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Journal of Anthropology
ISSN: 0014-1844 (Print) 1469-588X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/retn20
Writing Against Integration: Danish Imaginaries of
Culture, Race and Belonging
To cite this article: Mikkel Rytter (2018): Writing Against Integration: Danish Imaginaries of
Culture, Race and Belonging, Ethnos, DOI: 10.1080/00141844.2018.1458745
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2018.1458745
© 2018 The Author(s). Published by Informa
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Published online: 04 Apr 2018.
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Writing Against Integration: Danish Imaginaries of
Culture, Race and Belonging
Aarhus University, Denmark
The article addresses some of the problems related to the concept of integration, which
has been used (and abused) in Denmark since the 1990s to discuss socio-economic,
cultural and religious challenges related to the everyday life of ethnic minorities.
The concept of integration is not innocent but promotes both a specific
conceptualisation of Danish society and a problematisation of immigrant minorities
and their relationship to the indigenous majority. Based on the ethnographic studies
conducted in Denmark in recent decades, the article attempts to disentangle the
dominant social imaginary by outlining three scenarios: ‘welfare reciprocity’,‘host and
guests’and ‘the Danes as an indigenous people’. These scenarios consolidate an
asymmetrical relationship between majorities and minorities because they
simultaneously cast integration as desirable and impossible. Finally, inspired by Lila
Abu-Lughod’s seminal article ‘writing against culture’, the article suggests strategies of
‘writing against integration’in order to regain the critical potential of academic analysis.
KEYWORDS Social imaginary; integration; nationalism; Denmark; majority-minority; muslims
One of the major challenges when working with ethnography ‘at home’, where you
share (in general terms) the language, values and conceptual framework of your infor-
mants, is to create a distance between emic and etic concepts
or what Brubaker calls a
distinction between ‘categories of practice’and ‘categories of analysis’(2012). This chal-
lenge may be even more severe when working in the politicised field of immigration.
Ideally, there should be a vast difference between emic categories used in popular dis-
course and etic concepts used in academic analysis. However, the concept of integration
often seems to be used more or less uncritically on both levels.
This conflation means
not only that academic analysis risks losing its critical potential, but also that the analy-
sis itself tends to become an active element in the stigmatisation of vulnerable ethnic
and religious minorities. Ultimately, uncritical use of the concept of integration in aca-
demic writings may re-enforce and even widen the asymmetrical power structures that
© 2018 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives
License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/), which permits non-commercial re-use, distribution, and reproduc-
tion in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, and is not altered, transformed, or built upon in any way.
CONTACT Mikkel Rytter email@example.com
it was intended to describe, analyse and understand in the first place. This article dis-
cusses some of the problematic aspects and effects of the concept of integration, as it has
figured in indigenous Danish cultural worlds and academic writings over the last three
decades and ends up suggesting concrete strategies for how to write against integration.
Anthropologist Paul Bohannon once declared that: ‘culture is loose on the streets!’
(Wikan 2002: 79). He was referring to the fact that culture was no longer a prerogative
of anthropologists (or other social scientists) but had taken on a life of its own and now
seemed to appear in all kinds of popular and political discourses outside academia. The
result was (is) that the concept of culture to a large extent has lost its analytical signifi-
cance. However, a more negative consequence of the de-territorialisation of culture
beyond academic discourse is that the concept has been used and abused to promote
and legitimise political arguments about national mobilisation and ethnic segregation
in the guise of ‘new racism’(Barker 1981)or‘cultural fundamentalism’(Stolcke
1995). Much similar, one could say that: ‘integration is loose on the streets’. The
concept that used to be –and sometimes still is –an important etic concept in social
theory (such as structural functionalism or transactionalism) has become an emic
concept used in the media and by the general public and politicians to address specific
minorities and their more or less unsatisfactory ways of being and belonging in particu-
Denmark has a population of approximately 5.7 million. Even though an estimated
9% of this population in 2016 had an immigrant background (Danmarks Statistik 2016:
11), Denmark is often referred to as a mono-cultural nation-state with a very hom-
ogenous population in terms of parameters like ethnicity, language and religion (Hede-
toft 2006). Since the 1990s, the concept of integration has not only described societal
challenges related to everyday life among the growing population of immigrants
(various groups of migrants and refugees), but also created problems. In the Danish
public, the concept of integration implies a specific kind of ‘problematisation’(Bacchi
2012), with the identification of problems among (especially Muslim) immigrants –
and with immigration as such –already implying specific solutions.
In this respect,
talk of and demands for integration in public and political discourse rest on, produce
and reproduce specific ideas of the society, the state, the nation and the relationship
between majorities and minorities. The political philosopher Charles Taylor has
suggested that such encompassing, fundamental ideas about self and the wider social
world should be called ‘social imaginaries’. Taylor explains:
By social imaginary, I mean something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes
people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking,
rather, of the ways people imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how
things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations that are normally met, and the
deeper normative notions and images that underlie these expectations. (2004: 23)
Embedded in speciﬁc Danish social imaginaries about the nation and the welfare state,
selves and others, us and them, the concept of integration is not innocent, but simul-
taneously reﬂects and promotes speciﬁc constructions of social problems and solutions
and an asymmetrical relationship between majorities and minorities.
In general, this article explores how and with what consequences the concept of inte-
gration has been loose on the streets of Denmark for more than three decades. I’m not
only interested in how the concept of integration works and has power effects on the
level of discourse, but will also try to disentangle aspects of the common Danish
social imaginaries about society, welfare state and nation that make the notion of inte-
gration so problematic. Basically, integration promotes specific imaginaries of culture,
race and belonging that often disqualify Muslim immigrants per se and cast them as
inferior and suspect.
