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.


The Social Kaleidoscope

We feel we are making good progress with the data collection process. Last term we worked with one school and we have just finishing working with our second. As we conduct our research in diverse settings it feels as if we are gazing though a social kaleidoscope. It has become clear just how important and universal friendship is, binding individuals to the communities in which they live, to their past experiences and influencing how they think about their futures. It is also highly complex, being for the most part positive, but at times fraught with tensions. We have now completed 34 interviews with a total of 58 children in the Year 4 classes and 33 interviews with parents and we are also building up our interviews with teachers, heads and school governors.kaleidoskop007_1024x768

Working with the children has been enjoyable as well as incredibly thought provoking. During interviews they have discussed the qualities they look for in a good friend: kindness, helpfulness, humour, and warmth; someone they have fun with and can share things with.  They also generally seemed to accept cultural diversity as natural and commonplace. The children were aware of and spoke about various types of ‘difference’, in ways familiar and unfamiliar to adults. They discussed social difference in terms of houses and possessions, as well as differences in terms of religion, gender and the ease with which school work was managed. ‘Difference’ and ‘similarity’ to the children were also about what games and activities were enjoyed by others, about favourite things, and about physical characteristics such as height, skin colour and length of hair.

In the same way, parents and carers have been speaking about friendship in superdiverse settings. For most parents we have spoken with, school is an important source of adult contact, although this varied, with some parents’ relationships remaining at the level of exchanging greetings, whilst others making solid friendships. It has been encouraging to meet some parents/carers who are particularly involved in bringing others from different backgrounds together, by introducing people, volunteering in school events and arranging social events. Thus far, we have found examples of friendships between those of different ethnicities. However, we have found fewer examples of friendships between those with different social class backgrounds.

Although we still have plenty of fieldwork to go, we have started to immerse ourselves in the data we have already collected and are planning future conferences. Carol and Sarah were excited to be in Istanbul recently were they presented some preliminary findings at the European Conference of Educational Research. This presentation was titled ‘Social Cohesion, Primary Schools and Diversity: Friendships across Social Class and Ethnic Difference’. We are thus beginning to share some of the dynamic, complex patterns around friendship which we have been observing though our social kaleidoscope. We are also preparing to present at upcoming conferences across different disciplines, including the British Sociological Association, the American Education Research Association, the Royal Geographic Society, and the Institute of Superdiversity. We hope to see some of you there!

If your child’s name is Ariadne, will her best friend be Helena or Charmaine?

Carol Vincent

Kate Hopkins, a past contestant on reality TV show The Apprentice, caused some controversy last week by stating in the press and on television that she maintains a tight control over the friendships her children make at their state primary school. Suitable friends are those from “like-minded, high achieving families”.

She told the Mail: “I have absolutely no intention of letting my two precious daughters get dragged down into the quagmire of underperforming children. So I work hard at targeting the right sort of friends for them“. Hopkins claims that her interest is in ensuring her children’s friends are “clever, ambitious children“, a euphemism seemingly, as her description of the children of whom she does not approve is infused with class judgments; pink leggings, soft play areas at local leisure centres, electronic toys, and names such as Charmaine are all indicators which spike Hopkins’s disapproval.

“At the risk of sounding snobbish, I also favour children who have good old-fashioned Victorian names such as George, Henry and Victoria. And, if a child has a name with a Latin or Greek derivation such as Ariadne or Helena, all the better. It indicates the parents are well educated“.

A new research project at the Institute of Education, conducted by Sarah Neal, Humera Iqbal and me, sets out to explore whether and how children in primary school, living in diverse inner London areas, make and maintain friendships across social class and ethnic difference. How do their parents view these friendships, and do they seek to manage them in any way? What are their own experiences of friendship as adults?

In socially mixed areas, people often live parallel lives, living close by others from a different ethnic or social class group, but having little engagement with them. Primary schools, especially in inner urban areas, are among the few settings where children and adults do have an opportunity to interact on a daily basis over several years, with those who are differently socially positioned to themselves. Many parents take a more positive view of this than does Ms Hopkins.

Emily, a white middle class mother in our pilot project, said: “When I think about being in London, I think ‘oh it’s great for [son] because he’s exposed to life in all its different ways, and different groups of people, and he knows that everybody is not the same”. However, despite the stated enthusiasm for social mixing, we found in the pilot a tendency for friendships made at school to stay at school, unless the children were from similar backgrounds, in which case the friendship was more likely to cross over into visits to the family home.

Social mix does not automatically lead to social mixing. Efforts to change this situation required open and positive attitudes on the part of parents, usually mothers, and a willingness to make a determined effort to cross social and ethnic boundaries, and to make and sustain contact with families different from one’s own.

Our pilot study was small, and our main study, starting this month, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, sets out to explore these issues around friendship and diversity in more detail and on a greater scale. We aim to generate qualitative empirical data on how friendships are made, maintained, missed and interrupted in social environments characterized by extensive social difference and division.

Friendship is often assumed in policy and political terms to have an informal “social glue” quality that has the potential to bring individuals together despite disparities and differences in their background. We aim to explore the extent to which friendships across difference can contribute to social cohesion, or whether the desire for distinction and separation, as voiced in a somewhat extreme form by Ms Hopkins, is widely shared.