Minorisering: De Sociale Constructie van ‘Etnische Minderheden’

by Jan Rath


Amsterdam: Sua, 1991
ISBN 90-6222-223-4, NUGI 664/651
280 pages, 17×24 cm
(Also published as PhD dissertation Utrecht University)

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This book evolved out of an attempt to assess theoretically a decade of research into the political empowerment of migrants in the Netherlands. It is, in part, a critical reaction to the development of what is called ‘minorities studies’ in the Netherlands. The inability of researchers in the Netherlands to adequately answer urgent sociological questions and their poor theoretical performance is somewhat puzzling. While scholars in neighbouring countries enter into debates with their international colleagues on many matters, thereby advancing theoretical debate, the research community in the Netherlands tends not to exceed the imagined boundaries of their own ‘minority knowledge’ (minderhedenkunde) and avoids engaging in theoretical debates on higher levels of abstraction. In this book, I go beyond this ‘academic provincialism’ and engage with international debates on post-migration processes. I have a specific interest in neo- Marxist theory, and particularly the positions which have been developed by British writers such as Hall and Miles. This interest stems from the conviction that these modern varieties of this paradigm, rather than the popular ethnic relations paradigm enables me to better understand the current situation in the Netherlands. I clarify my theoretical position by contrasting each paradigm with the other – in this specific case: the minorities paradigm versus the minorisation paradigm.
What is the position of researchers working within the minorities paradigm? In the Netherlands, ‘minorities researchers’ generally assume that social processes – such as the complex one that determines the position of newcomers in society – can be influenced positively by external interventions. The agent par excellence that can produce the full ‘integration’ of migrants is the state. Furthermore researchers assume a leading role for themselves in these interventions, usually by contributing to the design and implementation of the Dutch Ethnic Minorities Policy, which is a major project of social engineering. Within the specific Dutch context, with its specific Dutch ‘ethnic minorities problematic’, they look for specifically Dutch solutions. However, by placing themselves in the service of the state (whether deliberately or otherwise), they adopt its political and ideological framework. Their attitude stems from the principle that the essence of social research is to contribute to the solution of social problems rather than to the progress of sociological theory.

‘Minorities researchers’ working in the tradition of the minorities paradigm take the existence of ‘ethnic minorities’ for granted. They assume that ethnic lines are the most important social dividing lines and that ethnic or cultural differences – imported by people from foreign areas – are ‘natural’. Such groups who also occupy inferior social positions, are defined as ‘ethnic minorities’. These ‘minorities’, so it is assumed, can improve their position simply by ‘integrating’ or ‘assimilating’ into the ‘open’ Dutch society. It is doubtful, however, whether the social position of ‘ethnic minorities’ depends on the success of their ‘integration’ and that ethnic or cultural differences are really that important. It seems that the preoccupation with cultural factors blinds researchers to other possible relevant determinants, such as class relations and the role of the state, not to mention their interrelationship.

Furthermore, ‘minorities researchers’ rarely use the concept of racism. Racism is usually considered to be a characteristic of a handful of marginal individuals rather than a structural characteristic of Dutch society. The view that racism in the narrow sense of the term is a marginal phenomenon in the Netherlands may be justified, but is theoretically problematic and it hinders the recognition of the existence of other processes that may occur with similar exclusionary effects.

Despite every effort, the social engineering project of the ‘controlled integration’ of ‘ethnic minorities’ has failed to live up to expectations: ten years after the start of the Ethnic Minorities Policy, ‘ethnic minorities’ still occupy relatively inferior social positions. Researchers who have placed themselves in the service of the state and its Ethnic Minorities Policy commonly fail to explain why this is so. What they do attempt an answer, they refer to external factors, such as the increased rate of unemployment, or to the alleged unwillingness of migrants to ‘integrate’ and co- operate with the policy. The policy itself – particularly its ideological content – is seldom questioned. For example, the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR 1989: 9) has recently claimed that ‘ethnic minorities’ are too often regarded as ‘welfare dependents’ (zorgcategorieën) and that this dependence on the state absorbs initiative and frustrates their own ‘integration’.

One area in which the social marginality of migrants is clearly evident is within political relations. According to the minorities paradigm, the process of migrants’ political empowerment is understood solely in terms of the cultural domain. Political behaviour is seen as determined by ones political culture, so that as long as migrants’ culture is not adapted to Dutch culture, migrants will not be able to move into the central positions of power. But, paradoxically, according to this paradigm, the political ‘integration’ of migrants is best achieved by the formation of group specific institutions. Through these institutions ‘ethnic minorities’ can become politically active in their own ‘ethnic’ way. As a result, these institutions bridge the socio- or politico- cultural gap between ‘ethnic minorities’ and the larger society and function as a ‘sluice’ that help ‘ethnic minorities’ to adapt gradually their form of political activity to that of the Dutch ‘majority’. For this reason the state, political parties, trade unions and welfare agencies have all set up and supported special socio-political organisations, committees or advisory bodies for, or they have waged special electoral campaigns on behalf of, ‘ethnic minorities’. Although these institutions do grant migrants places in the political decision-making process, they are rarely, if ever, the central positions of power. The outcome is therefore contrary to the predictions of ‘minorities researchers’.

