Towards an understanding of integration at neighbourhood level

Published 30 August 2011 / By COMPAS Communications

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Headlined by emotive notions of a society ‘sleepwalking to segregation’, the retreat from multiculturalism has in Britain triggered policy development and debates that emphasized ethnic, religious and cultural difference at the expense of an examination of social cohesion in material terms – for example local access to employment, housing and welfare services. In addition, with the notion of ‘parallel societies’ seemingly emerging as the lasting emblem of reviews of the 2001 riots in the northern English mill towns, there has been a lack of analysis of how the marking of communities on ethnic and religious grounds gels with the lived, local experiences of community and belonging.

Such an analysis is important because it contributes to our understanding of the correlation between neighbourhood and community that would seem to underpin both the social cohesion policies emerging over the past decade and the most recent localism agenda, launched in 2010 by the Conservative-LibDem coalition. As argued by Professor Ash Amin (Cambridge University), although the national frame of racial and ethnic relations remains important, much of the negotiation of difference occurs at the very local level, through everyday experiences and encounters.

Concordia Discors
This concern with the everyday negotiation of ethnic difference at neighbourhood level is central to the Concordia Discors research project that COMPAS is currently involved in. Concordia Discors is an EU-funded research project exploring how local residents experience integration and inter-group relations in their own local areas. The project involves researchers in Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Britain, and fieldwork is presently carried out at neighbourhood level in Nuremberg, Budapest, Turin, Barcelona and London. In each city two neighbourhoods have been selected, with different socio-economic characteristics, different histories of immigration and different inter-group dynamics.


The neighbourhoods
The two neighbourhoods selected in London are Camberwell and Bermondsey, both located in the London Borough of Southwark and both characterised by high proportions of immigrants and minorities. In Bermondsey, approximately 60% of the population was categorised as ‘White-British’ in 2001, and in Camberwell the corresponding figure was 46%, with Black Africans emerging as the biggest minority in both areas.

At the same time, however, the two areas are characterised by very different histories of immigration and integration. Camberwell has a long history of immigration and settlement, going back several centuries, but of particular significance since World War 2, when high numbers of immigrants from Commonwealth countries, in particular the West Indies, settled in the area. But Camberwell has experienced a continuous inflow of immigrants, over the past decades in particular from West Africa and Somalia.

Bermondsey remained a white working class area until late in the 20th century, with local livelihoods closely linked to the docklands and the local industries, and with a population characterised by a very strong sense of local belonging. Up to the 1980s, Irish navvies (manual labourers) would make up the only significant minority group. In addition, Bermondsey has gained a reputation for racist manifestations, with the British National Party and the British Defence League staging demonstrations locally. While the local authorities over the past 10 years have done much to counter this image, there is still a degree of stigma linked to Bermondsey.


The approach
In each of the neighbourhoods an explorative stage has now been completed. This has basically been a period of familiarisation, mainly through interviews with local stakeholders in community services, long-term residents and locally based organisations.

In the next stage, which will happen over the next few months, we aim to carry out in-depth interviews with residents in each of the neighbourhoods, focusing on experiences of integration of neighbourhood relations in a multi-cultural setting. It is here very important to ensure that we include both long-term residents (white majority as well as black and ethnic minority groups) and immigrants who have arrived within the past 10 years.

Eventually, after completion of the fieldwork and the first period of data analysis, we will be staging a neighbourhood forum in both Bermondsey and Camberwell. Here we will present and discuss our findings with research participants and other local stakeholders, thus feeding back to the locals rather than just extracting the data and going away.

Emerging themes
Though the fieldwork is still on-going, some emerging themes can be identified:

Diversity of immigration and settlement trajectories
It is important to emphasize how the diverse nature of the immigration and settlement experiences impact on neighbourhood relations. This is in particular relevant in Camberwell where there are experiences of tensions between the well-established Black Carribbean population, often going back several generations, and much more recent immigrant groups from in particular West Africa and Somalia.

Socio-economic differentiation
Both areas are characterised by significant socio-economic differences, with pockets of deprivation. Whereas Camberwell has historically been characterised by a divide between the working-class northern part and the more affluent middle-class southern part, Bermondsey has been perceived as a relatively homogenous working class area. But due to the extensive re-development of the former docklands in the northern part of Bermondsey, there has been an influx of relatively affluent, ethnically mixed middle-class residents, with very limited interaction with the local community. Some key contacts pointed to this group – rather than immigrants – as the biggest obstacle to integration.