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contested citizenship Arrow vol 5 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 3, 2006



Belonging, Otherness, Contestation

Ruud Koopmans, Paul Statham, Marco Giugni, Florence Passy, Contested Citizenship: Immigration and Cultural Diversity in Europe (Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).

Fiona Jenkins
Australian National University


1. Posing the question, 'why have immigration and ethnic relations become such contentious issues in Europe?', the authors of this book give a nuanced and complex answer, the value of which lies in the ways in which attention is consistently drawn to the specificities and the dynamics of a variety of national citizenship regimes. In the course of a discussion of the very different experiences of five countries, studied throughout the 1990s, we gain a sense of how the question of belonging and of otherness is politicized by migrants themselves, by mainstream politics and by both racist and anti-racist organizations within shifting, interactive and historically informed contexts. These form aspects of a 'national identity' that both shapes and is shaped by on-going contestations.  

2. The central proposal guiding the research undertaken here is that the frame within which the challenges of immigration appear as 'problematic' is closely linked to the political culture and institutions of the receiving nation. In particular, the authors seek to demonstrate, through research focused on France, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Great Britain, that great variety exists in the forms of these nations' cultural self-understanding, and thus in the ways in which they regulate access to citizenship and to political claims-making. These inflect the very terms in which the problem of the 'other' is described - whether as that of immigrants (France), of foreigners (Germany and Switzerland), of ethnic minorities (Netherlands), or of racial groups (UK) (18). Such diversity entails that the encounter of immigrants and hosts takes a different shape in ways that will depend upon how "national self-understandings and policies act as institutional and discursive constraints" (6). For instance, there are significant differences between these nations over the terms on which 'belonging' is understood that will directly influence the kinds of rights and duties that can be offered to migrants, the extent to which migrants are encouraged to orient themselves politically towards the receiving nation rather than maintaining allegiance toward the country they have left, the vehicles of political expression and means of achieving legitimacy for collective forms of claims-making etc. Equally, however, the authors are at pains to describe the experience of immigration as one that demands a redefinition and reinvention of the terms of belonging, such that changes in the terms of national identity and citizenship are an essentially political outcome - and one that is important to map on the basis of empirical evidence rather than purely theoretical presuppositions. Thus they seek to provide models of these inter- and infra-national differences as structured and dynamic conceptual spaces in which a variety of actors within the nation-state may occupy contending positions and in which the multiple factors affecting the political experience of the immigrant/host encounter as well as the resulting changes in national self-conception may be charted.

3. Without entirely ignoring socio-economic factors in the construction of immigration as a 'problem', then, the aim of the research collected here is to describe the enormously important role of the politics taking place in a public sphere that the authors analyze in terms of the activity of 'claims making'. This is in keeping with the broader thesis of the book that the attachments and exclusions constitutive of a sense of national identity (us) and of the identities of others (them) must be read as performative re-inscriptions. In valuable ways, this approach highlights at once the constructed and thus negotiable nature of collective identities and the deep structural and institutional constraints that condition the extent of change. The public sphere is a space in which immigrants may attain or fail to attain visibility, legitimacy, and resonance with other types of collective claims-making; and this in ways that are indebted to but not fully or solely dependent upon the institutional modes of recognition allocated or withheld; the political space occupied by other actors; and the broader patterns of socio-cultural identification specific to different nations.

4. The method chosen to gain an empirically based analysis of this sphere of activity involves a quantitative approach to the types of claims making by, concerning and on behalf of diverse collective actors as reported and conducted in one quality national newspaper for each of the selected nations. Although yielding interesting results this method seems to beg further critical evaluation than offered here of how the media functions to channel, exclude and shape claims-making. One risk of this focus on claims that have already achieved a degree of visibility and legitimacy is that it gives us an overly rationalistic model of politics. Certainly these analyses barely register the dimensions of affect that often seem important in this arena and may be in various ways channeled, mis-described and otherwise negotiated in their media representations. Further, no adequate qualitative account is given of how far claims-making succeeds in translating as radical 'strategic action' (opening onto the impulse to renegotiation and change) rather than simply re-enforcing, or being made to re-enforce, existing institutional norms. Although the comparative studies offer useful correctives to overly rapid interpretation of any one situation, they do not entirely substitute for a fuller political critique of the nature and efficacy of claims-making. This issue is also important in the discussion of the kinds of identity in the name of which claims are made. For instance, a discussion of the ability of illegal immigrants to mobilize politically in France under the label of 'sans-papier' ,   comments upon how this term appears within a field that favors 'status identities' in a fashion that is differentiated from other countries - where for example, the title 'asylum-seeker' might be preferred (117). But no comment is passed upon the specific politicization of this term and the way at the moment of politicization it transgresses and thus contests the dominant language of 'description'. Indeed, the measurement of "collective identities by the way in which migrant actors are described in our newspaper sources" (116) seems prone to insensitivity at this precisely this point of contestation - and yet perhaps it is that missed moment of rupture that ought to be highlighted if we follow the arguments of any of the major theorists of 'performative politics', whether Jacques Rancière or Judith Butler. The method of analyzing political claims-making adopted here explicitly aims to correct a 'protest' based account - but does it thereby miss the difficulty of qualitatively evaluating the impact of different types of strategic action by translating this simply into the number of 'hits' an issue scores in the media?

