How do diverse communities maintain a functional and desirable sense of social cohesion in an age of cultural fragmentation, media-driven misinformation, and globalised threats to the integrity of UK politics? How do communities prosper and function effectively as an integrated and cohesive entity when the pressure to strongly identity with one’s heritage, faith or social status, takes precedence over the capacity to mix with people from other walks of like, social classes, ethnic and cultural backgrounds?
These are some of the questions that were prompted by the discussion ‘Lessons from Leicester: Bridging Communities across the UK’ which was organised by British Future, and took place at the House of Commons on Wednesday 12th July. Sharing lessons from the social disturbances in East Leicester in 2022, this discussion highlighted the need for people from different communities to self-regulate their wider social interaction in a way that is sustainable and purposeful, seeking to achieve a sense of intercultural cohesion that creates a balance between ‘bonding’ forms of social capital, and ‘bridging’ forms of social capital.
Social capital is a term in social science that refers to the connections, networks, or relationships among people and the value that arises from them. It’s about the benefits we get from our social interactions, which can potentially lead to mutual benefits and collective achievements. The concept of social capital is further divided into two types: bonding and bridging.
- Bonding social capital: This refers to the relationships between homogeneous groups of people. In other words, these are the connections between individuals who are similar in some sense, like age, socioeconomic status, race, religion, etc. For example, family ties, close friends, and people from the same ethnic or racial group can provide bonding social capital. This type of social capital tends to reinforce exclusive identities and homogeneous groups.
- Bridging social capital: This, on the other hand, is about the relationships between heterogeneous groups. These are the connections between individuals who might be different in some critical respects, but are connected through a certain relationship. For example, connections with people from different ethnic groups, religious groups, or socioeconomic statuses. Bridging social capital can help bring together people from diverse backgrounds, encouraging more inclusive identities and reciprocity.
Both types of social capital have their own importance. Bonding social capital can provide a sense of belonging and security, while bridging social capital can open access to new resources and ideas, fostering creativity and innovation. It’s beneficial for societies to have a balance of both bonding and bridging social capital.
The question for people interested in the development and maintenance of social cohesion and inter-community relations in Leicester, which is now a ‘super-diverse’ city according to the Office for National Statistics, is to what extent are different groups of people in Leicester, and other places like Leicester, benefiting from, or are hindered by, an imbalance in any aspect of the social and cultural capital dynamic? Can communities become too insular and segregated if they don’t connect with people and groups that are outside their immediate affinity circle? Similarly, can communities become too diffuse and dissipated if they don’t have enough connections between people as a bonded affinity circle?
An aspect of this discussion that has not been explored with much vigour recently is social integration, and the need to determine a model of social assimilation that is inclusive and progressive, rather than exclusive and exclusionary. Social integration has not been high on the public policy agenda, in part because of the negative connotations and association with cultural insensitivity that surrounds its use in certain circumstances. The Casey Review in 2016 and the Levelling-Up legislation, which do discusses these matters, have attempted to anticipate how social segregation might be understood, but neither provided a specific framework of policy activities and investment that could, in practice, make much structural difference.
It is in this context, then, that some are arguing it is time to renew our understanding of social and community cohesion, and that it’s worth looking at how community media might aid, support, foster and actively develop an updated model of social integration that will benefit many people from different communities. There is a need to establish priorities that suit people who are recent arrivals, those who are longer-term residents, people with established and normalised cultural practices, and people with emerging and novel (in the context of the time and place) cultural practices that indicate that social change is ongoing.
What Does Social Integration Policy Try to Achieve
Commonly, public and social policy related to social integration seeks to promote equality and opportunity for people from different communities and social groups. When achieved positively and purposefully, integration can provide minority communities with access to resources and opportunities that they may not have had otherwise. This purpose is to reduce prejudice and discrimination, which many people and different groups face when they try to interact within general society. The suggestion is that we can reduce social exclusion if we can get to know each other, because this interaction is likely to reduce stereotypes and prejudice. This is what’s known as Social Contact theory.
