All social interactions are equal but some are more equal than others

I, along with everybody else within my twittersphere, and perhaps outside of it too, am feeling pretty riled about the (not so) new wave of migration rhetoric which has come in the wake of the Casey report. Having realised that a string of angry tweets is never going to be a useful contribution to this debate I have, for the second time ever, decided I have to write it down as a blog instead.

I am so tired of the language that is used in political and media discourse about migration and social interaction. Even though in academic research interesting and nuanced debates have been circling around ideas such as encounter and conviviality for some time now, it is hard to see this reflected in current discourse. I want to talk about three issues in particular: parallel lives, social interaction and churn.

Taking ‘parallel lives’ first, what does this mean exactly? Parallel to what? What is this central path being tracked here, but not touched? What is this mainstream people are supposed to connect with, but stubbornly shadow? This notion of parallel lives does not withstand scrutiny. It is clearly not a literal term – people do not walk around in designated lanes from which they do not deviate (or not yet at least) – but it is no use as a metaphorical term either. It is such a loaded idea, speaking far more about ethnocentric, colonial ideas about what is core and what is periphery. The placing of this notion of the parallel is key, because while mathematically (I assume) the parallel lines are of equal significance, here it is obvious that one is deemed legitimate, central, vital, ‘us’, and the other a poor relation, unwilling or unable to match it, outside, ‘them’. What would happen if we disrupted this core? If we acknowledged the periphery as someone’s centre, and the core as someone’s hinterland? What if we actually looked at how people really live?

And this leads us to social interaction, or more accurately how all social interactions are equal but some are more equal than others. There has been a lot of discussion about Muslim women in the last couple of days, and a supposed lack of ‘integration’ (and again, integration into what exactly?). But what is clear here is how the values attributed to social interaction are so patently asymmetrical. So a Muslim woman can talk to friends, care for a parent, raise a child, and that is somehow less valuable, or meaningful, than talking to an ‘English’ person. Who has the authority to measure these interactions? All the academic literature I have engaged with on social interaction over the last few years assures me that social encounters are varied, are fleeting, are meaningful in different ways, in different places, at different times. But not for ‘migrants’, or ‘Muslims’, clearly, where a different set of values are implemented. More dodgy maths.

And finally, I have to say something about ‘churn’, another term which is often carelessly bandied around, and something which is always presented as  negative – a sign that a place is becoming unruly and unrecognisable as people come and go. As I have blogged previously, I was able to undertake some research a few years ago in an inner city neighbourhood which had identifiably high population turnover, and I found some interesting things. I found that while there were tensions, there was also a strong  and resilient neighbourliness at play. I found that people sustained regular social interaction in the midst of churn, and that newcomers were part of these connections. I found that the material environment was key in enabling this. The architecture of terraced houses could sometimes lead to unplanned encounters, like waving while washing up when kitchen windows faced each other. Social connections were made over routinised practices – taking out the bins, keeping parcels for people. None of these on their own could be argued to offer in-depth social understanding, but what they pointed at, taken as a whole, was a way to connect people and place together, through a shared environment, as well as shared hopes and fears. A more hopeful, and realistic, reading of ‘churn’ than I have seen in the media at any rate.

Language matters, especially at the moment. We really need to see more careful writing and talking, and more considered maths.