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Rethinking Migrant Socialisation in the Light of Critical Intercultural Communication: Proposals to Favour the Integration Process in France

Repenser la socialisation des migrants à la lumière des approches critiques en communication interculturelle : des propositions pour favoriser le processus d’intégration en France
Alexander Frame


Le modèle républicain d’intégration, dans sa mise en œuvre en tant que politique publique concernée par la migration en France, fait appel à des concepts qui ont été remis en cause par des études récentes en communication interculturelle. Cet article passe en revue ces concepts et les modèles et approches qui les ont remplacés dans la littérature scientifique, puis propose, à partir d’une analyse du dispositif d’intégration prévu actuellement par la loi, des pistes d’aménagement afin de mieux prendre en compte une approche critique de l’interculturel, pour mieux promouvoir la cohésion sociale, face à une réalité sociale moderne dans laquelle les revendications identitaires des groupes non-majoritaires se montrent de plus en plus pressantes.

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1In recent years, migration has become an increasingly pressing political issue in many countries, in Europe and beyond, played out notably through media coverage of the hardships faced by asylum seekers, and of anti-immigrant agendas of right-wing political movements. Journalistic and social discourse, in many languages, often distinguishes “migrants” (commonly perceived as having few economic resources) from “expats” (students or relatively wealthy professionals whose expatriation is generally temporary) (Calabrese & Veniard 2018). In the commercial struggle for audience, media discourse tends to privilege sensationalism, often presenting migration as a threat, and simplistic visions of “Us vs. Them”, including essentialising uses of the notion of culture (Dervin 2013). This is notably the case in the context of “deep mediatization”, characterised among other things by the fragmentation of media audiences and the associated polarisation of politicised discourse (Couldry & Hepp 2016; Hepp, Breiter, & Hasebrink 2018). Critical voices in intercultural communication (Dervin 2011b; Dervin & Machart 2015; Nakayama & Halualani 2010), have warned about the negative impact of simplistic visions of culture, which can be seen to lead to a vicious circle accrediting populist xenophobia and discourse presenting migration as a threat to social cohesion.

2France has a long history of migration, notably as a “land of immigration”, having absorbed migrants from different countries of origin at various points in the country’s history (Noiriel 1988). Yet in recent years, while immigration flows are not at a historically high level, nationalist and xenophobic discourse has been gaining ground in the public sphere (Noiriel 2010), a process mirrored by the historical rise and apparent de-radicalisation of the political extreme right. Social debate about migration in France is framed in the light of the “Republican Integration Model”, which puts the onus on migrants adapting their behaviour to dominant social norms in the French public sphere, rather than the opposite. Indeed, multiculturalist models which seek to take into account supposed cultural differences are often dismissed in French political discourse as “communitarian” approaches, commonly associated with North America and the English-speaking world, and seen to lead to situations which subversively legitimise (foreign or ethnic) identity claims (Schnapper 2007; Wieviorka 2008). However, the republican model has also been criticised for not taking into account previous or alternative models of socialisation to which the individual may have been exposed, and insisting instead on the importance of learning and conforming to what are presented as French practices and values (Hachimi Alaoui 2016; Wieviorka 2008 :226). Individuals arriving in the country are expected to assimilate what is expected of them, sometimes with short formal training in French republican values and institutions, and then left to find their own way in society, often with the help of associations, religious and diaspora groups. Faced with the pedagogical challenge of diversity, a combination of political, social and economic factors have led to the institutionalisation of an approach which seems to consist in disqualifying this diversity in the face of a normative French societal model, rather than helping migrants to deconstruct, reconfigure and build upon their existing individual representations. This paper argues that the objective of social cohesion motivating the integration policy can be more effectively promoted by paying attention to evolving individual representations in the ongoing process of socialisation.

3Scientific literature from communication science, and from the field of intercultural communication in particular, can be used to focus on this process. Studies on “acculturation” and “culture shock” have traditionally concentrated on businesspeople or students, notably when looking to improve “adaptation” to host societies via training or tools, leaving a partial gap in the literature as regards other categories of migrants, typically less affluent. Moreover, tools designed for all of these publics are often based on premises which tend to objectify national cultures (Dervin 2014). Although growing up in a given national setting may influence individuals’ views or behaviours in a general way, knowledge and representations are multiple and continue to evolve through the ongoing process of socialisation, which is especially pronounced during phases of contact with new social groups or a host society, as individuals seek to understand and adapt to new social configurations. Behaviours in any given setting are not conditioned by national cultures but linked to many different factors, not least of which are the identities attributed to those present (Frame 2013b). It follows that training to help people understand such phenomena should to take into account national cultures and identities not as deterministic ontologies, but rather as social constructs guiding expectations, which have an impact on the way people act towards one another.

4This paper thus focuses on the epistemology of intercultural communication in information and communication sciences, and the way that dominant theories and concepts of this “inter-discipline” have contributed to shape our thinking about migrants and migration. In reaction to critical voices in intercultural communication, it aims to show how emerging, liquid, negotiated definitions of culture can be used to rethink the questions of integration and social cohesion. By factoring in social discourse and identity dynamics when seeking to understand the cultural dimension of these processes, it argues, we are better able to address some of the most pressing issues in today’s societies, marked by growing populism and xenophobia. Finally, taking into account the French model and based on a research-action project currently in progress, it will make the case for an integration policy including measures to actively engage their target public in a reflexive, individualised way, and outline tools which could be used to achieve this.

