants in Britain and France: Integration Trade-Offs,” was published by Cambridge University Press in 2012.