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Integration in the margins

dinsdag 30 november 2021 23:57
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Jan Blommaert † (Tilburg University) (2016)

Translated and annotated by Jenny-Louise Van der Aa (University of Leuven, Theological University of Kampen) (2021)

The “mainstream”

We generally use the word “integration” as a singular term, representing only a single social trajectory: from “the margins” to “the center” or the mainstream. This singular use is accompanied by a representation of “society.” This again is singular – “the” society – and it is represented as a flat plane with a single center and a single margin, as if there were only one “mainstream,” and that this mainstream would be accessible to everyone in the same way.
How then? Well, the recipe is again stunning in its simplicity: in order of importance, we are given three criteria:
(a) by getting to work;
(b) by behaving according to the norms and customs of the mainstream and
(c) by learning and speaking Dutch.
These criteria are individual and absolute. Individual: each individual must “make the right choices” and “take responsibility” for these criteria; the criteria therefore provide an
individual-moralizing framework in which the behavior of individuals can be constantly assessed and condemned. They are absolute in the sense that no deviations from them are tolerated, and all three are provided with a wide range of institutional means of sanction. The primacy of work is underpinned by increasingly restrictive and punitive controls, a reduction and limitation of replacement incomes, and a powerful social and moral stigma for those who are “inactive.” The coercive norms of behavior are supported by the system of so-called community or “GAS” fines, and knowledge of Dutch is increasingly linked, as a binding condition, to access to a variety of social rights and opportunities.
The political-ideological social and cultural properties of these criteria are not questioned. The properties of “the mainstream” – productive and gainful employment, good and unobtrusive behavior in doing and thinking, and the use of Dutch – are presented as the properties of everyone. At least, they are presented as those traits that every normal citizen should possess both in reality and in aspiration. That this list of properties is specific (and thus not absolute, in the sense of “natural” or “uncontestable”) is an issue that is quickly skipped over.
However, it is clear that these characteristics have their origins in the bourgeois and middle-class behavioral ideals of classical liberalism: diligent and disciplined work, moderation in lifestyle and thought, respecting existing hierarchical roles and functions, and using the language of the nation-state are three typical characteristics of a bourgeois-liberal social human being. Rebellion, dissidence and alternative forms of lifestyle are referred to within this framework as characteristics of the undesirable other: the worker, the man from the countryside, the poor, the immigrant. They are patterns of values and behavior that belong to the conservative canon, which focuses on social, economic and political stability and homogeneity, preferring continuity and order to the restless search for change and improvement. Stability and homogeneity, we have indicated above, are strictly guarded and deviations from them punished, so that we end up with the observation made long ago by E.P Thompson – that stability, like revolution, can have its own form of terror.[1]

Plurality, stratification and fractality

The implicit image of society that we are thus handed through the concept of “integration” is one in which everyone is ideally a middle-class citizen, and in which everyone in society must and can undertake a trajectory in that direction. That trajectory is again largely institutional, and education and the labor market play a crucial role in it as instruments for mainstreaming.
That image of society is ideological; it gives a desired and politically correct image of society, and therefore has a very diffuse relationship with the actual state of society. In what follows, I focus on that actual state and not on the wishful images that circulate of it.
The actual state is one in which “the” society is a patchwork of all sorts of large and small “niches”, partly overlapping and partly closed off, therefore with completely different criteria of accessibility, never in a stable and “finished” state, and not only horizontally (syntagmatic, coexisting) but also vertically, stratified and thus hierarchically organized.

Although these niches are interwoven within a stratified system, so that there can indeed be more “central” and more “marginal” niches in terms of power and weight within the system, the various niches also have a relative autonomy – we can thus consider them as “miniature societies” which in turn form a stratified system within which more “central” and “marginal” elements can be situated.
This is fractality: distinctions that occur at one level of scale – think of the distinction between center and margin – also occur at other scales. Even within the “margin” of the larger system, one can have a “margin” and a “center,” or several such centers and margins. One can therefore be “marginal” at the margin, and one can also occupy a “central” position in that margin. To translate this into another jargon: one can be well integrated at the margin, and one can be poorly integrated at the center. And given the multitude of niches in which each individual spends his or her life – the fundamentally polycentric nature of people’s social existence – it is obvious that each of us is at the same time well and badly integrated in different niches. To keep things simple: we can be very well integrated in our work environment and very poorly integrated in our neighborhood; our daughter can be very poorly integrated in the classroom but very well integrated on the playground; we can be very experienced and act as guides to others on philately or soccer, but be stubborn novices at the cardiologist’s or insurance company’s office. And so on. Our social life takes place in a whole series of developing and changing niches within which we can take up very different positions each time and within which we travel learning trajectories.[2] And it is precisely the degree of fluency with which we move from one niche to another that makes us “social” and determines our reputations (i.e., identities) with others.
This means, then, that there are very many, and very different trajectories of “integration,” and that each of us is permanently “integrating” from some margin in a particular niche to a more central position within it. Each niche, after all, has its own system of standards and its own forms of assessment and evaluation, thereby imposing time and again specific requirements regarding entry into the “mainstream” within the niche, and is thus never a priori and self-evidently a manageable space. Our central, well-integrated position in a niche does not guarantee that we can occupy an equally central position in other niches. After all, one needs completely different forms of knowledge and competence as a schoolchild and soccer fan than as a lawyer or father, and the competences from a niche cannot be immediately exported to other niches.

An example: being integrated in poverty

Poverty is one of the key characteristics of the “margin” within the broader system we call “society.” The poor person does not have access to goods and resources that define “central” positions within that system, and therefore almost naturally finds himself in a peripheral position outside the “mainstream.” The poor person is “abnormal” within the view of man that typifies our system.
This does not alter the fact that poverty in itself is a relatively autonomous system, within which all sorts of qualitative distinctions must be made. There are poor people who are very experienced, possess particularly extensive knowledge and competence, and are able to organize their lives as poor people in a very expert manner. And there are poor who lack these crucial competencies, and thus occupy a peripheral position even within the margin.

