News and Comment

Integration and the Big Society

Wednesday 29 September 2010

The notion of the Big Society as a channel for community and collective action cannot be seen in isolation of the concept of integration.

Different communities need to share common values and goals. While we are beginning to see some of the flesh on the bones of the Big Society, there is yet to be a full exploration of the relationship between the Big Society and integration.

The Big Society envisages a more integrated society. But simply pushing forward the main components of the Big Society, such as creating social enterprises, opening up access to data, and creating new kings of ‘free schools’ without considering how different communities (be they faith and ethnic communities, those facing economic disadvantages or disabled communities) will integrate is unlikely to serve this goal. Integration and the Big Society need to be considered together.

The traditional vision of creating a multi-cultural society, where the strengths of each ethnic community is highlighted and promoted separately, without considering what brings these communities together, has run its course.

But jumping straight into promoting a vision of a society that is completely integrated – in which everyone is happy sharing a common set of values, language and commitments – is both dangerous and unrealistic. Building integrated communities will take time.

We believe that the long-term goal should be greater integration, for instance, people being able to speak English is vital for building a shared sense of community and promotes access to employment opportunities. But different communities are at different stages of integration and may need additional support to reach out and mix with other communities. Big Society initiatives, such as those linked to community empowerment, need to be aware of the different starting points of communities and what factors will enable their integration.

Integration cannot be forced

Through our research on community cohesion and Prevent we found that certain communities, for example, Somali women in West London, were simply not ready to mix and socialise with other communities. They first needed additional support with language and communication skills, and with gaining an understanding British society. Only when they felt more confident were they able to more broadly integrate with other communities. This does not negate the long-term goal of integration, but rather, only recognises that certain communities may need time and support to reach this goal.

Integration initiatives need to be appropriate

Finally, it’s important to consider how suitable Big Society initiatives are in helping to achieve integration. Will some initiatives actually work to hinder community integration? For example, setting up a community-owned pub is often feted as an example of the Big Society in action, but how would that encourage some Muslim communities to get involved? In that scenario, what other initiatives could run alongside the pub that don’t involve selling alcohol to draw more of the community together? In addition to a pub, could the community also establish community coffee mornings that are attractive to non-drinkers?

These types of ideas will need careful consideration if more integrated societies are to become a reality.