Menu Close

The Politics of Complex Diversity in Contested Cities

This comparative project is funded by a SSHRC Insight grant for which I am the Principal Investigator and Keith Banting and John McGarry are co-applicants.

This project examines change in ethnic competition in historically contested cities, where established status hierarchies are challenged by ethnic newcomers–including new immigrants and “older” but increasingly mobilized ethno-cultural minorities. Such challenges are an increasing reality in many contemporary democracies, mainly the result of immigration and migration brought about by globalization, and other processes like European integration. Numerous events (neighborhood tensions, riots) in recent years have highlighted the potential for growing conflict over ethno-cultural hierarchies in cities. Understanding the processes behind them is critically important for the future of peace and democracy.

Historically contested cities in democratic states reveal the difficulties of accommodating competing ethnic claims particularly well. In such cities, long-standing rivalries unfold in multiple fields: conflicts over language use, state-church relations, cultural symbols and narratives, schools, neighborhoods, and other public spaces. Ethnic newcomers challenge those rivalries, some by claiming recognition for other cultural symbols, languages, or cultural institutions, others by changing the uses of old spaces, institutions or narratives. Studying these dynamics provides us invaluable opportunities to gain a better understanding about boundary-making—which can deepen existing divisions, create multiple divisions, or lead to less “ethnicized” political environments.

We address the following sets of questions: (1) How do newcomers impact historic rivalries: When do newcomers merge or ally with “old” communities; when do rival communities coalesce against newcomers; when does the new competition engender multiple divisions, or weaken ethnic boundaries, making ethnicity less relevant in political competition? (2) How do institutional processes and collective resources influence the new dynamics of contestation? (3) What combinations of governmental and societal institutions are best suited to create interethnic solidarity across ethnic boundaries?

We focus on historically contested major cities, which are also sites of multilevel governance (urban, regional, state-wide, and sometimes trans-national), allowing for a rich variety of policy experiments and diversity strategies. We have selected four cities from a range of contemporary democracies: Montreal (Canada); Brussels (Belgium); Belfast (UK); and Vilnius (Lithuania). This range of cases allows us to explore how differences in institutional environments and collective resources available to ethnic communities shape the outcomes of contestation.

Our project is theoretically innovative, combining a focus on more established national communities with “ethnic newcomers,” including not only immigrants but also other newly mobilized ethnic communities. Most extant research examines ethnic contestation involving either national minorities or immigrants, but not both, or the interactions between both. Contemporary realities defy the notion that we can understand today’s diversity through these separate lenses. Our research is also empirically distinctive. We created a structured comparative framework for four in-depth case studies that will generate textured, high quality data for enhanced comparison. The study of ethnic boundary-making in multi-level institutional settings requires such a design. We expect our research to make a major theoretical advance in ethnicity and nationalism studies and comparative politics generally. We have also made graduate training an integral part of the project. Our aims, however, are not just focused on the academic community. Our goal is to make an impact on public discussions, and on policy-making in the settings we study and beyond.