An intercultural approach to migration in communication science: epistemological foundations

  • 1 “No object is inherently ‘intercultural’ and interculturality is not an attribute in itself, but ra (...)

“Aucun fait n’est d’emblée « interculturel » et la qualité d’« interculturel » n’est pas un attribut de l’objet. Ce n’est que l’analyse interculturelle qui peut lui conférer ce caractère. C’est le regard qui crée l’objet et non l’inverse. Ainsi, par exemple, dire que nous sommes dans une société interculturelle, que nous travaillons sur des objets interculturels sont, en fait, des abus de langage. La spécificité de l’approche interculturelle réside bien dans le mode d’interrogation et non dans un champ d’application présenté comme interculturel.” (Abdallah-Pretceille 2006 :8)1.

  • 2 Ruth Benedict’s well-known book on Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, published in (...)

5This quotation from Martine Abdallah-Pretceille, which echoes the ambition of this paper, reflects not only the “theoretical turbulence” (Poutiainen 2014) characterising intercultural communication studies for at least the last couple of decades, but also differing academic traditions in this area between France and North America. From a historical point of view, the first academic studies specifically focusing on “inter-cultural” communication emerged in the USA in the post-war years (Leeds-Hurwitz 1990), and are generally attributed to Edward Twitchell Hall (1959, 1966, 1976). This research carried out for the US State Department focused not only on different national cultures, but on cultural differences as such, and the way they could be managed2. These early works adopted an applied and normative approach to interculturality, based on comparative studies, and aiming to increase communicational effectiveness between individuals of different nationalities.

  • 3 This field can also be identified by its numerous international scientific journals and academic ne (...)

6These first studies gave rise to the development of what is generally considered, in an English-speaking/North American academic context, the “field” of intercultural communication (IC), as marked by the creation in the 1970s of specific sections within the National Communication Association (NCA) and International Communication Association (ICA)3. Inspired by Hall’s work, comparative approaches dominated this first period, illustrated by several very well-known studies adopted from the field of cross-cultural management (Hofstede 1984, 1991; Lewis 1996; Trompenaars & Hampden-Turner 1993). They adopted a positivist approach to cultural differences, based on questionnaires and aiming to identify cultural value dimensions, and helped make the question of intercultural differences a more popular one, especially in the business world, where the professional literature and training seminars helped these models become dominant in the 1980s and 1990s.

7Parallel to the comparative approaches, other studies tried to look beyond specific national cultures, to deal with intercultural competence in the context of (generally professional) expatriation (Wiseman & Koester 1993). They put the accent on the individual’s specific competencies helping them deal with international settings and work assignments, evaluated via tests and developed through various training and coaching methods (Humphrey 2007; Matsumoto & Hwang 2013; Spencer-Oatey & Stadler 2009). As with Earley and Ang’s work on cultural intelligence (CQ), the aim of such studies is generally to identify affective, behavioural and cognitive qualities (Earley & Ang 2003) which help individuals become more “effective” at communicating and managing internationally.

8Less directly inspired by the needs of multinational corporations, another important trend in IC concerned questions of face and politeness (Brown & Levinson 1987) in intercultural interactions (Spencer-Oatey 2000, 2007; Ting-Toomey 1994). Inspired by sociology and adopting an interpretivist stance, these studies question the existence of universal values associated with politeness and study the way people manage face in difference societies (macrosocial level) or through facework in interactions between individuals of different nationalities (microsocial level).

  • 4 Although English is the first language in terms of the volume of academic work published in the fie (...)

9Aside from sociology, other disciplines contributing to the dominantly English-speaking field of IC4, and more directly associated with work on migrants and migration include (cross-) cultural psychology (Smith & Bond 1998), with concepts such as acculturation (Berry 1997; Kim 1995), “culture shock” (Ward, Bochner, & Furnham 2001), or Anxiety and Uncertainty Management Theory (AUM) (Gudykunst 1995, 1998; Gudykunst & Kim 1992). In the French-speaking world, research in (cross-)cultural psychology has notably been linked to the question of migrants’ identity strategies and studied in the Association de Recherche InterCulturelle (ARIC), by figures such as Carmel Camilleri (C. Camilleri et al. 1990; Carmel Camilleri & Cohen-Emerique 1989; Carmel Camilleri & Vinsonneau 1996), Edmond-Marc Lipiansky (Ladmiral & Lipiansky 1989), Claude Clanet (1985, 1993) and Jacques Demorgon. In France, the Office Franco-Allemand de la Jeunesse (OFAJ) as an institution has historically supported the development of intercultural approaches to education science, around scholars such as Jacques Demorgon (1989), Claude Clanet and Martine Abdallah-Pretceille (1985). Other approaches were developed from linguistics, including Communication Accommodation Theory (CAT) (Gallois, Franklyn-Stokes, Giles, & Coupland 1992; H. Giles & Coupland 1991; Howard Giles & Ogay 2007). Finally, in management science, more complex and multi-layered approaches to cultural phenomena in organisational settings have been developed (Jackson & Aycan 2006), notably in connection with questions of power and intersubjective negotiation of emergent cultural forms and identities, for example in international teams, joint ventures or mergers and acquisitions (Brannen & Salk 2000; Cloet & Pierre 2018; Davel, Dupuis & Chanlat 2008; Pierre 2002; Primecz, Romani & Sackmann 2011).