The argument presented here is based on my personal experiences and unease with
the concept of integration after more than a decade of doing ethnographic research
among Pakistani Muslim immigrant families in Denmark (see Pedersen & Rytter
2006,2011; Rytter 2010,2011,2012,2013,2016,2017,in press; Rytter & Pedersen
2014). The argument is also based on a number of thorough qualitative studies con-
ducted among migrants and refugees in Denmark in general.
I start by discussing the workings and effects of the concept of integration as an emic
concept in Danish discourse, and how the concept has been used differently over the
years since it was first introduced in the mid-twentieth century. Then I discuss a
cluster of recent studies of the Danish welfare state and majority population in order
to outline three aspects or scenarios of the social imaginary, which I call ‘Welfare reci-
procity’,‘Host and guests’and ‘The Danes as an indigenous people’. In all three scen-
arios, integration seems to reproduce asymmetries and radical otherness rather than
providing a neutral description of social processes and possibilities of the Danish immi-
Finally, inspired by Lila Abu-Lughod’s seminal article ‘writing against culture’
(1991), I outline some strategies of ‘writing against integration’. Researchers, politicians
and journalists all over Europe who are involved in integration talk may learn a thing or
two from the past three decades of Danish experiences concerning the effects and con-
sequences of the concept of integration. The article is a humble attempt to reinstall a
difference between emic and etic discourses, so that anthropological analysis –and
social theory in general –can regain their critical potential in these regards.
Integration –A Concept that Is ‘exceptionally unclear’
The concept of integration appears in numerous European languages and ‘continues to
be controversial and hotly debated’(Castles et al.2003: 3.1.1). Anthropologist Grillo
calls integration a‘fuzzy concept’with multiple interpretations (2011: 266). This fuzzi-
ness is not only evident within local contexts and specific debates but is also due to the
fact that the term integration is used differently and means different things in public and
political discourses in, say, France, Germany, Britain or Denmark.
gration is part of the vocabulary of the nation-state’(Sayad 2004: 216ff), since the
concept is based on and promotes specific perspectives on the nation, immigration
and the relationship between majorities and minorities. In short, integration is
always embedded in specific national social imaginaries and must be approached and
studied as such.
Zooming in on Denmark, sociologist Morten Ejrnæs has stated that the meaning of
the concept of integration is no less than ‘exceptionally unclear’(enestående uklart)
(Ejrnæs 2002: 7). No matter how many parameters are introduced in the social diagno-
sis of integration, enough is never enough. Integration may refer to anything from social
integration in certain neighbourhoods or educational institutions to economic inte-
gration understood as participation in the labour market; political integration seen as
participation in general elections and local associations; and cultural integration
measured by the extent to which immigrants and refugees have maintained traditions,
identity or notions of belonging connected with their first homeland. These are just
some of the many ways in which the concept of integration can be used in (more or
less) meaningful conversations to compare the everyday life, practices and beliefs of
immigrants and religious minorities to that of the majority populations. Despite the
unclear definition, integration has become a common political ambition and desirable
imagined horizon in Denmark over recent decades (Olwig & Pærregaard 2011).
The Danish emic concept of integration is influenced by ‘methodological national-
ism’(cf. Wimmer & Glick Schiller 2003), since it promotes a vision of society resem-
bling a cup of soup, with newcomers being expected to blend in and dissolve as fast
as possible. By eliminating their cultural idiosyncrasies, the immigrant others should
blend into the broad Danish middle class and become invisible in the statistics. The
ongoing measurement and evaluation of integration is based on quantitative surveys
of various quality and national statistics. The logic of numbers is straightforward: if
the statistics of immigrants, for instance, in relation to school performances, partici-
pation at the labour market or age of marriage, over time seems to be closing the gap
between them and the average Danish population, they are said to be in a process of
becoming integrated. However, you do not have to be a professor in statistics to see
how such numbers can be manipulated by rearranging or adjusting the content of
the groups studied. The way in which the soup model relies on different statistical par-
ameters when comparing immigrant minorities to Danish majorities exposes the
absurdity of the emic concept of integration. Let me give two examples:
Recent years have shown that some immigrant groups (for instance, the Vietnamese,
Iranians and Pakistanis) are benefitting from the free Danish educational system and
manage to help their children to gain a university degree. Actually, many immigrant
families experience a vast social mobility. Especially young women are doing well.
Surveys even show that in some areas young immigrant women are performing
better than the average national peer group.
Here the emic notion of integration
becomes absurd: no-one would claim that educated immigrant women, due to their
success in the educational system, are more integrated than their peers in the general
Explanations of such successful integration also differ. Some years ago, the media ran
a story of the high rate of students with Pakistani parents studying medicine. A student
counsellor at the University of Copenhagen was quoted in a newspaper, explaining the
pattern as the result of a patriarchal structure in Muslim Pakistani families, where the
children are forced to study hard by their parents (Rytter 2011). In this way, the appar-
ent success became yet another example of non-integrated, problematic Muslim
immigrant families. The case exemplifies the Sisyphean task facing immigrants when it
comes to integration –they have to keep trying, but enough is never enough.
A second example of the absurdity of integration is the way the concept is used in
relation to marriage practices among immigrant groups. In January, 2013 several
Danish newspapers reported from a study conducted by researchers from SFI −The
Danish National Centre for Social Research that documented how divorce rates
among immigrant groups, especially among the approximately 60,000 Turkish immi-
grants, were rising dramatically.