To put it in somewhat paradoxical jargon, being poor is an extremely busy and demanding job, a more than full-time occupation with very high stress levels and great risks. Anyone entering the world of poverty as a newcomer – and there are quite a few of them in this time of economic crisis – must therefore embark on a large number of complex learning trajectories, ranging from extensive searches for cheap essential goods – food, clothing and other necessary needs – to cheap accommodation, must adopt a pattern of consumption that obeys very different laws from those of the middle class (for example, choice in consumption is an unaffordable luxury and is replaced by necessity), often ends up in an extremely complex administrative and bureaucratic world in which welfare and assistance organizations, the police and the courts, and educational and health institutions play a very important role. That defining role is supported by a huge series of administrative formalities, with large piles of forms, interviews, hearings and so on. In addition, an informal network of support and assistance must be developed so that major disasters can be avoided in extremis, or their effects mitigated.[3]
It is important to stress this: the poor are often primarily described as lacking a number of characteristics and competencies – those of the mainstream, namely. But it should not be forgotten that they must also possess a whole host of knowledge and competencies in order to be “properly” poor and, within poverty, maintain a degree of stability and predictability in their condition. These knowledge and competences hardly attract the attention of researchers and policy makers. However, they are extremely important and valuable social “skills” that play a positive and productive role in their lives.[4] Knowledge of our society is never accurate and representative when it does not pay attention to those parts of it that escape the appreciative gaze of the middle class.
Measures to combat poverty are likewise doomed to questionable relevance if they do not draw on the knowledge and experience of the poor. When those measures reflect exclusively the imaginations and ambitions of the bourgeois middle class, they risk disqualifying extremely important means of survival of the poor, and only worsen the situation of the poor. In times of increasing poverty and homelessness, for example, it is obvious that the number of squats will increase. After all, occupying vacant properties is a solution, and often a matter of life and death, for the homeless. It is only a problem for the owners of the properties, but weighing the magnitude of their problem against the importance of the solution for the homeless leads to complex moral, legal, and political dilemmas that provoke fundamental ideological choices.
What one cannot do in these kinds of dilemmatic situations is present the issue as simple, and pretend that a neutral archimedean position exists in these situations. This is not so, because although the law is on the side of the owners of the premises, one cannot avoid the objective fact that squatting is a rational and problem-solving act for the squatters, and that they perform this act in a situation that rarely involves other choices. It is squatting or sleeping on the street, with all the risks that entails. This fundamental conflict of interest cannot simply be settled “neutrally”; there will always be a winner and a loser, and this in a game with particularly high stakes. The outcome, therefore, can never be anything other than unfair.

By means of a conclusion

It is time to conclude. Abandoning totalizing and simplistic images of society in debates about issues such as “integration” is not a gratuitous thought experiment; it is a moral, social and political necessity. We need to account for the real structures and relationships in society; if we don’t, then a very large part of what we say and do about it is completely surreal and therefore useless. Measures that are taken from an illusory and politically correct image of the desired society are measures that will overshoot their essential purpose. They then serve to further institutionally underpin the politically correct image of society; not to radically change this society. Their outcome is therefore primarily ideological.
The knowledge of the actually existing society is never large and detailed enough, and often this is because we do not have sufficient intellectual resources to look and listen quickly, precisely and nuanced to what is going on in that society. Intensive and policy-oriented monitoring of society is therefore of paramount importance, and not because of an aspiration to a surveillance society, but out of an aspiration to a society that knows, understands, and respects itself. The gaps in that knowledge are the cause of enormous and persistent injustices and inequalities; therefore, those who care about this society have a duty to eliminate these gaps. This is the emancipatory duty that every enlightened and democratic citizen has.
A first step in this emancipation is to replace a totalizing image of society with a realistic, fragmented and polycentric one. In this, we assume multiple complexes of norms, rather than the dominance of a single complex of norms. Each of these normative wholes provides a logic and a rationality, a sens pratique in Bourdieu’s sense. One can make moral judgments about these various rationalities and thereby reject them, but neither can one thereby magic them away and pretend that they do not exist and have no relevance to those who wield them. The relativism that emerges from this is therefore not moral or ideological – I am not concerned with value judgments about the sens pratique that prevails in certain niches – it is ontological and empirical. One cannot “approve” or “reject” the fragmented and polycentric nature of our society – it is there, and one must deal with it in a realistic and just manner. If we want to continue to consider ourselves with any kind of seriousness as the heirs of the enlightenment, we are obligated to this form of reasonable and critical inquiry.[5]


[1] E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunters, p. 202. London: Breviary Stuff 2013 (1975). Also Merijn Oudenampsen explains how conservatism is an aggressive and sometimes violent battle ideology: “Why Neoconservatism is Conservatism,”
[2] See Jan Blommaert & Piia Varis, “Culture as Accent”, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 18, 2012; “Life projects”, Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 58, 2013.
[3] The insights formulated here are based on the one hand on my own research (see Jan Blommaert et al., Grenzen aan de Solidariteit, Ghent: Academia Press 2005) and on fieldwork conducted by
Jenny Van der Aa and Max Spotti in, respectively, a center for social work in Antwerp and an asylum center in Menen. I thank Jenny and Max for their input.
[4] This idea is obviously taken from Howard Becker, Outsiders, New York: Free Press 1963.
[5] See also Ico Maly, Jan Blommaert and Joachim Ben Yakoub, Superdiversity and Democracy, Berchem: EPO, 2014

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