A few days ago I woke up to hear Melanie Phillips talking about community cohesion type issues, and she said that most people are more comfortable with people like themselves. However, we need to be asking what 'people like us' actually means: I remain convinced that it is not inevitable that race, ethnicity, religion, or whatever, is the element of our identity that divides people. Like Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence, I believe that we can focus on other aspects of life, and it's a historical accident that we've ended up seeing the world in this way.
Indeed, one way to disrupt this is to think of the people we are comfortable with, what we have in common and what we talk about. These last two might not always coincide either: some things we have in common might be always left unsaid - they seem obvious and/or unimportant, whereas some we might spend lots of time talking about and exploring our commonality, because we see them as important. Importantly, these change depending on who we are with, where we are and what we are doing: it's all about how we navigate our sociality. And this can lead to situations where people see the same situation in very different lights.
A few months ago I was interviewing a young woman as part of my work, and we were talking about Islamophobia. And what stuck in my head was her saying that she thought it Islamophobic if people didn't ask her about her religion (she was visibly Muslim, wearing the veil). I hadn't asked her about her religion. Afterwards I thought about the absurdity of this position, from my perspective. I'm atheist, and I don't really care about someone's personal religiosity although I do take an interest in the relationship between religion and society. That's not to say that I would shy away from talking about religious views, but I don't think it's something I need to ask people about in normal conversation. This is why I don't ask religious friends about their practice or beliefs: I currently spend time with a few Christian ministers, but I don't talk to them about religion. If I asked the young woman about her religion, I'd be being Islamophobic.
At the same time, the young woman could either a) enjoy talking about religious beliefs with religious friends (whether Muslims or other), and/or b) think that religious identity is important (and everyone agrees), so that on meeting someone of a different religion, this would be a natural conversation. Thus, religion would be something that one would automatically talk about, but only in certain contexts. However, thinking about what I want to talk about is very different. Like many people with a middle-class job (and not only them, for sure), I partially define myself by my job... that's why 'what do you do?' is a common question. With friends I often talk about work - more than friends who are in what are euphemistically called 'routine occupations'. On a more random note, I think I must define myself a bit by my transport choices: I cycle a fair bit, and so end up chatting to other commuters about taking bikes on trains, asking how they find it, what their ride is like and so on.
And then there is the problem of British social awkwardness... We don't like it if we don't know whether we'll have something to talk about when we meet someone new, and are wary of offending people. There's a great piece by Bernard Guerin about racial discrimination without assuming racism or racists (http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/bsi/article/view/120/152), which demonstrates how not knowing what to do or say, in a situation where 'race' is assumed to make a difference, can result in unintentional racial discrimination. We shouldn't assume that someone is racist, or Islamophobic, or anything else, based on them not being sure of exactly how they should act when encountering difference.
Indeed, it would be all so much easier if the ethno-religious identity was the only important thing for everyone. We'd all have our box - there'd be a finite number - and we'd know how we should act. But people are so much more interesting... I'm not Islamophobic because I want to talk about work or music to the woman in a veil, and she isn't a religious obsessive because she's interested in my take on religion. And given an hour or so of a wide-ranging natter, we'd be able to work this out. Assuming that a particular divide is going to make things awkward is a sure-fire way to make sure it does.
We social scientists often like to compare: one place with another, one group with another, one time with another. So when we do quantitative analysis with large numbers of cases we can say ‘crime’s higher in X than Y’ or whatever. And even in qualitative work, when we have few respondents and long interviews, say, we can relate findings to some ‘common sense’ theory, or some assumption about the way of the world. But when events are of a kind that is extremely rare, there may be no comparison.
Which leads me to a most amusing quote. In Surrey a body has been found in a wheelie bin. A neighbour told the BBC:
“It’s a very quiet place, it’s where you bring up your family. I’ve lived here for 30-odd years and it’s the first thing like this that’s happened.” (BBC)
Really? The ‘first thing like this that’s happened’?
Where I live this kind of thing happens so often the council have added a new bin to our collection. Grey is for normal rubbish, green is for paper, glass and that, brown for garden waste, and the bright red bin is for corpses and body parts.
From the last world cup (June 2010). I've seen similar this world cup too.
A better class of England fan
A bit of stereotyping here, courtesy of the police and the BBC:
it was “refreshing” to see some England supporters congratulating the Algerians, many of whom were celebrating the surprise draw”… Considering the number of supporters that were there I think they have been extremely well behaved”… many of the supporters were “well-heeled” and “not your normal England followers”… “It’s a different set of supporters than we would normally see.”
According to this, it’s working-class people that are the problem, whereas the middle class are lovely people who never put a foot wrong. Perhaps we should all be “well-heeled”.
I used to blog somewhere else, but moved to this site a couple of years back... I've decided to republish some old pieces here... From November 2010:
A long time ago I worked for a company specialising in researching the ‘hard to reach’, by which we meant the poor, the needy, including the elderly, drug users, asian Muslims, the white working class. Essentially, the kind of people that don’t respond to mail surveys as often as other groups. And in order to talk to these people we went to where they were: the street, bingo halls, community centres, drug treatment centres.
Which is why the headline ‘Church of England eyes £5m of state funds to combat extremism’ (Guardian) made me laugh. The CofE claims it can enable “Mr and Mrs Smith, Mr and Mrs Patel, and Mr and Mrs Hussain” to engage with each other through coffee mornings and so on.
First, they will use money so that vicars and imams can get to know each other. Fair enough, but there’s plenty of that going on already, and I don’t think vicars and imams are failing to get on (unless we’re thinking about the fundamentalists and crazies and they aren’t invited). But once this has happened, then what. In a working-class estate where I’ve worked recently, of around 7,000 residents only 50 or so have any regular involvement in the church. The vast majority of UK adults go to church less than once a year, probably for weddings and funerals (tearfund) and as I expected, it’s the middle classes (AB) and pensioners that are most likely to attend church.
Now forgive me if I’m wrong, but the government isn’t worried about middle-class pensioners starting riots. The kids that fight each other over their backgrounds won’t be reached through the church, and many won’t be reached through the mosque either. Contrary to stereotype, Muslim youth also ‘stop going’, rebel against their parents. If government wants to bring people together why not invest in the truly public sphere: make our parks more appealing, set up sports events, invest in council housing with genuine public spaces where neighbours can get to know each other.