The exploding numbers of divorces were presented
as an indication of how the so-called second-generation Turkish immigrants had
become more integrated into Danish society. Now their marriages and families were
almost as unstable and fragile as the average Danish family, where divorce rates are
also high. In short, failed marriage became yet another indicator of successful inte-
gration and was interpreted as a sign of a rising generation of independent youngsters
from a Turkish background who no longer accepted patriarchal power structures and
the archaic tradition of arranged marriages.
These two examples illustrate the way in which the exceptionally unclear and fuzzy
concept of integration can be used for different purposes in Danish public and political
discourses. In emic, Danish discourse integration is both means and ends (Olwig &
Pærregaard 2011): on the one hand, the concept refers to the utopian horizon of absol-
ute integration (whatever that means), and on the other hand, it refers to the process of
getting there. Integration is in many respects an ‘open signifier’(Laclau 1996) that can
mean different things in different contexts. Likewise, the anthropologist Inger Sjørslev
suggests that the meaning of some concepts may slide in specific circumstances, and she
particularly mentions integration as an example of how xenophobic and racist utter-
ances –‘plague’,‘barbarians’, etc. –become naturalised in Danish public and political
discourses (Sjørslev 2011: 82).
Even though integration is exceptionally unclear, it is not meaningless. On the con-
trary, in fact. The status of integration as an open signifier with fuzzy qualities that sim-
ultaneously refers to both means and ends makes it all the more flexible and effective in
Danish discourses when someone (from the majority) wants to do something to
someone else (from the minority). The next section will present a short genealogy of
integration in Denmark and how the meanings of the concept change over time.
A Historical Perspective on integration in Denmark
Olwig and Pærregaard (2011) remind us that integration was uncommon in the Danish
language until the mid-twentieth century, and that since then different meanings have
been ascribed to it.
When ‘integration’first appeared in Danish discourses back in the 1950s, it was used
to refer to the economic, political and military integration of Europe after the Second
World War. In the 1960s, integration became important in Danish public debates
about the expanding European Common Market; and in the 1970s, the concept was
used to discuss pre-school education and how children with physical and mental disabil-
ities could become part of the regular state school system (Olwig & Pærregaard 2011:11).
It was not until the 1990s that integration became the ever-present buzz-word and
ambition of politicians, the media and social scientists, being used to refer to cultural
and religious practices among immigrants in Denmark. Since the amendment of the
‘Integration Act’of 1999, integration has been the official ambition and goal of
various Danish governments.
When the first male guest-workers (gæstearbejdere) came to Denmark, mainly from
Turkey (former) Yugoslavia and Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s, their everyday lives
attracted relatively little public and political attention; but during the 1970s and the
1980s, the overall picture changed. The settled immigrant families expanded by
natural increase and started to frequent welfare institutions such as day-care centres,
state schools, the health system or social service departments. This new group of citizens
confronted the welfare state system with a range of unforeseen ‘cultural’problems,
which intensified as Denmark also accepted large groups of refugees from the Middle
East, Sri Lanka, Bosnia and Somalia. During the 1980s and 1990s, however, a more
general scepticism and mistrust took root in the Danish public towards immigrants
and was profoundly articulated by the nationalist right-wing political party called the
Danish People’s Party (the DPP), which was established in 1995. At first, the DPP rep-
resented a position on the extreme right wing of the Danish political spectrum, but
today many of their ideas and positions are widely accepted and acknowledged by
their political opponents in the national parliament.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the notion of integration became omnipresent in public and
political discourse. Immigrants and refugees were subjected to increasing demands that
they should integrate by subjecting themselves to Danish norms and standards, which
were seldom defined. In this period, integration actually meant assimilation. Legislation
and policies were introduced in order to alter what were perceived as idiosyncratic cul-
tural ideas and practices and correct the apparently archaic, unhealthy and un-Danish
practices of the immigrant population, instead helping (to make) them become just like
‘real’Danes (cf. Rytter 2010). Policies, campaigns and legislation were directed against
almost all aspects of immigrant everyday life, such as family organisation, accommo-
dation, upbringing, authority, gender roles, language spoken in the home, relations
with one’s original homeland, clothing, hygiene, nutrition, marriage, etc. The massive
political interest resulted in the advent of a regular ‘integration industry’(Preis 1998)
consisting of language schools and mother-tongue teachers, NGOs, social workers,
interpreters, journalists, consultants and researchers that made livelihoods and
careers out of integration.
Most of the political initiatives from the period, launched in the name of integration,
can retrospectively be seen as part of an overall national political strategy of social
engineering with the purpose of altering the family life, religion and traditions of immi-
grants in order to make them become Danish.
In recent years, the perception of integration seems to have changed once again.
Since the terror attacks of 9/11 (2001) and 7/7 (2005) and the Bush administration’s
call for a global ‘war on terror’, the previous challenges of integration have merged
with urgent questions related to national and international security (Rytter & Pedersen
2014). Bleich calls this new situation a ‘security/integration response’(2009: 355) where
“security dimensions have been layered onto pre-existing concerns about integration,
melding with parallel worries about immigration, crime and the public’s association
between Muslims and violence”(Bleich 2009: 355). One aspect of this is that Muslim
immigrants and spokespersons from mosques are expected to publicly condemn
terror attacks perpetrated by radicalised jihadists in various European cities and to
confirm their allegiance to Danish democracy and liberal values.
Since 2001, integration no longer only concerns the cultural practices and well-being
of the immigrant population, but is also an urgent component in the state’s attempt to
control and regulate the everyday family lives and religious activities of Muslim immi-
grants in Denmark.
