1th annual INTEGRIM Conference Immigrant Integration: Pathways, Puzzles, and Future Research Agendas December 12-13, 2013, Amsterdam


The 1st INTEGRIM conference titled “Immigrant Integration: Pathways, Puzzles, and Future Research Agendas” took place at the Felix Meritis Hall in Amsterdam on December 13, 2013. The event was organized by the Institute for Ethnic and Migration Studies (IMES) of the University of Amsterdam (UvA) within the framework of the EU-funded INTEGRIM project. INTEGRIM is an Initial Training Network of researchers connecting 8 partner universities across Europe and Middle East, and whose main objective is to investigate dynamics of international migration and integration.

Over the past twenty years, the concept of “integration” has informed much of the social scientific research on immigrant settlement in western countries. Debates have raged over whether immigrants are integrating ‘enough’, how integration varies across countries and immigrant groups, and whether the concept of ‘integration’ is too normative and nation-centered to be of much scientific use. This one-day conference examined integration by showcasing cutting edge research on immigrant incorporation and debating whether the concept is still viable for advancing our knowledge of how immigrants become part of receiving contexts.

The conference gathered a number of prominent social sciences scholars active in the field of migration and integration studies, both in Europe and elsewhere. Scholars and PhDs belonging to the INTEGRIM network took part in the event, as well as a number of researchers affiliated to different research institutions in the Netherlands. The conference was open to the public and also saw the participation of a number of bachelor and graduate students from local universities.

Morning Session

 09:00-10:30 Key Note: The challenges and opportunities of the transition to diversity in North America and Western Europe

Introduction: Floris Vermeulen (University of Amsterdam) and Professor Rinus Penninx (University of Amsterdam, Coordinator of the IMISCOE Network)

Key Note: Professor Richard Alba, Distinguished Professor of Sociology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY)

Discussant: Professor Paul Statham, Director of the Centre for Migration Research, University of Sussex

Floris Vermeulen, associate professor of the University of Amsterdam and co-organizer of the event, welcomed the conference speakers and participants, presenting the theme of the conference. He then went on to introducing Professor Rinus Penninx, who talked about the role of the IMISCOE Network – a European-wide network of scholars and research centers whose work mainly focuses on international migration and social cohesion – in supporting the INTEGRIM project and making this conference possible.

Richard Alba connected the challenge of integration in current Western societies to two principles: the principle of diversity and the principle of inequality.  Over the last three decades, western societies have undergone radical changes, especially in demographic terms. Alba pointed out that the composition of the population in the US has modified as a result of two trends: population ageing and mass immigration. On the one side, following the ‘baby boom generation’ of the 1950s and 1960s, which was predominantly white, there has been a gradual and steady decline in the fertility of the local population. On the other side, demographic decline of the white population was counterbalanced by sustained immigration flows from a number of countries. As a result, the youngest strata of the American population are now as diverse and heterogeneous as they have ever been, while immigrants or children of immigrants are likely to become the majority group of the active population over the next 20-25 years.

11:00-12:30 Panel 1: New Research Frontiers in Immigration-Integration Research

Chair: Floris Vermeulen (University of Amsterdam)


Professor Maurice Crul, Department of Sociology, Erasmus University of Rotterdam and Free University Amsterdam

Els de Graauw, Baruch College, City University of New York

Liza Mügge, University of Amsterdam

Nando Sigona, Birmingham Fellow, University of Birmingham

Maurice Crul introduced the concept of integration by presenting his project on ‘superdiversity’ in cities. Drawing on Steven Vertovec’s elaboration of the concept of superdiversity, Crul argued that modern mega-cities have become majority-minority cities – meaning, the local population is less than fifty percent of the total urban population – and places of extreme diversity under a variety of aspects (nationalities, religions, class, ethnicity, etc.). In a such a context, arguing in favor of an integration process that occurs within a society has become very problematic at the theoretical level. Crul therefore contended that a more effective approach to integration considers the way different individuals, of any background, integrate in local institutions, mainly in educational settings and in the labor market. Drawing on a cross-country study at the European level, Crul argued that formally established institutions have the power to considerably affect integration patterns of individuals within a local context, as they can potentially provide them with a number of relevant social opportunities – schooling opportunities, vocational training, professional mentoring, etc.

Els de Graauw shifted the focus back to the immigrant population, associating the concept of integration with that of empowerment – an a-cultural expansion of the social opportunities and of the formal rights of the migrants living in the host country. De Graauw showed how, in response to a long period of inaction on the part of the federal government – in theory the only one responsible for designing migration policies – state and municipal policy legislators in the US have recently started regulating migration at the local level by means of ordinances and decrees. While this has led to unprecedented levels of conflict between certain states and the central government – see the case of repressive legislations enacted by the states of California and Arizona, which were found to be unconstitutional – it has also led to growing legislative heterogeneity across the country, whereas undocumented migrants enjoy certain rights in one city or state and not in another.  Overall, de Graauw underscored the potential of this shift in migration policy-making, describing a number of positive cases, including large cities such as San Francisco or Los Angeles, where rights of undocumented migrants were significantly expanded in spite of a more restrictive national legislation.

