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Discussion Paper

Discussion Paper No. 8: Similar but Different

Inclusion and Exclusion of Immigrant Communities Sharing Similar Cultural Backgrounds with Their Host Societies

Discussion Paper No. 8: Similar but Different

Social cohesion and cultural integration of immigrants is a recurrent topic in most public discourses in European countries (Algan et al., 2012). The persistent discussion about a dominant, guiding culture in Germany (the so-called Leitkultur-Debatte) or the French debate on the nature of secularism and the challenges of Islam (débats sur la Laïcité) are just some examples. In those debates, different cultural traditions, languages and/or religious affiliations have often been mentioned as hindrances for the integration of immigrants, suggesting that divergent values and traditions make it more difficult to acculturate in a host society. While cultural distance with the host society is assumed to be an obstacle towards integration, it is also widely believed that individuals who share a similar cultural background with local natives would integrate more smoothly and swiftly into host societies. This view – implicitly supported by assimilation theories – has dominated, for instance, much of the sociological thinking in the 20th century (Alba and Nee, 1997). Even if scientific evidence suggests nowadays much more nuanced perspectives and lead to the development of alternative approaches, this presumption is still at the very heart of public debate and integration policies (Schneider and Crul, 2010).

This discussion paper seeks to put this claim to the test. By analysing the integration process of immig-rant groups in different national contexts, it puts into question the extent to which similar cultural backgrounds influence the integration of immigrants in the receiving society. Is the integration of culturally close or similar migrants into the new environment “easier” than the integration of other immigrant groups? Or do the former face similar difficulties and disadvantages as the latter? The answer might seem evident at first glance and we may think that “closeness” may have a greater impact on their integration chances. This discussion paper will highlight that overall acceptance regarding ethnically closed migrants does not always match with better integration levels.

This discussion paper adopts a cross-national and interdisciplinary approach. First, it seems relevant to compare diverse aspects of integration processes in selected countries with distinct immigration experiences, political developments and ethnic minorities. Each country has established its own migratory system defined by pull and push economic factors, but also by legislation, cultural and historical links (Haas, 2007; Massey et al., 1998). The cross-national perspective allows one to ask whether particular patterns of integration are recurrent in different contexts. Second, contributions from various disciplines permit an analysis of integration processes under different perspectives, revealing the multifaceted mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion of immigrants in their host societies. The phenomena of exclusion can be highlighted by socio-economic indicators, but may also be identified using ethnological or historical perspectives.

For this purpose, this discussion paper analysed three different scenarios:

1) Migrants originated from “broken” communities after a dissolution of the political entity they have been living in over centuries, such as German expellees in West Germany after 1945 (Soňa Mikulová) and Canada (Pascal Maeder), ethnic Hungarians migrating to Hungary (Attila Melegh and Attila Papp Z.) and refugees who migrated after the partition of India and Pakistan (Deepra Dandekar)

2) the situation of immigrants in multi-ethnic communities who share some cultural traditions with the majority of the population in the country of destination due to their common colonial past, for instance in the United Kingdom (Laurence Lessard-Phillips), France (Tatiana Eremenko), Spain (Andreu Domingo i Valls) and Portugal (João Sardinha)

3) societies where ethnic diversity has been a less pronounced obstacle on the way to integration due to an overarching concept of social cohesion, such as the socialist notion of transnational solidarity within the “working class” like Russians in Bulgaria (Anna Krasteva) and migrants from the former USSR in the Russian Federation (Paul Becker).

In this way, this discussion paper will show that even under “optimal” conditions with regard to aspects like bilingualism, shared cultural traditions and narratives, as well as similar religious beliefs, the pathway to inclusion is not necessarily any smoother.


This discussion paper received funding from the project “The Challenges of Migration, Integration and Exclusion. Wissenschaftsinitiative Migration der MaxPlanck-Gesellschaft (WiMi Project)”, financed by the Max Planck Society. This project seeks to put a strong focus on patterns and mechanisms of exclusion.




Bouju, A, & Edel, A. (eds.) (2018): Similar but Different: Inclusion and Exclusion of Immigrant Communities Sharing Similar Cultural Backgrounds with Their Host Societies. Discussion Paper No. 8, Berlin: Max Planck Society/Population Europe.

Aimie Bouju and Andreas Edel