Migration as conflict and reflection: Scheffer’s ‘The Unsettled Land’
I recently saw a panel discussion involving Dutch sociologist and politician Paul Scheffer. In 2000, Scheffer published an influential article called “The Multicultural Drama“, in which he criticised the system of migration in the Netherlands and Europe in general. Indifferent ‘pillarisation’ of societies, he argued back then, leads to segregation and conflicts between migrants and settled society.
Now, Scheffer has published a book called “The Unsettled Land” which offers a comparison of the process of migration and its consequences in several countries of Europe and North America. He argues that, besides different systems and different responses in all these countries, the process of migration is quite similar. According to him, there are three steps that can be identified:
Step 1: Avoidance. Initially, the arrival of new immigrants causes “white flight” and segregation, until open conflict breaks out.
Step 2: Conflict. At this stage, the receiving society starts to question its own values and cultural identity to be able to cope with a reality that has outlived the society’s self-conception.
Step 3: Accomodation. Societies develop mechanism to cope with the new demographics. Examples of accomodation include symbolic politics and recognition (monuments, arts, etc) as well as more egalitarian social politics (such as role of religion in policy-making, etc).
What’s remarkable in my view is that Scheffer develops a very sober, almost mechanic, analysis that he deems to be generalizable. First, this perspective removes fear and hysteria from the debate. Migration is seen as a social change; and while change naturally causes conflict which can be painful, it will eventually lead to a new social formation that is workable. On the other hand, it emphasises strongly our ability to manage this process by finding our ways to come to an accommodation, which, according to Scheffer, will necessarily happen.
In the process that he describes, conflict that migration causes will always lead to the receiving society questioning itself. If we want to integrate newcomers, we have to become clear into what they will be integrated. Migration can therefore also be seen as a reflection for a society
Scheffer’s book was criticised as banal in the discussion I witnessed, but I think it is useful as it sets a ‘frame’ to view the debates in that are fought daily in newspapers and discussions. Surely there are weaknesses, like overgeneralisation and a strong emphasis on the nation-state. Yet, it points to the importance of ‘management’ to be able to accommodate and emancipate newcomers within societies, and it gives a hint as to how societies benefit from it simply be reflecting upon its core values and by redefining what makes up the community that people live in.
You can find Scheffer’s presentation of his thesis and the following panel discussion online. While the debate was in German, the presentation was in English. It starts at around 2:15. Since I still haven’t figured why I can’t embed external videos here within the blog, please click here for the video.