Integration debate

“Integration Despite Segregation” – An Interview with Urban Researcher Walter Siebel

Prof. Dr. Walter Siebel; © privatProf. Dr. Walter Siebel; © privatIntegration instead of segregation – that is the usual recipe for how Germany should fulfil its responsibilities as a country of immigration. The political laboratory is urban space. The urban researcher Walter Siebel calls for an alternative – integration despite segregation.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century at the latest, multiculturalism, long lauded as the ideal of a mutually beneficial multi-ethnic society, proved to be wishful thinking. Nevertheless, it has become a feature of urban life in big cities and a social reality that can’t be reversed. Professor Siebel, can people live peacefully together at all in so small an area when they are strangers or even hostile to each other?

Modern societies aren’t integrated only through homogeneity but also by their ability to ignore differences. That works in cities as it does in markets, in democracies and under the rule of law where it is a matter of products, skills or money, or of participation without discrimination, independently of skin colour, education or political beliefs. In public space, the locals too meet each other as strangers.

Strangeness isn’t only imported by immigration. Modern cities themselves produce a variety of environments that are alien to each other. Members of certain youth cultures are probably more alien to a German worker than is his Turkish colleague. In cities therefore immigration in particular has brought about an urban mentality that enables the informal and peaceful coexistence of strangers. The sociologist Georg Simmel described this mentality in terms of reserve, nonchalance, indifference and intellectuality. The city dweller girds himself against the disturbing experiences of everyday strangeness with distance.

Home abroad

© Dmitry Nikolaev - Fotolia.comExperience shows that newcomers are particularly drawn to neighbourhoods where they find their countrymen and a familiar environment. This is often simply a question of money, such as when it comes to affordable rents, so that often socially marginalized indigenous groups also live there. Doesn’t this run the risk of uncontrollable conflicts in the pecking order?

The concentration of immigrants in certain neighbourhoods where they find people like themselves is a phenomenon in all cities of immigration. In America, the Germans too first moved to “Germantown”. Ethnic colonies function as bridgeheads of the homeland abroad, where newcomers can first of all find accommodation, orientation and job opportunities, but also help, protection against isolation and support in psychological crises, which are often bound up with immigration. But you’re correct in pointing out that most immigrants that come to Germany – this is very different in Switzerland – are poor and therefore live in neighbourhoods where they’re not apt to run into Green-Alternative enthusiasts of multiculturalism, but rather the German victims of structural change. Losers look for scapegoats, and immigrants are excellently suited to the role. So these “overburdened neighbourhoods” are often places of aggressive mutual exclusion.

Mixing or separating – that is the question when it comes to regulating heterogeneous urban societies. Your surprising answer is “integration despite segregation”. Doesn’t this boil down to the establishment of ghettos?

The concentration of certain social groups in certain neighbourhoods is a universal phenomenon. By reducing the daily friction and annoyances between groups with different ways of life, physical distance and segregation serve not least to avoid conflicts. Ethnic colonies serve quite positive functions in the process of integration. They provide shelter and a transitional space from which immigrants can get to know the new society. The most important thing is that segregation is voluntary and not forced by discrimination, housing policy or market mechanisms. That should be the guiding principle of urban integration policy.

Urban culture of is a culture of difference

Cover the book Stadtsoziologie (Sociology of the city) by Hartmut Häussermann and Walter Siebel; © CampusNeighbourhoods as sanctuaries for newcomers, as bridges between the old and the new home on the road to integration – that sounds good. But how can we prevent that these neighbourhoods mutate in the end into insular enclaves of the old homeland, or even into refuges for the cultivation of parallel societies?

Immigrant neighbourhoods are always in danger of becoming traps when immigrants, often after failed attempts at integration, retreat into a narrow and rigid ethnic environment. The first and most important prerequisite for avoiding this would be to ensure the functioning of market, democracy, legal system and city. If they functioned according to their logic as open systems, much of the special policy for the integration of immigrants would be unnecessary.

“Multiculturalism” has become a political battle cry. Has multiculturalism in the positive sense really failed once and for all, as we are repeatedly told?

It depends on what you mean. Naturally there’s a dominant culture to which those who wish to be socially and professionally successful have to adapt. Beyond this, cultural difference is the veritable yeast of dynamic societies. Encounters with the Other and surprising experiences such as occur in the public space of cities can, like being confronted with new arguments, break open ingrained routines and ways of thinking. They are unsettling, and being unsettled can lead to shutting oneself off, but also to reflection on what seemed self-evident. That is in turn a prerequisite for cultural change. What makes urban life so stressful – the proximity of strangers – is thus a decisive condition for the productivity of cities. Urban culture is a culture of difference, and that’s why cities are places of creativity.

Walter Siebel, born in 1938, studied sociology and taught at the University of Oldenburg from 1975 until his retirement. He is a member of the German Academy for Urban and Regional Planning and winner of the Schumacher and Schader Awards. 

Roland Detsch
conducted the interview. He is a freelance editor, journalist and writer living in Landshut and Munich.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2011

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