Living in a Diverse Society

How to live in a diverse society is very much in the news at the moment, and education is often the arena in which these debates take place. The so-called Trojan Horse case in Birmingham has led to four separate investigations into claims of Muslim extremism in Birmingham schools. These resulted from an anonymous letter, which claimed that there was a “Trojan Horse” conspiracy by a group wanting to impose a more ‘hardline Muslim agenda’ on schools in the city. The results of these investigations should all be made public in the next month, but the coverage of the case, seems to us to be another example of the way in which Islam is so often portrayed as alien, threatening and extreme. Using the spoof headline ‘Muslim ate my hamster’, Nesrine Malik wrote in the Guardian last week, examining scare stories  around Muslims, sharia law, the niqab, and halal meat (

Back in the 1950s, Allport argued that the best way to counter stereotypes and prejudice was to encourage contact between members of different groups. He argued that positive and prolonged interpersonal contact between individuals from different racial groups or ethnicities can lessen prejudice and anxiety. Contact theory, as it was called, fell out of favour in more recent times, because of its limited recognition of the structural nature of social inequalities. However, in the last few years, the possibilities and opportunities of positive, everyday encounters between individuals living in increasingly diverse – indeed ‘super-diverse’ –urban areas has attracted the attention of geographers and sociologists. Such encounters, it has been suggested, show that in urban areas diversity is considered ordinary, and people interact in shared public spaces with relative ease, amongst others very different from themselves. However, critics question the power of such convivial encounters, suggesting that these are reflections of conformity to social norms – polite behaviour in other words, and do not impact on people’s deeper beliefs and attitudes.

This is where our project comes in. We want to explore whether and how people make friends with others different to themselves in terms of social class and ethnicity, and if so, the extent to which friendship can create social networks and resilience in super-diverse areas. Setting our research on friendships in primary schools offers us the opportunity to talk to children and parents about the friends they make over a sustained period – the seven years children are in primary schools.

Where are we now? To date we have spoken to 58 children and 34 adults in two London primary schools. We are just getting to know our third class of 8 and 9 years olds in our third London primary school. We will repeat the process from the other two schools: after spending some time getting to know the children (and with parental permission) we then talk to the children in pairs about their friends and, as we talk, they draw a social map. They put themselves in the middle and draw their friends around them, the closer the friend the closer they place their picture to themselves. We explain to the children that unlike most of what they do at school, talking to us is voluntary; they don’t have to agree to talk to us, and they can stop whenever they like. So far, the children have been very keen to tell us about their experiences of friendship. We use a simple consent form which explains that we promise them confidentiality (subject to safeguarding), and what we will do with the data we collect.  From the children’s paired interviews we can put together social maps of the whole class showing the different relationships between different children. We also speak to the children’s parents, about their children’s friendships, and their own friendships as adults living in super-diverse area. The parents who have kindly given us their time to date have all been open and reflective about the advantages, and sometimes challenges, of living in diverse areas, with many different groups of people, with different ways of living.

So we are spending much of our time, when not in the field, analyzing our rich and fascinating data. We held an advisory group meeting at the end of March and are very grateful to the members of our advisory group for their time, thoughtful comments and their enthusiasm for our research. We have given presentations at the American Educational Research Association Conference in Philadelphia in April 2014, discussing our first attempts to analyse the children’s friendships in our first two classes, and their parents’ views on these relationships. In the same month, we presented at the British Sociological Association conference in Leeds. The paper this time discussed adult friendships. At a conference on super- diversity in June, at Birmingham University, we will be looking in detail at the micro politics of the children’s friendships.

Looking further ahead we will also be delivering papers in Hannover, Germany at a conference on parenting (June), and at a social psychology conference in France. In August, we will be at the Royal Geographers Society Conference in London, talking about the spaces of friendship, and at the British Educational Research Association conference at the Institute of Education, University of London, in September, talking about what schools can and do to support children in their friendships. In October we will return to Germany for a conference on the role of the middle classes in urban restructuring. It’s going to be a busy few months, but with issues around diversity and difference high on the media’s agenda, we are keen to develop our analysis of adults’ and children’s daily lived experiences in super-diverse environments.


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