When Communities are under stress, more research is the panacea

By Neli Demireva, University of Essex

When communities are under stress, the ‘us versus them’ talk seems to rear its ugly head from everywhere – in the speeches of politicians, from our TV screens, in otherwise innocuous dinners with family and friends. In a world subsumed by anger and fear, the instinct to shout is strong; yet, the only answer can be more and rigorous research; treating each statement, each opinion seriously rather than discounting some prima facie as unworthy of investigation. This is what drives us as sociologists after all - we listen and talk to people, observe closely what ails the world, and do not shy away from uncomfortable conversations.

Let us take the topics of immigration and diversity as an example. Immigration stands high on the public agenda throughout Europe. In the UK, it played a central role in the EU referendum campaign as well as in the 2017 General Election where both Labour and the Conservative party blamed migration for undercutting pay and the conditions of British workers. Recently, the idea that high levels of migration lead to an undercutting of working conditions was discussed in the report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration, where locals in cities with many migrants report that they feel migration has worsened their employment situation; and that it has put severe pressures on their community. This perception of migrants undercutting conditions or taking up resources, such as social housing, in communities already facing adversity is a strong determinant of anti-immigrant feeling and can lead to a profound sense of alienation.

Equally polarizing is the question of the role of diversity in the fracturing of the social glue. The process of diversification of European societies has been accompanied by growing concerns about social cohesion and the socio-economic relations that underpin trust. While not as high as in the US, the residential segregation of migrants and minorities in Europe constitutes a daily experience of many, especially those living in poorer and less prestigious areas. The high concentration of minorities, leading to the formation of niches, is often interpreted by policy makers as a bad sign for the integration of migrants and their second generation offspring; frequently seen as stuck in such niches and assumed to be less likely to form contacts with the majority and thus to be less socio-culturally integrated.

These ‘hot potato topics’ underlie the main research agenda of the project that I am currently heading - GEMM (Growth, Equal Opportunities, Migration and Markets). The project carries many important policy implications. One of its major contributions is to consider not only individual effects but also context related factors that can alleviate or reinforce poor labour market insertion. Despite growing concerns about the weakening position of majority members under conditions of diversity, we do not find evidence that supports these fears. It is in fact resource poor environments that ultimately deserve more attention from central government. Deprivation, time and again, I show in my research using both European and UK data, is the main culprit for the fracturing of the social glue because of the worsening of the economic performance of all members of a society who live in an area blighted by disadvantage. Resourcing appears important for everybody in a community regardless of migration and minority status.

Minority niches also seem to be too convenient a straw man. Undoubtedly, bridging to mainstream employers is a key for the integration of second generation minority members; but the importance of ties with the migrant and minority community especially in local areas where majorities are hostile to outgroupers should not be disregarded. That is to say, bonding among co-ethnics can be a viable economic strategy in challenging times even though contact to the mainstream is always an essential part of the successful economic integration story of migrants and their children.  

In a study on job quality using British data, we also find that some of the fears surrounding the Brexit debate have been misplaced. White British men and women still are more likely to obtain the highest quality jobs. The second generation is not more likely to work on the worst quality jobs compared to white British individuals, but there is some disadvantage in reaching the top occupations especially among black men and some disadvantage in the ability to avoid the bottom quality occupations among Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Non-white migrants are highly disadvantaged in the type of work they do, which can see them disproportionately separated from the white majority – a gap that may never close and which may have important repercussions for discontent and investment in long term integration. The significance of local area characteristics indicates that providing local opportunities can go some way to decrease disadvantage.

Working in occupations with a higher share of migrants is negatively associated with job quality, but pronouncedly so for other migrants and UK-born black Caribbeans. White British majority members are much less likely to work in occupations with a high presence of migrants especially when compared to second generation minorities and other migrants. Migrants in the UK may indeed be involved in a race-to-the-bottom with undercutting induced by migration. This indicates the importance of future work studying how competition at the occupational level affects majority members – but importantly, our concerns should be extended to second generation minority members in vulnerable positions. It is not so surprising after all that so many established minority groups in the UK are increasingly positioning themselves against migration – they fear status losses and with good reason!

No research project is exempt from trials and tribulations; no research topic is automatically exempt from controversy. When you study migration, there are times that there seem to be plenty of those. All the more need to delve yet deeper into the research matter. Seek and you shall convince, I keep telling myself. Ultimately, that is the only way out of a dark patch.