Primarily, the aim of social integration is to foster a sense of community that helps to establish a sense of belonging and community for minority groups, which can lead to increased social support and well-being. There is plenty of evidence, from Sir Michael Marmot and others, that social segregation is associated with and interlinked with poor health, low economic attainment and low social capital factors.
Arguments against social integration of minority communities, however, also indicate that there are significant issues that can’t be addressed simply by expecting people to get along, and hoping that the larger and more demanding structural issues might sort themselves out over time. Social integration policy can rightly be accused of ignoring systemic issues, with the burden of change being placed on the shoulders of the people who are least resourced to deal with a lack of social capacity for the hard work of integration. Social integration policies can sometimes be used as a way to avoid addressing systemic issues that contribute to inequality and discrimination, such as the lack of rights to secure housing, employment or education.
The social integration approach is held with suspicion by some because it can be said to assume that minority groups are themselves the problem, and that their lack of social capital is inherent in their cultural identity. Some argue that calls for integration are based on the problematic nature of minority communities, rather than addressing the root causes of inequality and discrimination. The assumption is that integration policy almost always leads to cultural assimilation, where minority communities get lost in the general social mix.
If Leicester is for everyone, then we run the risk that it is actually for no one. The fear, then, is that integration can sometimes lead to minority groups losing their cultural identity and assimilating into the dominant culture. It is important to note that the arguments for and against social integration are complex and nuanced, and there is ongoing debate about the best ways to promote equality and opportunity for minority communities.
Implementing social integration policies can be challenging due to various factors, including:
- Resistance to Change: Some individuals or groups may resist social integration policies due to fear of losing their cultural identity or status quo.
- Lack of Political Will: Social integration policies may not be prioritized by governments, leading to inadequate funding and resources.
- Complexity of the Issue: Social integration is a complex issue that requires a multifaceted approach, including education, employment, housing, and social services.
- Lack of Data: There may be a lack of data on the effectiveness of social integration policies, making it difficult to evaluate their impact and adjust policies accordingly.
- Cultural Differences: Social integration policies may not consider cultural differences and may not be effective in promoting integration for all groups.
Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach that involves collaboration between governments, civil society, and minority communities, and as Decentered Media has advocated for some time, also needs an inclusive and participative community media policy to help implement and disseminate understanding of these challenges. It is important to prioritise social integration policies and allocate adequate resources to ensure their effectiveness. Additionally, policies should be tailored to the specific needs and cultural backgrounds of minority communities to ensure their success.
The task of promoting a social and community cohesion approach to community development, however, is not straightforward, and there are considerable obstacles and barriers that often dissuade people from diverse communities getting involved in the development of public policy. These include:
- Lack of Trust: Diverse communities may not trust policymakers due to experiences of marginalisation or discrimination. This can make it difficult to engage these communities in policy development.
- Language Barriers: Language barriers can make it difficult for policymakers to communicate with diverse communities and for these communities to participate in policy development processes.
- Limited Resources: Diverse communities may have limited resources, such as time or funding, to participate in policy development processes. This can make it difficult for these communities to engage in policy development.
- Cultural Differences: Policymakers may not be familiar with the cultural norms and values of diverse communities, making it difficult to engage these communities in policy development.
- Power Imbalances: Power imbalances between policymakers and diverse communities can make it difficult for these communities to have a meaningful say in policy development processes.
Addressing these barriers requires a comprehensive approach that involves collaboration between policymakers and diverse communities. Policymakers would need to prioritise the building of trust with and between different communities and groups of people, ensuring that policy development processes are accessible and inclusive, and providing resources to support the participation of diverse communities in policy development. Additionally, policymakers need to be culturally sensitive and respectful of the diversity of different communities to ensure that policies are grounded in the needs and perspectives of all communities.
