Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

The Role of Naturalization for Immigrant and Refugee Integration:

Trajectories and Expressions of Citizenship

Prof. Dr. Elke Winter


During the tenure of her fellowship, Prof. Elke Winter will execute desk-based research and some fieldwork on refugee and immigrant integration/citizenship (with a focus on Germany and Europe). Specifically, she will work on a study examining naturalization trajectories and what it takes/means to be “a national” in Germany, France, and Canada. 

In the 1990s, high naturalization rates were generally accepted as a proxy for the successful integration of immigrants and refugees. Canada was widely admired for its high naturalization rates – at roughly 85% – and its well-functioning immigration regime, where the annual intake of permanent residents was higher than that of temporary migrants. Permanent residents were basically “citizens in waiting”. Since the early 2000s, however, concerns have increased about refugees’ and immigrants’ ability/willingness to successfully integrate in the destination country and to adopt “Western” values. This trend has been particularly dominant in Europe, but policy and legal changes have also taken place in the United States, Australia and, most recently, Canada. While states are struggling to maintain the value of citizenship refugees and immigrants are also strategic in acquiring citizenship. On the one hand, democracy depends on incorporating all/most individuals who living permanently in the state’s territory into the political process. On the other hand, to maintain le lien social in contemporary societies, more than legal incorporation is necessary. Rather, citizens need to be motivated by some form of solidarity. This bears the questions: When, why and how do permanent residents and naturalized citizens enact a form of belonging to their country of residence, and what role does naturalization play for this?

In my research, I theorize the nation-state as a status-group characterized by economic and sociocultural status, as well as a certain degree of social closure. Citizenship policy is the ultimate institutional realization of national boundaries, reflecting underlying definitions of “us” and “them”. Refugee and Immigrant integration trajectories are associated with distinct patterns of negotiation between newcomers and hosts: crossing, blurring, and shifting. Bright boundaries only allow for individual boundary crossing, which entails assimilation, i.e. the adoption of majority society attributes, practices and values. Boundary blurring describes the possibility to cross as a group into majority society without relinquishing prior citizenship status and without giving up important aspects of their culture and identity. Boundary blurring may ultimately lead to boundary shifting, i.e. relocation and redefinition of the society’s boundary in more inclusive or exclusive terms. Other theoretical assumptions guiding this project are: Citizenship rules constitute a formal barrier to belonging by setting requirements that must be met in order to be considered “a national”; they are justified, explained to the wider public and made congruent with the nation’s value system in state discourses. Permanent residents’ and naturalized citizens’ sense of belonging to the host society are also impacted by ordinary people’s attitudes and conceptions of who belongs to “us”. Naturalization is sought after (or not) depending on the perceived value of past citizenship, the perceived value of the new citizenship, and the efforts/sacrifices to be made (monetary costs, loss of previous citizenship, time investment, identity). While integration involves a path towards increasing belonging, the latter is highly contextual and not necessarily linear. Naturalization is both a consequence of prior socio-economic and/or socio-cultural integration, and a catalyst for the latter. Formal citizenship status is an important element of belonging; however, it is neither a necessary nor a sufficient criterion for lived citizenship.

Studies of citizenship traditionally privilege a top-down, state-centred perspective (based on laws and policies). Very little research has studied the perspectives of those most concerned, that is, permanent residents and naturalized citizens, and even less so comparatively. Some nationally specific studies suggest that the motivations for naturalization, and the subjective value of citizenship are highly contextual and individual. Decisions to naturalize depend not only on a person’s country of origin, naturalization costs, necessary efforts, as well as future opportunity structures, but also on the personal life course, desires, and strategies. Research underlines the positive outcomes in the case of citizenship acquisition, including socio-economic status and degree of integration, as well as potentially negative outcomes of citizenship non-acquisition, which can be both caused by or fuelling into the emergence of reactive ethnic/religious identities, and feelings of discrimination specifically in the context of (perceived) anti-immigrant biases in the state bureaucracy and the securitization of Islam.

My current research on what it takes/means to be “a national” contributes to the emergent literature on trajectories and expressions of (lived) citizenship “from below”, that is from the perspective of migrants undergoing (or not) state-channelled integration and naturalization processes. It promotes an actor- and agency-centred approach to citizenship and explores how refugees and immigrants navigate different legal, socio-cultural and policy-worlds in their chosen or not so chosen new countries of residence. Involving countries that have come to stand for different traditions of integration and citizenship – notably Canada, Germany, and France – my current research also contributes to the literature on the validity of national-specific research frames for comparative research on immigration and citizenship (commonly known as the “national models” debate). Critically assessing recent advances in political and cultural sociology, it strives to promote comparative qualitative research across countries without falling prey to the fallacies of methodological nationalism.