Rethinking Integration and Investment through Bridging Individual and Social Discourses (by Mehdi Babaei)

The importance of storytelling and narratives has been brought up several times in various BILD posts. Further inspired by some panel presentations at the recent Metropolis conference in Montreal, I’d like to continue this conversation, though approaching the issue from a different angle. I want to take a step back from the practical implications as discussed in the previous posts and move, perhaps to a more theoretical level, highlighting the two constructs of integration and investment. The question I will pose is thus: to what extent have such constructs been successful in capturing and framing the intricacies and richness of the individuals’ lived experiences in super-diverse/metropolitan contexts (e.g. Montreal)? More so, should the existing definitions of those concepts and constructs be exclusively accounted for? A ‘theory’ or ‘construct’ is oftentimes rooted in a solid and well-established school of thought, which has been applied and ‘tested’ (in the literal sense) in several research studies. Yet the second question I’d like to raise is if there is a place for rethinking or reframing those constructs, with regards to the contexts in which they are used. The ongoing trend in the word coinage by some scholars is part of the answer to this question––albeit with some hesitation–– as a new term could have the same meaning as the already existing one.


Let’s start with integration. Canada defines integration as a two-way street, which describes integration as the participation of newcomers in the social, cultural, and economic domains of the host country (an idea that is both supported and rejected by Canada’s European counterparts). At the annual Metropolis conference, however, some renewed scholars unleashed a barrage of criticism against what they see as inadequate, simplistic, and unreal definition of integration, and instead used ‘metaphors’ to represent a better understanding of the term: the harmony/jazz metaphor (Andrew Griffith), and the rotary (roundabout) metaphor (Morton Weinfled). The former sees integration not as a mechanical process, but as a dynamic and even messy mechanism. The latter defines integration as a “nested phenomenon” where immigrants create their own spaces while integrating simultaneously with the host society. Regardless of whether these metaphors are able to shed light on the term integration, what strikes me the most is how those scholars conceptualize and then present their views on such constructs by giving more credit to the social/macro-social structures. In such conversations the role of human agency oftentimes gets little attention, if not short shrift, as a phenomenon is investigated through a social lens only. Parallel to this mindset but taking a different path is what several research organizations do: they spend large quantitative resources (statistics) to find out, for example, whether newcomers are integrated or not, and how their integration process takes place. We need numbers and statistics. Yet we also need to delve deeper into the issue by taking the individual aspect more seriously through shifting weight from social to individual. In other words, ‘integration’ is simultaneously both an individual element and a social structure. Integration––whether social, linguistic, cultural, or political–– could be interpreted, defined, or explained differently by different individuals in different contexts.


Let’s take the example of linguistic integration of immigrants learning French in Quebec, where some of these individuals might acquire a high level of proficiency in French without having a Québécois(e) friend: are they integrated? Another immigrant might have a profitable business but only working in his own ethnic community: could that be an example of the economic integration? Integration cannot be limited to the structural/organizational way of thinking as newcomers go around with unique stories, experiences, and road paths, which should be noticed and acknowledged. The arrival of a newcomer coincides with the zest for accessing resources (cultural and linguistic resources). They need to be equipped with knowledge and literacy, seeking jobs and opportunities for upward mobility. And as every person’s starting point, their trajectories, and their settlement experiences are different, so is their amalgamation with the new society. The socio-economic/sociopolitical perspective mostly views immigrants as either integrated or not, yet we need more stories to be unfolded, heard, and transmitted, in order to unpack the terms we use to describe those immigrants.


The concept of investment is deeply rooted in Marx’s ideas and was imported to the social sciences by scholars such as Bourdieu. Newcomers in Bourdieu’s view bring in their ‘capitals’ and invest in “seeking opportunities and accessing resources” (Bourdieu, 1991). In this view, investment is oftentimes defined and understood through a linear process, where the capital generating from point A is freed up in point B, where the rich experiences of individuals in their immigration trajectories with all ups and downs, challenges, delicacies, and recurrent dreams, are molded into the materialistic/capitalist spectra. Such understanding of investment may not be able to capture the richness of the phenomenon (here newcomers learning a second language in a super-diverse setting). In this sense, possessing certain amount of capital is a sine qua non for investment. This might be seemingly oblivious to some refugees entering the country as they could come in with zero capital (cultural, economical, or both). Investment and integration are seen to be linked in a sense that greater investment will lead to a further degree of integration. But how about those individuals such as the elderly or refugees who may not get a chance to access the opportunities (e.g. socializing), due to lack of mobility or confidence? Norton’s construct of investment is a plausible explanation in language learning, which “recognizes that language learners have complex, multiple identities, changing across time and space, and reproduced in social interaction” (Darvin & Norton, 2016, p. 20).

I was hoping to depict a picture, though not so retouched, of the challenges that some constructs such as integration and investment may pose, particularly in a super-diverse context. This is not about coining new terms, but expanding/reframing our understanding of the terms that already exist. More emphasis needs to be placed on the role of individual and human agency. Theories do not evolve in vacuum. They are context-bound and context-specific. And I believe that the stories of every person, which is heard and shared, can bridge the gap between the individual and social phenomena.


Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power. London: Polity Press.

Darvin, R., & Norton, B. (2016). Investment and language learning in the 21st century. Langage Et Societe, 157, 3, 19-38.


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