Integration in Berlin: Research for a Desolate Landscape

On April 2, the new Berlin Institute for Empirical Research on Integration and Migration (BIM) was launched. Certainly not the first institute of its kind in Germany, Berlin’s Humboldt University, the Hertie Foundation, the Federal Employment Agency, and the German Football Association held a press conference to frame this initiative as new and needed. The reason: the field  – what is really known about the integration or inclusion of diversity – is more desert than rain-forest in this country of immigration.


Improving the civic and social infrastructure of a city often begins with data. Aside from “Big Data” being the buzzword of 2014, plain ol’ data is worth discussing. For data can instruct city planners, lawmakers, social workers etc. to better approach problems of urban spaces and their economies, in ways which benefit residents, including the marginalized. It might just be common sense, but empirical research (the critical boots-on-the-ground kind) is an act of taking stock of what is and what isn’t, which can prove quite useful in societies undergoing (or just learning to deal with) change.

Data, in this sense, is information gathered to solve a problem or answer a question. According to all panelists at the press conference, whether researchers or community and/or political stakeholders, this data is desperately required to answer the question of integration. Or is integration instead a problem to be solved?

As one of the not-so-timid anthropologists on the stage stated during the round of questions, What we are really taking about, when we talk about integration, is how to learn to deal with and approach difference in society. 

The data imperative

In light of Germany’s changing demography and political landscape, regarding immigration policy, the categories and models used to understand and support local populations have become outdated, as the dual-citizenship debate in German Parliament over the last few months has indicated. More than just the classic census is required to capture the complexity of today’s metropolis. In Germany’s capital, where policy-makers brush shoulders with constituents and neighbors alike, real data could not be more in demand and yet, ironically, easier to find. This data goes beyond numbers.

Given this deficit of information and the few reasons for it, the Federal Ministry for Migration and Refugees (BAMF) has been actively involved in BMI’s founding and is set to be involved in its future;  BAMF’s new federal integration commissioner, Aydan Özoğuz, is a key member of the BIM board. Her vocal presence at the press conference made one thing clear: We don’t even have the numbers, quite honestly, to determine these differences [between ‘foreigners’, ‘foreign-born’, citizens with migration background etc.]. This makes my job quite difficult, she articulated loudly to the audience of mostly journalists. We just do not have the data.

Eröffnungsveranstaltung des Berliner Instituts für empirische Integrations- und Migrationsforschung

Photo source: BIM HU, Dirk Enters

Wolfgang Niersbach, President of the German Football Association (DFB) – one of three sponsors of the institute and the DFB’s first sponsorship of this kind – reiterated this data-driven impetus for more research at length. In 2006, the DFB employed its very own integration commissioner to better navigate the challenging combination of passionate football fans, visible diversity, and racism. A sweeping anti-racism campaign has been the culmination of these efforts, though much is still to be learned, Niersbach said. Our hope for this institute is to get some more solid ground under our feet, to learn more about what works and what doesn’t work. It is a learning process, and it begins with better information.

A key research focus of the new institute is the relationship between sports and integration, e.g., the participation of youth with migration backgrounds in local football clubs. But the playing field is different in football; integration happens everyday, as 40% of the players have non-German backgrounds, Niersbach mentioned emphatically, looking down the table at colleagues to see their reactions. To boot, social or ethnic differences are experienced on a more intensive and yet common-place level (at least organizationally) in football, compared to German society at large.

Niersbach explained: Two talented football players grow up in Nuremberg playing together, they both go professional, they both have Turkish backgrounds. One day, one of them calls us up and says that he has decided to play for the Turkish national team, the other for the German national team. We are completely fine with that! We let them do what they want to do! But it was not always like that. Times have changed, and so should terms and categories (the dual-citizenship debate, once again case-in-point).

A clarification of terms

The institute’s projects, team of researchers, sponsors, as well as its leadership, are truly diverse. Inter-disciplinary and embracing of different methodologies and languages of information, the institute seeks to embody what it studies, something Dr. Sebastian Braun, Director of BIM, emphasized throughout his introduction. A football advocate seated next to a well-known political scientist and culture critic;  anthropologists gawking at the government employee over-using the word ‘foreigner’; clinical psychiatrists tolerating the tactics of the employment agency, in dealing with issues of health and job competency. Diversity has to begin somewhere.

But where it will certainly prove to get messy is in this sticky, touchy realm of language.