Muslims and Islam are currently being constructed as the counter-
part of ‘Danishness’(Hervik 2004; Jensen 2008,2011; Schmidt 2011) and are often
presented in public and political discourse as a potential threat to democracy, human
rights, gender equality or freedom of speech –which are presented as central values
of Danish society and the welfare state.
This short genealogy illustrates how the emic concept of integration has been given
new meanings in different historical periods and socio-political contexts.
section will discuss how etic notions of integration as it appears in social theory are
related to emic use and understandings of the concept.
Struggling with the Legacy of Durkheim
For many years, integration has been part of general theorisation and academic writ-
ings. The question of integration goes back to the foundation of ‘society’as the
object or problem of social science, as discussed by Simmel (1998), Spencer (1967
) or Weber (1984 ) (Jöhncke 2011: 33). The founding fathers of structural
functionalism such as Durkheim (2006 ) or Radcliffe-Brown (1964 ) and of
transactionalism such as Barth (1966), all worked with the concept and idea of inte-
gration in their general theoretical models of social organisations or the dynamics of
creating groups and boundaries or in developing a more general systems theory.
These studies promote an etic concept of integration as an aspect of an overall theor-
etical model, and as such it differs radically from the ways in which the emic concept
of integration is used in public and political discourse in Denmark. The etic concept
of integration was part of social theory long before it became part of common language
and discourse. The de-territorialisation of the concept from social science to popular
discourse has resulted in a significant vulgarisation of integration.
As already mentioned, integration in emic discourses often invokes the idea of
society as a whole, a container or a cup of soup. Someone (immigrants, refugees, out-
siders or aliens, for instance) needs to be integrated into something (the assumed unity
of the society, the nation or the welfare state). However, the emic concept of integration
not only determines how transnational flows of people, things or symbols should be
included in Danish society and cultural worlds, but also seems to imply that things
could be different. The flip side of integration talk is the idea that globalisation is a pol-
itical choice and that national-conservative protectionism can stop or even reverse
transnational flows. This idea is salient in current political discussions of the so-
called ‘refugee crisis’and widespread scepticism regarding the supra-national insti-
tutions of the European Union. In this respect, discussions of integration both rely
on and reinforce the ‘imagined community’(Andersson 1991) of the nation and call
for further protection of the state and majority population by strict legislation,
control, borders and boundaries. For decades such fundamentalist fencing (cf.
Stolcke 1995) has been the agenda of national-conservative and right-wing parties all
over Europe, including Denmark. Currently, such ideas seem to be growing increasingly
Secondly, the emic use of the concept promotes dystopic horizons: while projecting
the promised land of full integration at some point in the future, it simultaneously
invokes the alternative of failed integration with the society, the nation and the
welfare state facing disintegration, fragmentation and upheaval –the condition Dur-
kheim diagnosed more than a century ago as ‘anomie’(2006 ). Without stating
this explicitly, integration talk is always pre-emptive and a means to avoid latent cata-
strophes. In this respect, integration becomes a specific kind of ‘problematisation’
(Bacchi 2012) implying that immigration poses a threat to the constitution and cohe-
sion of the Danish society, the welfare state and the nation.
Still, demands for integration are always directed at specific immigrant groups that
are cast as especially problematic. Whereas integration is evoked in critical discussions
of the norms, values and practices of everyday life among Muslim immigrants and refu-
gees from Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, the concept is seldom (if ever) used to
discuss minorities from a German, Swedish or American background living in
Denmark. The Danish emic concept of integration has a racial bias since it offers a legit-
imate vocabulary to speak of ‘others’in ways in which reified notions of culture, ethni-
city, religion and race merge.
So even though race is rarely discussed in Danish
academia (exceptions are Olwig 2003; Andreassen 2007; Hervik 2011; Bech & Necef
2013; Andreassen & Vitus 2015), and even though Danes generally reject being
called ‘racist’,integration talk is highly racialised. In general, the connections between
integration = ethnicity = culture = race in public and political discourses are rarely
addressed and deserve further exploration.
In general, integration is not an innocent concept but is constitutive of many of the
issues and problematisations that it claims to address. The concept of integration casts
specific Muslim immigrant groups from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia as ‘the
usual suspects’and as problematic in specific ways (cf. Rytter 2013; Rytter & Pedersen
2014). The widespread use of the concept of integration seems to epitomise a growing
‘cultural anxiety’(Grillo 2003) and ‘paranoid nationalism’(Hage 2003), with the Danish
majority population fearing the loss of their cultural identity, language and national
sovereignty to forces of globalisation personified by the immigrant other.
Three Scenarios of Contemporary Danish Nationalism
So far I have focused on the dynamics and effects of integration on the level of discourse.
This section returns to Charles Taylor’s notion of the social imaginary (2004), defined
in the introduction, suggesting that the emic concept of integration simultaneously
rests on and promotes three specific scenarios of ‘welfare reciprocity’,‘host and
guests’and ‘the Danes as an indigenous people’. The three scenarios are not necessarily
verbally expressed or open to discussion, but, following Kapferer’s seminal comparative
study of nationalism (2011 ), outline specific ‘ontological dimensions’of con-
temporary Danish nationalism. The analytical extraction of the three scenarios is
based on a number of recent anthropological and sociological studies conducted in
The first scenario evokes the notion of reciprocity, as discussed in Marcel Mauss’classic
essay on ‘The gift’(2001 ), which stresses our mutual moral obligation to give,
receive and reciprocate gifts.