Liza Mügge approached the issue of integration by placing it in the context of transnational migration and transnational political engagement of migrant communities. On the one hand, migrant communities with strong ties to the homeland are often accused by host country institutions of lacking the will to properly ‘integrate’ into the receiving society. On the other hand, when they do engage at the political level they are often suspected of having double political allegiances. By drawing on her study of the Turkish and Surinames migrant groups in theNetherlands, Mügge argued that the degree of openness of the institutional system, both in the sending and in  receiving countries, is crucial to determine the level of access to political opportunities on the part of migrant communities.

Nando Sigona returned to Vertovec’s concept of superdiversity, arguing that diversity may be declined in three different ways: diversity as a policy and system of governance; diversity as a narrative and counter-narrative; diversity  as a social fact. Drawing on the case of the UK, Sigona challenged the concept of integration by pointing out to the ‘vanishing core effect’ – the idea that a growing super-diversity is changing a set of cultural assumptions about British society which were, until not long ago, considered as fixed (see the example of native British speakers of Indian or Pakistani origin vs. white non-native speakers of Eastern European origin). Another important point made by Sigona called into question the role of institutions in promoting integration, as other types of social structures – namely informal networks of solidarity or assistance – would seem to play a much more relevant role in driving the incorporation of people in a given context. The main question, according to Sigona, can then be reformulated in terms of where people decide to integrate into.

Afternoon Session 

13:30-15:00 Key Note: Immigrant Selectivity and Integration

Introduction: Floris Vermeulen (University of Amsterdam)

Key Note: Professor Min Zhou, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and University of California Los Angeles

Discussant: Sebastien Chauvin, University of Amsterdam

Professor Min Zhou introduced the topic of integration comparing two classical theories in the field – straight-line assimilation theory and segmented assimilation theory. Min Zhou criticized the idea of a linear pattern of assimilation of migrant communities into a so-called ‘middle-class wasp core’, arguing that such a theory assumes, on the one hand the superiority of a white culture to which anyone supposedly seeks to adhere, on the other the idea that any migrant community is eventually destined to experience upward mobility as it will gain access to the necessary cultural, social, economic and political resources.

Unlike this theory, Min Zhou argues that integration of migrant communities in the American society is not necessarily linear. Different ethnic communities, as well as different groups within each community integrate into different strata of the American society. Straight-line assimilation theory fails to see that migrant communities also reflect, among and within themselves, class, cultural and social differences which eventually enable them to access different types of resources. By drawing on her study of the Chinese and Korean communities, which are considered ‘model minorities’ for the economic success they enjoyed over the last decades in the American society, Min Zhou showed that such ethnic groups relied on a combination of group-specific resources (ethnic networks of assistance, strong work ethics, creation of ethnic economic enclaves) and of a ‘selective acculturation’ from the white middle class (the importance of education, of going to the ‘right’ university) in order to achieve a high socio-economic status. On the contrary, other groups, such as for example certain Latino community, failed to follow a similar pattern of incorporation within the American society, with the result that a large share of them did not integrate into US upper-middle classes, but rather in the lower classes.

Min Zhou acknowledged that the outcome of such processes is very complex and does not have only cultural determinants. The social structures of the sending and receiving countries, as well as the structure of their labor markets is crucial in directing, attracting and incorporating different categories of migrants into the host societies. In this sense, the process of segmented assimilation here described may in fact reinforce class and social status differences that were already present in the country of origin. Min Zhou also argued that diversity, especially at the neighborhood level, is not necessarily desirable nor a precondition for upward mobility of migrant communities. To this respect, she used the concept of institutional completeness – here defined as a ‘set of neighborhood-based formal and informal institutions which satisfy all the needs of the members of a given community’, ranging from public institutions to non-profit organizations, from ethnic businesses to religious organizations – to explain how certain segregated economic Asian enclaves in L.A. were able to flourish despite all odds. All in all, Min Zhou urged researchers to pay attention to different types of social interactions so as to grasp the complexity and contradictions of diverse micro-social environments, such as mixed neighborhoods: relations between co-ethnics of the same class; relations between co-ethnics of different classes; relations between non co-ethnics of the same class; relations between non co-ethnics of different classes.