It should never be assumed, however, that assimilation into the host community is not an aim for many people. The experience of people from different communities is motivated by many different factors, though the responsibility of host communities is to ensure that assimilation is not enforced by coercion or neglect, and that cultural exchange works both ways, as the host community becomes a collaborator and sharer of the benefits of each community’s heritage and cultural foundations. What is most important is equality and parity of esteem, which can be shared and defined in many ways.
Policymakers, then, might ensure that social integration policies are inclusive of all communities by taking a number of purposeful following steps:
- Engage in Participatory Dialogue: Policymakers should engage in participatory dialogue with minority communities to understand their needs and perspectives. This can help ensure that policies are tailored to the specific needs of different communities.
- Promote Diversity: Policies should promote diversity and respect for different cultures, religions, and backgrounds. This can help create an inclusive environment that values and celebrates differences.
- Ensure Equal Access to Resources: Policies should ensure that all communities have equal access to resources and opportunities, such as education, employment, and social services. This can help reduce inequalities and promote social integration.
- Collect Data: Policymakers should collect data on the effectiveness of social integration policies and evaluate their impact on different communities. This can help identify areas for improvement and ensure that policies are inclusive of all communities.
- Collaborate with Civil Society: Policymakers should collaborate with civil society organizations that represent minority communities to ensure that policies are inclusive and effective. This can help ensure that policies are grounded in the needs and perspectives of different communities.
By taking these steps, policymakers can ensure that social integration policies are inclusive of all communities and promote equality and opportunity for all. One essential area that requires significant investment, however, is language. Leicester, as was demonstrated during the Covid-19 Pandemic, has significant levels of functional illiteracy that hindered the adoption of protection behaviours and support for vulnerable people. Community radio stations, like Kohinor Radio and Radio Seerah, played a significant role in providing information for people who do not speak English well, or who don’t have access to digital platforms. To address language barriers in engaging with diverse communities; therefore, policymakers can consider the following strategies:
- Translation and Interpretation Services: Policymakers can provide translation and interpretation services to ensure effective communication with diverse communities. This can involve hiring bilingual staff, utilizing professional interpreters, or partnering with community organizations that offer language support.
- Bilingual Outreach Materials: Policymakers can develop outreach materials, such as brochures, websites, and public announcements using community radio stations, which can be delivered in multiple languages to reach diverse communities. This can help ensure that information about policy development is accessible to individuals with limited English proficiency.
- Cultural Competency Training: Policymakers and staff involved in policy development can undergo cultural competency training to better understand the needs and perspectives of diverse communities. This training can enhance communication and foster a more inclusive and respectful environment.
- Engaging Community Leaders: Policymakers can engage community leaders who are trusted and respected within diverse communities to facilitate communication and participation. These leaders can help bridge the language gap and ensure that the voices of their communities are heard in the policy development process. The challenge with this, however, is that community leaders must not be allowed to be gatekeepers of information, and they must themselves be representative of the whole of society, and not just a powerful minority within each community. In Leicester, there is a habit of calling on men and women’s voices are not heard.
- Community-Based Organisations: Policymakers can collaborate with community-based organizations that serve diverse communities to involve them in policy development. These organisations can provide valuable insights and help facilitate engagement with community members who may face language barriers.
- Accessible Public Meetings: Policymakers can ensure that public meetings and consultations are conducted in a manner that accommodates diverse languages. This can involve providing interpretation services, offering translated materials, and creating a welcoming and inclusive environment for participants.
- Investing in Community Media Platforms: Rather than waiting for mainstream or large-scale media platforms to produce content, the immediacy of community media where people from different communities run and manage the media services, is a direct way of speaking with people across communities, places and through different cultural traditions. Community radio is participatory, effective at going the ‘last-mile’ and reaching people directly.
By implementing these strategies, policymakers can address language barriers and create opportunities for meaningful engagement with diverse communities in the development of social integration policies.