5. These methodological difficulties as well as the problematic issues of interpretation that the authors' own interestingly differentiated analyses allow us to see, might raise some questions about the book's often strong and controversial conclusions. Perhaps most striking of these is their claim that multiculturalism and segregrationist policies typically converge in practice and (inadvertently) share the result of reproducing race and ethnicity as bases for social disadvantage and discrimination. This leads the authors to endorse the shift to a more 'universalist' model as they see this unfolding in the Netherlands, a policy for migrants complete with "a course programme to facilitate their integration... into Dutch society, which encompasses Dutch language instruction and basic information about Dutch politics and culture" (15). The closeness of this with the recent proposals for a 'citizenship test' in Australia might remind us of the political ambiguities of any such move; its resonance with the value-based forms of racism that seem to be supplanting ethnic racism in the post 9/11 world; and its implicit effort to halt the necessity of on-going negotiation between those who 'belong' and those who, by their being in the midst of the nation without the entitlement to so belonging, trouble and demand the re-inscription of that term.

6. The authors describe the shifts that the selected countries underwent or undertook during the 1990s as a 'trial and error' process in which more or less impossible attachments to conceptual positions, whether that of universalism (France) or of segregationism (Switzerland and Germany) have been softened as more practical arrangements are sought. This rather pragmatic conception of political life, highlighting 'inevitable developments' (12), tends to downplay the attachment to ideological positions on national identity - which arguably are in fact increasingly rather than decreasingly important in immigration politics. Again, a great deal depends here on how one interprets the evidence offered by the authors in support of the view that all the countries they studied are moving toward a more civic-territorial rather than ethnic conception of citizenship and a more pluralist rather than assimilationist model of cultural rights (72). The practice of politics organized around these terms shows them to be enormously slippery and perhaps especially so in a world whose fears are being re-organized around a specter of terror closely linked in imagination to the figure of the alien other. The method adopted here does not allow these important dimensions of national politics much room to appear - though given what it does reveal of interest, it is also a shame that the research on which the book is based does not extend to the post 9/11 world.    

7. Of particular interest in this context is the chapter on the specificities of Muslim identity. Here too, the analysis is provocative and fascinating, but not without tensions and potential contradictions that are perhaps underplayed by the authors. This discussion is located within the broad terms of the conclusion the authors draw that 'homeland orientation' or political identification with a diasporic community does not typically depend upon any 'given' cultural orientation or disposition so much as on the ability of the receiving nation to recognize and thus integrate migrants as citizens - "strong transnational orientations turn out to be migrants' responses to traditional, exclusionary citizenship regimes that put up high barriers to migrants' access to the political community" (143). Reasonably enough, this conclusion is held to count against all the extremes of radically multiculturalist, universalist, assimilationist and segregationist policies. Muslims, however, do not quite fit this general picture and thus become a special case for study.

8. In a rather extraordinary claim the authors state that as compared to the efforts in France and the Netherlands to negotiate the 'integration' space, alternately on the basis of refusing to acknowledge (France) or over-acknowledging particularist claims (Netherlands), Britain has the advantage of "its use of race as the basis for integration policies" since the category of race "is a much more superficial - in the true sense of the word - identity than ethnicity or religion" and hence "policies against racial discrimination or facilitating migrant organization along racial lines perhaps do not bear the same risks for cultural retrenchment and social segregation as policies organized along ethno-cultural lines" (144). In response, one might remark that they are yet far from free of the risk accorded only to the ethno-cultural example, of retrenching a pattern of discrimination and disadvantage belying the 'superficiality' attributed to this identity; and further that more note needs to be taken in the normative recommendations of the study of the differences between successful social management policies and the achievement of actual social equality. Muslim identity, in any case, presents a special problem; as a religious identity, it resists the integration regime of all the countries studied - in Britain, for instance, the attempt to incorporate Muslims from the Indian sub-continent within race relations policies developed to address Caribbean blacks "has largely been a failure" (145).

9. Perhaps this should be an unsurprising result if one assumes - as the authors' own premises might suggest - that integration regimes will always have to reflect the highly specific terms of particular encounters and negotiations rather than a patronizingly one-size fits all policy. Acknowledging this (though without perhaps, again, paying sufficient attention to the tension between social management and the effort at actual political recognition) the authors go on to speculate rather more generally that as compared with the success of national integration regimes in eroding migrants' identifications with the national and ethnic categories of their original homelands, in favor of race or status identifications provided by the host regime, religious affiliation is not so easily absorbed or deflected and especially a religion requiring the high degree of public observance that is characteristic of Islam. A fascinating discussion ensues of the differences between the forms of claims-making on behalf of and against Muslim cultural rights in the countries under study, with crucial reference to the diverse histories of secularization and resolution of religious strife their constitutional arrangements reflect. But at the end of this discussion important questions seem to remain about the relative resilience of a Muslim identity that according to the premises of the study we ought not to naturalize but view as itself part of an ongoing process of re-inscription. If, as the authors suggest, claims on behalf of Muslim group rights arise not out of "cultural differences per se, but... from a specific contradiction of Islam in the liberal nation-state" (174) the question becomes how and in what sense this issue can be represented and negotiated politically - and indeed, to return to the question that has been running through my response to this book, how to evaluate the differences between a political settlement and a successful piece of social management. Although the authors state that it is better to have open political contestation over the question of being part of the national community than to have resident minorities who conceive of themselves as entirely separate from the wider civic society (yielding the useful conclusion the noises of controversy are often politically healthy) they also advocate a policy of mutual concession through encouragement of a nationally 'domesticated' Islam on the one hand and efforts to 'specifically recognize and include Islam' on the other, that risks presenting sheer incorporation as integration.

10. This is, however, a fascinating study that lends significant detail and complexity to nation-centered debates over the terms of belonging and exclusion and opens onto some hugely important contemporary issues.


Fiona Jenkins is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian National University where she teaches courses in various areas of European philosophy, feminist theory, political philosophy, and on film as philosophy. Her current research project is organized around the theme of 'ungrievable lives', taken from the recent work of Judith Butler, and used to explore contemporary questions arising from the existence of multicultural and global societies.

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