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New Perspectives on Migration and Diversity
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Available Open Access digitally under CC-BY-NC-ND licence.

It is increasingly recognised that ethnonational frameworks are inadequate when examining the complexity of social life in contexts of migration and diversity.

This book draws on ethnographic research in two UK secondary schools, considering the shifting roles of migration status, language, ethnicity, religion and precarity in young people’s peer relationships. The book challenges culturalist understandings of social cohesion, highlighting the divisive impacts of neoliberalism, from pervasive temporariness and domestic abuse to technologization and neighbourhood violence.

Using Martin Buber’s relational model, the book explores the interplay of ‘I-It’ boundary-making with reciprocal ‘I-Thou’ encounters, pointing to the creative power of these encounters to subvert, reimagine, and even transform social difference. The author provides a pragmatic and ultimately hopeful view of the dynamics of diversity in everyday life, offering valuable insights for social policy and practice.

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This chapter introduces the two English schools which are the focus of the book – ‘Bradbrook’ in East London and ‘Seaview’ in Brighton & Hove. The chapter puts forward Martin Buber’s ‘I-It’ and ‘I-Thou’ relational model and explains its relevance to research on peer relationships in contexts of migration and displacement. It situates the book in socio-political context, providing a brief history of national immigration policies since the 1950s and giving insight into the demographics of each school and their local areas. The chapter also considers some of the complexities of conducting ethnographic research on the ‘I-It’ and ‘I-Thou’ relation and outlines how the research was conducted at the two schools. The chapter closes with an overview of the chapters to follow.

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This chapter seeks to build on research on social relations in contexts of migration and displacement by putting this work in dialogue with Buber’s ‘I-It’ and ‘I-Thou’ framework. It explores the construction of the ‘I-It’ relation, drawing parallels with postcolonial and feminist theories of oppression and intersectionality, and with recent analyses of ‘superdiversity’. The chapter points to the distinction between the objectifying ‘I-It’ and the humanizing ‘I-Thou’ encounter; the notion of encounter echoes postcolonial scholarship on the transformative potential of liminal, threshold, or ‘third’ spaces. Buber’s ideal is the alternating ‘I-It’ and ‘I-Thou’ relation – recent theories of integration, social capital, multiculture, and conviviality reflect this alternation. The chapter posits that using Buber’s framework helps to build on the important work of migration scholars in these areas while rejecting the focus of traditional frameworks on ethnic, national, or religious differences alone.

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This chapter takes as its subject neither the ‘migrant’ nor the ‘refugee’ student but the student population as a whole in each school. It examines peer relationships between newcomers and long-established students, highlighting how differences such as age and gender intersected with ‘newness’ in the incorporation of newcomers into everyday school life. Personal memories of the past shaped individual capacities for vulnerability, leading to complex and shifting modes of inclusion and exclusion. The chapter shows that some young people responded to uncertain futures by using digital technologies to maintain transnational connections, with implications for their capacity for I-Thou ‘presence’ and vulnerability at school.

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This chapter explores how personal memories become societally embedded, codified, and reified over time. In contexts of migration and displacement, societal myths influence the politics of reception in complex ways. They are mediated and institutionalized by the mass media (increasingly via digital technologies) and are shaped by local conditions, demographic factors, and intersecting ‘histories’. The chapter shows how young people at each school negotiated dominant territorial narratives. Students in Brighton & Hove mostly unquestioningly reproduced these narratives, creating a symbolic boundary between newcomers and White British students. In East London, in contrast, everyday experiences of diversity allowed young people to break free of societal myths – although not without psychosocial cost. The chapter reveals how superdiversity encourages (or perhaps provokes) some communities to retreat into their ethnic and religious identities. Yet it also highlights young people’s significant agency as they strategically renegotiate and reframe these identities at school, sometimes marking themselves as distinct exceptions to the societal rule.

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Real curiosity about the differences of the other, based on mutual trust and respect, can lead to the humanizing I-Thou relation. This chapter examines the roles of curiosity, humour, and social contact in young people’s peer relationships, showing how these intersected and informed each other to foster nuanced expressions of difference and fleeting moments of encounter. Young people sometimes expressed playful curiosity for each other’s ethnic and religious differences, with transcendent effects. These differences were also the subject of ‘ironic’ humour, which helped young people to critically reflect on societal norms and narratives. At other times, however, they asked questions not out of genuine curiosity but rather to mock and deride. In these instances, the chapter suggests that humour solidified the ‘I-It’ boundaries created by a lack of social contact and compounded by ‘othering’ media representations. Yet the chapter also argues that attending school can foster a common sense of purpose among young people in the context of migration and diversity, suggesting that social contact over time may eventually lead to – but never guarantee – their encounter.

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This chapter focuses specifically on socioeconomic inequality and its outworking in the lives of young people in East London and Brighton & Hove. It draws on the notion of ‘precarity’, which describes the condition of vulnerability and insecurity produced by a lack of steady income and stable work. The chapter shows how socioeconomic inequalities shaped diverse forms of belonging among young people, prompting them to draw moral boundaries between themselves and others based on their backgrounds and behaviour. Precarity has embodied and affective dimensions, and young people engaged in different – sometimes violent – strategies to secure their own physical safety on the streets of East London and Brighton & Hove, with profound consequences for their peer relationships at school.

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The book concludes by discussing implications for research, policy, and political visions for our futures. It suggests that young people’s peer relationships in East London and Brighton & Hove have much to tell us about societal inequalities in contexts of migration and displacement – about the conditions in which divisions are sown and take root, and are, in turn, transplanted and reproduced in schools. The chapter proposes future directions for research and policy to examine and rectify these inequalities. At the same time, it suggests that the creative ways in which young people negotiate – and sometimes transcend – their divisions can inspire new ways of thinking about how societies live together with difference. The chapter consequently outlines implications for the politics of ‘belonging’ on global, national, and local scales, arguing that ‘love’ – the essence of the I-Thou relation – must be central to such a politics.

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