Friendships & Living Multiculture

Last month, one member of our team, Sarah Neal, held a dissemination event for her other research project, Living Multiculture, which looked at everyday encounters in three very different settings: Hackney in London, Milton Keynes in South-east England, and Oadby, a small town outside Leicester . These three different geographies reflect different formations and degrees of multiculture – superdiverse, newly diverse, and suburban multiculture respectively. The project asked: How do people manage growing cultural diversity and ethnic difference in their everyday lives? The research team studied various settings where social interaction between different groups of people occur: parks, cafes, libraries, sixth form and FE colleges, and social leisure clubs (e.g. a running group, a gardening club). For more about their findings, see:

Multicultural-Society-1766359

Particularly relevant for our project was:

• The emphasis on the importance of the everyday, the mundane. In our research, we are asking parents amongst other things about their experiences of their playground at their children’s school – who do they talk to when they drop their children off? What do they see? Parents spend perhaps 10/15 minutes or less in the school when the children are dropped off and picked up, but the daily ritual shapes the extent to which parents feel comfortable in the school grounds. Schools are a great source of friendship for some parents, but in all of our three schools, parents have spoken about ‘cliques’ in the playground, often based on language/nationality. Once these groups form it can be quite difficult to get to know others outside of ‘your’ group, or to find a group to be with if you haven’t one already.

• The ‘strength of weak ties’. Parental networks formed through chats in the playground can be examples of Granovetter’s theory on the strength of weak ties. ‘Weak ties’ (acquaintances) can bring an individual information, different viewpoints, and possibly opportunities (e.g. for employment), from what Granovetter calls ‘distant parts of the social system’. In our project we have found that weak ties between parents with children at the same school have resulted in child care arrangements, discussions and information-exchange on local secondary schools, and social events for children and parents (children’s birthday parties, and play-dates often offer an opportunity for parents to socialize too).

• One speaker at the Living Multiculture event, Amanda Wise from the Macquarie University, Sydney, quoted fellow Australian academic, Greg Noble on the way in which the moral and practical elements of living with difference become conflated. We have been aware of this when doing interviews, as we have sought to avoid suggesting implicitly, through our questions, that adults and children ‘should’ have a diverse range of friends, a cosmopolitan circle of acquaintances, and that not being in this position is ‘wrong’ or lacking in some way.

• The importance of space and place. The characteristic of the built environment – from the shape of the playground to the presence of a nearby green space – is key in offering or withholding opportunities for interactions with others. ‘Going for a coffee’ after dropping children off is something some mothers (but not fathers) from all our three schools mention, although of course the cost means this is not an activity open to everyone. The expanding café culture in the UK is diversifying. The chain cafes, as Sarah Neal and her colleagues note, attract people in through their bland familiarity; their requirements – where one queues, what to ask for, how much one will be charged – is known to a large number of people. Independent cafes offer a more varied and unknown setting, and often, in our more gentrified localities, an expensive one.

• The ‘imagined geographies’ of place – we have been asking the adults and child participants what they like about their area, do they feel safe there? We have heard about litter and traffic, fears for personal safety and anti-social behaviour, but these are not – in the vast majority of cases – the overwhelming sense the participants have of where they live. Most of our respondents understand their locality to be what Talja Blokland and Julia Nast describe as a ‘comfort zone’, a place where social conduct is predictable, and where they feel familiar; the familiarity deriving from accomplishing daily routines, smoothly and without problems. In a recent paper, in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, they argue that Granovetter’s (1973) ‘absent ties’ – ‘casual encounters between people one may never see again, are important too for people’s sense of belonging in their place of residence’ (2014 p.1156)

We will take forward these of these ideas and others to help us make sense of our data on children and adults’ friendships. The project is progressing. In October, Carol attended a fascinating workshop exploring the role and relevance of the middle classes for urban restruturing, organised by a team from ILS in Dortmund in Germany, and involving academics from around Western Europe. In November, Sarah attended an important workshop on Transformations of Childhood. We are re-interviewing parents at one of our case study schools, and continue to analyse our data. These re-interviews are certainly clarifying the important role schools can play in everyday interaction as one of our participants discusses:

I think the school is the best place, when you go and see each other and you meet people, otherwise if you stay home you don’t do anything, you don’t go out, you don’t get to see any other person you know. Normally when you go shopping and stuff you don’t stand up and see people and say ‘Hello Hi’, it is just I think school probably….because you see them every day, so obviously you will get to know them and you will meet many people there.

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