Psychology, Social Psychology

OU Workshop Considers Segregation in Belfast

Bree Hocking reports on a recent workshop in Belfast featuring our Prof. John Dixon.


Why do people go where they go? How do inter- and intra-group relationships shape how people use space? What role do symbolic threats play in influencing mobility practices?

Nearly 20 years after the Good Friday peace agreement, a new Open University-led study has employed innovative methods to investigate the impact of social division on people’s daily lives and movement patterns in ‘post-conflict’ Northern Ireland.

The results of the study were among the findings considered at an all-day Belfast Mobility Project dissemination workshop held at The Open University Belfast offices in early December that brought together academics, policymakers and practitioners interested in transforming divided cities. The workshop provided a unique opportunity to discuss how segregation shapes the use of Belfast, as well as how shared and inclusive spaces are emerging in the city.

During the event, Principal Investigator and OU Professor of Psychology John Dixon said that while Catholics and Protestants residing in the project’s North Belfast field site demonstrate highly segregated activity space patterns, different kinds of mixed spaces have emerged in the city. Some are relatively ‘neutral’ spaces of consumption or ‘non-spaces’; others are ‘liminal’ spaces that are experienced simultaneously as ‘open-minded’ public spaces and spaces that remain infused with sectarian histories, memories and symbolism, such as some of North Belfast’s parks.


Dixon also noted that individuals’ attitudes towards activity-space segregation are linked to factors such as realistic and symbolic threat, strength of community identity, anxiety over potential contact, and past experiences of positive and negative contact with the other community. For instance, research participants were more likely to report avoiding spaces in the ‘other’ community and sticking to spaces in their own community when they feel nervous about interacting with members of the other community; fear that ‘they’ may present a threat to their personal safety or property or feel that ‘they’ are undermining ‘our’ identity.

Funded by the ESRC, the Belfast Mobility Project treated segregation as a dynamic outcome of individuals’ routine movements as they travel the city, using its streets, amenities and activity spaces in different ways. In addition to surveying 520 residents of North Belfast (a divided area of the city) about their attitudes toward cross-community contact and spatial interaction, the study tracked the everyday movements of 233 of these participants, using a bespoke GPS-enabled app. Once the tracking data was cleaned and processed, GIS analysis allowed for the identification of areas of segregation and sharing, as well as routes taken by Catholics and Protestants when accessing services and facilities. Finally, walking interviews were also carried out with 33 participants. These interviews showed the extent to which some residents in North Belfast feel ‘trapped in space’, said OU Research Associate Bree Hocking. They also provided evidence of how perceptions of symbolic threat, shared space and communal identity differ in ways that help to sustain activity-space segregation.

The aim of the workshop was to consider how the project’s core research findings may inform urban policy both in Belfast but also in other historically divided cities. The day-long event included a discussion of findings related to both North Belfast and the city centre, a talk on the challenges and opportunities for developing shared space by Belfast City Council’s Nicola Lane, as well as a roundtable discussion of the project’s policy implications featuring Jennifer Hawthorne of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, Grainne Killen of The Executive Office and Jacqueline Irwin of the Community Relations Council. Queen’s University Professor Emeritus Fred Boal, an early pioneer of activity space segregation studies, kicked off the event with an overview of historical patterns of segregation and division in Belfast.

In addition to Dixon and Hocking, the Belfast Mobility Project team included co-investigators Dr. Dominic Bryan of Queen’s University, Dr. Neil Jarman, director of the Institute for Conflict Research, and Lancaster University’s Dr. Duncan Whyatt. Other members of the team included Dr. Jonathan Huck of the University of Manchester, Dr. Brendan Sturgeon of the Institute for Conflict Research and Gemma Davies of Lancaster University.

Find out more…



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