  • 5 Data collection methods range from closed questionnaires to semi-structured interviews, and include (...)

10This very rapid and non-exhaustive overview of some of the main historical trends in IC research covers a wide range of approaches and methods5. It also includes multiple epistemological postures, which need situating in relation to different academic contexts. IC research did not receive the same institutional recognition in France as in the US, as noted by Yves Winkin (1984, 1994, 1996), Tania Ogay (Dasen & Ogay 2000; Ogay 2000, 2001) and Stefanie Averbeck-Lietz (2008, 2013). These scholars point to its applied, comparative and ideological nature, contrasting with the French academic context marked by critical theory and in which the proponents of Information and Communication Science were still fighting to establish their scientific legitimacy and lettres de noblesse. Research interests varied between countries (Averbeck-Lietz 2013; Roth & Wilhelm 2016) and questions relating to multicultural societies or interethnic tensions may not have seemed as relevant when considered through the universalist prism of postcolonial France.

11On the epistemological level, positivist approaches to IC are often distinguished from interpretative ones (Friedman 2014; Ogay 2000; Romani 2008; Romani, Barmeyer, Primecz, & Pilhofer 2018). The former, which Victor Friedman associates with the period 1960s-1980s, include comparative approaches and work on (national) cultural adaptation. They reduce culture and communication to dependant variables, linked to the national culture or personality of individuals, rather than considering them as complex emergent social processes. This “cultural differences paradigm” suggests that communication problems come from differences in national cultures that need to be overcome. The ‘solution’ proposed is to learn to understand these differences and adapt to them, or have the other person adapt, in order to communicate “efficiently” (Dervin 2011a :39). This first paradigm, which often failed to differentiate macro- and microsocial approaches to cultures and communication, was then challenged by proponents of an interpretivist, performative, social constructionist or symbolic interactionist paradigm (Spencer-Oatey & Franklin 2009), focusing on intersubjective negotiations of meaning on the microsocial level, taking into account considerations of multiple identities, non-national and negotiated conceptions of cultures. As Ron Scollon and Suzanne Wong Scollon write :

Rather than seeking an explanation of how given identities and meanings are communicated or fail to be communicated, what is sought is an understanding of how identities and meanings are constituted in and through the interaction itself. The role of culture and other a priori categories in this model is as historical and cultural archives of tools through which social actions are taken by participants. (Scollon & Wong Scollon 2003 :543).

12From the early 2000s, calls were thus made for paradigmatic renewal, notably by cross-cultural management scholars (Søderberg & Holden, 2002), with an issue of the International Journal of Cross Cultural Management dealing specifically with this question in 2006 (Jackson & Aycan 2006). From this point onwards, we can note a widening gap between those academics who progressively adopted interactionist approaches to the cultural dynamics of communication, and many intercultural trainers whose clients are receptive to simplistic and stereotyped recipes based on national cultural differences, and who go on feeding into essentialising social discourse mirrored in the media and populist political stances.

13The growing realisation of this gap between social and academic discourse, as well as increasing frustration with perceived “misuses” of the culture concept (Hannerz 1999) led to a second paradigmatic challenge from critical scholars, based on a postmodern criticism of the legitimacy of any research (including positivist and some interpretative approaches) which is based on “solid” definitions of the concept of culture (Dervin 2011a, 2013; Jack 2009; Nakayama & Halualani 2010; Romani et al. 2018; Romani & Claes 2014; Sommier 2014; Wagener 2015). Particularly hostile to the comparative approaches which they consider largely responsible for essentialising representations and discourse, the scholars defending these new paradigms use methods such as critical discourse analysis and deconstruction to question the motivations of positions defended in particular instances of argumentation. This critical movement focuses on dimensions of power, ideology, oppression and emancipation channelled through discourse and thus links up with other critical approaches in cultural studies (Hammer & Kellner 2009; Maigret 2013; Mattelart & Neveu 2008), for example. This change of perspective is resumed by Mélodine Sommier: “The main aim of using a critical intercultural communication framework is not to uncover what culture really is but to uncover what representations of culture come to appear real, and through which processes.” (Sommier 2014 :8).

14Academic specialists currently dealing with questions of interculturality often favour social constructionist or hermeneutic approaches (Dahl 2006 :7–18; Dervin 2011b :30–32), relying on “liquid” conceptualisations of culture as a process (Bauman 2011; Ogay & Edelmann 2016). This trend contributes to take the emphasis away from the national level as the main focus of analysis, even if methodological nationalism (Beck 2007; Dervin 2014; Wimmer & Glick Schiller 2002) continues to weaken certain studies. Liquid conceptualisations of culture consider it not as a variable to discover, but rather as a set of potential signifiers to be taken into account reflexively on the level of co-constructed meanings during social interactions. In Jeff Verschueren’s pragmatic approach to intercultural communication:

when we take into account ‘reflexivity’, culture does play a role in intercultural communication, but not as a describable, separable, bounded entity (rather as the complex of practices and concepts that, in actual discourse, reflexively connects interaction and cognition in an overall process of meaning generation); and not as a direct determinant which it cannot be if it does not have an ‘external’ existence (rather as a complex of ideas that is part of the metapragmatic awareness which indirectly determines the meaningfulness of the activities that are carried out or the events that take place). (Verschueren 2008 :31).