Political scientist Esping-Andersen (1990) has called the Danish welfare state a ‘uni-
versalist model’(in contrast to a ‘liberal model’and a ‘corporatist model’), where high
taxes are expected to secure all the citizens a high level of social services such as medical
care, education, etc. Ideally, it is a system of lifelong generalised reciprocity in which
citizens reciprocate the free education they have received in their youth by paying
high income taxes during adulthood. Finally, they can expect to receive pensions and
state-based elderly care late in life. Emphasising the moral imperative, anthropologist
Steffen Jöhncke suggests that the Danish welfare state:
functions as a single, gigantic mutual insurance scheme. Paying taxes becomes the definitive
proof of one’s participation in and real contribution to the community, that is, to the
working of the whole of society, and not just to the maintenance of an anonymous state bureauc-
racy. (Jöhncke 2011: 43)
However, in recent years, there has been a heated debate as to whether migrants and
refugees should be entitled to welfare beneﬁts. Immigrants have not contributed to
the generalised reciprocity over a full lifetime and hence, following the logic of recipro-
city, they should not beneﬁt from it.
When the Danish welfare state was launched in the 1930s, it was based on a vision of
equal rights and opportunities for all –best captured by former Social Democratic
Prime Minister Thorvald Stauning’s political slogan: ‘Denmark for the people’
(Danmark for folket). Today the right-wing Danish People’s Party has appropriated
and transformed this slogan into ‘Denmark for the Danes’(Danmark for danskerne).
The new slogan underlines their political vision that only Danish citizens who have con-
tributed to the welfare system by lifelong taxpaying should benefit from it (see Jöhncke
2011: 46). Obviously, this rationale ignores all the unemployed Danes that benefit from
the support of the welfare system, as well as ignoring immigrants who have been
working and paying taxes for decades –but this seems to be of less importance.
The scenario of welfare reciprocity seems to rest on a notion of ‘limited goods’
(Foster 1965). George Foster introduced this notion on the basis of a study among
Mexican peasants who seemed to live in a world of limited goods which resulted in
the idea that if one villager or family gained something (harvest, material objects,
wealth, etc.), there would be less left for the rest. This null-sum game increased
suspicion, gossip and mistrust among the villagers (ibid.). In a similar fashion, the
Danish generalised reciprocity idea is based on the theory that the welfare state is
like a container or a cup of soup with limited goods, as discussed above. Paradoxically,
despite years of neoliberal cut-backs and austerity, the expenses of the welfare state
seem to increase every year –and still, the state budget and common welfare goods
are often presented as a fixed entity and null-sum game (cf. Bruun, Krøijer & Rytter,
2017). Integration is (ideally) possible for immigrants that accept the principle and obli-
gation of reciprocity by working hard, paying their taxes and contributing to the
common pool of resources. However, the flip side of this is the ever-present suspicion
of ‘negative reciprocity’(Sahlins 1972). Negative reciprocity is when someone receives
resources that he or she is not entitled to, through practices of cheating, stealing, using
illicit magic, or other kinds of amoral behaviour. Within the outlined scenario of welfare
reciprocity, this is exactly the case with immigrants and refugees that are not willing to
‘yde før de kan nyde’(which means ‘contributing something before enjoying the fruits of
their labour’in Danish). They are regarded as freeloaders and cast as parasites who
benefit from welfare services to which they are not entitled.
The problem with this scenario is also that due to the steady influx of new foreign
spouses, manual labourers, refugees and undocumented migrants –something which
is inevitable in our contemporary, interconnected world –immigrants (both newco-
mers and old-timers) end up in a permanent state of negative reciprocity and are
cast as a problem for the well-being of the Danish population and the sustainability
of the welfare state.
Host and Guests
The second scenario is not particularly concerned with financial transactions and con-
tributions to the welfare state but focuses more on the cultural dimensions pertaining to
a majority which generally regards itself as an ‘ethnically homogenous population’
(Gundelach 2002) facing an influx of alien immigrants and refugees. Based on a
study of Danish majorities and their attitudes towards immigrants, anthropologist
Hervik (2004) has suggested that the relationship between majorities and minorities
can be conceptualised as a specific ‘figured world’between hosts and guests (cf.
Holland et al.1998). The figured world of host–guest is based on tacit knowledge
and is part of a common ‘popular conscience’among the Danish majority (Hervik
2004). In this particular figured world, the hosts set the rules and are in charge,
while the guests on the other hand must be polite, behave in a civilised fashion, only
speak when spoken to, etc. Ultimately, guests who do not accept the rules and ways
of their hosts should leave. This idea is captured in the Danish saying: ‘skik følge eller
land fly’, which literally means ‘follow our customs or leave the country’–a Danish
version of the more neutral: ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’(Holm Fadel
1999). The figured world of host–guest places the Danish population in a permanently
superior position, whereas the immigrants must stay silent and subject themselves to
the will of their hosts. This is basically an asymmetrical cultural model that always pri-
vileges the majority population.
10 M. RYTTER
Several studies conducted in the period of the security/integration-response after
2001 have emphasised that many immigrants, especially those with a Muslim back-
ground, now try to blend in and make themselves invisible in the Danish society.
