Social relations in super-diverse London

Social relations in super-diverse London

Susanne Wessendorf

completed


Urban areas in the UK and internationally have seen significant changes in patterns of immigration in the past two decades, leading to profound demographic diversification. This diversification is not only characterised by the multiplication of people of different national origins, but also differentiations in terms of variables such as migration histories, religions and educational backgrounds, length of residence and socio-economic backgrounds. This has resulted in ‘super-diversity’ – a condition of more mixed origins, ethnicities, languages, religions, work and living conditions, legal statuses, periods of stay, and transnational connections than Britain has ever faced (Vertovec 2007).

How has the diversification of diversity impacted on social life on the local level? How do people deal with this new social reality? How do residents get along in a context where so many people come from elsewhere? And what shapes their perceptions about each other? This project presents an in-depth study of super-diversity as a lived experience. It investigates how people deal with the ever more confusing demographic composition of 21st century urban areas, and how they navigate social spaces in a context where no majority group exists. Based on 18 months of in-depth ethnographic fieldwork in the London Borough of Hackney, the project situates local narratives about life in this super-diverse area within larger contemporary debates on immigration and social cohesion. It asks what social relations look like in a super-diverse area ten years after the publication of the famous Cantle Report, which, in reaction to the riots in northern UK towns in 2001, painted the infamous picture of groups living ‘parallel lives’ (Cantle 2001). In a super-diverse context, does this policy discourse, which emphasises the need to enhance meaningful interchanges and build cohesion, make sense? Do people live separate lives in a super-diverse context? How do they structure their social relations in different public and semi-public spaces? And do the recent August 2011 riots have anything to do with diversity? Preliminary findings of the project show an important move away from discourses surrounding multiculturalism and cohesion by demonstrating that on the local level, rather than forming major social challenges, ethnic and religious differentiations have become a normal part of everyday life. At the same time, generational and racial boundaries persist, with young black people forming the group against which the rest of the population, regardless of their own backgrounds or ethnicity, holds most prejudice.