15The object of this type of approach is to understand the ways in which cultural dynamics affect sensemaking during interactions, including the participants’ representations of the cultures themselves. To echo Martine Abdallah-Pretceille in the passage quoted at the beginning of this section, this raises questions as to whether intercultural communication should indeed be seen as a field, or whether it should not more usefully be considered as a transversal dimension of all communication, as Eric Dacheux (1999 :2) and Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni (1994 :141) were already suggesting in the 1990s.

16The intercultural approach to migration outlined here thus raises questions not so much about supposed cultural differences linked to national identities, although these may constitute an important part of social discourse which should also be taken into account, rather it looks at the way that various identities are mobilised and co-constructed in the process of sense-making in everyday interactions (critical and interactionist dimensions). For reasons of space and scope, the paper does not focus specifically on the work carried out in communication science, in France and elsewhere, specifically centred on migration, socialisation, diasporas and ICT, and which is reflected in many of the other contributions to this journal issue. By adopting a specifically “intercultural” perspective on communication processes, the ambition of the paper is to cast new light on the migrant condition and identity, as illustrated in the following section through the discussion of the integration process.

The integration process revisited: rethinking migration and social cohesion from a critical intercultural standpoint

17It should be clear from the preceding discussion that there is a growing gap between more complex academic approaches to cultures and much of the social discourse surrounding migration which is relayed in the media or in some political discourse. When public figures point to “cultural barriers”, differences in “traditions” or “lifestyles” as obstacles for communication and integration, they often seem to accredit the notion that individuals are determined by country of birth or perceived heritage, so that they produce only certain forms of thought and behaviour, oblivious to the social context in which they may currently be living. Such “solid” approaches to culture are rejected by those academics who point to the way in which individuals, as they grow up and through various life experiences, become socialised in many groups (professional, religious, national…) and use their corresponding cultural repertoires (Swidler 1986) to find common ground and negotiate meaning with one another. In this sense, cultures are not what separate people, but indeed what make communication and mutual understanding possible.

18However, what do separate people are the intergroup identity dynamics associated with social tensions and “Us and them” type discourse. The social psychological processes which lead to intergroup rivalry, negative and stereotyped perceptions of outgroup members, and in some cases intergroup violence have been analysed extensively in Social Identity Theory (Abrams & Hogg 1990; Calhoun 1994; Smith & Bond 1998; Tajfel 1974, 1981; Tajfel & Turner 1986; Turner 1982). Perceived social tensions and competition for resources are catalysing factors in these categorisation processes, meaning that deterministic discourse about “cultural barriers”, mediated through social interactions, are likely to heighten consciousness of group belonging, aggravate intergroup rivalry and strengthen perceptions of supposed cultural differences. The work of Fredrik Barth on group boundary maintenance (Barth 1969) further suggests that a sense of group belonging and intergroup rivalry leads groups to cultivate distinctive identity traits. Through the mediation of interpersonal interactions, group cultures will, in given circumstances, evolve to increase intergroup differentiation, capitalising upon and attributing symbolic capital and affective value to traits which distinguish in-group members from outgroups. Despite having their roots in processes linked to identity dynamics and social distinctiveness, the espoused identity traits become socially-valued expressions of group culture, not because they are particularly traditional, although they may be perceived as such, but because they allow group members to adopt a central stance in the group, thus gaining social prestige as “one of us” when performing such traits. Many examples of this basic social process have been highlighted in cultural studies, sociology and sociolinguistics. It is apparent in various youth “subcultural styles” (Hebdige 1979) as groups seek to differentiate themselves both from mainstream adult society and from other “subcultures”. In the French context, many regions thus cultivate their specific patrimonial “authenticity” through accents, dress and gastronomic specialities (Rasse 2013). In urban spaces, styles of speech, use of vocabulary or ways of dressing can mark out individuals from different age groups and neighbourhoods. On a more political level, restrictions on religious dress or refusals to take into account dietary preferences in school canteens, in the name of Republican neutrality, can lead to religious or ethnic groups feeling targeted and stigmatised and thus defensively elevating the offending symbols to strongly-valued identity traits embodying resistance and social defiance. Following the municipal bans and ensuing social debates around the “burkini” in France in 2016, this particular garment has incontestably taken on a particular symbolic value for many French Muslim women, whether or not they decide to wear it, and for wider society. Although each person has their own motivations and the factors of choice are clearly multiple, someone choosing to wear the burkini is arguably making a symbolic statement related both to perceived long-standing religious traditions and to perceived anti-Muslim sentiment and a desire (paradoxical for some) to express a form of individual freedom in lifestyle choices. They key point is that the identity dynamics are inextricably linked to the cultural form chosen to express them. Identity-based tensions are what divide and threaten social cohesion, whereas the cultural forms, rather than being static, deterministic barriers, evolve to express these identities, depending on social contexts.