Sébastian Chauvin praised the great relevance of Min Zhou’s work on integration and segmented assimilation. Accordingly, its greatest merit has been not to ask the question of whether migrants groups integrate in receiving societies, but rather of asking in which specific segment of society they do. Such theoretical contribution, whose development was initiated over twenty years ago, is still highly relevant today, especially in consideration of the growing social inequalities within American society and of the increasing ‘ghettoization’ of a number of different groups, including African Americans and Latinos. At the same time,  Min Zhou’s work also shed a different light on the issue of ethnic segregation, thus calling for a more critical understanding of the causes and effects of such a complex social process.

15:30-17:30 Panel 2: Re-thinking Integration and Immigration as Basic Concepts

Chair: Walter Nicholls (University of Amsterdam)


Professor Willem Schinkel, Department of Sociology, Erasmus University of Rotterdam

Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas GRITIM – Department of Political and Social Sciences of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Barcelona

Professor Michael S. Merry, Department of Education, University of Amsterdam

Bowen Paulle, Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of Amsterdam

Walter Nicholls introduced the theme of the session, that is the question of whether the concept of integration may still be considered theoretically suitable for the social sciences. He then went on to presenting the speakers of this panel.

Professor Willem Schinkel drew on his work on integration research to provide a strong critique of the concept of integration itself. Schinkel criticized the concept for being intrinsically normative. A whole set of cultural assumptions is a-critically made by researchers when attempting to measure the level of integration of ‘outsiders’ within a given society. In fact, the very notion of society in this field of research is problematic, as it implies the existence of a more or less homogeneous and cohesive social environment in which only certain types of people – namely foreigners, migrants, etc. – need to integrate. In fact, integration of such people in western societies is often measured according to standards that are far from being culturally neutral or theoretically unproblematic, such as their degree of secularism or their adherence to supposed ‘modern’ values. According to Schinkel, the concept of integration is strongly politically charged, and has so far been used by academics for the purpose of prescription rather than description. In this sense, Schinkel argued that such a concept is analytically flawed and should be replaced, although such attempts have so far been unsuccessful (see, for example the shift from ‘integration’ to ‘socio-cultural position’).

In her intervention, Blanca Garcés-Mascareñas referred to the difference between incorporation and integration of migrants in western societies. Drawing on the work conducted in collaboration with Sébastien Chauvin, Garcés-Mascareñas argued in favor of using the term ‘incorporation’ to describe the multilayered process through which migrants, especially undocumented ones, enter and settle (often very temporarily) in receiving societies. While migrants are usually effectively incorporated in the economic system, they are excluded to varying degrees from formal civic and citizenship rights, so that they remain in a state of precariousness, vulnerability and of overall subordinated incorporation. The concept of integration, on the contrary, should  be seen as the key element of what Garcés-Mascareñas and Chauvin have termed the ‘moral economy of illegality’, that is as a pre-condition that outsiders need to satisfy in order to be able to claim full incorporation within a society (access to citizenship, for example). Integration, going back to Schinkel’s argument, acquires a very normative meaning and demands all outsiders to conform to a certain set of values in order to show their ‘civic deservingness’.

Professor Michael S. Merry, to his turn, stated that integration is a highly contested concept. He criticized ‘integrationism’, here considered as an ideology, for that it carries a whole set of assumptions that are intrinsically problematic. Merry described such assumptions in relation to the educational setting: 1) ethnic minority concentrations in schools are inherently problematic; 2) choice policies aggravate segregation in schools; 3) spatial mixing in schools should be an imperative. Such assumptions, according to Merry, reflect in fact the idea that segregation is always negative, and that ‘integration’ in schools is necessary to foster equality – i.e. equality of social and cultural capital (by mixing privileged and less privileged kids), equality of social status (by mixing kids from different ethnic backgrounds stereotypes and discrimination will disappear). However, Merry argued that school policies based on these assumptions have failed to produce the expected results, oftentimes worsening the situation of the kids who were already worse-off. Very much in tune with Min Zhou’s remark on ethnic segregation, Merry therefore urged scholar to reject integrationism as a dogma, rather to recognize and critically assess the existence of involuntary as well as voluntary patterns of segregation and insulation.

Bowen Paulle also strongly criticized the concept of integration, arguing that the concept is impossible to define and provides no real analytical insight. Paulle went on to criticizing a number of related concepts used in the social sciences – society, class, gender, ethnic community, migrant group – which, according to him, have so far failed to explain social reality while arbitrarily fitting people into preconceived boxes. Paulle contended that ‘groupism’ – that is the tendency to explain individual behavior in relation to the social group to which a person supposedly belong – should in fact be critically revised, and called for the development of a new methodological language to revitalize the social sciences. In response to a question from the audience, Paulle acknowledged that it would be difficult to do completely without such concepts, and that he did not mean to discard them, but he also hinted that the contribution of previous speakers should be seen as the beginning of this process of reform.