What often holds people back from engaging with one another, is a lack of confidence and familiarity with the cultural forms and traditions that people from different communities embody. The practical realisation of mutual understanding and respect must be a two-way dialogue of exchange and reciprocal empathy, which finds common reference points that are explained and contextualised, rather than asserted or judged. Intercultural education, then, is an approach to community cohesion that can help with social integration policies and practices by promoting understanding, respect, and appreciation for different cultures. Here are some ways in which an intercultural education approach can be beneficial:
- Promotes Cultural Awareness: Intercultural education can help individuals become more aware of their own cultural identity and the cultural identities of others. This can help promote understanding and respect for different cultures, which is essential for social integration.
- Encourages Dialogue: Intercultural education encourages dialogue and exchange between individuals from different cultural backgrounds. This can help break down stereotypes and promote understanding and empathy.
- Fosters Critical Thinking: Intercultural education encourages critical thinking and reflection on cultural norms and values. This can help individuals become more aware of their own biases and assumptions and develop a more open-minded and inclusive perspective.
- Promotes Equality and Human Rights: Intercultural education promotes equality and human rights by challenging unfair discrimination and promoting the values upon which equality is built. This can help create a more inclusive and just society.
- Supports Social and Cultural Integration: Intercultural education can support social and cultural integration by promoting inclusion and integration within an intercultural learning environment. This can help individuals from different cultural backgrounds feel valued and respected and promote a sense of belonging.
Overall, an intercultural education approach can help promote social integration by fostering understanding, respect, and appreciation for different cultures and promoting equality and human rights. Intercultural education can be incorporated into social integration policies and practices in the following ways:
- Developing Intercultural Education Strategies: Policymakers can develop intercultural education strategies that promote equality, human rights, and social and cultural transformation. These strategies can be integrated into school curricula, teacher training programs, and community education initiatives.
- Promoting Intercultural Dialogue: Policymakers can promote intercultural dialogue by creating opportunities for individuals from different cultural backgrounds to interact and exchange ideas. This can involve organizing cultural events, community forums, and intercultural learning programs.
- Ensuring Inclusive Education Environments: Policymakers can ensure that education environments are inclusive and respectful of different cultures and backgrounds. This can involve providing language support, cultural sensitivity training, and resources that reflect the diversity of different communities.
- Supporting Intercultural Research: Policymakers can support research on intercultural education to better understand the needs and perspectives of different communities. This research can inform policy development and help ensure that policies are grounded in evidence-based practices.
- Collaborating with Community Organisations: Policymakers can collaborate with community organizations that represent diverse communities to involve them in policy development and implementation. These organizations can provide valuable insights and help ensure that policies are inclusive and effective.
By incorporating intercultural education into social integration policies and practices, policymakers can promote understanding, respect, and appreciation for different cultures and promote equality, human rights, and social and cultural transformation. Community media can assist with the development and practice of social integration in the following ways:
- Promoting Community Engagement: Community media, such as social media and local news outlets, can promote community engagement by providing a platform for individuals from different cultural backgrounds to share their stories and perspectives.
- Fostering Intercultural Dialogue: Community media can foster intercultural dialogue by providing opportunities for individuals from different cultural backgrounds to interact and exchange ideas. This can help break down stereotypes and promote understanding and empathy.
- Supporting Social Integration: Community media can support social integration by providing information about community events, resources, and services that are accessible to individuals from different cultural backgrounds. This can help promote inclusion and a sense of belonging.
- Encouraging Media Literacy: Community media can encourage media literacy by providing information about how to evaluate media content critically and identify biases and stereotypes. This can help individuals become more aware of their own biases and assumptions and develop a more open-minded and inclusive perspective.
- Collaborating with Community Organisations: Community media can collaborate with community organisations that represent diverse communities to involve them in media production and content development. This can help ensure that media content reflects the needs and perspectives of different communities.
By utilising community media, policymakers can promote community engagement, intercultural dialogue, and social integration, and ensure that policies are grounded in the needs and perspectives of different communities. Indicators of success for community media initiatives focused on cross-cultural understanding may include:
- Increased Awareness and Understanding of Different Cultures: Community media initiatives that successfully promote cross-cultural understanding can lead to increased awareness and understanding of different cultures among participants and audiences.
