Urbanites: indifferent to difference?

Pier-Luc Dupont

Notes from a COMPAS Debate Forum Meeting

Over a century ago, poetically-minded sociologist Georg Simmel claimed that the metropolis, with its wealth of unexpected and violent stimuli, “creates in the sensory foundations of mental life […] a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence”. Because of their intellectualistic disposition, metropolitan types tended to adopt a “purely matter-of-fact attitude in the treatment of persons and things in which a formal justice [was] often combined with an unrelenting hardness”. Dominated by the impersonal money economy, the metropolis fostered a blasé “indifference toward the distinctions between things”, which tended to be “experienced as meaningless”.

While Simmel’s sharp opposition of quintessentially urban and rural characters might seem quaint to 21st-century thinkers, the notion that cities instil in their dwellers a degree of indifference to difference has recently made a comeback in migration studies. Reflecting on London’s super-diversity of nationalities, languages and religions, Vertovec (2007) thus notes that “the enlarged presence and everyday interaction of people from all over the world provides opportunities for the development of research and theory surrounding multiple cultural competences, new cosmopolitan orientations and attitudes [and] practices of ‘crossing’ or code-switching”. In the same vein, Glick Schiller and colleagues (2011) have invited researchers to transcend ethnic and transnational paradigms by paying more attention to cosmopolitan sociability, defined as “forms of competence and communication skills that are based on the human capacity to create social relations of inclusiveness and openness to the world”.

These (re)emerging perspectives on urban interaction raise the intriguing question of whether traditional, identity-centred understandings of integration processes have themselves become quaint, as global cities enter a virtuous cycle of regular cross-cultural encounters and boundary-blurring.

At the theoretical level, predictions are mixed. Optimists can point to a voluminous body of research on the prejudice-reducing properties of cooperative contact, as well as to the active promotion of a cosmopolitan ethos by talent-seeking corporations and investment-hungry local authorities. Pessimists can highlight the persistence of residential, educational and workplace segregation, all of which limit opportunities for contact and entrench the deleterious overlap of ethnicity and class.

Empirically, few large-scale studies have systematically compared inter-ethnic attitudes in cities and small towns. However, a recent analysis of EU-15 countries, based on the European Values Study, has found that the perception of a “migrant threat” is negatively correlated with the size of the migrant population at the local level. This provides initial support for the optimistic take on the link between the existence and the acceptance of diversity. Interestingly, this effect does not obtain at the wider regional scale, which tends to lump together migration hubs and more homogeneous localities (Weber, 2015).

At the same time, the structurally or policy-driven dispersal of ethnic minorities throughout the territory of high-income countries has made it increasingly problematic to conflate urbanity and diversity. With the multiplication of migrant-receiving small towns, migration history might become more significant than size as a determinant of the population’s cosmopolitan attitudes.

A more fine-grained analysis also seems necessary in order to explain the complex mix of ethnic indifference, conviviality and conflict that arises in urban areas (Pastore & Ponzo, 2013). Such an inquiry would disaggregate different categories of beholders and beheld, as well as different contexts of interaction. For instance, teenagers who attend well-functioning mixed schools might be expected to engage in more diverse social networks and hold more positive attitudes toward a range of others than those of mono-religious or mostly white upper-class establishments. Professional adults are likely to benefit from businesses that actively implement equality policies in staff recruitment and management. Urban planning can help by enhancing the attractiveness of the “borders” or “membranes” between segregated neighbourhoods, impeding their mutation into thick “boundaries” and “walls” (Sennett, 2006). Conversely, a populist political campaign, a xenophobic demonstration or a neighbourhood mobilisation against the construction of a mosque, a school or a council estate can quickly undo the ties created by years of peaceful coexistence.

Urbanites’ attitudes are also shaped by forces far removed from their immediate surroundings, such as the vagaries of geopolitics or the national narratives conveyed in textbooks and movies. Regardless of local conditions, comparative studies have uncovered (un)suprisingly similar nationality-based status hierarchies, with the wealthiest origin-countries at the top and the poorer ones at the bottom. This can be exacerbated by migrants’ concentration in low-wage, precarious and devalued occupations, either as a result of migration policy, unenforced labour laws, skill gaps or employment discrimination.

To make things even messier, a given individual may evince different attitudes in different situations, depending on the identities and normative expectations that such situations bring to the fore. As Wessendorf (2013) has shown, family relationships can remain closed to outsiders while mixing takes place at work, school gates and garden parties. Schoolchildren can run around on multiracial playgrounds but unreflectively assume that a given racial category is naturally better at their favourite sport. Elders can take part in multicultural knitting groups but seek more “similar” neighbours. As a general rule, social psychologists have found that subtle prejudices tend to breed discrimination when there is no glaring violation of egalitarian norms or when an ostensibly legitimate justification can be made up.

Taken together, these insights should give pause to the heralds of a truly cosmopolitan, post-ethnic urban era. While global cities may be more welcoming than mostly sedentary, descent-based communities for international migrants and their offspring, the sheer variety of processes through which race, language, religion or nationality can become stigmatised means that they will probably remain a key preoccupation for researchers and policymakers in years to come. After all, there is no reason why these should me more indifferent to (ethnic and other) differences than the populations they study and govern.


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Glick Schiller, Nina, Tsypylma Darieva & Sandra Gruner-Domic (2011), “Defining cosmopolitan sociability in a transnational age. An introduction”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 34(3), pp. 399-418.

Pastore, Ferruccio & Irene Ponzo (2013), Understanding conflict and integration outcomes of inter-group relations and integration policies in selected quarters of five European Cities, Synthesis report, FIERI, Torino.

Sennett, Richard (2006), “The open city”, Urban Age, pp. 1-5.

Simmel, Georg (1903), “The metropolis and mental life”.

Vertovec, Steven (2007), “Super-diversity and its implications”, Ethnic and Racial Studies 30(6), pp. 1024-1054.

Weber, Hannes (2015), “National and regional proportion of immigrants and perceived threat of immigration: A three-level analysis in Western Europe”, International Journal of Comparative Sociology, pp. 1-25.

Wessendorf, Sussanne (2013), “Commonplace diversity and the ‘ethos of mixing’: perceptions of difference in a London neighbourhood”, Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 20(4), pp. 407-422.


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