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After Brexit, nationals could take a lesson in integration from immigrants

Hate crimes in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reached a new peak after the UK’s Brexit vote. This was sadly predictable, considering that one of the Leave campaign’s key arguments in favour of exiting the European Union was the prospect of getting tougher on migration and border controls.

Anti-migration sentiment is not a “British only” phenomenon. Alternative for Germany, a nationalist party which recorded the strongest increase in three federal state elections in 2016, proclaimedEinwanderung braucht klare Regeln” – migration requires clear rules. With his call for a wall to be built along the US-Mexico border, US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has taken anti-immigration rhetoric to the centreground of American politics.

The message from these politicians is clear: migration is not only an economic threat but also a cultural one – the more we accept different ways of life in our own neighbourhood, the more our own way of doing things is under existential threat. But our recent research has shown how a zero-sum trade off between national and other cultures does not really reflect the reality.

Integration goes both ways

Psychologists, anthropologists, and political scientists have studied how migrants can integrate – maintaining the heritage culture of the country where they were born, while simultaneously adapting to a host culture. So a German migrant living in the UK can have German friends, speak German and cheer for the German football team while at the same time be fluent in English, hang out with British friends, and wear a poppy in November.

The streets around Markazi Jamia Mosque in Bradford. tj.blackwell/flickr, CC BY-NC

Overall, migrants who identify with, and participate in both their heritage culture and the host culture have better overall well-being and their children even do better at school.

But what about nationals – non-immigrant people, who live alongside immigrants in their own country? Are they also able to adapt to immigrants without losing their national culture?

In my recent research with colleague Tara Marshall, I tried to answer this question by changing the wording of a questionnaire usually given to migrants. The original questionnaire uses ten questions to ask migrants how much they maintain a link to their birth, or “heritage” culture, and another ten questions on much they have adapted to their new “host” culture.

We adapted this for nationals: asking them ten questions about how much they link to their birth culture – what we call “national culture maintenance” – and another ten about their adaptation to cultures of immigrants, their “multicultural adaptation”. For example, do they have neighbours, friends, colleagues or students who they know who are immigrants, and do they identify with them.

We gave this questionnaire to 837 nationals in two different studies in 2012. First, we asked 218 US nationals to complete our modified questionnaire online. For example, on a scale from 1 “strongly disagree” to 5 “strongly agree”, we asked them if: “I believe in my American cultural values” and “I believe in diverse cultural values.”

Not only did the data show that American nationals can integrate towards other cultures but also that both maintaining one’s national culture while adapting to cultures of immigrants were significantly and positively linked. When our participants scored high on the ten questions addressing national culture maintenance they were more likely to also score high on the other ten questions addressing multicultural adaptation – and vice versa. This would indicate that building a wall between cultures as Trump advocates might actually diminish America’s own national culture rather than encouraging people to endorse it more.

Why immigration is good for culture

In our second study in 2012, 619 participants across the UK, Germany, China, India and the US also answered our questionnaire online. Across all the countries we again found that scoring high on one set of the ten questions had no or a slightly positive impact on how nationals answered the other set of questions. This “slightly positive impact” was found for the American and European nationals who answered our questionnaire whereas the “no impact” was found for the Chinese and Indian participants.

Getting ready for Diwali in High Barnet, north London. npmeijer/, CC BY-NC-ND

In other words, those British nationals who engaged in cultural practices from immigrant communities such as Diwali were no less likely to engage in British cultural practices such as Bonfire Night. Nor were they less likely to strongly endorse British values such as individualism – the preference of the “I” over the “we”.

Fitting in

In this second study, we also analysed how nationals’ cultural adaptation to immigrants’ culture in their own country affected their well-being and daily life. Our results showed a clear message – when you adapt to other cultural groups in your own country you feel less stressed about their presence and experience a sense of “fitting in” or being comfortable in multicultural environments.

All this comes back to Brexit. Leave campaigners argued that by exiting the EU, and reducing immigration, British culture would be safeguarded. But our research shows that people’s likeliness to endorse British culture is not at threat – and it can be even higher when they also endorse the cultures of immigrants.

Our research echoes work by Oxford migration expert Alexander Betts, who argues that the vote for Brexit grew out of “a deep, unexamined divide between those that fear globalisation and those that embrace it”.

Integration is not only a task for immigrants. Nationals that integrate towards other cultures around them will thrive more too.

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