- Increased Engagement and Participation: Successful community media initiatives can lead to increased engagement and participation among individuals from different cultural backgrounds. This can involve increased participation in media production, community events, and intercultural dialogue.
- Positive Feedback and Testimonials: Positive feedback and testimonials from participants and audiences can indicate the success of community media initiatives in promoting cross-cultural understanding. This can involve feedback on the impact of the initiatives on their perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours related to different cultures.
- Increased Media Literacy: Community media initiatives that promote cross-cultural understanding can lead to increased media literacy among participants and audiences. This can involve increased awareness of the impact of media on their perceptions and attitudes towards different cultures, and the development of critical thinking and reflection skills.
- Increased Social Cohesion: Successful community media initiatives can lead to increased social cohesion and a sense of community among individuals from different cultural backgrounds. This can involve increased collaboration, mutual learning, and the sharing of cultural knowledge.
By monitoring these indicators of success, policymakers and researchers can gain a better understanding of the effectiveness and impact of community media initiatives in promoting cross-cultural understanding.
The purpose of promoting community cohesion and social integration can be acknowledged as a priority for community media advocates by recognising the role of community media in supporting and fostering positive social change. Community media advocates can highlight the significant role that community media plays in promoting community cohesion and social integration. They can emphasise how community media provide platforms for diverse voices, encourage dialogue, and celebrate cultural diversity.
This will require a concerted and collaborative effort to advocate for designated resources and support from partner organisations and stakeholders. Community media advocates can explain how resources and support can be used to strengthen community media initiatives, especially as they are focused on promoting community cohesion and social integration. This can involve seeking funding, partnerships, and policy support to enhance the reach and impact of community media initiatives.
It’s not easy to explain in what way an informal and tacit community approach to engagement and inclusion can promote awareness and understanding, though there are several techniques that can be used, such as Asset-Based Community Development Evaluation (ABCDE) and Communication for Development (C4D) models. Community media advocates must be able to raise awareness and understanding about the importance of community cohesion and social integration through various channels, including public campaigns, conferences, and educational initiatives. They can highlight the positive impact of community media in fostering connections, understanding, and a sense of belonging among diverse communities.
Often, what takes the most time and effort is collaborating with stakeholders. Community media advocates are generally receptive to collaborative work with stakeholders, such as policymakers, community organizations, and media professionals, to promote the value of community media in achieving community cohesion and social integration. However, these can’t be seen as a cheap or free option for the established organisation. This collaboration must, therefore, involve joint initiatives, research projects, and policy advocacy to integrate community media into broader social integration strategies.
By acknowledging the purpose of promoting community cohesion and social integration as a priority, community media advocates can amplify the impact and importance of community media in fostering understanding, dialogue, and a sense of belonging among diverse communities. The purpose of social integration and community cohesion as a policy purpose for the use and development of community media can be summarised as follows: Community media can play a significant role in promoting social integration and community cohesion by providing platforms for diverse voices, encouraging dialogue, and celebrating cultural diversity. Community media initiatives can enhance the democratic potential of electronic communication and promote the expression of different social, political, and cultural beliefs and practices.
As the lessons from Leicester teach us, community media can contribute to the lasting understanding between nations, races, creeds, and colours, and aid in the process of building citizenship and raising social awareness. The role of community media in promoting social cohesion and intercultural dialogue has been recognised by the Council of Europe and other international organisations. To achieve the purpose of social integration and community cohesion, community media advocates must dedicate themselves to working towards raising awareness, promoting inclusivity, providing access and training opportunities, and actively engaging diverse communities. Cohesion comes from having an understanding of different people in our communities who can interact easily and freely with one another. Transparency and openness are essential to this. By using community media, each community can share and explain its identity, its heritage, its concerns and its joys with others, and that is an exciting prospect.