Project D

Meaningful Contact: Generating Social Change

Principal Investigator

Professor Gill

Research Fellow




This project began with the premise that meaningful contact between diverse social groups has the potential to facilitate intercultural relations in the contemporary cities. The seminal work of Gordon Allport (1954) identified the optimum conditions for such contact between groups to be effective to include: the necessity for participants to have a sense of equal status and a common purpose or activity, for the engagement to be realistic rather than artificial, as well as for such encounters to have the sustained support of the wider community (including authorities, law or custom) within which they occur. Working with a project to bring together young people from the Muslim and Jewish faith communities we examined the effectiveness of the contact hypothesis.

The evidence of this research is that contact zones can be effective in translating difference. In this example, through participating in engineered encounters supported by community leaders, members of two faith groups recognised the limits of their knowledge of, and were open to developing their understandings of, ‘the other’. In this sense, the contact zone, established by the organisers of The Project, was relatively successful at enabling the participants to bridge across their differences, disrupt their negative or misinformed pre-conceptualisations of each other and enabling them to find points of commonality (e.g. through understanding commonalities between their faiths and through their shared identifications as young men). Here we identified a number of important ingredients to facilitate such understanding beyond Allport’s focus on a common purpose or shared task. Firstly, the importance of the intensity of the common activity. Here time spent together was critical in allowing participants to develop genuine personal connections beyond those engineered through the shared tasks set up by the organisers. For example, the participants reported that within the context of the Project which lasted a year, a weekend away was the most productive in establishing intercultural understanding between the faith groups because of its intensity. Secondly, the significance of sociality. It was during time spent ‘hanging’ out during or around the purposeful activity that the participants identified their own natural affinities and found particular shared identity positions which have mutual salience or resonance and which have destabilised the significance of their differences beyond those The Project sought to address.

However, the research found little evidence that these connections were sustained or translated at scale beyond the specific time-space of the contact zone. Rather, geographical and social differences in the material circumstances of the young people meant that the structural inequalities of class and power – which create physical and socio-cultural distance between the Jewish and Muslim communities – limit the repetition and therefore sustainability and scale-ability of such connections. As Torre et al (2008:25) observe the contact zone is always a ‘messy social space’ inhabited by ‘differently situated young people’. As a consequence initiatives to create intercultural understanding and relationships will only have limited impact unless they are embedded in longer-term, structural interventions to address questions of social-economic inequalities and power as well as cultural diversity.


To-date most work on integration and creating meaningful encounters has focused on post-colonial Western European societies with long and complex migration histories who are considered  to be ‘super-diverse’ (Vertovec 2007), such as the UK, the Netherlands and France. Post-socialist European societies, such as Poland, where population mobility was circumscribed during the communist era and as a consequence became perceived as relatively homogenous white societies but which are now seeing a rise in new immigration, have been largely neglected by non-domestic scholars. Yet, the response of countries, like Poland where cultural diversity is increasing as a result of implementing democracy, to a growth in immigration will not necessarily follow that of European countries with a colonial history (Kicinger 2009).

Berg and Sigona (2014) have pointed out that there are three diversity tropes. Diversity as a public narrative(usually celebrated as a positive); as policy (i.e. initiatives to manage equality and social cohesion) and as social fact (in terms  of the characteristics of the population). Following accession to the European Union in 2004, Poland has acknowledged diversity as a public narrative and in policy terms. European anti-discrimination directives have been implemented, in 2011 an Act on Equal Treatment was also introduced, and the Office of the Ombudsman was established in the role of an equality body. Yet, diversity is not yet a social fact. Difference is not very visible in public and institutional spaces. Many of our Polish interviewees had little contact with immigrants in their personal biographies or daily lives, and consequently had little consciousness of Poland as a country where (particularly non-white) immigrants from outside of Europe, broadly conceived, would settle. While few approached ‘immigrants’ as a negative category, as interviewees in some other European counties might, they expressed astonishment that their own sense of Poland would need to be rethought in this new circumstance. In the Polish context therefore purposeful, organised group activity is a particularly important means to provide the established population with an opportunity to encounter migrants and to promote integration, precisely because such encounters are less likely to occur through chance in everyday spaces.

 Research in the UK has suggested that the neighbourhood is an important scale at which to promote such bridge-building between settled and migrant populations  because it is the site where difference is most commonly negotiated and through which shared concerns about the local environment and aspirations for its future can become a foci for organised efforts to work together (Robinson 2010, Phillips et al 2014). Yet, in the Polish context where immigrants are not as numerous nor as concentrated into specific localities, the neighbourhood is a less effective scale at which to establish such purposeful activities. Rather, integration initiatives are more appropriately co-ordinated at a city-wide scale.

The motivation to embrace encounters with difference amongst majority populations is something which to-date has received little attention in the academic literature. Yet, it is a particularly important factor in the Polish context where such encounters are rare in everyday spaces, and so opportunities for what we term ‘integrative encounters’ must be deliberately sought out in the city, but where the incentives for engaging in such ‘bridging’ activities are much lower for the majority population than new migrants. We found apathy or indifference to difference was commonplace amongst our interviewees. It was the attraction of the activity — football — rather than the encounter which motivated members of the host society to become involved.

In this sense, we understand our case study ‘integrative encounters’ to be spontaneous. That is they emerged as a product of the participants’ self-motivated, and shared, desires to play football, rather than being artificially induced as a consequence of contrived activities. As such, the evidence of our research is that in contexts where individuals have little self-motivation to pursue intercultural encounters attempts to stimulate them need to be predicated on creating spaces for spontaneity which motivate diverse people to engage with each other because they appeal to shared interests, rather than because they offer a simulated opportunity to encounter difference. Moreover, we argue that such spontaneity could be supported even in more contrived projects provided space for sociality is facilitated alongside more managed or formal activities.

Football provides all of the conditions of possibility necessary for spontaneous integrative encounters to take place. Namely, it is a transnational sport which provides, in effect, a universal language. Participants from most countries of the world understand its rules, there are shared terms of reference given football’s global nature (e.g. players they admire or clubs they follow), and a common passion for the game. It is relatively cheap and easy to facilitate — which is significant given other studies have highlighted cost and organisational difficulties as barriers to establishing successful integration projects (Phillips et al 2014). Football’s team-based nature promotes mutuality or bonding around a common goal: the desire to win which can overcome perceived differences and the complexity of identifications between participants. Finally, a league structure createscontinuity by establishing regular and repetitive encounters (both within a season, and over seasons) which arefacilitated or managed in controlled circumstances but alongside this is provides space for sociality during training, in the dressing room, in post-match celebrations and on the pitch side amongst spectators.

The evidence of our research is thus that ‘integrative encounters’ do have the power to break down preconceived notions of ‘otherness’ amongst populations less familiar with immigration, and can certainly facilitate relationships which move beyond ‘façade tolerance’.


Related publications

  • Papers in press

Harris, C., Jackson, L., Mayblin, L., Piekut, A. and Valentine, G. (in press) “Big Brother welcomes you”: exploring innovative methods for research with children and young people outside of the home and school environments, Qualitative Research

  • Book chapters in press

Valentine, G. and Mayblin, L. (in press) Space and boundary crossing in the intercultural city, in M. Balbo (ed.) Intercultural Cities: Exploring an Elusive Idea. London: IB Tauris.


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