This is a tactical way to operate within the host–guest model and complies with the
general Danish middle-class value of not sticking out (see Gullestad 1989; Linnet
2011; Faber et al.2012). The tactics of invisibility resemble Skeggs’(2004) study of
working-class families in Britain, where they have to do ‘extra work’in order to be
accepted and recognised as middle class. Psychologist Iram Khawaja illustrates the
impact of the host–guest scenario when she quotes her young Muslim informant
Asad, living in outer Copenhagen:
I feel sort of surveilled. You can’t just walk around and think, hey, I’m just me. Of course you
want to just be yourself, but there is always this external pressure that makes you think: I have to
behave, I have to behave, I have to behave, behave. (Khawaja 2011: 273, my translation)
Larsen (2011a,2011b) discuss how refugees, that are scattered all over Denmark as a
result of the Integration Act’s national policy of dispersal from 1999, try to persuade
their new neighbours to accept them as decent people by obeying instructions and
advices about how to keep their gardens, draw back the curtains or prepare proper
school lunches for their children. The intentions of the neighbours might be good,
but the encounters nevertheless illustrate their efforts to civilise the newcomers (cf.
Gilliam & Gulløv 2012,2016). In contrast to this situation, in her study of labour
migrants who came from the Serbian region of former Yugoslavia, geographer Kristine
Juul suggests that this group successfully managed to blend in and be more or less
accepted and recognised as Danes because they understood the importance of master-
ing the Danish language and the value of under-communicating differences (Juul 2011).
In general, this group have been hardworking, obedient guests who have not attracted
any negative attention or annoyed their hosts.
However, the problem with integration in this scenario is that even though immi-
grants may do their best to blend in and accept the wishes and demands of their
hosts, new ‘invisible fences’(Gullestad 2002) are constantly being erected at the same
time. Actual integration seems to be impossible because there are always new fences
to climb and new stones to roll up the mountain. According to anthropologist Inger
Sjørslev, immigrants face a situation that resembles a double-bind: ‘You are not
ready to become integrated until you are like us, and you will not prove that you are
like us until you are integrated’(Sjørslev 2011: 83).
The Danes as an Indigenous People
The third scenario is based on ideas of autochthony and notions of common blood and
kinship among the Danish population. Anthropologist Kvaale (2011) has analysed the
material and discourse of the right-wing DPP, which gained more than 21% of the votes
in the 2015 general election. She found that the DPP is founded to a large extent on the
claim that Danes have a historical right to their nation, territory and soil. In other
words, the DPP regards the Danes as an indigenous people, implying that
ethnic Danes –in their capacity of assumed descendants of the first human beings residing on
the geological deposit material later to be known as Denmark –are seen as the natural stake-
holders of rights from a historically conditioned and ethno-culturally legitimized perspective.
(Kvaale 2011: 235)
In this respect, the DPP has successfully mobilised a powerful image of autochthony
(Geschiere 2009) in which immigrants are regarded as aliens and intruders. As a
classic right-wing and populist party, the DPP present themselves as representatives
of the common man against the elites and have from the outset been very critical of
the presence and acceptance of foreigners (Hervik 2011). This is also the reason why
Søren Krarup, who is a vicar and former MP as well as being one of the main architects
of the party, refers without hesitation to Muslims in Denmark as an occupying force
which Danes must resist (non-violently). He –and others with him –deliberately
use a vocabulary which reminds the listener of the Nazi occupation of Denmark in
the Second World War during the period 1940−1945 (Kvaale 2011: 233). Similarly,
studies show how ethnic Danes who convert to Islam are seen as traitors who have
left their Danishness behind (Jensen 2008,2011).
A different variation of the idea of ‘the Danes as an indigenous people’is presented in
national immigration politics. My own work suggests that the strict Danish rules on
family reunification with foreign spouses are based on specific kinship images among
the majority population, conceptualised and spoken of as ‘the family of Denmark’
(Rytter 2010). The rationale behind the so-called ‘requirement of attachment’, which
has been imposed since 2002 on anyone applying to be reunited with their foreign
spouses, in practice means that the right to have family reunification is unequally dis-
tributed between Danish citizens, depending on their personal background and family
history. The result is a divide in the pool of citizens between ‘real’and ‘not-quite-real’
Danes, with the latter group consisting of Danes with an immigrant background (Rytter
2010,2013; see also Liversage & Rytter 2014).
In this scenario, integration seems almost impossible, as being and belonging are
based on the ability to make legitimate claims for the Danish nation. Immigrants and
refugees, including Danish citizens with an immigrant background, will therefore
always have a difficult time.
The three scenarios outlined above (‘welfare reciprocity’,‘host and guests’and ‘the
Danes as an indigenous people’) promote specific versions of integration resulting
from different configurations of belonging, entitlement and the relationship between
the nation, the state and the population. However, common for all three of them is
that the omnipresent demand for integration becomes more or less impossible.
Writing Against Integration
In her seminal article ‘Writing against culture’, Abu-Lughod (1991) presents a timely
critique of the way the concept of culture has formed anthropological analysis and the
way researchers have used it to position themselves and install authority. According
to Abu-Lughod, ‘culture operates in anthropological discourse to enforce separations
between selves and others that inevitably also creates hierarchies’(1991:466), and she
therefore suggests three strategies to confront the concept of culture and its
12 M. RYTTER
problematic effects. The first strategy is aimed at theoretical discussions, with the
concept of culture apparently being based on an assumption of boundedness and pro-
moting an ahistorical reification of cultures. This can be confronted by a more pro-
cessual focus on people’s practices and discourses. The second strategy emphasises the
importance of both contemporary and historical local, national and global connec-
tions as a way to confront the elusiveness of entity when it comes to culture.
Lastly, Abu-Lughod argues that all texts are fictions (not fictitious, but not presenting
the entire story either) and encourages us to start writing ‘ethnographies of the par-
ticular’that acknowledge that all studies and analyses are partial and positioned
Today, 25 years later, many of Abu-Lughod’s observations may seem self-evident.
