What is social integration? Understanding the concept of social integration. Is
social integration inclusionary, implying equal
opportunities. Does increasing social integration have a negative connotation,
implying unwanted imposition of uniformity. Is social integration simply a way of
describing the established patterns of human relations in any given society.
Social integration is the joining of different ethnic groups within a society into a
common social life regulated by generally accepted norms and values. This process need not
involve the obliteration of distinct ethnic identity, which would be assimilation, but it
implies that ethnic identity does not limit or constrain commitment to the common
activities, values and goals of the society.
In the work of Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) the term refers to the density of
connection between individuals and social institutions. He assumes that a society requires
intense individual participation in a wide range of institutions for it to maintain social
integration and provide individuals with a sense of meaning and belonging.
Social Integration: Approaches and Issues - UNRISD unrisd.org
Summary: The General Assembly of the United Nations has defined social integration as one
of the three main agenda items structuring the work of the World Summit for Social
Development. This is a broad and ambiguous term, open to a number of different
interpretations. The following paper therefore explores alternative approaches to the
subject and suggests issues of social integration which could be taken up at the Summit.
Some hidden assumptions. When social integration is used in the first sense listed
above, as a goal in itself, certain problems often arise. These problems can be summarized
(a) It is intellectually easy and often politically expedient to assume that grave
problems of poverty and in justice can be alleviated through including people formerly
excluded from certain activities or benefits. Yet in many cases, the existing pattern of
development may be economically and ecologically unsustainable, or politically repressive.
Therefore it is always necessary to ask inclusion in what and on what terms?
(b) Social integration can be sought without giving sufficient attention to the need for
cultural diversity. When this occurs, there can be an imposition of uniformity.
(c) In all too many cases, international discussion of social development is also phrased
in terms of integrating those with nothing into the modern mainstream, as though the
groups defined as excluded are surviving in a virtual vacuum. Yet even the most
impoverished and apparently disorganized have their own forms of social organization.
Ignoring the real world of the disadvantaged is a danger associated with inclusionary
rhetoric, and it makes for bad policy.
(d) Finally, there is a risk that narrow concentration on the normative goal of social
integration will make disintegration undesirable by definition. In some cases, however,
the disintegration of existing systems of social relations can be essential before
progress toward a more just and equitable society can be made. The demise of slavery
provides a case in point.
What Is Social Integration? Alternative Approaches
When heads of state meet in March 1995 at the World Summit for Social Development, they
will consider proposals for action under three agenda headings: (a) decreasing poverty,
(b) reducing unemployment, and (c) enhancing social integration.
Of these three closely interrelated areas of concern, social integration is perhaps the
broadest and most ambiguous. In fact, there is some uncertainty about how this third area
should be understood and what kinds of issues should be taken up for discussion under such
Social integration is a complex idea, which means different things to different people. To
some, it is a positive goal, implying equal opportunities and rights for all human beings.
In this case, becoming more integrated implies improving life chances. To others, however,
increasing integration may conjure up the image of an unwanted imposition of conformity.
And, to still others, the term in itself does not necessarily imply a desirable or
undesirable state at all. It is simply a way of describing the established patterns of
human relations in any given society. Thus, in the latter view, one pattern of social
integration may provide a more prosperous, just or humane context for human beings than
another; but it is also possible for one pattern of social integration to be markedly
different from another without being either better or worse.
Let us begin by considering the widely held view that social integration is a positive
goal in itself. This is the way the idea was often presented in discussions within the
General Assembly leading up to the calling of the World Summit.
Social Integration as an Inclusionary Goal
Since the General Assembly urged the enhancement of social integration, it is obvious that
delegates considered the latter a goal to be attained through various policy means. When
the term is used in this way, as is frequently the case in international meetings, it
becomes a broad-ranging synonym for greater justice, equality, material well-being and
Delegates in these sessions recognize that some people or groups in the world already
enjoy these precious benefits, while others do not; and they hope that, if adequate policy
can be designed, progress will be made toward lessening these distinctions. In this sense,
the opposite of social integration is exclusion.
There is, however, a further concern underlying the call of the General Assembly to
promote the enhancement of social integration.
Social Integration as Heightened Solidarity and Mutual Identification
Because our century ends with the collapse of numerous states and the sharpening of ethnic
strife around the world, there is particular interest at the moment in searching for ways
to create or reinforce common identities which lessen the likelihood of violence and
provide a groundwork for co-operation. This is true not only at international and national
levels, but also within local societies, where a number of developments are weakening
basic bonds of mutual support and accountability and encouraging violent behaviour.
The call for enhancing social integration grows out of a generalized feeling that
fundamental institutions of society, like the family and the community, are functioning
badly; that children and young people are too often abandoned or brutalized; that criminal
activities and corruption are on the increase. It also reflects concern over the weakening
of public institutions, and a perceived decline of civility and tolerance in day-to-day
In this context, enhancing social integration can be understood as promoting harmonious
interaction and solidarity at all levels of society. When this dimension of the concept is
given priority, it becomes the opposite of a process of disintegration.
Furthering the Goal of Social Integration: Some Hidden Assumptions Although no one doubts
the importance of denouncing the unacceptable trend toward greater polarization, and
launching an urgent call for greater solidarity, it is important to point out some of the
hidden assumptions which often underlie an exclusive emphasis on social integration as a
goal or end in itself.
1. If not carefully thought out, a call for greater inclusion in the benefits of
development can be made without questioning the nature of the current process of
development itself. It is intellectually easy and often politically expedient to assume
that grave problems of poverty and injustice can be alleviated through including people
formerly excluded from certain activities or benefits. Yet, in many cases, the existing
pattern of development itself may be unviable or unjust.