Frank J. Weiser of the Federal Employment Agency spoke from the perspective of the market-driven state, the key aim of which is full employment and a balanced checkbook: We want to improve our work with Ausländer (foreigners)…many of these foreigners have access to entitlement programs and experience higher unemployment than their German counterparts. I just work with the numbers, he said smiling, seeming pleased with his honesty. Social cohesion, approaching difference – but what about jobs?!, he might have said.

The fissure between practice, policy, and the ideals of academia is still there and not likely to go away.

Director of German Football Association, Rep. Director of Federal Employment Agency; Photo source: DFB

Director of German Football Association, Rep. Director of Federal Employment Agency; Photo source: DFB

The foreigners on our football teams used to be the exotics. In 1963, when DFB was founded, we only had three players with any sort of migration background. Today, 40% of our players have some relationship to immigration, Niersbach commented.

Hands shot up in a hurry from the rows of journalists filling the hall.

A free-lance reporter and coach for a local football league called the use of the word “Ausländer” (foreigner) by both men into question. How strange it was to hear a term describing kids born or raised in Germany, kids that play football in Germany as foreign: There are kids that play on our teams that are different, yes, but they play together… these kids don’t need to be integrated just because they happen to have a different skin tone.

The most vocal of the anthropologists, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Kaschuba, director of Humboldt University’s European-Anthropology Department, agreed with this critique, bringing the other oddly-applied term Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund (people with migration background) into the discussion. It is not just about the word “foreigner”, which connotes otherness, apart-ness; rather, the problem lies with the terms themselves, how they shift from one individual or community to the next without time for distinction – that is the humorous aspect in all of it and the aspect worth exploration, i.e. empirical research. I don’t used the word Ausländer at all, but I do use Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund, though I shorten it to MMH, and I say it M-M-H just to emphasize the irony of these terms in the German debate.

To close this round of questions, the Director of Humboldt University added, When we are talking about integration, we are focusing on those people who have decided to stay in Germany, to live here, to work here. But what does it mean to “decide”? To stay? To live? No one at the front of the room mentioned citizenship laws, legal frameworks regarding work and residency permission, or those political ideologies that might bar any empirical work on terminology from having real impact in Parliament. Surely, data for this will be gathered, but the question is, who will listen.

Taking stock

In response to a question from the Tagesspiegel, as to how this institute plans to transfer its knowledge to policy-makers, Naika Forouton, the Representative Director of the institute, responded, One of the purposes of the institute is to move away from a one-sided discourse that we have all experienced…[However], We do not see that as our job, delivering some report to policy-makers. Pure political performance is not our role.


In 2013 Naika Forouton wrote a highly-informative report in conjunction with the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), based in Washington D.C., on Muslim identity and citizenship in Germany. In 2012, she contributed to a volume of policy analyses for MPI. Policy analysis and the effects thereof constitute a large part of her professional activities, in fact. Perhaps the difference lies in the medium.

In closing, federal integration commissioner, Aydan Özoğuz, described the field to be investigated by the new BIM as deserted, barren. And to that, Immigrants have been here a long time, but now they are simply increasing. The current discourse is dominated by fear; it is a fear-laden process. It is important, with this in mind, to represent how things really are.

But can we amend this desolate landscape through empirical research alone and the data it yields?

The anthropologist, Dr. Wolfgang Kaschuba, seemed to say “no”: We need a new form of group understanding, group consensus, even relationships, even in the postmodern age, even in the era of individualism. We need to come together.

If all this coming together will produce the data this city and its neighborhoods need, somehow making it to the highest echelons of power, the BIM is a needed initiative, indeed. If not, the ivory-tower-dilemma may leave the German Football Association and others in waiting.

– By Kelly Miller

For more information on the fascinating convergence of football, integration, and political engagement, see projects from the following institutions: Robert-Bosch-Stiftung project page, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung project page (here PDF report), Bundesliga Stiftung project page (here PDF report), DFB – German Football Association project page.  For more press (German language) on the new institute, here a selection of sources: Migazin, Tagesspiegel, DFB.

All photos unless sourced otherwise were taken by yours truly.


  1. the fact that there is governmental support of the center from its founding is promising, to me. when that initial buy-in is absent, the ivory tower usually remains isolated & ignored. hopefully BIM won’t run into such issues.

  2. also, i can’t stop alliterating. SOMEONE HELP ME

  3. good point! we just hope the support is dialogue-rich, with research results feeding back into the law-making and program-creating arms of government. and there is nothing wrong with a little bit of light alliteration now and again 🙂

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