Interview: Ben Gidley on London’s Diaspora Communities
In November 2015 Birkbeck University’s Dr Ben Gidley gave a lecture at CIRIS on Christian, Muslim, and Jewish diaspora communities in London. Here CIRIS research associates Margot Dazey and Chris Moses ask Gidley about the state of diasporic research, his own research on diaspora groups within London’s famously diverse East End, and the policy implications of such research.
CIRIS: Can you tell us about the main aims of the Oxford Diasporas Programme, as well as those of your specific project?
Gidley: I think there’s been a big turning towards the concept of diaspora across a number of disciplines recently and the term had sort of spiraled off into all sorts of different meanings. So, part of the intention of the Oxford Diasporas Programme—which has been running for almost five years now—was to take stock of the state of play and have a bit of conceptual clarity around the concept.
Another part was to take a number of different disciplinary and methodological approaches—ethnographic in particular but many others—and to develop case studies of diaspora in a number of different contexts, in particular ones which have been less researched or which have pushed the concept a little bit. Within that, our project at COMPAS was about East London, and diasporic associational politics, looking at three faiths from 1880 to the present.
CIRIS: Why did you start in 1880?
Gidley: 1880 is a significant moment. The last two decades of the Victorian period are when the East End as we know it now really came into being. In the 1880s we saw the Jack the Ripper killings, a whole series of investigative reports on white slaving and child labour and so on in the East End. And that coincides with mass Jewish migration, which began at the very end of the 1870s and picked up rapidly through the 1880s. By the end of the 1880s, the East End was seen as a kind of Jewish quarter.
CIRIS: What would you say have been the main religious trajectories of the East End since 1880?
Gidley: It’s been very complex, and one of the things we wanted to do was to complicate some of the common, simplistic accounts of one religion following another. The common view sees decline in Christianity, then a wave of Jewish migration, then Jews becoming socially mobile and moving out, and Muslim Asians replacing them, with a resurgence of Islamic identity. That’s the kind of standard picture. And we wanted to complicate that by showing that (a) there’s a Muslim history which is earlier than that suggests, (b) there were connections between the three faiths, (c) there were tensions within and connections across communities more significant than differences or between commonalities within communities.
CIRIS: Can you give a couple of examples of unexpected findings?
Gidley: We were particularly interested in people that were either out of place or out of time. For instance, the formation of what’s now the East London Mosque, on Whitechapel Road, gets a lot of attention. If you look at its early period in the 1910s, before it found a building, its board met in a whole sequence of places. In the 1930s they met in what had been a Methodist Hall where half the building was used by a Yiddish Theatre and half of the building was used for religious services. Then, they met at a series of places before they finally wound up in their present site, which had previously been occupied by a ballroom, which had also been a boxing club, which had also been a site for Yiddish cinema and political meetings.
CIRIS: In one of your articles, you show how diasporic approach allows you to move beyond dichotomies between assimilation and cultural retention. Can you elaborate on this idea?
Gidley: Both immigration histories and sociological accounts of integration see migrants arriving, and then processes of assimilation beginning. This can be mapped, for example, in the East End, with the moving out of the immigrant quarter into the suburbs and effectively disappearing. More recently there’s been kind of panic about the extent to which that doesn’t happen, with maybe people holding on too much to their cultures that seem to be at odds with British values. I think a diasporic perspective enables you to look at how institutions such as mosques or churches or synagogues, but also trade unions, political parties, and so on, tie people to various elsewheres and various identities which are larger than the local, while also serving to bind people to their local space and community.
CIRIS: Tell us about the oral history side of the project.
Gidley: We used different sorts of archives, as well as oral history. We looked for example at the English Heritage archives: they’ve got a lot of history about the actual buildings, and that’s one of the things we were really interested in, understanding the texture of the space, the history of the building. Some of the archives held by religious patrons themselves were also very useful, and London Metropolitan archives, local history libraries in the East End, the archive of East London Mosque, which recently published its minutes and is quite committed to sharing some of its history.
We tried to use that type of material to track who the people were that moved through these spaces, how they were shaped, how the space changed over time, what were the politics around that, for example planning applications that were contested. We also did some oral interviews looking at people who are using the spaces now, tracking their own histories into and out of those spaces, and their own understanding of the history of those spaces, and I guess that was about trying to understanding the politics of memory. How different stories are remembered or not remembered, and what the politics of that remembering and forgetting is.
CIRIS: In another article, you raise both the limits and values of ethnography. Could you explain that?
Gidley: I should first say this project from the Oxford Diasporas Programme was mainly archival, with some oral history, and then we spent some time in different sites. So it wasn’t really a proper ethnographic study. It was a collaboration between historians who have done ethnographic work and sociologists who have done archival work.
When looking at how people experience diversity in an everyday way, ethnography is an invaluable method in terms of understanding practices and daily activity, living together across lines of difference. The problem is in a city like London where there are people from so many places speaking so many languages, moving in and out of different kinds of spaces, living often very local lives and very global lives at the same time, it’s impossible for a single ethnographer to follow that properly. You can follow an individual and their transnational connections, but completely miss what’s going on in their Neighbourhood. So working with colleagues on projects such as Welfare, neighbourhood and New Geographies of Diversity, I’ve been interested in thinking about how you can do collaborative ethnography, how you can multiply ethnographic perspectives by working together to try and track some of the complexity better.
CIRIS: Your work has included policy-oriented research. What methodologies do you find most helpful for this type of research?
Gidley: In terms of undertaking the research, it really depends on what the research question is and the methodology should always follow the research question. In terms of communicating the research, policy-makers often have a lot of faith in numbers, quantitative research, and research that they can be certain is representative, valid, and robust. I think there’s a relatively low understanding among policy makers of qualitative, ethnographic research. So it’s important for policy-engaged qualitative researchers to work with quantitative researchers, and to think about the numbers.
CIRIS: Finally, where do you think research trends about the interrelated topics of religion, the city, the inner-city, diversity, hyper-diversity, diaspora, ethnicity, community, and so, on will go in the future, and what implications does that have for public debates?
Gidley: There’s a really interesting convergence between people that are working on urban and spatial types of topics—from geographical and urban studies to planning perspectives, with some of the more cultural work around faith, diaspora and so on, and I think that’s a really fruitful area to think about—the local, very specific contingent sites and places of interaction and identification. And that has policy implications in terms of thinking about cohesion and conviviality and integration, which always happen at the local level in real places.