‘Being open, but sometimes closed’.
Living together in a super-diverse London

by Susanne Wessendorf

Working Papers WP 13-11
July 2013
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

Full text: pdf

The London Borough of Hackney is one of the most diverse places in the United Kingdom. It is characterized not only by a multiplicity of ethnic minorities, but also by differentiations in terms of migration histories, religions, and educational and economic backgrounds, both among long-term residents and newcomers. This paper attempts to describe how people negotiate social interactions in such a ‘super-diverse’ context. It develops the notion of ‘commonplace diversity’, referring to ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity being experienced as a normal part of social life by local residents. This commonplace diversity has resulted in people acting with ‘civility towards diversity’. While in a public space, people mostly treat everybody the same without acknowledging differences, while in semi-public spaces such as associations and local institutions, here conceptualized as ‘parochial space’ (Hunter 1985), people’s different backgrounds are acknowledged and sometimes talked about. The paper discusses how people negotiate their differences in these two different kinds of spaces. It shows how civility towards diversity is used as a strategy to both engage with difference as well as avoid deeper contact. Civility thus facilitates the negotiation of both positive relations and possible tensions.

Susanne Wessendorf is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity (MMG), Department for Socio-Cultural Diversity, Göttingen. She is currently working on patterns of ‘super diversity’ in a London neighbourhood. She holds a D.Phil in Social Anthropology from Oxford University. Her thesis focused on the interrelationship of integration and transnationalism among second-generation Italians in Switzerland.