The Complicity of Culturalist Knowledge Production


by Stefan Manser-Egli

‘Respecting the values of the constitution’ is one of the most recent requirements in Swiss integration law. In the last decades, academic voices reproducing narratives of ‘cultural distance’ have contributed to the emergence of the requirement and the conception of integration more broadly. Culturalist integration imaginaries have shaped and continue to shape not only academic debates but also political discourse and legislation.

Since 2019, the integration requirement of ‘respecting the values of the constitution’ figures in both the Swiss Citizenship and the Foreign Nationals and Integration Act. The value requirement is specified in the law with references to the rule of law, the liberal democratic order, gender equality, freedom of conscience and speech and compulsory schooling. Specific examples refer to the state monopoly on the use of force, forced marriage, circumcision, sexual orientation, gender equality, and expressions of respect.

The idea that non-citizens have to adopt certain (presumably) shared values of the Swiss society can be found throughout the history of migration governance in Switzerland (Niederberger 2004, Piñeiro 2015). It is, however, in the 1990s that the talks and demands of shared values as part of a culture have accelerated and persistently shaped today’s integration regime. The requirement and the very specific examples of values that need to be respected by non-citizens have remained impressively stable since then.

Culturally Justified Deviating Claims

In 2002, a report by the Federal Council on the Foreign Nationals Act sets the foundation for the later value requirement. The report states that ‘all foreigners must be expected to respect the rules of conduct and principles that are fundamental to peaceful coexistence, such as the principle of gender equality, respect for those with different opinions and beliefs, the state’s monopoly on the use of force and the renunciation of violent conflict resolution. The state must defend these values also against culturally justified deviating claims’ (Botschaft 2002: 3797).

According to Walter Kälin’s book Fundamental rights in the culture conflict, which inspired this section of the report, cultural diversity is an essential element of any liberal order that must therefore be respected and protected. At the same time, the constitutional state must not give up its own identity, which means that the basic values and principles must therefore also be defended against culturally deviating claims (Kälin 2000, emphasis mine).

Kälin discusses both the work of sociologist and migration researcher Hans-Joachim Hoffmann-Nowotny on ‘structural integration and cultural assimilation’ and the ‘New Concept of Migration Policy’ (1997), published by an expert commission composed of academics (including Kälin himself) and members of the federal administration.

This ‘concept’ is itself an important element of the 2002 report by the Federal Council. Regarding the role of shared values, the concept states that ‘for the integration process to be successful, immigrants and the host society must recognize and respect certain basic values as a common basis.’

Anticipating the formal integration requirement two decades later, the concept lists the following examples of basic values:  recognition of the state’s monopoly on the use of force, gender equality, the democratic order, the sanctity of life, freedom of religion, freedom of expression and the self-determination of the individual.

Cultural Distance and Incompatible Cultures

In 1992, Hoffmann-Nowotny published a report entitled Opportunities and risks of multicultural immigration societies on behalf of the Swiss Science Council. The report discusses the risk of Switzerland becoming a multicultural society, that is ‘a society in which several “cultures” exist,’ in the sense that ‘immigrated individuals appear as “culturally foreign collectives” and form (permanent) minorities’ (emphases in the original).

The definition of culture, based on the report, includes ‘the basic values, norms, and institutions, and generally the “knowledge” of a society, as expressed in scientific and everyday knowledge, in myths and ideologies.’ Hence, ‘a multicultural society is created by immigration when foreign-cultural immigrants do not assimilate to the culture of the immigrant society.’

Expanding his earlier work and structural-functionalist theorizing of migration following the cultural(ist) turn in social sciences (Espahangizi 2022), Hoffmann-Nowotny asks ‘to what extent certain cultural traits of an ethnic immigrant group are at all compatible with both the culture of the country of immigration and its structure.’ According to his structuralist theory, cultural assimilation is necessary for structural integration.

However, this is not an issue for all kinds of immigration: the foreign workers from Italy and Spain, for example, came from the ‘European cultural circle’ and could therefore not be described as ‘culturally foreign.’ According to Hoffmann-Nowotny, their ‘cultural distance’ is negligible, and the ‘compatibility of their cultures’ can be taken for granted.

In contrast, the ‘new immigration’, coming from ‘less developed countries such as Turkey, the underdeveloped countries of North Africa and from many other Third World countries’ with ‘incompatible cultures’ bears the ‘potential from which multicultural societies could emerge in Europe.’

Integration Imaginaries Now and Then

The essentialist and migranticized conceptualization of culture has been criticized by many scholars. Castles for example has shown how Hoffmann-Nowotny’s theory is inscribed into a structural-functionalist tradition of assimilation that presupposes a high degree of cultural homogeneity and consensus about values and norms among the host society (Castles 1994).

Similarly, Kälin himself is critical of Hoffmann-Nowotny’s account of culture and intends (rather unsuccessfully, however) to de-migranticize (Dahinden 2016) his own use of the term. Yet, it is precisely the structural-functionalist and culturalist integration imaginaries of the to-be-respected values and their very specific examples that have found their way into the legislative process and the law.

The emergence of the value requirement in Swiss law is therefore a paradigmatic case example of how the leading strands of migration research and policy have been dominated by a western-, state- and immigration-centered perspective.

The social imaginaries underlying the current integration policy, referring to the culture and shared values of a society threatened by non-western, non-modern, underdeveloped immigration show that, twenty years later, Wimmer and Glick-Schiller’s plea is far from being heard. On the contrary, culturalist knowledge production has substantially contributed to and legitimized current integration regimes and assumptions of a priori differences between migrants and non-migrants.

This blog series is a collaboration between the IMISCOE Standing Committee ‘Reflexivities in Migration Studies’ and the nccr – on the move.

Stefan Manser-Egli is a doctoral researcher at the MAPS, University of Neuchâtel, and associated with the nccr – on the move.


– Botschaft zum Bundesgesetz über die Ausländerinnen und Ausländer vom 8. März 2002, Bundesrat.
– Castles, Stephen. 1994. “La sociologie et la peur de “cultures incompatibles” : commentaires sur le rapport Hoffmann-Nowotny.” In Europe : montrez patte blanche ! : les nouvelles frontières du “laboratoire Schengen”, edited by Marie-Claire Caloz-Tschopp and et al., 370-84. Genève: Centre Europe-Tiers Monde.
– Dahinden, Janine. 2016. ‘A Plea for the “de-Migranticization’’ of Research on Migration and Integration”’. Ethnic and Racial Studies 39 (13): 2207–25.
– Espahangizi, Kijan. 2022. Der Migration-Integration-Komplex. Konstanz: Konstanz University Press.
– Expertenkommission Migration. 1997. Ein neues Konzept der Migrationspolitik. Bericht der Expertenkommission Migration. Im Auftrag des Bundesrates, Bern.
– Hoffmann-Nowotny, Hans.-Joachim. 1992. Chancen und Risiken multikultureller Einwanderungsgesellschaften. Schweizerischer Wissenschaftsrat.
– Kälin, Walter. 2000. Grundrechte im Kulturkonflikt. Freiheit und Gleichheit in der Einwanderungsgesellschaft. Zürich: Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
– Niederberger, Josef Martin. 2004. Ausgrenzen, Assimilieren, Integrieren – Die Entwicklung Einer Schweizerischen Integrationspolitik. Seismo.
– Piñeiro, Esteban. 2015. Integration und Abwehr – Genealogie der schweizerischen Ausländerintegration. Seismo.
– Wimmer, Andreas and Nina Glick-Schiller. 2002. “Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences”. Global Networks 2 (4): 301–334.

Experts mentioned

Stefan Manser-Egli

University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland

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