Debunking integration: ‘Methodological nationalism’ in migration research
Despite its conceptual vagueness, integration is a central topic in discussions about culture, politics, and migration throughout the European Union. Questions about who does and does not ‘belong’ to a nation have come to the forefront of many political and public debates. Two phenomena might have played an important role in this development: the eastward enlargement of the European Union, followed by the so-called ‘refugee crisis’.
An essential task of migration management is to ensure the ‘successful integration’ of newcomers. As self-evident as this aim might appear, it raises several issues.
As suggested below, one problem is that concepts such as ‘integration’ – favoured by both migration scholars and political actors – are based on problematic claims regarding what a polity is or should be. Such conceptual debates are not merely academic but raise high stakes for at least two reasons. First, both the research community and nation-states are active actors engaged in the co-production of migration data and knowledge. On the part of nation-states, there is an inherent tendency to treat the issue of integration as one of integrating the newcomers into the national culture and state. Secondly, practical implications follow. The reciprocal exchange between partners – the research community and the nation-state – plays into the design and outcomes of research projects and influences how evidence is used to frame problems (i.e. policy debates) and propose appropriate interventions in society (i.e. policy-making). Thus, beyond the naturalness of reading ‘successful integration’ as integration into the nation-state, we might discover that this is actually just one possible reading, one possible approach, rather than the standpoint.
Migration, state, and academia. A complicated relationship.
Nation-states have the authority and power to control migration. They decide who can cross borders and who cannot, as well as the purpose and duration of the stay. All of these are seen as matters of national sovereignty. Indeed, governmental actors play an essential role in regulating migration and ‘solving’ issues related to diversity within national borders.
Academic scholarship on migration, while itself not a governmental actor nor a producer of political discourses, shares with the latter concepts and categories employed to theorise the phenomenon of migration. More than this, it provides nation-states with data that shapes policy-making regarding migration and citizenship.
On the one hand, governmental actors rely on migration data and scholarly discourse to draw boundaries between different statuses, i.e. legal categories of migrants. These categories classify migrants by nationality, employability, and number of people admitted into the country (migrant quotas).
On the other hand, the political discourse about migration and integration is infused and shaped at the other end by public perceptions and social events. The large influx of newcomers in Western Europe gave rise to public anxieties in many of these countries. Such demographic changes clearly alter the ways in which migration management operates. As the question of ethnic minority integration becomes increasingly complicated, concerns about social cohesion diminish the significance of political membership (i.e. obtaining citizenship) as a marker of national identity and mediator of belongingness. Therefore, as people enter and settle in the country, their belongingness to the nation is arbitrarily questioned and endlessly negotiated. We see this in the ways in which debates on integration retreat into culturalist definitions of national identity. As perceptions of citizenship and foreignness rearticulate perpetual differences between majority and minority ethnicities, similarities in terms of residence and citizenship take a back seat in the discussions about belongingness to the national community.
The ubiquity of nation-states
Migration scholars discuss various models of integration that are locally contingent and rooted in the historical specificity of national belonging and identity. However different, they share one common assumption: there is a ‘mainstream’ majority ethnic group that shares the same cultural and social norms, they belong to the nation, and are considered unproblematically ‘integrated’. Thus newly arrived migrants need to ‘catch up’ to be ‘one of them’.
The ubiquity of nation-states is the challenge that any migration scholar today must confront. Tasked with addressing this issue, scholars Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller coined the term ‘methodological nationalism’ to draw attention to a tendency in social and human sciences to conceptualise and analyse migration processes through the taken-for-granted lens of the nation and state. They call for re-examining our use of ‘integration’ on account that it is based on assumptions that nation-states exist as ‘natural’ constructions. In their view, scholars must instead attend analytically to nation-states as a perspective and not as a self-evident fact.
In a way, we might be tempted to brush this off as academics’ incessant needs to theorise. We would be wrong, however, to assume its consequences do not spill beyond academic walls. If social scientists remain stuck within the framework of nation-states and insist on treating social processes as constituted and contained within national borders, they continue to legitimise this way of ‘doing’ polity not as one possible way but as the only possible way.
It does not necessarily follow that nation-states are unreasonable in their attempts to manage migration within their borders as they see fit. On the contrary, effective integration policies may help migrants tackle some of the disadvantages inherent in being a newcomer. Nor do I claim that social groups (for example, people with similar ethnic backgrounds) do not have shared ways of being and doing things. Rather my point is that when migration scholars fail to engage critically with ‘national models’ of integration, they invariably play into integration discourses that legitimise aspirations of what a national society aims to be.
As I understand it, going beyond methodological nationalism does not simply imply removing the category of the nation-state altogether. It remains a necessary element in the analysis of social processes. Rather, I believe, an important step in disabusing social scientists of the flawed notion that nation-states are a standard, from which migrants might deviate, is to bring to the surface the opacity of nation-states and challenge the bounded nature of concepts such as ‘national culture’ and ‘national political community’.
Further reading and resources:
WAITING, an experimental film which started from a conversation between a filmmaker and an anthropologist: https://parsejournal.com/article/waiting/
A podcast on migration managed by IMISCOE: https://soundcloud.com/themigrationpodcast
A documentary about Italy's problematic migrant ‘boot camps for integration’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvIHOg81obc
Here at Home, a documentary about chronic homelessness: https://www.nfb.ca/interactive/here_at_home
Ioana is a PhD Candidate in Social Sciences at Padua University. In her research project, she is working across economic anthropology, care work, family and migration studies. The central topic of her research is the role of monetary transfers in shaping and marking intimate relations between Romanian migrants in Italy and their (extended) families in Romania.