Integration debate

What is Integration?

Diskussion von Bündnis 90/Die Grünen zum Thema Integration, Foto: dustpuppy / Björn LáczayDiscussion on the subject of integration with the Bündnis 90/Die Grünen party, Foto: dustpuppy / Björn LáczayIn the public debate on integration in Germany the impression is often created that certain immigrants are better integrated than others, depending on the country they come from. On closer analysis however of the empirical data on immigrants living in Germany such value statements have to be promptly dismissed. When dealing with this issue the question that really ought to be asked is just what do people understand by the word “integration”.

When we are asked the question of how do we know if a square is a square, the answer comes relatively easy most of the time. Back at school we learned that a square is a geometric shape characterised by certain features, such as the fact that it is equilateral, equiangular and rotationally symmetric, etc. The empiricist, if in doubt, would take out his set square or protractor and then proceed to examine whether the said geometric form corresponded with all the objective features of a square.

The question of how do we know if a person with an immigrant background has been successfully integrated is on the other hand somewhat more difficult to answer. The answers to this question vary considerably depending on the person’s age, sex, education , income, etc. They are equally as individual and diverse as all the people living in our society.

Foto: © colourboxIt is above all in Germany that, in contrast to the square, there is no generally accepted definition of integration. This is not just a flaw in German integration policy, but a major problem that makes the public debate on integration complicated and creates the impression of a purely arbitrary approach. Everybody who voices an opinion in the debate on integration is somehow, someway, right.

When it comes to defining what successful integration is in Germany there is only agreement on what the lowest common denominator is and that is: an immigrant is successfully integrated when he or she has mastered the German language, has acquired educational qualifications and has become gainfully employed.

A concept of integration like this however is extremely problematic. If it were to be generally applied, then Mohammed Atta, one of the 9/11 terror pilots, would also have to be classed as successfully integrated. He spoke the German language very well – so well in fact that he even managed to get an academic degree in Germany.

Such an operationalisation, i.e. defining a fuzzy concept so as to make it measurable, has moreover only marginal force of expression and is not particularly viable when it comes to the socio-political management of this political sphere of activity.

Impossible to categorise

If one were, for example, to apply this conceptual stencil to the case of my parents, they would in fact turn out to be poorly integrated. They have only had basic schooling and can hardly speak the German language, if at all. How can it be then that all their sons gained good qualifications, speak German well and are gainfully employed?

I also know a few Turkish families that fulfil all the criteria of this concept of integration. However in some of those families anti-Semitic views are to be heard or a stringent assimilation policy is demanded with nationalist fervour for ethnic minorities in Turkey – all in perfect German.

This attempt to file and classify the everyday life of an immigrant with the aid of a catalogue of criteria spawned by a concept of integration is doomed to fail quite quickly. It just does not work!

In other words – with reference to the practical work done in the field of integration a concept of integration like this has about as much epistemological value and benefit as the statement that eating food is not only important for the body, but can also lead to people being overweight. Integration has to involve more than just the mere learning of the German language, getting good qualifications and being gainfully employed.

Value statements on integration are not possible

In Germany there is empirical data that enables us to measure the living situation, the educational and labour market opportunities for immigrants. One of the main sources is the small-scale population census called Mikrozensus. In 2005 data on the immigrant background of the population was collected for. Since then we now know that one in every five people comes from an immigrant background.

The Central Register for Foreigners is also a good source for research and politics. Other important sources are the Socio-Economic Panel, the General Social Survey of the Social Sciences, the Integration Report of the Federal German Government and the Integration Barometer of the Expert Advisory Board for Integration and Migration.

All of them, however, dismiss any value statement that says that one group of immigrants is better integrated than the other, as is maintained, for example, by Thilo Sarrazin.

Thilo Sarrazin presenting his book “Deutschland schafft sich ab“ (Germany Does Away With Itself), Foto: oparazzi photos / Richard HebstreitAttempts to arrive at a comparative value statement on just how successful immigrants are at becoming integrated with the help of the Mikrozensus can go horribly wrong, as was shown by the Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung (The Berlin Institute for Population and Development) in January 2009. It carried out a survey entitled in German “Ungenutzte Potenziale – Zur Lage der Integration in Deutschland“ (Unused Potential – The State of Integration in Germany), in which authors evaluated the data from the Mikrozensus, in order to measure the degree of success immigrant groups in Germany had at integrating themselves and – even more curious – to classify this success within the constraints of a kind of league table.

The resounding criticism of the survey expressed in professional circles was justified. Its shallow drifting along on the fringe of the integration debate as well.

A lack of normative references

The lack of a definition for integration determines the way the available data will be read. For – if there is no definition, there can be no operationalisation. If there is no operationalisation, there is no measuring. No measuring – no comparative value statements.

The results derived from the 2005 Mikrozensus show that 27.52 per cent of men from the Ukraine are drawing unemployment benefit (level 1 and 2). The only thing we are to deduct from this finding is that 27.52 per cent of the men from this community are making a living in this way. The result does not provide us in any way with a qualitative statement on whether they have been successfully integrated. As long there is no definition for integration the only thing that can be described by such empirical data is the current situation. They do not allow for any qualitative interpretation on whether integration has been successful or not.

Kamuran Sezer, sociologist and initiator of a social survey on Turkish academics and students in Germany (TASD), Foto: privateIn order to be able to constructively formulate a value statement based on the available empirical data an implementable and viable definition of integration is required that will serve as a norm or a normative reference, as the case may be. This can then, having observed and measured any deviation from the norm, be used to judge whether an immigrant or an immigrant group has been integrated or not.

Such norms or normative references already exist in other socio-political spheres of activity. Full employment, for example, exists when the unemployment rate is less than three per cent.

Another example is the definition of the poverty line. In this case there is no nation-wide definition, as the cost of living in Germany varies according to the region. There are not only differences between cities and rural areas, but also between East and West Germany. It is not a matter of a timeless fixed income, but the definition is subjected to a permanent political negotiation process.

Controversial negotiation of the concept of integration

So when it comes to integration it is also not impossible to conceptualise such definitional boundary markers to measure the objectives that are being aspired to. So why does it not work?

The point is it does work! We are in the throes of such a negotiation process that is taking a very controversial, emotional and heated course. What makes things more difficult is that this process is being hampered not only by party political interests, but also by fears and feelings of insecurity. Nevertheless this process is in full swing - and that is how it should be!

Determining such a norm or a normative reference is not something that develops under the dictates of an authoritarian state, it is more the product of the social discourse as a whole that takes place in a modern, multi-polar pluralist society. A discourse that involves politicians, scientists, lobbyists, media professionals and of course the citizens of that society.

It would be beneficial and expedient, if the Integration Summit and the Conference on Islam organised by the German government were to be designed anew. For they offer a political arena in which this negotiation process can take place more effectively than the exchange of ideas to be found on the market of public opinion that is influenced by profit making interests and powermongering.

In light of the debates on integration that have taken place in the last few months the impression has arisen more and more that the German government is striving to thwart its own aims when it comes to the subject of the Integration Summit and the Conference on Islam. The reason being that it does not want to share its interpretative primacy and its power of definition for the concept of integration and for the question of “which” Islam is part of Germany with other players in the field of integration politics.

As long as there is no practicable definition of integration in the German debate on integration, the widespread opinion that Sarrazin and his ideas might in some way, somehow, be right is not particularly surprising. After all sometimes it is easier to compare apples with oranges, even if the empirical reality is completely different.
Kamuran Sezer
is a sociologist and the founder of the futureorg Institut.

Copyright: Deutsche Welle 2010/

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