Integration, British Values and the Genealogy of Norms

by Tanzil Chowdhury


Foucault and the anti-genealogical.

Dame Louise Casey’s recent independent review ‘into integration and opportunity in our most isolated and deprived communities’ has been widely criticised, primarily for focussing its lens on Muslim ‘immiscibility’ rather than structural racism and regurgitating old orientalist-stereotypes of hostile diaspora communities. Off the back of the report, the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, proposed an oath for civil servants and others holding public office that would commit them to ‘British Values.’  Relatedly, a central tenet of the Government’s Prevent Strategy and the problematic ‘conveyor belt’ theory (which presupposes ‘extremism’ as the exclusive cause of terrorism) defines extremism as the ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British Values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.’ Ignoring the Tory MPs whom voted against same-sex marriage, the very real problem of white-flight from multi-racial communities, and the many on social media aligning British Values with war, imperialism and colonialism, integration through submission to these values (widely, and thus problematically, defined) is hailed as the antidote to Britain’s social malaise.

Integration (or assimilation) presupposes a hegemonic or dominant normativity. A norm governs the behaviour or thinking of an individual, collection of individuals or society. At one end, you may have a norm amongst your friends that dictates you go to the cinema each Saturday evening, wherein non-compliance may invite derision from your friends. At the other end, other types of norms, such as prohibitions against murder or how to establish a contractual relationship with someone, would invite stronger recriminations (or invalidations as would be the case for contracts) if there is deviation from the norm. Norms therefore can be developed on both macro- and micro- levels; within society at larger, or within workplaces, teams or groups of friends. Integration requires subsumption by individuals, groups of individuals or society to that norm. The question then becomes how are these norms created and/or determined?

Unlike what we may think, norms do not exist in nature which are then transcendentally adduced; nor are they discovered through reason. Norms are socially constructed. In other words, as well as constituting beings, norms are also constituted by them. Importantly however, just because norms are contingent upon the societies that create them, their constitution is not democratically determined as we may hastily (and optimistically) think. In fact, norms are subject to the maldistributions of power within society. In other words, norms will often be constituted by those that are privileged with power in society. This means that they are not static but dynamic. This also means that norms will favour those that are in power or who identify (and are able to) with those in power. History therefore, or more accurately genealogy, is important in understanding the content of norms and integration more generally.

Michel Foucault’s genealogical approach rejects history as a chronological pattern of events emanating from a determinate point of departure and attempts to identify underlying ‘discontinuous systematicities’. These discontinuous systematicities highlight the contingency of systems of thought which are the product of ‘the accidents, the minute deviations – or conversely, the complete reversals –the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us’ (Foucault, 1949). Genealogy attempts to ascertain the power relations operating in particular events and historical developments, identifying and analysing these and the ideas they give rise to. The rules (or norms) that emerge from ‘rituals of power’ are passed into laws, moral or social conventions and these sustain particular configurations of power and their diffusion within society.

Genealogy demonstrates the interplay of power which necessary shapes norms. Far from ‘developing’ as a norm, the implication being that norms ‘improve’ or ‘get better’ (as a product of reason and rationality) as time goes on, the dynamic construction of norms is in fact contingent on the formulations and re-formulations of power. Contrary to a conventional ‘historical analysis’ therefore, the genealogical approach observes the interplay between power and the norms which are contingent upon them. In displacing the presumption that norms are the product of rational individuals, a genealogical analysis demonstrates how power constitutes and is constituted by the engagement of power of the prevailing group.

Norms, and by extension integration, are both politically expedient and constituted by the prevailing distribution of power. Rather than being determined through intersubjectivity, as is more likely to be the case among friends (or the micro-level), norms at the macro-level will often favour one group of people above another. Values, norms and integration therefore, illustrate a pathological problem with the way that Britain has always had with difference. In the eyes of the hegemon, difference is understood as deviation from the norm and therefore subversive to its power. This underwrites many different discourses which have existed throughout history, from the ‘civilising mission’ of European colonialism to the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis popularised by the likes of Samuel Huntingdon.

Integration can therefore be understood as a form of social control – what has earlier been referred to as subsumption – or specifically subsumption of the other. The problem therefore is less to do with minority communities but those that define the dominant normativity (or identify with it) and the collective hostility toward difference.

Tanzil Chowdhury recently completed his doctorate and lectures at the School of Law, University of Manchester. His research centres around the UK’s legal power to declare war and commit troops abroad. He also co-founded the Northern Police Monitoring Project and help set up the Greater Manchester Law Centre. Twitter: @Tchowdhury88


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