Book Review: Youth, Multiculturalism and Community Cohesion

Youth, Multiculturalism and Community Cohesion by Paul Thomas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)
(Palgrave Politics of Identity & Citizenship Series)

paul thomas

Thomas’ book is an engaging and well-written account of the dilemmas of contemporary society in dealing with youth identity and multiculturalism, particularly since 2001 when new ways of approaching multicultural youth work came to the forefront because of government concerns about the failure of multiculturalism. Riots in 2001 in Oldham, Burnley and Bradford, and the events of 9/11 and 7/7 led to the introduction of new models of dealing with the youth of ethnically diverse towns and cities based upon ideas about community cohesion. The principal strategy discussed in this book is employment of community cohesion policies and practices: Thomas highlights what these policies on community cohesion, that have been increasingly been recommended by government, mean on the ground for those working with young people in diverse ethnic communities like Oldham and Rochdale, and he attempts to take a positive approach to the current debates on the implications of community cohesion policies.

“All public bodies in Britain now have a duty to promote community cohesion…” (p1).

What is community cohesion? Community cohesion refers to an emphasis on commonalities rather than differences. Thomas’ perspective on community cohesion is that it is a “re-balancing of multiculturalism towards a more overt and proactive commitment to liberal citizenship for all citizens, of whatever ethnic background” (p189).
Rather than simply dismissing community cohesion as an assimilationist project or as the death of multiculturalism, Thomas uses empirical evidence to argue that these aforementioned ways of understanding community cohesion are inadequate for in his view “community cohesion represents a helpful and necessary reorientation of multiculturalism’s priorities and approaches in order to positively engage with modern complexity, and that it is certainly not a retreat to assimilationism” (p4).

The empirical data is drawn from “the most marginalised” (p6) young people and their youth workers in Greater Manchester – Oldham and Rochdale – where the communities experience high levels of economic and social deprivation. Thomas highlights how “issues of ethnicity and youth are highly relevant to wider discussions of poverty, inequality and life chances in areas like Oldham and Rochdale” (p6), and there is a chapter discussing gender dynamics as well as the territorialisation elements to belonging to the locale, but in general the book does not sufficiently cover the significance of structural inequalities in the lives of young people inhabiting multicultural urban spaces in Britain. I would have liked to have learned more about material disadvantages faced by these ethnically diverse youth that might contribute to tensions and troubles in their everyday lives in multicultural communities.

The main arguments employed by Thomas are that community cohesion policies (though critiqued by some academics) are utilised successfully by youth workers in their work with young people – where safe spaces are created to encourage direct contact between otherwise segregated youth:

“…cohesion in practice is working with and respecting existing ethnic and other identities, augmenting them, rather than replacing in an assimilationist sense, with an overarching focus on common identities and experiences” (p10).

The strengths of this book are that Thomas rightly emphasises the significance of exploring the lives of young people in marginalised and deprived areas of the UK, for as he points out these youth are central to the future of multi-ethnic Britain. Moreover, he argues that there is a lack of empirical evidence in academic writings on community cohesion, and thus he has significantly addressed this current failing by including the ideas and identities of young people and their lived experiences of the impact of community cohesion policies on their local areas. Thomas has aimed to relay to the reader the practice of community cohesion policies – how local and national government officials have implemented notions regarding cohesion in diverse communities like Oldham and Rochdale.

The empirical research in the book gives the reader a sense of optimism about how governmental policies can be engaged with in meaningful ways on the ground (even if, like me, you might be sceptical about the government’s focus on cohesion rather than inequality and austerity). One of the most impactful chapters focuses importantly on Muslim youth and their relationship to national identity and belonging to Britain, challenging the negative scaremongering that is prevalent in mainstream media. We learn that, contrary to media and political rhetoric, young Muslims are able to express a strong faith identity alongside their British identity. In a different chapter, we are also guided through a critique of the much maligned Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) policies and programmes, and shown how examples of local organisations using PVE resources resiliently to do good work with young people. Another well-written and significant chapter discusses white working-class youth identity and the importance of bringing social class to the debates on belonging, identity and multiculturalism, whilst remaining sensitive to the anti-racist project.

At the time of publication, perhaps there was not more known about the failure of Prevent, as though it has been mentioned, I would have liked to have seen more critique about how Prevent was implemented in local communities by key local players. One very off-putting point that arises again and again in the book is reference to Trevor Phillips who is quoted regarding his skewed views on multiculturalism. Yet Trevor Phillips is not well respected by many academics writing about multicultural belonging to Britain, and thus citing his views takes away something from this otherwise admirable book. This book’s focus is northwest England, particularly Oldham and Rochdale, but it would be interesting to learn more about community cohesion polices in practice in other parts of Britain.

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