  • 6 Both the Republican integration model of society and the North-American multicultural model are cur (...)

19This discussion raises further questions, in the French context, as to how far the existing Republican model of integration, based on the preservation of espoused French republican values in the public sphere, is able to guarantee social cohesion, in a postmodern context where public expression of individual lifestyle choices appears to be an increasing global trend, at least in Western societies (Beck, Giddens, & Lash 1994; Featherstone 1995; Giddens 1991; Lash & Featherstone 2002; Wolton 2003). The aim of this paper is not to challenge this model6, but to explore the way in which it is operationalised institutionally with regard to migration and migrants, in order to highlight ways in which existing tools and processes might be improved, in the light of critical intercultural theory.

The French integration system for migrants

20The “integration” of migrants in France is one of the missions of the “French Office for Immigration and Integration” (OFII), at the Ministry of the Interior. The structure dating from 2009 is the latest in a line which has existed under different names since the National Immigration Office founded in 1945. The OFII is the first name to explicitly include the term “integration”, as the entity’s initial missions focused mainly on managing immigration flows. The notion of integration was put forward with the personalised “Reception and Integration Contract” (contrat d’accueil et d’intégration, CAI) introduced in 2003 and replaced in 2016 by the “Republican Integration Contract” (contrat d’intégration républicaine, CIR).

21The CIR, signed by non-European migrants moving to France for the first time in order to live there permanently (around 50% or all residence permits issued)7, is the central instrument in the 5-year “personalised republican integration process” (parcours personnalisé d’intégration républicaine). It is not proposed to asylum seekers until they are granted refugee status, a process lasting 14 months on average8. The CIR is signed between the individual migrant and the state after an interview at the OFII, in which the migrant agrees to follow a 2-day civic training module and, depending on his/her level of French, French classes up to level A1 (the lowest level) in the European Common Languages Framework. The contract is valid for one year and can be renewed once at the initiative of the OFII if the individual has not fulfilled the conditions during the first 12 months. These include “regularly and conscientiously” following the prescribed training and “not showing signs of rejecting the essential values of French society and the Republic”9. Failure to respect these conditions can lead to subsequent residence permit applications being rejected.

22A recent parliamentary report focusing on the state’s migrant integration policy, prepared by government MP Aurélien Taché in preparation for the 2018 law on Asylum, Immigration and Integration, criticised the effectiveness of existing measures aiming to favour integration and social cohesion in France (Taché 2018):

  • 10 “Today, the only instrument specifically favouring integration of foreigners is the Republican Inte (...)

« Aujourd’hui, le seul dispositif en faveur spécifiquement de l’intégration des étrangers est le contrat d’intégration républicaine (CIR), conclu entre l’État et tout primo-arrivant souhaitant s’installer durablement en France. Ce CIR comprend au mieux 200 heures de français et douze heures de formation civique. Dans ces conditions, comment espérer construire un « parcours personnalisé d’intégration républicaine », pourtant prévu par les textes, alors même que les défis s’accumulent ? »10.

  • 11 “Thus, in a somewhat surreal atmosphere, the chronology of French history, the hierarchy of social (...)

23The report describes in some detail the two 6-hour civic training modules, titled “Values and Institutions of the French Republic” and “Living and Finding Work in France”, but notes also that the conditions in which these are taught are generally not optimal. Often the trainees do not speak French proficiently, and when an interpreter is available, the contents need to be simplified because of time restraints : “Ainsi, dans une atmosphère qui a quelque chose de surréaliste, la chronologie de l’histoire de France, la hiérarchie des normes ou encore la répartition des compétences entre les différents niveaux de collectivités territoriales sont expédiées en quelques minutes… 11. The report also notes that the time spent on civic training is far lower than in other European countries, compared to 50 hours in Norway, 70 in Sweden, 80 in Belgium and 100 in Germany (Taché 2018 :48).

  • 12 “Unless we really look into today’s society in order to address the cultural question directly and (...)

24In the light of this, the report states that the traditional laisser-faire stance to integration is no longer sufficient to guarantee social cohesion in modern-day France. It outlines the need to address the cultural dimension of integration: “sans véritable réflexion de la société sur elle-même, visant à appréhender la question culturelle en tant que telle et à comprendre, pour le combattre, le phénomène du racisme, la question de l’intégration restera pleine et entière.12. So how might this “cultural question” be apprehended within the Republican model, in order to favour integration?

  • 13 Taken to its logical conclusion, and arguably in more extreme forms than that currently applied in (...)
  • 14 As Wieviorka (ibid.) points out, arriving migrants who are not socialised and thus not “integrated” (...)

