A Whole-of-Community Approach to Integration. Initial steps into the research

Andrea Pettrachin

Post-doctoral research fellow at the Collegio Carlo Alberto, Turin.

Whole-COMM is a new Horizon 2020 project which aims to study integration policies targeting post-2014 migrants in small and medium-sized towns and rural areas. 

The team based at the Collegio Carlo Alberto which is coordinating the Whole-COMM research project has just published the working paper “A whole-of-community approach to study post-2014 migrants’ integration in small and medium-sized towns and rural areas. State of the art, concepts, theory and methodology. The paper describes the rationale for the project, its theoretical and analytical approach, key concepts and the methodology. In this blog we briefly describe some highlights of this more extensive work, and the key features of this new research project.


Why is this research timely ? 

Immigrant integration is an increasingly salient issue in contemporary Europe and beyond. And the recent Afghan crisis suggests that it will  remain a salient issue in the near future. While we know a lot about integration policies and processes in big cities thanks to growing scholarship in political science and sociology on local integration policymaking, during the so-called 2015 European ‘refugee crisis’ European governments implemented national redistribution plans that dispersed thousands of asylum seekers and refugees to small and medium-sized towns and rural areas. Six years later it is time to explore the integration policies developed and implemented in these localities since 2015, their outcomes, but also the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on these dynamics.


Why another research project on local migrant integration policies and how is Whole-COMM different from the existing scholarship?

In the working paper we conduct an in-depth review of the existing literature on local integration policies and integration outcomes, arguing that it suffers from some important limitations, which Whole-COMM aims to address. 

At the theoretical level, most existing research is (implicitly or explicitly) informed by a view of integration as a ‘two-way process’, i.e. as a process of mutual adjustment or adaptation between migrants and the receiving society. This approach has been criticized for failing to provide a realistic picture of the dynamics taking place within local communities. It is particularly problematic when applied to policy analysis, insofar as it assumes ‘mutual adjustment’ to be the main goal of integration policies, while integration policymaking processes can be influenced by a variety of factors and purposes

At the empirical level, most of the existing research focuses on big metropolitan areas. To the best of our knowledge no rigorous cross-country/cross-locality comparison has been conducted that targets ordinary small and medium-sized towns and rural areas. This ‘urban bias’ might explain the tendency of much of the existing literature to regard local migration policies as inclusive and pragmatic, despite the few existing works that focused on towns and rural areas showing that local policies can also take exclusionary approaches

At the methodological level, the link between local integration policies and the effects of such policies – or local integration outcomes more broadly – remains largely unexplored


What do we mean by integration?

Aware of the many critiques raised towards the very concept of integration we have nevertheless decided to keep using this label to connect with existing scholarly and policy debates. However, our working paper redefines the concept of integration, moving beyond the problematic ‘two-way’ definition but also the so-called whole-of-society approach, which largely overlooks the local level. We therefore propose to redefine integration as a community-making process with three key characteristics. First, it is a ‘situated process’ that takes place in local contexts characterised by different local economies and labour markets, demographic trends and previous experiences with socio-cultural diversity. Second, it is brought about by the interaction of multiple actors, with multiple (and multilevel) relations, networks, interests and resources. Third, its outcomes are open-ended, and do not necessarily correspond to increased social cohesion or ‘mutual adjustment’ between migrants and the local community. We specifically aim to assess these ‘(dis)integration’ outcomes by empirically assessing three key dimensions of local communities’ quality of social life: reciprocal attitudes between different groups within local communities; social interactions between such groups; and migrants’ modes of interaction with the local community’s institutions, support organizations and markets.


What are our key research questions?

The project asks two key questions. First, how do the various actors whose actions affect local communities decide, implement and/or act upon immigrant integration policies in different types of small and medium-sized towns and rural areas? Second, how – i.e. through which causal mechanisms and processes – do local policies and other outputs of integration governance systems contribute to producing different outcomes in terms of local communities’ ‘quality of social life’, across different types of small and medium-sized towns and rural areas

As the first question suggests, the project is innovative compared to existing research in that we focus on actors – situated within specific socioeconomic, cultural and political environments – over institutions. Notably, we aim to move beyond a narrow focus on policies to look at the intersections between policies and other responses of local integration governance systems, i.e. the levels of politicisation within local communities, the structures of support developed by civil society and the private sector, local practices related to policy implementation, but also local frames and actors’ relations within multilevel governance systems

The second question leads us to explore the thus-far understudied effects of local policies and the links between the responses of integration governance systems to the arrival of post-2014 migrants and local integration outcomes. 

Furthermore, as the diagram below suggests, our analysis will specifically aim to disentangle the effects of the recent pandemic on these dynamics. 

Which methods will we use?

To explore our research questions, we develop a complex comparative research design, which combines a range of qualitative and quantitative methods. We will explore our first research question by relying on semi-structured interviews, analyses of policy documents and a structured survey to explore actors’ relations within the multilevel governance system. To explore our second research question – and building on the findings generated during the first part of the research – we will apply participant observation, focus groups, quasi-experiments to assess the impact of policies and a survey to assess public attitudes. 


How did we select our cases?

To the best of our knowledge, Whole-COMM is the first large cross-country/cross-locality comparative study on local integration policies, covering 49 localities across 10 different countries. Crucially, our case-selection procedure has been rigorously theory-driven. We have first identified several variables of interest, related to the localities’ socioeconomic context (the unemployment rate), demographic trends (the change in the number of inhabitants), their experience with immigration (the share of foreign residents), the locality’s size (we distinguish between medium-sized towns, small-sized towns and rural areas), the parties in government (we broadly distinguish between progressive and conservative local governments), and geographic position (aiming to select localities that are broadly representative of key within-country variations). We therefore created a grid with the aim of maximising the number of possible combinations between these variables, which guided the selection of the specific case-localities within each of our 10 case countries. While the names of the selected localities will not be disclosed to protect the anonymity of our interviewees, the map below shows the regions that will be covered during our fieldwork. 

What are our key expectations?

Overall, the project’s aim is not that of testing hypotheses but rather that of generating hypotheses. This does not mean that we do not have expectations about the dynamics and processes that will be assessed during our fieldwork. We generally hypothesise that the socioeconomic context and the experience of localities with cultural diversity influence the responses of local governance systems – and local policymakers in particular – to the challenges posed by the integration of post-2014 migrants. For instance, we expect that in better-off or revitalising localities local governments will be more proactive in developing inclusive integration policies while in left-behind localities the integration issue is expected to be more politicised and responses are expected to be more fragmented. At the same time we expect other factors to influence the responses of governance systems, such as the presence of grassroots mobilisations, the role of community leaders and mayors specifically. As to the integration outcomes produced by policies and other responses at the local level, again we do expect them to vary across different contexts, depending, for instance, on the employment opportunities available, but also on the presence and mobilisation of different actors and networks. 

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