Would it be advisable, for example, to suppose that all people around the world, who are
currently unable to reach the very high levels of consumption characteristic of a few
developed countries, can be included in the existing system without placing intolerable
strains on the ecosystem of the earth? A more equitable form of inclusion in fact requires
fundamental alteration of existing patterns of consumption.
The existing state of affairs may sometimes be not only ecologically unsustainable but
also politically repressive. It is useful to remember that strongly authoritarian or
totalitarian societies do in fact include everyone in elaborate structures of managed
participation. In such cases, the problem of improving the quality of life for most people
is not one of exclusion or inclusion, but of reform.
In sum, when promoting the goal of social integration, it is always necessary to ask the
additional question: inclusion in what and on what terms?
2. A problem can also arise when social integration is sought without giving sufficient
attention to the need for cultural diversity within most societies. The excluded can be
included in ways which attempt to promote an unacceptable degree of homogeneity; and, when
this occurs, the search for social integration becomes synonymous with the imposition of
The issue of how to assure equal rights and opportunities for all, while respecting
diversity, is one of the central policy questions of the twentieth century. It is also one
of the most complex. Because this is the case, social integration can be considered a
negative goal by some groups.
3. When the goal of social integration is posed in terms of drawing the formerly excluded
into national society, there can in fact be a tendency to forget that the latter have
their own forms of social organization. In all too many cases, international discussion of
social development is phrased in terms of integrating those with nothing into the modern
mainstream, as though the groups defined as excluded are surviving in a virtual vacuum.
This is simply not true.
Those who are excluded from some areas of modern society - even those who are most
impoverished and apparently disorganized - are included in other forms of social
organization. Good policy cannot be made if it fails to take the real world of the
disadvantaged into account.
4. If social integration is explored exclusively from a prescriptive standpoint, so that
emphasis is placed on improving certain indicators of opportunity or consumption (like
nutrition, school enrolment, voter registration and so forth), it is possible to encourage
some improvement through increased public expenditure without looking further into the
structural bases of exclusion. Any improvement in the condition of the least advantaged is
of course to be welcomed. But for integration (in the sense of more equal life chances) to
be furthered over a longer term, and in a sustainable way, it is necessary to ask why
problems of immiseration and polarization have arisen in the first place and why they seem
to be growing worse.
5. Finally, there is a risk that narrow concentration on the normative goal of social
integration will make disintegration undesirable by definition. In some cases, however,
the disintegration of existing systems of social relations is essential before progress
toward a more just and equitable society can be made. The demise of slavery during the
nineteenth century provides a case in point.
Anchoring Prescriptions in Analysis: The Uses of an Alternative Approach to the Subject of
One way to avoid the pitfalls just outlined above, and to orient discussion at the Social
Summit toward consideration of central problems of social development in the 1990s, is
obviously to base proposals for change on a solid analysis of existing patterns of social
relations in different concrete situations. And here an alternative way of approaching the
subject of social integration comes into play.
No one goes through life alone. All of us are created within, and influenced by, networks
of social relations which provide us with our identity and establish a framework for our
actions. We survive and pursue our goals within a structure of institutions ranging from
our families or households, clans or neighbourhoods or communities (where we seek primary
support and protection), to the schools, associations, street gangs or video parlours (in
which we are trained); and the small holdings, plantations, factories, sweatshops, stores
and offices (in which we work). On a more general level, our opportunities or life chances
are affected by larger political and economic structures ranging from tribal councils or
municipal governments to the nation state, and from non-monetary exchange relations among
friends to the Tokyo stock market. The United Nations system is one of the international
elements in determining the options available to an increasing number of people around the
Observing this real world of human interaction, we can use the term social integration in
several ways: Patterns of social integration
At any given moment in time, it is possible to take a snapshot of the way a certain
society is organized (for example, Wall Street in New York, the squatter settlements of
Rio de Janeiro, a peasant village in India, or indeed the emerging world society of the
1990s). What are the values and rules which shape peoples actions in each of these
contexts? What kinds of behaviour, within what sets of relations among people, allow them
to survive or get ahead? How is power held and exercised, for example, and how is wealth
created and distributed? What relations between man and nature are predominant? In each
context, there is a pattern of social integration, or network of social relations and
institutions, regulated by specific ideas concerning what is right and wrong, which bind
people to one another under certain conditions. These, in turn, are intimately related to
the way different groups make use of their natural environment.
To understand how very different these arrangements can be, one could compare the pattern
of social integration characteristic of feudal England with that to be found on the Amazon
frontier in 1990.
Processes of social integration
Moving from static snapshots to dynamic pictures of social change, we can look at the
process of social integration and disintegration through which particular values and
institutions develop or break down.
It is also possible to move from the level of a larger society to that of a group, and to
examine the way particular groups are integrated into broader social units or relations.
For instance, how are refugees integrated into host societies and how are the latter
changed in consequence? How are subsistence cultivators integrated into regional, national
and world markets? Within this perspective, as within the alternative one described at the
beginning of this paper, there can be more or less integration. But more, in the context
now under review, is not necessarily better.
Increasing integration is simply an indication that the complexity of social relations is
greater, that the life chances of people are more bound up with those of others and less
amenable to independent determination. Disintegration, in contrast, signifies the
unravelling of existing ties.
The policy-relevant question for those who look at social integration in these terms is
not how to increase integration per se, but how to promote a kind of integration which
favours the creation of a more just and equitable society.