Becoming a UK citizen – does it make people happy and ‘integrated’?

Dr David Bartram

Does gaining citizenship help to integrate people into the UK, or does it make an already vulnerable and disadvantaged population feel more excluded?

When citizenship tests were first introduced in the UK in the mid-2000s, they polarised opinion in much the same way as immigration itself sometimes does. Some observers felt that they were a barrier to integration. In contrast, the government maintained that the new requirements would encourage social cohesion and improve immigrants’ lives.

These arguments initially led to research that for the most part consisted of ‘readings’ of the policy itself. People on different sides of the argument drew up implications of how they thought the test might affect those taking it. In a project conducted with colleagues at the University of Leicester, I used Understanding Society data to test these ideas, to find out what effect the tests had.

The project

We got funding from the ESRC for a four-year project (“The UK Citizenship Process: Exploring Experiences”), to investigate some key questions, including: did the test and language requirement and the citizenship ceremonies enhance immigrants’ lives, and did they encourage integration?

You can read more about the project (including links to the final report) on our website. Here I focus on two papers I’ve published, both of which used data from Understanding Society.

Citizenship and wellbeing

In Life Satisfaction and the UK Citizenship Process: Do Tests and Ceremonies Enhance Immigrants’ Lives?, published in June last year, I investigated whether gaining citizenship was associated with immigrants’ subjective wellbeing (e.g. life satisfaction).

The UK government might have hoped to see a positive impact in the results; the concerns of critics would have been reinforced if there had been a negative impact. Either way, if the citizenship process had affected life satisfaction, it would have been a notable impact.

In the event, no impact was evident. Taking part in the process did not appear to enhance immigrants’ subjective wellbeing or to harm it.

Political integration or marginalisation?

I then looked at another key type of impact. In 2004, the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, wrote that “those who become British citizens should play an active role, both economic and political, in our society, and have a sense of belonging to a wider community”. So, it seemed sensible to ask: if citizens learn more about British political institutions and life (perhaps as a result of studying for the test), do they become more involved politically? Do they feel more entitled to participate?

In The UK Citizenship Process: Political Integration or Marginalization?, published in December in Sociology, I showed that those who became citizens subsequently reported lower interest in politics, compared to those who remained non-citizens. They were also no more likely to be active in civic organisations, such as political parties and trade unions. These findings do reinforce the concerns of critics: the UK citizenship policy appears to do more to foster alienation among new citizens than it does to facilitate their integration, at least in the political sphere.

We might account for this finding in a number of ways. Perhaps the requirements for achieving citizenship simply put off the people who have to meet them – exactly what some of the earlier academic research had suggested. For some, the test likely exacerbates anxieties; for others it might be an annoying hoop to jump through.

We can also consider the nature of the questions the tests asks about politics. What immigrants are required to know about British politics – the role of the Whips in Parliament, for example, or the name of the Prime Minister’s country house – doesn’t seem relevant to their actual ‘life in the UK’. Perhaps they think: if this is what British democracy is about, who needs it?

As Anne-Marie Fortier has indicated, the policy seems designed mainly to alleviate the anxieties of existing citizens, not to integrate immigrants. But even if that’s the case, these results make it harder to justify efforts to reassure citizens by claiming that the policy does good for the immigrants as well.

The need for a review

Our project report concluded that the UK naturalization regime needs a fundamental review which involves everyone associated with the citizenship test process – including officials, civil society organisations and migrants themselves. We made several recommendations, including changes to the nature and content of the test – and, indeed, that the review should ask whether the test is even the right tool.

However, in our introduction to the report, we also noted the context in which we had undertaken the project: the Brexit campaign/vote, spikes in racism and hate crime, and the 2017 general election in which immigration featured prominently. Given these factors, we may not see changes to the process anytime soon.

Using the data

My experience of using the data was also interesting because I found that Understanding Society can respond and adjust to meet researchers’ needs.

When we were planning the analysis, I focused on people in Wave 1 of Understanding Society who were not UK citizens. I assumed I’d find respondents who had gained citizenship as of the later waves – I expected the citizenship question to be repeated. In fact, citizenship was seen as a stable characteristic, akin to race – so, the question was not asked again.

I got in touch and suggested that citizenship was likely not stable – at least not for those who were not already UK citizens. I asked that the question be posed again to those respondents, and this change was adopted for Wave 6. I was then able to compare immigrants’ wellbeing and political involvement at both points, depending on whether or not they had become citizens.

It was a simple fix, but without it our research would not have been possible.


Dr David Bartram

David Bartram is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Leicester, co-editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, secretary for the Research Committee on International Migration of the International Sociological Association, and a member of the Scientific Board of the European Sociological Association's section on International Migration.