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In Dialogue with Professor John Dixon about his Talk at the OPRC Launch Event

Professor John Dixon speaking at the OPRC Launch 2021

‘Captive Geographies: Places, Identities and the ‘Time-Geography’ of Sectarian Segregation in Belfast’

Sue: So John, please tell me, what’s this talk all about?

John: The talk is about a collaborative research programme called the Belfast Mobility Project. The project, which was funded by the ESRC, explored how and why residents of Belfast use public spaces in ways that reproduce or challenge sectarian segregation. That is, it explored how divisions between Catholics and Protestants may arise as people use spaces such as street corners, parks, markets, sports fields, and leisure centres and as they travel along public pathways such as roads, footpaths, thoroughfares, and streets.

Belfast Segregation: Photo credit – The Open University

Sue: How did you get interested in this topic?

John: I grew up two very different but historically divided societies, namely South Africa during the apartheid era and Northern Ireland during the so-called ‘troubles’. Both societies where heavily segregated at that time, South Africa along racial lines and Northern Ireland along sectarian lines. Partly because of segregation, both societies now face a bitter legacy of inequality, prejudice, and discrimination. This legacy is widely seen as something that needs urgent remedy.

The challenge, however, is that segregation is an extraordinarily persistent and adaptable way of organising social relations. Once established, it often proves difficult to dismantle and its negative consequences often linger. To use a well-known example: despite the dismantling of Jim Crow race laws in areas such as education, residence, leisure, and occupation, in the US racial segregation remains high. Unfortunately, the same is true of many areas of life in South Africa and Northern Ireland.

My own interest in this topic initially arose because of my experiences living in segregated societies and my desire to promote social change. It is rooted in questions such as: What is the nature and consequences of segregation? How and why does it persist, even in contexts where governments are adopting policies to reduce or get rid of it? How can we, as social scientists, produce forms of knowledge that help to dismantle intergroup barriers and create more just cities?

Sue: How do you research something like this, and specifically, how do you research it in relation to psychological science?

John: The ‘how’ question points to probably the most interesting aspect of the Belfast Mobility Project. Most social science research has focused on residential segregation, typically drawing national census data about where people live. We took a complementary but different approach. We wanted to look at how residents of neighbourhoods located in North Belfast used spaces outside their homes. To do so, we developed a methodology based around GPS tracking, using an app installed on participants’ mobile phones to track their everyday movements over time. We then captured and analysed this data using techniques drawn from Geography Information Science or GIS. The figure I’ve included here gives some idea of what our data looked like.

Sue: What is the relation to psychological science?

John: Psychologists have been interested historically in the problem of segregation, particularly in its effects on intergroup attitudes and stereotypes. Psychological evidence generally suggests that segregation is a bad idea because it encourages negative feelings and beliefs about others. This is claim is rooted in a tradition of research known as the contact hypothesis, which suggests that positive interactions between groups improves intergroup relations. However, the problem is that such interactions may rarely happen, especially in societies where segregation is deeply entrenched. Contact researchers are thus increasing interested in understanding the social and psychological factors that maintain segregation and in predicting the factors that encourage some people to ‘cross the line’ and seek out interactions with other groups.

Sue: Why are those results important?

John: I think the results are important in that firstly, by using a unique data set, they offer a glimpse into how residents navigate the public spaces of the city in ways that either produce or undermine segregation. They also shed light on some of the psychological factors that explain mobility choices, including negative and positive contact experiences with the ‘other’ community and perceptions of the realistic and symbolic threat that ‘they’ pose.

The results are important, too, because they have fed into local policy decision-making regarding the use and creation of shared spaces in Belfast. They have also promoted public reflection on the relationship between human mobility and segregation. For example, a version of the map produced above featured as part a community quilt-making event held at the Ulster Museum in November 2019, which was designed to get members of different local communities to come together and reflect on how segregation still operates in Belfast.

Sue: What’s next in this line of research?

John: This was a big project that produced a lot of data, and much of it must still be analysed. In the immediate future, I want to work with a set of 32 walking interviews that we collected as part of the Belfast Mobility Project. These were interviews in which residents literally walked us through their local environments and explained to us how and why they made particular mobility choices in their daily lives. The interviews are rich, compelling and often poignant, providing a window into residents’ lived experiences of the divided geography of the city.

Please see below the original blog about John’s talk and the link to the recorded talk.

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