Let us now examine the minorisation paradigm. Its point of departure is the assumption that, at a general level, similar processes occur in every social formation, namely processes of production and distribution, and that these processes assume a different, specific form in each nation-state. So, on an abstract level, the situation in the Netherlands is not unique at all. This theoretical position permits one to not only distance oneself from the sphere of the state, but also to analyse its role and, furthermore, to transcend the specificity of the Dutch context.

According to the minorisation paradigm, the position of migrants – in politics and in other social relations – is not the product of a process of ‘integration’ but the product of a process of distribution of scarce resources. The project of the ‘controlled integration’ of migrants – particularly, but not exclusively in the form of the Ethnic Minorities Policy – amounts to an intervention in the processes of distribution. In order to continue the dominant mode of production, to regulate scarcity and to maintain the unity of the nation-state, migrants take specific class positions and have specific access to scarce goods and services. This process of distribution contains a political and ideological component. The political distribution of resources occurs by means of an ideologically constructed hierarchy. How much or little access to scarce resources someone has depends on his or her position in that hierarchy.

This hierarchy is constructed by signifying specific human characteristics, such as phenotype, sex, religion, nationality etcetera. Although different processes of signification can take place at the same time (and even give rise new ideological forms), the dominant ideological process in the Netherlands entails the signification of certain socio-cultural characteristics: I identify and label this process as one of minorisation. In practice, the socio-cultural characteristics of all people in the Dutch nation-state are measured and evaluated against an imagined middle class standard. The socio-cultural deviance of particularly the lower classes is thereby problematised. Since the positioning of peoples in the class system is in part the product of political and ideological processes, minorisation turns out to be a mechanism that contributes to the creation of class differentiation.

This is a process which, in a previous historical phase resulted in the construction of a social category of ‘anti-socials’ (onmaatschappelijken), i.e. a category of ‘indigenous’ people who constituted the lowest class fractions and who exibited, according to the state and private institutions, undesirable behaviour. Today, the object of this process is specific migrants, such as Turks and Moroccans, but not American, German, British or Japanese migrants who generally occupy higher class positions. The socio-cultural non-conformity of the former migrants is usually related to their foreign origin. Therefore the term ‘ethnic minorisation’ is the more appropriate one. While I do not deny that cultural factors may have some influence on the position of migrants, this is not the central determinant. Of much greater importance is the social significance attributed to real and imagined characteristics of these migrants by the state and other institutions.

‘Ethnic minorities’ constitute a category of people who are not considered to be fully-fledged members of the ‘Dutch imagined community’. Rather, it is under certain conditions that they are accepted as members with full access to scarce resources. The main aim of the project of ‘controlled integration’ is to help migrants to reach this state. However, as long as these communities are defined as people that conform inadequately to the Dutch way of life, they are granted less access to scarce resources. This explains why the project of ‘controlled integration’ has failed so far: the project problematises ‘ethnic minorities’ ideologically and places them socially outside the imagined community.

As an ideology, minorisation is theoretically comparable to racialisation as defined by Miles (1989: 73-77). But in contrast to the experience in Britain, the signification of phenotypical features is not the predominant process in the Netherlands. Here racialisation is of secondary importance. Although the social construction of ‘problem categories’ turns round socio-cultural rather than phenotypical signifiers, the social effects can in last instance be similar to that of racialisation.

The state plays a vital role in this proces. Its role is not limited to responding to the needs of specific groups in society. In an attempt to secure the dominant mode of production and the unity of the nation, the state actively interferes in social relations. To be sure, the state does not determine these. Its involvement in the political empowerment of migrants shows this clearly. The state has shaped migrants’ political activity by creating and supporting special institutions, and private agents such as political parties and interest groups have followed suit. Their interventions, and the subsequent development of an ‘ethnic minorities industry’, must be understood in the light of a specific distribution of resources. Group specific (proto-)political institutions are products of minorisation and express the idea that ‘ethnic minorities’ are not full members of the Dutch imagined community. The very fact of their existence reproduces this ideological representation and gives legitimation to the exclusion of ‘ethnic minorities’ from positions of power in the mainstream of politics.

Paradoxically, migrant politicians themselves have internalised this representation and this prevents the development of an authentic and powerful emancipation movement of migrants. Most of them are part and parcel of the ‘ethnic minorities industry’ and their position largely depends on the practical effects of minorisation. Their identification with this hegemonic discourse contributes to the maintenance of a minorised distribution of political power. This all adds up to a qualified and externally controlled place in categorial institutions.

A case study of the participation of migrants in parent committees at schools and their involvement in the struggle against segregation serves to illustrate the superiority of the minorisation paradigm over the minorities paradigm.