Dr Gemma Catney is currently a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Geography and Planning, and starts a Lectureship in the Department next week
“Today is the last day of a project I have been undertaking to analyse how ethnic diversity, mixing and segregation in England and Wales has changed over the last two decades. Funded for two years under the prestigious Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship scheme, the project has generated a wealth of new results on these issues, and with it considerable interest both inside and outside academia.
I’m fortunate to be researching a topic which stimulates debate. The flurry of media attention associated with the release of 2011 Census data last year is an example of how social change, naturally, matters to people; ethnic diversity was no exception to the reams of stories on education, housing, employment, health, and religion, to which Census data provided a window of insight.
The ‘S’ word
However, with that also comes some particular challenges. Everyone has an opinion, and it’s very easy to start treading on thorny ground. Mention the ‘S’ word (did someone say ‘segregation’?) and a host of images are conjured in people’s minds – the isolated community, the inner city ghetto (which, incidentally, have been proven not to exist in the UK). This poses an interesting question: by analysing segregation, do social researchers perpetuate and reinforce its more negative associations?
So why shouldn’t we? Research on segregation is nothing new, but received renewed attention in public policy when the community cohesion agenda was established following the ‘riots’ in northern English towns back in 2001. More recently, the contentious problematisation of multiculturalism, in the political sphere and with it in popular discourse, has been accompanied by the stigmatisation of diverse neighbourhoods.
However, there is considerable and, importantly, reliable evidence to suggest that minority groups are not living parallel lives from some ‘mainstream’ (however problematic that is to define) and that we are not ‘sleepwalking into segregation’.
The fact is, interest in how diversity affects our society is ‘out there’ (immigration and race relations, for example, frequently come out top in polls about social issues facing Britain). I thus contend that in order to best inform debates on these and related themes, and challenge any misconceptions, there is a need to engage with them academically.
So what’s been happening to diversity and mixing? In the most compact of nutshells: ethnic diversity has increased considerably between 1991 (when an ethnic group question was first asked in the Census) and 2011. In England and Wales, ethnic minority groups (all groups except White British) now make up nearly 20 per cent of the England and Wales population. This diversity has been growing in new locales, and is not limited to the places we might most associate with diversity – as well as London and other large cities, diversity has been growing in less urban areas. As a result, a person affiliating with the White British majority ethnic group is more likely than ever before to have a neighbour with a different ethnicity to their own.
Since 2001, there has been a near-doubling of people reporting themselves as being of a Mixed or Multiple ethnic group, to over 1.2 million in 2011, reflecting a growth in the birth of children to mixed ethnicity partnerships. There is greater mixing in households too; 12 per cent of multiple occupancy households are home to individuals with different ethnic groups, with 6.5 per cent home to people whose spouse/partner has a different ethnicity to their own. This is partly a sign of greater opportunities for mixing, but also of more tolerant times, and attitudinal survey data have demonstrated increasing acceptance of mixed ethnicity relationships.
Last Friday I took the opportunity to reflect on my project as it closes, by drawing together some big thinkers on issues of ethnic diversity, immigration, public policy on integration, housing, and segregation. The aim was to share the latest findings on, and stimulate a timely and critical discussion around these themes, in a roundtable workshop setting. Most academics have done their fair share of big talks to large audiences in impersonal lecture theatres, where folk listen, ask questions, and go home again. I wanted this event to be different – high profile debate but in an intimate setting. The social implications of the research discussed was an important focus, and in addition to academics from institutions across Britain, the workshop (‘Ethnic diversity, population change and ‘integration’: exploring the evidence and considering future research and policy’) included engagement from representatives in local and national policy, think-tanks, and from research units in local authorities.
Many interesting points were raised and discussed (some more heatedly than others!), one of the most important in my mind being on the meaning of mixing. Mixing between people of different ethnic groups can take place in many spheres of life – living next door to a person of a different ethnic group is not the only (nor indeed necessarily best) measure of inter-ethnic social interactions; people may mix in the workplace, in schools, in religious establishments, and in various social settings.
Diminishing ‘meaningful interactions’
The everyday encounters and lived experiences of diversity are more difficult to capture, but are all around us. On the other hand, compared to, say, fifty years ago, when neighbourliness was more common, and perhaps more easy, there is more mobility in the housing market, migration flows are longer, commutes more time-consuming, longer hours are spent at the workplace, and there has been a development in the way personal interaction is facilitated, from real space towards cyber-space.
This context of diminishing ‘meaningful’ interactions in the residential neighbourhood over time and between generations makes for some interesting food for thought on what mixing actually means, and poses some challenging questions about the nature of societal changes.”
With grateful acknowledgement to the Leverhulme Trust for funding. If you’d like to know more about Gemma’s Leverhulme Trust Fellowship, ‘Geographies of Ethnic and Social Segregation in England and Wales, 1991-2011’ email her at email@example.com You can also read about it in the Guardian
Gemma Catney is on Twitter @gemmacatney