Ethnic organisational engagement promoting civic skills, but not enabling access to national political recruitment networks

Interview with Professor Bo Bengtsson, Uppsala University


Professor Bo Bengtsson from the Institute of Housing and Urban Research, Uppsala University, visited the Division of Sociology at the University of Turku in mid-March 2015. He held a lecture on comparative process tracing – a methodology that combines elements of theory, chronology and comparison – and a seminar discussing the work of three PhD students in sociology. His previous research has dealt extensively with ethnic organisation and political integration in urban settings.

In connection with this, Professor Bengtsson took part in a large-scale European project (Ethnic Organisation and Political Integration in Cities) that looked at the ethnic organisation of different migrant communities in urban settings, namely Turks (including Kurds and Syrian Christians) and Chileans. The data collection for Sweden was conducted in the Stockholm metropolitan area. The project’s central aim was to understand to what extent organisational engagement can function as a political resource for individuals of migrant background, and eventually how it can enhance their integration in the society in which they settle.

Some fifteen countries took part in the project, which gave insights into how institutional and structural conditions affect organisational engagement and political integration. Professor Bengtsson explains that, contrary to what was expected, the results indicated that despite higher membership rates in the ethnic associations in Sweden, there was no substantial difference between countries concerning organisational engagement and political integration:

“That was a surprise because the Swedish system, or the integration policies, is to a large extent based on the idea of organisations playing a role,” Bengtsson explained.

“In the case of integration policy, the state has supported the ethnic associations… It is well institutionalised. So we expected there to be a difference. But we didn’t find any difference between Sweden and other countries, in general. There were differences between cities, but not systematic advantage in terms of political integration for members of associations in Sweden.”

Ethnic organisations in Sweden receive special funding from municipalities, and their national umbrella organisations are in direct communication with national politicians. This conforms to national integration policy, which emphasises the role of ethnic organisations in immigrant integration, says Professor Bengtsson. Within the Swedish welfare system, political integration via ethnic organisational engagement can take place directly or indirectly. Direct political integration means that association members represent their associations in political life. Indirect integration happens when members acquire civic skills via participation in associations instead of taking part in more traditional representative politics.

However, there were differences between different ethnic groups in terms of organisational engagement. The project’s results at the individual level indicated that in Sweden participation in associations was lower among people of Chilean and Turkish backgrounds than those with Swedish background. At the organisational level, however, Professor Bengtsson said that there were differences between ethnic communities, with the Turkish community showing higher levels of political organisation than the Chilean community. The Chilean associations tended to provide opportunities for members to meet and participate in cultural activities, whereas the Turkish organisations’ activities contained a more accentuated political dimension.

Earlier research has put forward two potential impacts on political integration for members of ethnic organisations: the first is increased political participation in the national political structures of the new country; the second is to render members passive and segregate them from the host society’s political life. However, according to Professor Bengtsson, there was no clear indication of either of these effects in the Swedish case:

“There is also a discussion in Sweden that these associations sort of co-opt people, in a way. So they get more passive. I mean it is part of the general discussion of corporatism. But there were no clear results either way.”

Thus, in the Swedish case it seems that participation in ethnic organisations enhances the development of members’ civic skills, but does not enable their political mobilisation at a higher level.

Professor Bengtsson is an internationally recognised researcher of housing policy and politics. He has also conducted studies on immigrants’ associational life in Sweden. In recent times he has been interested in methodological questions concerning case studies and comparative research. Professor Bengtsson’s home page:

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