28 July 2021

Investigating the impact of social frontiers on the lives of migrants

Gwilym Pryce, Professor of Urban Economics and Social Statistics at the Sheffield Methods Institute, is leading a project to investigate whether migrants really have the opportunities and resources to feel part of wider society.

A peace wall

Over the past fifty years, there has been a significant rise in human migration across the world. This has had major economic, socio-political and cultural impacts and has brought important opportunities and challenges in terms of community cohesion, access to labour markets, health services, housing and education. 

For migrants and minority groups to feel truly included in society, they need to have the opportunity and freedom to advance in the labour and housing markets, and to acquire resources needed to connect with others. 

Gwilym Pryce, Professor of Urban Economics and Social Statistics at the Sheffield Methods Institute, is leading a project to investigate whether migrants really do have the opportunities and resources to integrate into wider society. 

Professor Pryce said: “Social frontiers arise when neighbouring communities are very different in terms of their cultural, ethnic and/or social make-up, and when the spatial transition in these  characteristics is abrupt, rather than gradual.  

“So, social frontiers are like cliff edges in the social landscape. You might have two segregated communities where there’s little, if any, blending and mixing at the border between the two communities. An extreme case would be in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where you often see very abrupt transitions between communities and limited residential mixing near the border between Catholic and Protestant neighbourhoods.” 

The £1.2m research project, funded by the ESRC and NordForsk, will focus on how the social and geographical mobility of migrants is affected by social frontiers and other neighbourhood factors in cities across the UK, Norway and Sweden. 

Pryce added: “Segregation and sharp spatial divisions at the boundaries between neighbourhoods could have important impacts on life outcomes, but have received relatively little research attention. Such boundaries and divisions could indicate social, racial or religious tensions between communities, leading to higher rates of crime and psychological stress, which in turn could affect educational attainment and access to employment.

“If migrants face more challenging circumstances because of where they live, they are likely to become marginalised and disadvantaged, confined to low-priced areas with poor-quality housing and amenities, which can lead to entrenched inequality and social division.” 

The first project of its kind, Life at the Frontier will not only investigate the role of social frontiers across multiple countries and cities, but will also begin to develop a more detailed picture of social and geographical mobility across the lifecourse and how this differs between migrants and non-migrants. 

“Current studies on social frontiers have only addressed the impact in a single city, and for a single snapshot in time,” said Professor Pryce. “But what we’re interested in are the longer term impacts over the life course. 

“For example, if a migrant lives in a highly segregated and deprived neighbourhood with a social frontier, are they less likely to progress over time to more affluent neighbourhoods where there is better access to education and amenities than if they initially settled in a more diverse community? And what are the impacts on their chances of progressing in education and employment?”

“The project will also provide the opportunity to undertake multi-country research, which will allow us to compare a neoliberal country like the UK to countries that have more generous welfare systems and are more egalitarian, with lower inequality. Do each of the countries have social frontiers and if so, do they have the same effect? Is the role of the State something that can ameliorate the impact of these frontiers?”

The Life at the Frontier project brings together a world-leading multidisciplinary research team spanning the UK, Norway, and Sweden. Working across multiple contexts, the team will create opportunities to learn from the best practice and experiences in each nation.

Midway through the project, Pryce and the team have estimated the location of social frontiers between migrants and non-migrants across the three nations and are ready to begin investigating the impacts on their inhabitants. 

Research will be undertaken in two ways. Qualitative research will consist of interviews with local residents and experts with quantitative analysis drawing on datasets from the three countries that follow people over time. 

Pryce added: “Theoretically, we have strong reasons to expect social frontiers to have important effects on education, employment and geographical mobility, but because of the lack of empirical research in this field, we don’t know how this bears out in reality.

“For example, social frontiers may elicit territorial behaviour which may create more conflict and, in turn, have a knock on effect on education. We know children who are brought up in areas that have exposure to high rates of violent crime don’t do so well at school, understandably. There could be an impact on mental health and we know that mental health is the single biggest driver of long term economic success for a person. 

“If we find that social frontiers are an important barrier to the integration of migrants, it may help policy makers develop more targeted resources and strategies for alleviating community tensions and inequality.

“We suspect that not all social frontiers will have the same effects. Some may just be an accident of history and not a source of tension, but we’re interested in why that might be. The more we can understand these things, the more we can inform policy. It might affect how we build housing or how we set school catchment areas, for example. It could affect lots of the things that we do.”

The Life at the Frontier research team was recently invited to present the project to The Home Office Crime and Neighbourhoods Group, who were interested in learning how social frontiers could provide a way of focusing police resources and intervention. 

“If our research suggests that social frontiers are indicators of tensions between neighbouring communities, it might help to inform the kinds of initiatives that authorities and organisations can put in place in these areas to build community cohesion,” said Pryce.  

“As part of our work, we argue that we can’t talk about migrants being integrated into society, if society itself isn’t integrated. So we are also interested in how geographic inequalities between native-born residents also affect the life outcomes of migrants. If society at large is geographically fragmented and plagued with deep-seated inequality, it means that the social mobility of migrants will also be tied up with issues like space and geography. 

“These issues are not just about statistics and numbers on a computer screen.  When you listen to the life stories of those affected by discrimination and disadvantage, it’s heart breaking. The issues of tension between communities and entrenched inequality is absolutely important in creating better social mobility, and for creating a more efficient and economically prosperous society, but it also feels to me to be important in its own right.

“At the heart of all this is the question: what sort of society do we want Britain to be? What does a good society look like? For me it’s one that’s connected, fair, tolerant and that reaches out to other groups.” 

Further Information 

  • Follow the Life at the Frontier project on Twitter @FrontiersSocial.  
  • See the website for project news, publications, data and other resources lifeatthefrontier.org 
  • Contact Professor Gwilym Pryce for more information about the project and to be added to the mailing list. 

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