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About us Faculty of Religion, Culture and Society Organization Staff PhD Research Comparative Study of Religion

Saara Toukolehto

“Even if I do things perfectly, I can never become ‘German’”: The paradox of immigrant integration in post-“refugee crisis” Berlin

In the past two decades, in particular after the arrival of an estimated 80,000 refugees in Berlin, Germany during the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, the Berlin Senate has directed significantly more funds to integration measures, and outlined guidelines for promoting successful integration such as language learning and integration to the job market. Additionally, integration discourses have emphasised shared democratic “core values and rules” that have to be accepted by immigrants.

Through ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2018-2019, in this doctoral dissertation I investigate different emic conceptualisations of integration and the kinds of practices and reactions these have provoked in the grassroots contexts of inner-city Berlin.

While the word integration seemed to be on everyone’s lips, the question “what does integration really mean?” was often posed by individuals targeted by integration measures as well as other stakeholders in one way or another related to the field of integration. Many of my interlocutors saw integration as an ambiguous and ambivalent concept, not least because of its seemingly paradoxical nature that labelled people as immigrants through a growing demand for integration, thus reinforcing the very category of outsideness that integration is ostensibly meant to diminish.

The two main case studies are:

  1. A Neighbourhood Mothers integration Programme that targets particularly Muslim women and represents one of the most long-lasting integration measures in the city. It is based on a peer-to-peer format in which immigrant women are trained to do integration work in their local communities.
  2. A grassroots Neighbourhood Initiative spontaneously formed by active Berliners in order to support disenfranchised groups, asylum seekers and refugees in particular, and to provide a creative platform where people from different backgrounds can come together and ‘learn from each other’.

Both of the case studies, while fundamentally different and in some respects even opposing, rely on a notion of ‘from us to us’. In this respect, the analysis explores how refugees and immigrants already settled in the city were engaging in activities of ‘giving something back to society’ often making use of their embodied knowledge that I call ‘immigrant expertise’. This type of knowledge was seen as increasingly valuable and important in the official contexts of integration policy-making as well as amongst grassroots movements.

Instead of using existing theories about immigrants’ integration trajectories, their processes of acculturation, or theoretical notions of socialisation, in the analytical discussion, I make use of structural anthropological theory from scholars such as Sahlins, Dumont and Robbins. I focus on investigating sociocultural change and continuity through identifying cultural categories and values and the dynamic and shifting relations between them. Through ethnographic analysis, I suggest that the 2015 “crisis” can be conceptualised as an event of great sociocultural significance that resulted in a peak of integration as an idea ultimately culminating in a further shift towards a politics of participation that has come to challenge the language and practice of integration in the city. This paradigm shift reflects more fundamental changes in core ontological categories such as society, 'Germanness’ and belonging and presents a concrete example of how change and continuity are mutually constitutive.

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Last modified:12 June 2023 8.32 p.m.