25The concept of integration, as defined in the sociological tradition leading back to Durkheim, encapsulates the dual relationship between society and the individual. In opposition to the concept of assimilation, integration supposes both the way in which individuals adapt to society, and the way society changes based on the individuals composing it. However, as Dominique Schnapper (2007) points out, there are differences between the sociological and political definitions of the term. In the French Republican model, individuals are expected to “integrate” by adapting to French society, becoming “citoyens” (citizens) by adopting the French language, social norms and behaviours in the public sphere, often resumed in the idea of “Republican values”. Cultural differences are confined to the private sphere where the Republican model guarantees their free expression. For Michel Wieviorka, this process of downplaying the importance of migrants’ cultural heritage in the public sphere can be experienced as symbolically violent (2008 :226). In the name of Republican equalitarianism it sets up a relationship of ethnocentric inequality, on a symbolic but also a pragmatic level, between subjects who master the codes and non-subjects who do not13. Foreigners may thus find themselves relegated to a status of “non-citizens” or “citizens undergoing integration”, potentially raising issues of social recognition which the interested parties may experience as discrimination. The racist movements in society referred to by the Taché report (Taché 2018 :12)14 should also be analysed in relation to this tendency to base the distinction between French citizens and foreigners on (more-or-less static) “fundamental values” rather than mere administrative status. In terms of social recognition, rather than recognising the individual in their diversity, it reduces him/her to the inferior ontological status of “non-citizen”.

26When analysed in the light of critical intercultural theory (supra), the power relations implicit in the model thus described, as well as the insistence on a value-based approach to (national) culture can both be seen to potentially hamper the espoused objective of social cohesion. Models based on cultural values tend to both oversimplify social reality and have only a very tenuous link to micro-level manifestations of behaviour. An example is given in an article by Myriam Hachimi Alaoui, where the author relates an incident during civic training. After spending a morning talking about liberty, equality and fraternity, observes the author, the group went to lunch, where the trainees were imposed a set menu, while the trainer had a free choice of meal. The irony of the situation did not escape the notice of the trainees (Hachimi Alaoui 2016 :91), even if it is an everyday illustration of the non-correspondence between espoused (macro-level) values and (micro-level) practices, in reality governed by a multitude of other factors (Desjeux 2002).

  • 15 The distinction can also serve to exclude certain groups of French citizens from this perceived soc (...)

27However, critical approaches would go further in challenging the very existence of a supposedly homogeneous social group (the French) sharing common (Republican) values. Even if we momentarily set aside the complex relationship between values and practice, do all individuals of French nationality really adhere to the same set of values, albeit on a very abstract level?15 From a critical standpoint, the idea of “Republican values” should be taken at best as the expression of a particular political project for society, and the desire to have “newcomers” respect these values as they are supposedly embodied in institutionalised forms appears as a project in social engineering which profits those who define and uphold the common definition of the values in question. Such a mechanism may constitute a more or less effective tool of social regulation to maintain a dominant social vision, as well as conserving the existing power balance within society. For this reason, however, critical approaches would encourage us to seek to deconstruct such discourse founded on “values” not least because they contribute to reinforcing an essentialising and communitarian vision of social groups (Dervin & Machart 2015).

Rethinking integration tools from a critical intercultural perspective

28In order to go beyond the limits of such value-based models and essentialist visions of national cultures, a “liquid”, socio-constructionist approach to culture (Bauman 2011) can be adopted. This underlines the way in which individuals, in order to communicate, build on multiple cultures and identities, co-constructing emergent cultural forms through their interactions (Frame 2013a). It focuses on microsocial level interactions, implying both sense-making processes (Weick 1995) and interpersonal and intergroup identity phenomena which effect the migrant experience and can act to help or hinder the integration process through their daily occurrences.

29Moving beyond abstract principles relating to the way we think about and discuss cultures and communication, it is important to consider how these can be applied in concrete terms to integration tools as they have been outlined here. A first evolution, in line with recommendations in the Taché report, would be to shift focus in the civic training module from abstract considerations of declarative values to pragmatic advice, rooted in the migrants’ own experiences and daily lives, aiming to develop their reflexivity regarding interpersonal communication processes, moving beyond essentialist representations of cultures. In concrete terms, this could be done by having participants share and discuss the “cultural differences” they have observed in France, with an experienced facilitator helping to “decode” unfamiliar behaviour and compare it to foreign cultural settings, both in terms of differences and similarities or parallels, as well as giving advice as to what is generally expected in various social contexts in France.

30A wider civic training programme could be partly modelled on the type of (inter)cultural competence training which is generally reserved for businesspeople preparing for expatriation (Berninghausen & Hecht-El Minshawi 2014; Jack, 2009; Matsumoto & Hwang 2013; Spencer-Oatey & Franklin 2009; Wiseman & Koester 1993). On top of sharing practical advice aimed to help newcomers get by in their everyday lives, training to foster a more global understanding of cultural differences and their impact on interpersonal communication could help them develop more critical distance towards misunderstandings and enable them to better explain them to themselves or others. The aim of this training should thus be to develop understanding and reflexivity when faced with differences in codes, practices and beliefs, and not simply to assimilate a series of unexplained and abstract injunctions which newcomers are instructed to respect in order to hope to one day be accepted. Dialogue and exchanges can lead people to adopt the dominant French cultural codes more willingly, in order to fit in more easily to society, provided that differences in cultural practices and logics can be discussed without stigmatisation or value judgements. When differences are identified and understood, the foreigner seeking to conform to social expectations to make him/herself more predictable in his/her interactions will be able to do so all the more easily and willingly if the the cultural logics underlying these practices have been rationalised and made explicit.