Nevertheless, I suggest that we follow her lead and start to write against the equally pro-
blematic concept of integration. In this endeavour, the following three strategies seem
(1) We must start to ask critical questions when the concept of integration appears in
public and political discourse, and especially in academic writings. One way to do
this is to explore who uses the concept, in what context, who is it directed at, and
with what purpose is it used? Basically, our studies and analysis should include and
make transparent who has the power and legitimacy to demand integration of
(2) We should start to problematise the problematisation: this can be done by ana-
lysing the social imaginaries and taken-for-granted assumptions about the
relationship between the state, the nation and the majority populations that
the natives mobilise in their emic discourse and demands and calls for inte-
gration. As suggested with the three scenarios of ‘welfare reciprocity’,‘hosts
and guests’and ‘the Danes as an indigenous people’, this will also include an
exploration of how majorities see the world and what they fear to lose by immi-
gration and by the flows of ideas, images, objects, capital or dreams resulting
(3) Finally, we should attempt to develop a new language in order to enable a more
inclusive analysis. One major task here is, of course, to present our material and
say what we want to say without using the concept of integration. Another chal-
lenge will be to open up to a plurality of conflicting voices and positions within
the analysis, not only of immigrants expected to integrate but also politicians,
media discourses, academic writings and common people from the majority popu-
lation that think and talk about integration.
These three strategies could be a starting point for a more critical use of and engagement
with the concept of integration. It would be a way to deal with it as a significant concept
in the emic discourses among the people we study. It would be a way to acknowledge
that the concept of integration is not (and never was) innocent but carries a wealth of
meanings and is constitutive and confirmative of social imaginaries among majority
populations that need to be critically studied and analysed rather than simply being
reproduced in academic analysis.
Conclusion: Keeping Language Alive
This article has discussed how the concept of integration has had –and still has –many
unforeseen consequences and effects since it was set loose on the streets of Denmark
back in the 1990s. The argument is inspired by Michel Foucault’s declaration that: ‘A
critique does not consist in saying that things aren’t good the way they are. It consists
in seeing on what type of assumptions, of familiar notions, of established, unexamined
ways of thinking the accepted practices are based’(Foucault 1994: 456). Following from
this, the article has not only attempted to disentangle some of the multiple meanings
and effects of integration in Danish discourses, but also suggested three ontological
dimensions in the social imaginary of current Danish nationalism. The three scenarios
of ‘welfare reciprocity’,‘host and guests’and ‘the Danes as an indigenous people’are not
necessarily expressed verbally. Indeed, this is seldom the case. Instead, they serve as a
reservoir of asymmetrical power that appears as both common ground and common
sense of much integration talk in Danish public and political discourses. The Danish
emic notion of integration rests on widespread images and ideas about culture, race
and belonging that seem to expand the already existing gap between Danish majorities
and immigrant (Muslim) minorities, between an ‘us’and a ‘them’. In this respect, inte-
gration is an aspect of contemporary Danish nationalism that needs to be confronted,
deconstructed and discussed.
The article focuses on Denmark, but it can also be read as an invitation to launch a
more comprehensive comparative research agenda, with popular concepts like inte-
gration, which appears in numerous European languages, being meticulously studied,
analysed and understood in relation to local history and the socio-economic and pol-
itical contexts that have produced specific social imaginaries of the nation, the state
and the relationship between majorities and minorities. Such research will most
likely conclude that discussions of integration (including all the problematic aspects,
associations and effects discussed in the article) are entangled in and reinforce the
current rise of nationalism, xenophobia and exclusion of Muslim immigrants all over
This is, of course, not the first article that critically discusses how concepts move back
and forth between social theory and popular discourse. For instance, Brubaker (2012)has
discussed how ‘Muslim’became a ‘category of analysis’in academia after the Rushdie
Affair in 1989 and even more so after 9/11 in 2001. However, owing to overwhelming
political attention and media coverage, the ‘category of analysis’soon became a ‘category
of practice’and was used in self-descriptions among Muslim minorities all over Europe.
This category was not simply appropriated and accepted, but resulted in an increased
reflexivity and ongoing discussions within Muslim families, groups and communities
about religious beliefs, identities and practices (Brubaker 2012; see also Werbner 2002).
In very similar fashion, Sahlins (1999) has discussed how the concept of ‘culture’in
the second half of the twentieth century became significant beyond academia, as it was
14 M. RYTTER
embraced by people around the world in their efforts to make legitimate claims for rights,
independence and self-determination. So even though anthropologists in general became
sceptical of culture as an etic category, we lost control: ‘[Whether] anthropologists like it
or not, it appears that people –and not only those in power –want culture, and they often
want it in the bounded, reified, essentialised and timeless fashion that most of us do now
reject’(Brumann in Sahlins 1999:403).
My discussion of integration seems to differ from the arguments presented by Bruba-
ker and Sahlins. Whereas Brubaker discusses how the category of ‘Muslim’was reflexively
contested and transformed when used in self-description by people who follow the reli-
gion of Islam, Sahlins discusses how the concept of culture became a tool in political
struggles around the world. They both analyse how concepts and categories become
resources in local formulations of identity and world-making. However, integration is
not something immigrants in Denmark can choose or benefit from. The potential and
possibilities identified by Brubaker and Sahlins with regard to ‘Muslim’and ‘culture’
(and here I deliberately neglect all the problems they also identify and discuss) are not
in evidence when it comes to integration. Integration is solely the vocabulary of power,
a prerogative of the nation-state and the indigenous majority population that, intention-
ally or not, tends to objectify, stigmatise and exclude Muslim immigrants from the Danish
social imaginary of the nation-state and its population.
