Dissecting the relationship between integration and ‘Britishness’

According to the recently published State of the Nation Report, by think-tank British Future, a majority of the British public “reject the idea that a shared society must demand cultural assimilation”. Instead those surveyed understood “respect for the law, for the freedom of speech, and the ability to speak English” to be the foundations for being British[i]. However, what struck me when reading the section of the report which talks about integration, was the underlying assumption that being British and being integrated are effectively the same thing. The two themes regularly crop up together in academic and public writing, but integration and Britishness are two different things.

 Integration is used by academics, politicians and the media, as well as the general public, to mean a variety of different things. In the context of migration integration is basically about immigrants ‘fitting in’, however, there is great debate and uncertainty about what counts as ‘fitting in’ and about whose responsibility it is that migrants do so. In academic definitions, integration is defined as a two-way process involving compromise and adaptation on both sides. There are a range of theories and typologies of integration, for example, Friedrich Heckmann’s typology which breaks the process down into four separate, but overlapping, ‘spheres’:

  1. Structural integration – the acquisition of rights and status within the core institutions of the host society: employment, housing, education, health services, political and citizenship rights
  2. Cultural integration (or acculturation) – the cognitive, behavioural and attitudinal change of immigrants and their descendants in conformity to the norms of the host society
  3. Interactive integration – social intercourse, friendship, marriage and membership of various organisations
  4. Identificational integration – feelings of belonging, expressed in terms of allegiance to ethnic, regional, local and national identity.

(Heckmann 2005:13-15 quoted in King and Skeldon, 2005:1634-5)

How well an immigrant integrates within each of these spheres will be dependent on their motivation yes, but also on their access to opportunities and the limitations imposed on them by the host society (for example, as a result of discrimination).

Academic definitions which understand integration as an interactive process taking place over time between migrants and the ‘host’ society are not used by the vast majority of people. In fact, several academics have suggested that political and everyday uses of the term often have more in common with ‘assimilation’ (a one-way process in which migrants become increasingly similar to the host population)[ii]. By discussing integration as effectively assimilation, the diversity and complexity is reduced with the emphasis placed heavily on the cultural sphere of integration. It is this line of thinking which leads to the common, yet misplaced assumption that integration is about migrants becoming ‘like us’, ‘becoming British’.

A migrant can integrate without being British. From a pragmatic viewpoint, it may seem sensible that becoming British in the sense of taking up British citizenship would help a migrant integrate, purely from the fact that it gives the migrant the stability and certainty that they can settle without the risk of deportation. However, this can generally be achieved through the granting of Indefinite Leave to Remain[iii]. Nonetheless, immigrants can be structurally integrated without ‘being British’. They can have jobs, attend schools, own homes and vote (with restrictions). Similarly, an immigrant can have friendships, marry and participate in social life without ‘being British’. They can even feel a sense of belonging and allegiance to their new environment without having to ‘be British’. It is horrifically Euro-centric to assume that migrants will want to be ‘like us’ and become ‘British’. Can they not live here and be one of us, an integrated part of our society, without being British?

Of course there is more to nationality than citizenship or passports. Nationality is an important social and cultural identity and it is on this aspect that the British Future report is focused – it is interesting to note that citizenship was not even listed as a possible answer to the question about what constitutes Britishness in Question 13i.  If integration is about ‘being British’ – in an identificational or cultural sense – then is not being ‘British’ a sign of poor integration? There pressure for immigrants (and British citizens of migrant descent) to identify with ‘Britishness’, evidenced by the introduction of Britishness tests and citizenship ceremonies, and yet reducing deprivation and providing a welcome to migrants are arguably more important for integration.

Identifying with ‘Britishness’ is not as simple as it seems anyway, and research has shown that people are able to hold multiple, overlapping and even contradictory identities all at once. These identities may come to the fore differently at different times and in different spaces but they still make up the individual. Thus, it is not a simple matter of being British or not, migrants (and non-migrants) may feel varying levels of affiliation with Britain at the same time as feeling connected elsewhere. And why is the emphasis also on nationality when it comes to integration? Is it not possible for migrants to be integrated as women, as children, as sports fans, as workers? What makes national identity more important than any of these things?

Regardless of the definitional challenges of working with the concept, integration continues to be the subject of government reports and speeches. Integration remains closely tied up with ideas of nationhood and national identity yet being integrated and being British are not the same. Political debates, social commentary and even ‘reality’ television shows which suggest that ‘Britishness’ fosters successful integration simplify the complex and on-going process of migrant integration which occurs in real, everyday life across a number of spheres. Identities are important but they are not all that is. Besides, there is nothing specifically ‘national’ about the apparent foundations of Britishness (respect for the law and freedom of speech).

Assuming that developing a British identity is the pathway to successful integration, and that this is easy to do, is not necessarily incorrect. Nevertheless, it is crucial to recognise the assumptions we make when talking about migrants and to consider the implications of those assumptions. Using ‘Britishness’ as a benchmark against which integration is judged risks diluting the true, everyday significance of the concept and the real-world integration of migrants in the structures, institutions and social world of modern Britain and potentially alienating migrants who retain links to a previous home.

Further Reading

British Future (January 2013) State of the Nation: Where is Bittersweet Britain Heading?; London

ETHNOS (November 2005) Citizenship and Belonging: What is Britishness?; Commission for Racial Equality, London

Hickman, M., Crowley, H. and Mai, N. (2008) Immigration and social cohesion in the UK: The rhythms and realities of everyday life; Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York

Modood, T. (2005) Remaking multiculturalism after 7/7; OpenDemocracy.net

Spencer, S. (March 2011) Policy Primer: Integration; Migration Observatory, Oxford.


[i] Question 13 in the polling data asked “Which of the following, if any, would you say are the most important for being British?” Responses given were as follows:

Respect for people’s right to free speech, even if you don’t agree with them 50%
Respect for the law                                                                                                                      46%
Speaking English                                                                                                                          41%
Treating men and women equally                                                                                          38%
Respect for all ethnic backgrounds                                                                                        29%
Respect for all faiths                                                                                                                26%
Being born here                                                                                     26%
Voting in elections                                                                                                                   21%
Being Christian                                                                                                                      7%
Being white                                                                                                                                6%
Other 1%
Nothing                                                                                                                                    3%
Don’t know                                                                                                                          5%

[iii] UKBA defines Indefinite Leave to Remain as “permission to remain in the UK without any time restrictions on the length of stay. It is not the same as naturalisation as a British citizen and may, in specific circumstances, be ceased or invalidated, for example, if a fraudulent application is uncovered, if the person resides outside of the UK for more than 2 years or as a result of a criminal conviction that results in a Deportation Order coming into force”.


  1. […] facto status, there is no law that sets English as the national language of Americans.  However, like the United Kingdom, “upwards of 90% of American believe that one must speak English to be an American” (Hopkins, […]


  2. […] return to values assumes that developing a British identity is the pathway to successful integration and is symptomatic of a wider “return to assimilation”, based on the idea that “enough is […]


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