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25.4.2013 | Von:
Ludger Pries

The Role of MSOs in Social Participation

Some studies have concluded that migrants who are strongly involved in country-of-origin-related social relations are also less likely to integrate into their host country. However, other studies have stressed the generally positive integration effects of internal ethnic integration.

Das Logo des Fußballvereins Türkiyemspor Berlin.The logo of Berlin football club Türkiyemspor. (© picture-alliance / Deutscher Fußball-Bund)

Two opposing positions

Since the 1980s, most of the debate in the social sciences in Germany on the societal roles of MSOs has revolved around two opposing positions: Either MSOs are seen as promoting or as hindering integration. At issue as the framework for this discussion is essentially the question as to what effects a strong involvement of migrants in ethnic and country-of-origin-related social relations and groups have on their participation in and integration into the society of arrival. Some studies, such as Breton (1964),[1] have concluded that migrants who are strongly involved in country-of-origin-related social relations (for example, in MSOs) are also less likely to integrate into their host country. However, other studies have stressed the generally positive integration effects of internal ethnic integration: "Under certain conditions, strong integration of immigrants from another culture into their own social contexts within the host society — in other words, internal integration — has a positive effect on their integration into the host society" (Elwert 1982: 718, transl. by the author). The sociologists Georg Elwert and Friedrich Heckmann consider internal ethnic integration to be a transitional stage in a longer and complex integration process which involves the whole of society. In this case, MSOs can assume important roles in promoting social integration (in the sense of stabilizing group identities) and in ensuring system integration (in the sense of articulating collective interests in the society of arrival). Involvement of people with a migration background in their own group of origin (internal ethnic integration) — through MSOs, for example — can thus promote the integration of immigrants and their descendants into the wider society of the host country (Ibid.; Heckmann 1992).

The sociologist Hartmut Esser has drawn precisely the opposite conclusion, noting that successful internal ethnic integration increases the risk of separation from the society of arrival (Esser 1986). In the short run, getting involved in one's own ethnic group may seem promising and may help immigrants to cope in the country of arrival and to stabilize their own identity in the difficult situation of migration. However, Esser suspects that, in the long run, getting too deeply involved with one’s own ethnic group of reference may prove to be a ‘trap’ which may prevent socioeconomic advancement because integration into the educational system and the labor market of the host country can only be successful if immigrants adapt to the demands of the host country.

Several migration researchers have also emphasized that little empirical research has been done on the specific impacts of internal ethnic integration and MSOs and that it is impossible to draw any useful conclusions, "particularly about their role as integration-promoting sluices or as segregation-promoting, mobility-preventing sociocultural traps" (Fijalkowski and Gillmeister 1997: 29, transl. by the author).

No consensus on the role and impact of MSOs

Although numerous individual empirical studies on MSOs have been conducted since the 1980s, no consensus has been reached on the predominant role and impact of MSOs. Indeed, "the integrative and disintegrative potential of self-organizations have received considerable attention from researchers and have become the subject of much controversy in the public and scholarly debates, with one side accusing [MSOs] of creating and consolidating a parallel society and the other emphasizing their mediating role and service functions" (Huth 2002: 4, transl. by the author; see also Fijalkowski and Gillmeister 1997; Güngör 1999; Jungk 2000; Thränhardt 2000).

It is true that the focus of some MSOs, such as the Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB), certainly is on representing the interests of the countries or cultures of origin of their members and that others, such as the Grey Wolves, an organization that has been under the surveillance of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, make deliberate efforts to prevent their members from integrating themselves into the country of arrival.[2] However, if we take an expanded perspective which considers contexts of origin and contexts of arrival, it becomes clear that such MSOs still play a specific role in processes of integration. This role must be analyzed empirically.

Characteristics of MSOs

Two ideal types of migrant organizations can be distinguished: (1) member associations, which focus primarily on their own internal affairs (cultural migrant associations, mosque communities, and 'tea houses'), and (2) lobbying associations, which focus primarily on political or general social recognition and external impact (political, refugee, ethnic minority associations). If the main purpose of a migrant organization is to provide a place for 'fellow countrymen' to meet and for people with a migration background to find appreciation and to share a common language, a common culture and similar interests, then its attachment or bonding character is its predominant feature. If, however, the main purpose of a migrant organization is to establish contact and communicate with other associations (soccer clubs, religious associations) or with government agencies (integration councils, government ministries) and to influence their environment in the country of arrival and, possibly, in the country of origin through collective mobilization, then its uniting and bridging character is its predominant feature.

Recent research perspectives

Research on MSOs in Germany and internationally has significantly increased since the late 1990s.[3] Over the past few decades, researchers have realized that rather than asking whether MSOs tend to promote integration or segregation, they ought to ask what roles MSOs play and what effects they have on social groups and social spaces under certain conditions and how their potential can be utilized to promote participation in specific social settings. In this connection one can proceed on the basis of three assumptions: (1) MSOs are usually oriented toward more than a single goal and role; they almost always have multidimensional tasks and change over time; (2) there is interaction between MSOs and their environment, in that the behavior and impact of MSOs are strongly affected by the way they are perceived and treated by their social environment; (3) MSOs are very often rooted and active in migrants' transnational contexts of origin and arrival, so their influence must also be assessed based on plurilocal or plurinational aspects. These three assumptions are examined in the following section.

This text is part of the policy brief on "Migrant Organizations: Size, Structures, and Significance".


In a study on MSOs in Montreal, Raymond Breton has examined the role of MSOs in stabilizing ethnic communities and in promoting assimilation in the society of arrival, concluding that the degree of independence of the infrastructure of migrants' own ethnic group was inversely proportional to the degree of interethnic relations (Breton 1964: 197; see also Elwert 1982).
The members of the youth wing of the Turkish Nationalist Movement Party — which also operates in Germany — refer to themselves as the 'Grey Wolves'. Their aim is to unify and establish the supremacy of all Turkic peoples, from the Balkans to Central Asia, and to fight against other religious, ethnic, and national groups. DITIB is a foreign association with charity status which is registered in Cologne. The organization and its staff are actually managed by the Presidency for Religious Affairs (Diyanet), the highest Islamic authority in Turkey.
"Our comparative perspective shows that until 1998 [MSOs] only played a marginal role in the German-speaking countries and internationally and that they received considerable interest between 1999 and 2007" (Schimany and Schock 2010: 356, transl. by the author).
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