31In adopting a “liquid” approach to cultures, such training would also aim to challenge the idea that national cultures constitute symbolically insurmountable barriers. Recognising the various social identities and rich cultural baggage of each individual can help to avoid reductively imprisoning them in their national identities and enable and encourage them to reach out more easily to find common ground with others in their interactions (Abdallah-Pretceille 2006; Cloet & Pierre 2018). The training would thus constitute a source of empowerment : rather than being confined to an identity imposed from the outside the individual can learn to relate differently to others, while being able to implicitly question reductive or essentialising discourse with which (s)he is confronted.

  • 16 “Rather than trying through authority to open other people’s minds to reason, it is certainly more (...)

32The target publics for the civic training scheme should also be broadened beyond the current signatories of the CIR. Early-stage migrants, such as asylum seekers, are an important target, but so are the social workers and volunteers in associative structures who deal with them on a daily basis. Although, like the migrants, these workers learn from experience, exchange stories and advice, develop their own practices or implicit theories for dealing with various situations, they may come up against misunderstandings and perceived differences which formal training in this domain could help them better understand. Giving them a chance to confront practice with (some) theory, to exchange and discuss their experiences could enable certain people to develop a more structured and serene approach to assisting foreigners in the integration process. The better their understanding of these social phenomena, the more they will be able to share their knowledge with successive generations of migrants and with society at large. Since integration is a process which works in two directions (supra), the front line workers who already extend a hand to newcomers in French society would also thus be better equipped to take a metaphorical step towards their publics. Indeed, this is already the case in many instances, since the investment and devotion of volunteers and professionals of the social sector lead them to find solutions despite difficult working conditions and a lack of financial resources. But more formal training could help them become more quickly effective in their mission. As Cloet and Pierre state, “Plutôt que de chercher de manière autoritaire à ouvrir les autres à la raison, l’important est certainement, comme le pense C. Lévi-Strauss, de trouver les moyens de s’ouvrir soi-même à la raison des autres16. By meeting half-way, talking and exchanging opinions we can go beyond misunderstandings, frustrations and taboos in order to make sense, between fellow human beings, of our social relations and our collective project, despite diverse experiences and individual situations.

33This paper has been written as part of a research-action project working with social workers and volunteers in associations helping economically fragile migrants to settle and find work in France. Going beyond the civic training programme of OFII, it aims to work with the rich associative sector which is involved in the migrant integration process (Frame 2019), in order to develop “workshops” targeting both newly-arrived migrants settling in France and staff or volunteers in the associations working with them. These workshops will be designed to challenge essentialising discourse about migrants and national groups, to help newcomers to France to deconstruct their own experience and think reflexively about differences they encounter, while at the same time addressing questions of identities and dominant perceptions in social discourse. The optimised workshops will then be outlined and commented in detail, in the form of a trainer’s guide, containing both a conceptual discussion and a facilitator’s kit with training materials, which will be freely distributed online (open access), and sent to key associations in the sector, throughout France.


34This paper underlines the potential for a renewal of the intercultural paradigm used to conceptualise migration and integration in France, thanks to recent critical approaches to intercultural communication. With their focus on power, identities, and performative intersubjective dynamics in interactions, these are closer to critical cultural studies than to traditional positivist or comparative approaches to national cultures. However, this evolution has become necessary not simply as a result of emerging trends in academia. It also reflects the global shift towards identity politics in the globalised, postmodern world, characterised by “visible otherness” (Wolton 2003), new forms of sociability and diasporic socialisation and imaginaries, involving “connected presence” (Licoppe 2004) within and across technoscapes and ethnoscapes (Appadurai 2001).

35In this context, the Republican model of integration is under growing pressure as social tensions increase between different groups in search of recognition. In order to facilitate policies in favour of social cohesion, not only is it important for us as scholars to understand how these social processes are manifested in modern-day society, we should also aim to reengage with social discourse and contribute to public debate around these questions, in order to combat divisively solid definitions of culture. Politically, the question remains sensitive, which may go some way to explain the apparent lack of tools and means currently deployed in support of the integration policy, as governments may not want to be seen to overly favour what may seem to be, in the light of (mediated) “public opinion”, a stigmatised segment of the population.

36Similarly, although the idea of “Republican values” has strong political support in France, arguably it should not be the central focus of an integration policy because of its tendency to underline imagined social group boundaries. Despite the conceptual limits of integrationist models which think cultures separately, the Republican integration model, with its objective of a standardised public sphere and guaranteed cultural plurality in the private sphere, appears compatible with non-essentialist thinking, notably if the emphasis is placed on individuals as multi-faceted, and the way they use their personal cultural repertoires for sense-making in different contexts. The future of the integration model could thus be to embrace difference neither by idealising nor by stigmatising non-majority group identities, but by promoting the idea that individuals are rich with various experiences, and helping them to reflect on and continue to build up their individual “cultural repertoires”.

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1 “No object is inherently ‘intercultural’ and interculturality is not an attribute in itself, but rather the result of an intercultural analysis. It is the perspective adopted which creates the object and not the opposite. To say, for example, that we are in an ‘intercultural society’, or that we are working on ‘intercultural objects’ is imprecise. The specificity of the intercultural approach is to be found in the mode of analysis and not in a field of application presented as intercultural” [our translation].

