New social diversity in global cities

Comparatively conceiving, observing and visualising diversification in public urban spaces

April 02, 2015

How can people live together, with ever more diverse characteristics, in the world’s rapidly expanding cities? What are the similarities and differences in social and spatial patterns that arise when new diversity meets old diversity? A project at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity investigates the changing nature of diversity and its socio-spatial patterns in three locations of super-diversity: New York, Singapore, and Johannesburg.

Enabled by an Advanced Investigator Grant of the European Research Council (ERC), this project studied rapid social diversification in three global cities. The key question it sought to answer is: In public spaces compared across cities, what accounts for similarities and differences in social and spatial patterns that arise under conditions of diversification when new diversity meets old diversity? The project encompassed qualitative research in three cities of super-diversity: New York (the classic city of immigration with new global migrant flows in a broadly supportive political context); Singapore (dominated by strict racial-cultural politics and wholly dependent on new, highly restricted migrants); and Johannesburg (emerging from Apartheid with tensions surrounding new, unregulated pan-African migrant flows). A team of twelve scientists, among them local expert advisors from the fields of anthropology, sociology and human geography, analyzed these processes of diversification, about which only little is known thus far, and explored the social stratification of old and new diversity. The project made use of three strategic research methods: conceiving (understanding how old and new diversities are locally understood), observing (producing ethnographies of interaction) and visualising (using photographs, film and innovative data mapping).

Research locations

The cities were chosen according to a “diverse case” selection strategy so that multiple variables could be taken into account. These variables refer to possible modes, constraints and opportunities of encountering social diversity. The selection reflects the differentiated historical and political-economic circumstances behind the changing patterns and politics of diversity in cities and neighbourhoods. Looking at diversification in key global cities will become increasingly relevant as more and more cities come to resemble them in terms of economic, demographic and cultural flows.

In each case city, the neighbourhoods were selected with attention to contexts in which new super-diversity is evident, where no single group dominates, and where spatial, visual and social manifestations of old and new diversities can be seen to converge. The public spaces within each city district offer common sites for fleeting and more sustained encounters embodying processes of stress, alongside processes in which new and productive modes of interaction become manifest.

Research location (1): New York City

New York is a classic immigration city and has historically received several waves of newcomers. With a population of just over 8 million, foreign-born residents comprise 36% of the city. New York’s foreign-born population has doubled in the past thirty years. Breaking out of the pattern of successive waves from different places of origin, contemporary immigration to New York is characterised by extraordinary diversity. It is often said that today, virtually every country in the world is represented by recent migrants to the city. They embody an increased heterogeneity of human capital, occupational and class backgrounds, which is indicative of differing migration processes and channels, legal statuses and transnational practices. For instance, women outnumber men in nearly all foreign-born groups (with important exceptions including Mexicans and Bangladeshis, among whom there are far more men).

Each borough of New York has a unique mix of old and new diversities. In Queens, 46% of 2.2 million people were born abroad. The project’s research activities focused on public spaces in the Astoria district in Queens, where most foreign-born residents come from Greece, Bangladesh, Ecuador, Mexico, Colombia, Italy, Dominican Republic, Brazil, China, and India. The field sites focus on key public spaces including commercial streets such as 23rd Street, Athens Park and the Two Coves Community Garden.

Research location (2): Singapore

Singapore has been a highly regulated, multi-ethnic city since colonial times. Politics and public campaigns are based on the official multi-racial CMIO model (Chinese, Malay, Indian, and “Others”), together with the establishment of four official languages (Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English). However, Singapore is extremely dependent on labour migrants for its continuing economic development. This migration is controlled by a restrictive work permit system for low-skilled labourers, while there are also large numbers of highly-skilled foreign workers and students. In recent years, Singapore’s non-resident workforce increased by 170% – from 248,000 in 1990 to 670,000 in 2006. UN estimates suggest that international migrants comprise over 1.9 million (40.7%) of Singapore’s total population of 4.8 million. The majority of them come from India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand via bilateral agreements. Old migration streams, especially from China and Malaysia, conditioned by colonial politics, continue to be important alongside the recent arrivals from elsewhere. A major government concern in Singapore is to ensure that the foreign worker population remains temporary. Diversity is restricted by ambiguous categories such as citizen/non-citizen and resident/non-resident, while “use and discard” state measures prevent immigrants from gaining any significant foothold in Singaporean society.  

In Singapore, the project concentrated on the Jurong West area (pop. 264,000 in 2009). With an estimated 1000 factories and shipyards, this neighbourhood is well known for its mixed immigrant concentration. Tens of thousands of foreign (far more male than female) workers live in designated dormitories. Important public spaces for research are the Jurong Point Shopping Centre, the Public Library and numerous surrounding hawker centres (comprised of food stalls from all over Asia).

