When delivering a children’s sermon recently, at the church I attend, I asked the question, ‘what does it mean to be friendly’? I had some idea (of course, as any teacher would) of the kind of answers I wanted. But the one I got was much better. One child told me being friendly is about understanding each other. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘it is’. That key word there: understanding. It was in this spirit that Ayse Uskul and Lindsey Cameron organised this event at Kent University, on 6th June, to help us, as academics, speak to and understand policy makers and practitioners working on social exclusion.
I have never been to a meeting quite like this one. Each academic talk was followed by a commentary from a practitioner, offering more “grass roots” insights on the topic under consideration. The subjects spanned homophobia, ageism, mental health stigma, ethnicity and religion, engaging charities, and human rights organisations along the way. The accessibility of each presentation was impressive, as was the range of ideas noted at the panel discussion for ways in which we can move forwards in collaboration with each other. My only criticism is that I wish this latter discussion was given more “air-time”.
The aim of the event was undoubtedly met: we got to a better place of understanding one another. This got me thinking about research on social exclusion. It seems to me, at the moment, that the zeitgeist is for the contact hypothesis (e.g., Everett, 2013): that increased contact of various forms emphasises similarities between in group-out group members, making the other less scary, less different. A classic example of this is the so-called ‘Good Samaritan’ set-up studies, showing you’re more likely to come to the aid of in group than out group members: the more similar they are to you, the more likely you are to help. And it’s all about framing. If you support Manchester United, you’ll help a fellow ‘football supporter’ but not necessarily the same person, framed as an ‘Arsenal supporter’.
The interactions at this event got me thinking. What would happen if we went beyond emphasising intergroup similarity in research? Everyone, everyone on Earth is different. There are songs that only you can sing, and conversations that only we can have, thanks to our myriad different experiences. Arguably, emphasising similarity reduces anxiety – it’s a necessary first step towards good relations – but it also reduces the other’s humanity, their uniqueness. True understanding – that might only come through exploring – not by ignoring – differences. I wonder if oftentimes it is frustrating to be categorised in a certain way, and understood on that basis, however positively, especially if one belongs to a stigmatised group.
As a case in point, one speaker argued that the key difference between researcher and practitioner was the wearing of a tie: yet, a quick glance around the room revealed that this was not true of those present. And, while I wasn’t wearing a tie – there are other reasons, besides being a researcher, for that. Indeed, one way forward that was discussed was a blurring of the lines between research and practice: true understanding of the ways forward at this event was borne out of exploring different aims and ways of working on a case-by-case basis, for researchers and practitioners.
Children see that being friendly is about understanding each other as individuals. Understanding and working with our differences was key to the success of this event. Maybe it is time to start applying this to the subject of our research, too.