Meaningful mixing? Promoting social integration in England

By Professor Jenny Phillimore, Director of Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS)

The new DHCLG Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper places much emphasis on the importance of social integration which they refer to as mixing with people from different backgrounds.  Their proposals on young people and education and places and community both focus on how to get people to mix “meaningfully”.  With Dame Louise Casey’s comment arguing “for generations we have welcomed immigrants to the UK but left them to find their own way” taking a prominent position in the paper we could be forgiven for thinking that the way that immigrants have chosen led them away from mixing.

Much emphasis is placed on finding ways to encourage immigrants to move away from segregated communities and for schools to become more mixed.  No consideration is given of the extensive evidence offered both by Finney and Simpson (2009) and Flint and Robinson (2008) in their critique of Ted Cantle’s claims that minorities have chosen to self-segregate.  Indeed, these authors show quite clearly that the white middle classes are the most segregated of all ethnic groups and that areas seen as self-segregated were more fluid than predominantly white areas.  In fact, minority residents moved away from these areas IF they were able to be upwardly mobile, a phenomenon observed throughout large cities such as Birmingham where minorities are now found in every ward of the city (Goodson et al. 2005).  Work undertaken in places such as Handsworth, Birmingham, has shown that rather than being segregated, inner city areas are becoming increasingly diverse as people are attracted to neighbourhoods by their population diversity and identify with their neighbours on the grounds that “we are all different here” or they are all working class (Pemberton & Phillimore 2016).

Recent research with new migrants in England undertaken by the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) examined how migrants formed social networks in their first two years of residence (see Phillimore et al. 2017).  New migrants talked of making friends with people from a range of different countries and backgrounds but spoke of how difficult it was to make “British” friends.  We suspected that some of the friends they had made were in fact British but were not white.  When asked why they experienced such difficulties interviewees noted that white people had all the friends they needed so had no reason to build new friendships.  In an earlier study looking at gender differences in refugee social networks we found women had wider networks than men but again struggled to make “British” friends despite wanting to make such connections to learn about what its like to be English.  Even at the school gate newcomer women found it hard to connect with British mums because they already had their own social groups (Phillimore & Goodson 2008).  In our latest paper Susanne Wessendorf and I (forthcoming 2018) show, using examples taken from interviews with new migrants from two different studies, how integration support in terms of access to employment, extended social networks and access to housing, often came from other migrants rather than British who were again described as closed.

Further work we have undertaken with refugees has shown that the anti-migrant rhetoric evident in newspapers and from certain politicians made them fearful of attempting to mix.  Those who had experienced racial harassment actively avoided contact with anyone (Phillimore 2011), which left them vulnerable to isolation and depression.  With racist harassment on the rise post-Brexit referendum, the UK Government’s ongoing efforts at creating a hostile environment for migrants and rising anti-migration discourses its perhaps a wonder that migrants seek to mix at all.

It’s important to note that people do mix in their everyday lives in shops, work, neighbourhoods and shared spaces.  The growing body of work on everyday multiculturalism (Wise 2009) and commonplace diversity (Wessendorf 2013) is testament to this.  On the whole people get along.  Why do we need meaningful mixing?  I’m not sure we have an answer to this but if we do we know that continued interaction makes the difference as does knowing that other people are open to building positive relationships.  If the Government are to succeed in socially integrating communities they have much to address.  This would include adopting a more responsible and balanced discourse around migration, and acting against the inflammatory anti-migration, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric in popular newspapers.  Having examined what constitutes effective practice in supporting social integration we know that the odd celebration here, and festival there, does little to build enduring relationships in the long-run other than promoting a feel-good factor (Phillimore et al. 2008; Phillimore 2014).  So what works?  Twinning schools is not particularly effective but creating sports teams from multiple schools who train and compete together can be.  Projects such as community gardens, planning community activities together as well as buddying for newly arrived young people can be effective.

The Green Paper notes the importance of community facilities such as libraries in offering space for interaction and pledges to encourage such facilities to facilitate interaction.  Our evidence suggests that people have already taken it upon themselves to use whatever community spaces they can to self-organise across ethnic cleavages but are challenges by austerity cuts which have seen the closure of multiple spaces including libraries (McCabe & Phillimore 2012).

If the Government is serious about trying to engineer interaction it first needs to properly understand who is segregated, identify exactly why this is a problem, take account of extensive evidence about the impact of the current discourse and of racist harassment on people’s willingness to mix and then needs to invest in places and initiatives in the long-term.  The Green paper does not take account of the Government’s own responsibility for creating conditions where people can mix and appears to lay responsibility for mixing at the door of those who have been vilified once again scapegoating migrants and risking further exacerbation of anti-migrant sentiment.  While the Green Paper argues that integration is the responsibility of local communities it avoids accepting national responsibility for the current discourse and for the decline in community facilities leaving impoverished local authorities and communities to do all of the work.


Finney, N. and Simpson, L., (2009) ‘Sleepwalking to segregation’?: challenging myths about race and migration. Policy Press.

Flint, J. and Robinson, D., (2008) Community cohesion in crisis. New Dimensions of Diversity and Difference. Bristol, UK: Policy Press. CrossRef Google Scholar.

Goodson, L., Beider, H., & Phillimore, J. et al. (2005) Black and Minority Ethnic Communities in the Eastern Corridor: Aspirations, Neighbourhood ‘Choice’ and Tenure. Birmingham City Council.

McCabe, A., & Phillimore, J. (2012) Surviving ‘below the radar’: community groups and activities in a Big Society. Working Paper 87: TSRC: University of Birmingham

Pemberton, S. & Phillimore, J. (2016) Migrant place-making in superdiverse neighbourhoods: Moving beyond ethno-national approaches.  Urban Studies DOI: 10.1177/0042098016656988

Phillimore, J., Humphris, R. & Khan, K. (2017) Reciprocity for new migrant integration: resource conservation, investment and exchange.  Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

Phillimore, J. (2014) Local and experiential aspects of migrant integration.  KING Working Paper.  Milan: ISMU Foundation.

Phillimore, J. (2013) Housing, home and neighbourhood in the era of superdiversity: some lessons from the West Midlands.  Housing Studies 28 (5) 682-700

Phillimore, J. (2011) Refugees, acculturation and integration.  Journal of Social Policy 40 (3) pp.575-593.

Phillimore, J., Goodson, L., Hennessy, D. & Thornhill, J. (2008) The Neighbourhood Needs of New Migrants.  University of Birmingham for Birmingham City Council

Goodson, L., & Phillimore, J. (2008) Social capital and integration: the importance of social relationships and social space to refugee women. International Journal of Diversity 7 (6) pp: 181-194.

Wessendorf, S. & Phillimore, J. (2018) New migrants’ social integration, embedding and emplacement in superdiverse contexts.  Sociology

Wise, A., 2009. Everyday multiculturalism: Transversal crossings and working class cosmopolitans. In Everyday multiculturalism (pp. 21-45). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Wise, A., 2009. Everyday multiculturalism: Transversal crossings and working class cosmopolitans. In Everyday multiculturalism (pp. 21-45). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

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