Friday, 8 April 2016

Encounters with Diversity: Children’s Friendships and Parental Responses

Carol Vincent (UCL Institute of Education), Sarah Neal (University of Surrey) and Humera Iqbal (UCL Institute of Education).
Our research project set out to address the question, do people have friendships with those who are socially and culturally different to themselves?  Focusing on primary schools in London that serve a diverse population in terms of social class and ethnicity, we studied the friendships that both children (8/9 years old) and their parents made, maintained and/or avoided. Our aim was to identify what friendships reveal about the nature and extent of ethnic and social divisions in contemporary multicultural society. We wished to contribute to the growing literature in geography and sociology on how people living in conditions of intense diversity interact with others not like themselves. On a more personal level, two of us had experience of being mothers at diverse primary schools, similar to the ones we studied, and had experienced both how social class and ethnic sameness could shape social relationships for adults and children, but also how being a parent or a child at a diverse schools could offer the possibility of friendships across difference.

This paper is the initial analysis from the ESRC funded research. In it, we outline the scope of the children’s networks and friendships within their classrooms, and then report on how parents at two of the case study schools felt about their children’s friendships. We conclude that social mix did not translate straight forwardly into social mixing, despite the diversity of the school populations and that of the surrounding areas. We find that the social is heavily classed, as friendship across class difference was less common than friendship across ethnic difference, both amongst the children and the adults. We argue that many parents were explicitly enthusiastic about the diverse populations at their children’s school, that they consciously, and for the most part competently managed diverse encounters, and that we identified some purposeful efforts to forge relationships across difference. However,  many parents also experienced some level of anxiety about close contact with others not like themselves. Different parents displayed different ways of negotiating difference. Some parents in our study managed those who came into the house or limited the houses their children went to. For others, the private space of the home was more open, but a process of managing difference still took place, through the consignment of others not like themselves to the periphery of the social encounter, centering instead the dense networks of other ‘people like me’, through, for example, organising the children’s out of school time. As a result, children’s friendships were not bound by sameness, but they were initiated and practised on a terrain inscribed by largely unspoken, but still powerful social divisions.

For more information about the research, please see our website:





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