Therefore, the article suggests that we start to write against integration. Insights from
feminism, post-colonial theory and the representation debate of the 1980s and 1990s
seem very promising for ethnographers doing fieldwork ‘at home’, providing them
(us) with ways to position themselves outside or in opposition to the dominant emic
discourses. Critical awareness of the contrast between the emic and the etic, between
‘categories of practice’and ‘categories of analysis’, is crucial at a time when the legal
and humanitarian rights of migrants, refugees and religious minorities are subject to
discussion, contestation and political sanctions in many parts of the world, including
Europe and North America. In this situation, anthropologists have an obligation to
keep language alive (Hastrup 1995). We need to take responsibility for the concept of
integration, which has had many unforeseen consequences and effects since it was
de-territorialised from social theory. Integration is not the solution, it is a significant
aspect of the problem, and therefore more talking, thinking and ‘writing against inte-
1. The distinction between ‘emic’and ‘etic’was first suggested by linguist Kenneth Pike, and later
promoted in anthropology by Marvin Harris and Ward Goodenough. In short, the emic refers to
descriptions and understandings formulated by people themselves, while the etic is the descrip-
tion provided by the analytical observer or social scientist (cf. Headland, Pike, & Harris 1990).
2. Throughout the article, the concept of ‘integration’appears in italics in order to emphasise that
it is the emic Danish concept of integration that is being discussed. Over the years, a number of
anthropologists have written critically about the concept of integration as it appears in public
and political discourses in Denmark (see Schierup 1988; Preis 1998; Hervik 1999; Pedersen &
Rytter 2006; Olwig & Paerregaard 2011; Olwig, Larsen & Rytter 2012).
3. Currently, there is a dominant ‘semantic density’(cf. Hastrup 1995) in Danish discourses and
cultural worlds, which means that when someone refers to ‘immigrants’,‘immigration’or the
challenges of integration in the public or political debate, 9 out of 10 times they are actually
referring to immigrants and refugees with a Muslim background. In this way, integration talk
becomes a proxy for discussing concerns and anxieties related to the growing presence of
Islam and Muslims in Denmark (see Rytter & Pedersen 2014).
4. When I first started frequenting seminars in the United Kingdom in the early 2000s, in order to
present and discuss my ethnography of Pakistani family networks, arranged marriages and the
national legislation on family reunification (see Rytter 2010,2012,2013)inrelationtospecific
Danish ideas of integration, my comments did not resonate convincingly with the interests and
vocabulary of British colleagues. However, this seems to have changed after Prime Minister
David Cameron, in 2011, in his first speech on radicalisation and terrorism, declared the end
of multiculturalism. Since then discussions of integration seem to have become salient among col-
leagues working with issues related to Islam, Muslims and immigration in the United Kingdom.
5. See: ‘Indvandrerpiger indhenter Danske Drenge’(Berlingske, 5 January 2015) or ‘21-årige Sana:
Det er vigtigt at alle uddanner sig’(MX-metro, 2 March 2016).
6. See Jyllands-Posten, Kristeligt Dagblad, TV2.dk and DR.dk, 29 January 2013.
7. Two early examples dated back to 2001, when Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, represent-
ing the Social Democrats (Socialdemokratiet), compared the local Danish branch and members of
the international Minhaj ul-Quran movement to rats, or when MP Louise Frevert, representing
the Danish People’sParty(Dansk Folkeparti), compared Muslims to cancer.
8. The DPP has gained more and more voters since 1995. In 2001−2011, it supported the Liberal-
Conservative government –in fact it was often referred to as ‘the third party in the government’.
At the general election in 2015, it won 21% of the votes. The DPP has succeeded in moving from
the margins to be a central and deciding factor in Danish national politics.
9. The Liberal-Conservative government that won a majority at the national election in Denmark
in the autumn of 2001 opened a ‘Ministry of Integration’with Bertel Haarder (representing the
Liberals) as the first Minister of Integration. Ralph Grillo has noticed that this is ‘a title with an
Orwellian ring’(2011: 269).
10. Recently, following the advent of the neoliberal ‘competition state’(Konkurrencestaten, Peder-
sen 2011) and the so-called ‘refugee crisis’in 2015, the meaning of integration seems to be chan-
ging again; it is no longer cast as a state project, but is, to a large extent, the responsibility of
individual refugees themselves. At the time of writing (autumn 2017), integration is associated
with the values of responsibility, self-sufficiency and independence that dominate the consti-
tution of the citizen-subject in the competition state. The impact and consequences of this
recent development could not be included in this article (see Rytter, in press).
11. The concept of integration simultaneously builds on and promotes a specific image of the
Danish welfare state and a mono-cultural, homogenous ethnic Danish population. It is an
image which is also reflected in cultural values of ‘egalitarianism’and ‘equality as sameness’
in Danish (Scandinavian) society (Gullestad 1989).
Earlier versions of this article were presented at the workshop ‘Marriage Migration and Integration’at
Oxford University in July 2014, organised by Katherine Charsley, and at the EASA conference in Milan
in July 2016 under the panel ‘Complicating Contemporary Understandings of Citizenship and Belong-
ing’, convened by Beth Rubin and Ellen Skilton. I’m indebted to the participants on both occasions for
many relevant questions and comments. The author would also like to thank the two anonymous
Ethnos-reviewers and my colleagues Heather Swanson, Christian Gade and Noa Vaisman from the
Department of Anthropology, Aarhus University for their help; as well as Nicholas Wrigley for
reading and commenting on a final version of the paper.
16 M. RYTTER
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.
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