The Casey Review into community cohesion in Britain, commissioned by David Cameron as prime minister, recommends a new strategy to help bridge divides in the UK, including an “integration oath” to encourage immigrants to embrace British values. Here, Ben Gidley argues that if we are to have a meaningful integration debate politicians and policy-makers need to start listening to qualitative – and particularly ethnographic –data.

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David Cameron and Dame Louise Casey. Image: Flickr, Number 10

Stephen Kinnock MP recently found himself in the midst of a social media controversy after declaring at a Progress conference that “We must move away from multiculturalism and towards assimilation”.

While the demand to move away from multiculturalism (a policy Britain has never really adopted at a national level anyway) is hardly original, the demand for assimilation has long been relatively uncommon in our public debate. Kinnock’s promotion of it angered many who see assimilation as being forced to make a false and pernicious either/or choice between presumably homogeneous cultures.

Kinnock, apparently shocked at the controversy, attempted to clarify his position in an article for LabourList. “For me,” he said, “assimilation is synonymous with integration. [It] emphatically does *not* involve surrendering one’s own culture, values or identity.” The trouble is, that’s not how either academics or migrant and minority people understand the term. Assimilation very precisely does mean the surrendering of your cultural heritage in order to blend in with the normative national culture.

The term integration has been understood in contrast to this – most famously in the mid-1960s by Labour Home Secretary Roy Jenkins, who contrasted it to “a flattening process of assimilation” and defined it as “equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”.

Jenkins’ policy of integration has been placed back on the policy table this week by the report of Louise Casey’s review into opportunity and integration. Casey argues that Britain urgently needs a national framework of integration policy – a conclusion I endorse, having argued as such for some time.

The last time the government – under David Cameron – attempted to think about an integration policy, back in 2012, they shied away from setting out a national framework. The 2012 report suggested that “Integration means creating the conditions for everyone to play a full part in national and local life.” However, entitling the report “Creating the Conditions for Integration” created some ambiguity: how do you create the conditions for conditions?

However, Casey too struggles to define the term. She starts by noting three interesting but idiosyncratic “definitions”: Ted Cantle’s “living together”, which emphases shared values and behaviours and ignores structural integration; my colleague Eric Kaufmann’s “multivocalism”, as a distinctive normative philosophy of living together beyond multiculturalism and assimilation, again emphasizing values and identity, rather than a description of processes of integration; and, in contrast, the Runnymede Trust’s focus on economic development, which is correct in my view, but not a definition of integration.

Then she offers her own slightly confusing definition: “we suggest integration is the extent to which people from all backgrounds can get on – with each other, and in enjoying and respecting the benefits that the United Kingdom has to offer”. Some of the benefits people should “get on in enjoying” are then listed, including values and socio-economic goods, but also “our institutions, norms and idiosyncrasies – from the Monarchy and the BBC to queuing and talking about the weather, loving and hating all these things at once”.

While she is right to include a wide range of ingredients – including structural factors such access to the labour market as well as softer factors such as social interaction – her list feels quite arbitrary.

What this discussion misses is that there has already been a considerable body of scholarly work (accessibly summed up here) refining the concept of integration and discussing how it might be researched and measured. Although academics do not all agree on what integration means, there is a clear emerging consensus, elaborating Jenkins’ brief account.

For instance, Sarah Spencer, in her book The Migration Debate, defines integration as “processes of interaction between migrants and the individuals and institutions of the receiving society that facilitate economic, social, cultural and civic participation and an inclusive sense of belonging at the national and local level.”

Spencer spells out in some detail what this might mean. Integration happens in multiple domains, which are related to each other, but not straightforwardly. In a survey of new citizens I worked on, we found some who felt at home and involved locally, but had few interethnic friendships, and others who felt little sense of belonging in their local communities, but socialised with very diverse milieus – both groups experienced more integration in some domains than in others.

And, Spencer continues, integration is multi-directional. First, because it is not just about how newcomers change; it is about how the mainstream or majority changes too, and how they play a role in enabling or stopping migrants and minorities to participate fully. Second, because there is not a single journey from “not integrated” to “perfectly integrated” – all of our lives move backwards as well as forwards, as we face and sometimes are defeated by new challenges and barriers.

The Casey report draws on a vast body of quantitative data. But understanding the complexity of integration, its back and forth, requires qualitative research as well as numerical measurement. Casey makes the interesting point that:

“very little research seemed to capture the mood of communities we met and listened to. Too often, research and data analysis seems to be conducted at a level that is so high or general that no meaningful conclusions or policy decisions can be reached. This risks creating further disengagement by the general public and may increase perceptions that their views and opinions are being ignored and difficult issues swept under the carpet.”

Yet in fact there is an enormous wealth of qualitative – and particularly ethnographic – data on what it is like to live in both settled and changing communities in the UK, for white British people and for migrants and minorities. Ben Rogaly and Becky Taylor’s oral histories of working class lives in the East of England, Les Back and Shamser Sinha’s multimedia portraits of young migrants’ lives, Lisa McKenzie’s ethnography of a multiracial Nottingham estate, the work of Hannah Jones and colleagues on migrant lives under a policy of “hostile environment”, Amina Lone and Dan Silver’s interview-based research with white working class people in Manchester, or Insa Koch’s ethnographic work on an out of town council estate in Oxford are just a few of the many recent studies that are based on taking the time to meet, build relationships with, often live among, and above all listen to people experiencing the sharp edge of the issues Casey approaches. But among 358 footnotes in the Casey report, there are less than half a dozen references to qualitative research in actual communities, and none at all to ethnographic research.

There is no doubt that qualitative researchers could do more to communicate our research to policy audiences. But it is also clear that if we are to have a meaningful integration debate then politicians and policy-makers need to start to listen to this kind of scholarly work too.

This article was originally published on The Sociological Review.

About the author

ben_gidleyBen Gidley is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck University of London. His book Islamophobia and Antisemitism in Europe: A Shared Story? (with James Renton) is about to be published by Palgrave. He tweets as @bengidley