2 Ruth Benedict’s well-known book on Japanese culture, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, published in 1946, was also prepared for the US government in the context of the post-WW2 occupation of Japan, in order to facilitate understanding of Japanese cultural practices. Like many of its contemporary anthropological studies, it was written implicitly from the national cultural standpoint of its author, dealing with Japanese culture as a system of beliefs, representations and practices. However, it does not specifically focus on the differences between Japan and the US, or discuss processes such as cultural adaptation, adjustment or interactions, which identifies it as a work of anthropology and sets it apart from the literature generally qualified as intercultural.

3 This field can also be identified by its numerous international scientific journals and academic networks and associations (mainly of North-American origin, at least in the selection presented here), such as the Journal of Intercultural Communication (Taylor & Francis, National Communication Association - NCA), the International Journal of Intercultural Relations (Elsevier, International Academy for Intercultural Research - IAIR), the Journal of Intercultural Communication Research (Nordic Intercultural Communication network - NIC), the Journal of International and Intercultural Communication (Taylor & Francis, World Communication Association - WCA), Intercultural Communication Studies (journal of the International Association for Intercultural Communication Studies - IAICS), Intercultural Studies ((journal of the International Association of Intercultural Studies - IAIS), the Journal of Intercultural Studies (Taylor & Francis, Routledge), Cross-Cultural Research (Sage, Society for Cross-Cultural Research - SCCR), Cross-Cultural Communication (Canadian Academy of Oriental and Occidental Culture - CAOOC) and, mainly for French-speaking academics, Alterstice – Revue Internationale de la Recherche Interculturelle (Association pour la Recherche InterCulturelle – ARIC).

4 Although English is the first language in terms of the volume of academic work published in the field, it should also be noted that the focus adopted here is influenced by the author’s own language proficiency and thus does not take into account work done in many other languages.

5 Data collection methods range from closed questionnaires to semi-structured interviews, and include ethnography, discourse analyses and reception studies, to quote only the most popular.

6 Both the Republican integration model of society and the North-American multicultural model are currently facing major challenges in the form of identity claims, and it would appear that actively embracing these is no less counterproductive a strategy, in the postmodern context, than seeking to channel them outside the public sphere. Although alternatives such as the “interculturalist” social model in Quebec (Bouchard 2013; Emongo & White 2018; Labelle & Dionne 2011) or the “cohabitation” model (Meyer-Bisch & Dacheux 1999; Wolton, 2003, 2005, 2009) have been tested or at least suggested, the principles governing the Republican model are deeply rooted in French political ideology. This paper thus seeks to reflect not on the model itself but on how its implementation in migration policy might be adapted to avoid contributing to social tensions, while better achieving the double objective of social integration and social cohesion.

7 (Taché 2018 :28).

8 Figures from the French government in September 2017, quoted in (Taché 2018 :25).

9 Source : Page visited on 27/04/2018.

10 “Today, the only instrument specifically favouring integration of foreigners is the Republican Integration Contract (CIR) signed by the State and all newly-arrived migrants wishing to settle durably in France. The CIR includes at most 200 hours of French and 12 hours of civic training. In these conditions, how can we hope to construct the “personalised republican integration process” envisaged by law, at a time when challenges are multiplying?” (Taché 2018 :3).

11 “Thus, in a somewhat surreal atmosphere, the chronology of French history, the hierarchy of social norms or even the respective functions of different levels of local administration are rattled off in a matter of minutes”. (Taché 2018 :48). These observations are also reflected in previous research (Hachimi Alaoui 2016).

12 “Unless we really look into today’s society in order to address the cultural question directly and to understand and fight against the phenomenon of racism, we will not make progress on the question of integration.” (Taché 2018 :12).

13 Taken to its logical conclusion, and arguably in more extreme forms than that currently applied in France, the political model of integration thus aims for social cohesion by reducing or removing differences and promoting cultural homogenisation in a way strongly reminiscent of assimilation (Wieviorka 2008 :226–232).

14 As Wieviorka (ibid.) points out, arriving migrants who are not socialised and thus not “integrated” into host society can be seen as a threat. And of course, perceived provocations, social tensions and violence from one group provoke reactions from the other in a vicious circle that certain public figures intentionally relay and aggravate through the media, allowing them to exist on the political scene by defending projects which are increasingly xenophobic.

15 The distinction can also serve to exclude certain groups of French citizens from this perceived social legitimacy, for example in discourse around the “cultural heritage” of “second generation immigrants”.

16 “Rather than trying through authority to open other people’s minds to reason, it is certainly more important, as C. Levi-Strauss suggests, to find the means to open ourselves to the reason of others”. (Cloet & Pierre 2018 :336), our translation.

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Alexander Frame, « Rethinking Migrant Socialisation in the Light of Critical Intercultural Communication: Proposals to Favour the Integration Process in France »Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication [En ligne], 17 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2019, consulté le 05 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Alexander Frame

Alexander Frame is associate professor in information and communication science at the University of Burgundy (Dijon, France) where he is a member of the TIL (Text – Image – Language) research group (EA 4182). Email :

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