Research location (3): Johannesburg

Migration to South Africa (and to Johannesburg in particular) from the region, the continent and the rest of the world increased dramatically since the collapse of Apartheid. Current demographics concerning immigration to South Africa are exceedingly difficult to get hold of and, moreover, entail very heated political debates within the country, meaning the available statistics are not necessarily sound. A reasoned estimate suggests that between one and three million foreigners – legal and illegal – from all over Africa reside in South Africa, although the numbers may be rising due to the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe. Many of the migrants moving to Johannesburg originate from Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, Somalia, Nigeria and other regions of South Africa. The migrants’ precarious legal status determines their social, economic and geographic position within society. These facts have significant ramifications for shaping public discourse, public spaces and the city as a whole. Johannesburg is a city characterised by extremely high levels of intolerance and xenophobia, which sparked terrible riots in 2008.

Project research was being conducted in the Hillbrow district (estimated population 97,000). Formerly a “whites only” area, Hillbrow has meanwhile become a central site for migration from townships, from throughout rural South Africa and from all over Africa. Important public spaces for this project are Hillbrow Market, Pretoria Street and Berea Park.

Some comparative findings of the project

In analyzing the GlobaldiverCities project data across the three research sites of New York, Singaproe and Johannesburg, the team accounted for a great many differences in the ways migration-driven diversification has unfolded. Some of the foremost differences include:

  • Historical trajectories in thinking about difference: in New York, the city embodies a longstanding immigrant-receiving society with policies and institutions broadly welcoming newcomers (albeit contemporaneously in fact quite critical of each wave), yet with a strong assimilationist model and set of expectations; in Singapore, a colonially-constructed trade society developed into an economic giant with a set of post-independence policies practically obsessed with maintaining harmony within a racially categorized populace; and in Johannesburg, despite the post-Apartheid rhetoric advocating a rainbow nation, deep racial, ethnic and linguistic divisions structure social relations within the country while a relatively new, fervent xenophobia is rampantly expressed toward newly arrived foreigners from all over Africa.
  • Categories of difference: likely the most important such category in each context is that of ‘race. Yet just what comprises the meaning of ‘race’, and how it is valuated, manifested, and influential in social relations, is very different in each place. With reference to new migration-driven diversification, furthermore, we have observed how the re-definition and re-alignment of social categories is significantly conditioned by – or undertaken with a kind of unspoken reference to -- the most salient ‘racial’ phenomena in each locality (namely, the black-white racial divide in New York, the CMIO system in Singapore, and Apartheid-era categories that still hold powerful sway in contemporary Johannesburg). In light of distinct systems of categorization and social stratification, we have witnessed that ‘race’ in New York is not ‘race’ in Singapore is not ‘race’ in Johannesburg. Each meaning of ‘race’ has its own historically produced connotations, inferences, collective memories and usages that do not resonate in the same way across contexts.
  • The shifting nature of – and public discourse surrounding – new migration flows: In all cases, the general public (and most policymakers, for that matter) have no idea about the real extent of diversification comprising new migration to each country and city. Instead, much public disquiet focuses on a few new groups and issues: in New York, new populations of Muslim immigrants are suspected of terrorist ties, are considered indelibly foreign, and face close surveillance by the authorities regardless of citizenship status (the fear of Mexican immigrants ‘swamping’ American society that is widespread elsewhere in the United States is more rare in New York);  in Singapore, there is extensive debate about South Asian contract workers and ‘PRC’ Chinese migrants, whose supposed uncouth behavior is thought to be a threat to local conduct; and in Johannesburg, much apprehension concerns Nigerians (subsuming West Africans broadly) and the crime they are alleged to perpetrate.

These differences from place to place, alongside several others identified by the project, are not surprising – indeed they were expected. What has been surprising is the extent of commonalities in the ways the process of super-diversification has developed. The key commonalities surround the three general socio-spatial patterns – route-ines, rooms without walls and corridors of dissociation. While, we observe, such patterns occur in cities anyway as part of the negotiation or social ordering of urban ‘throwntogetherness’, in this project we have demonstrated numerous ways in which such patterns serve as filters for publicly ‘processing’ diversification – socially, spatially and conceptually. That is, through more or less regular practices of social encounter in public spaces, already established residents (which of course include previous waves of migrants) come to see, categorize and correspondingly interact with or avoid new migrants who may personify very different social and cultural characteristics. Conversely, newcomers arrange themselves and their interactions with residents as they learn the local knowledge, categories and social codes that are evident in these public, socio-spatial patterns. It follows that, largely through such spatialized social mechanisms, the locally constructed ‘old’ or pre-existing social organization of diversity is rendered – at least in part if not wholly – into a ‘new’ one.   

The world’s cities are destined to grow and diversify in a variety of ways. The GlobaldiverCities project provided a comparative look at migration-driven diversification processes, how they play out in public, and how social relations are consequently formed or transformed. The patterns identified here are certainly not the only possible ones to emerge through these processes, but they are perhaps indicative of the principal ways in which diversities, old and new, are being revealed, shaped and experienced.

Follow this link to the published edited volume: “DIVERSITIES OLD AND NEW. Migration and Socio-Spatial Patterns in New York, Singapore and Johannesburg” to read more on project findings.

The project team has also produced a series of full-length ethnographic films that draw together and present in an influential and comparative way evidence and analyses of diversification and public space encounters in global urban contexts. Enjoy the trailers provided here, and contact the filmmakers Dörte U. Engelkes and Anna Seegers-Krückeberg at:  and for more information.


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