Although neighbourhood conflicts occur everywhere, culturally diverse neighbourhoods are more prone to conflict than others. However, residents do not necessarily get more agitated if the nuisance is caused by other ethnic groups, discovered Elze Ufkes. ‘In fact, people are more tolerant of nuisance behaviour displayed by people with other cultural backgrounds.’ Ufkes studied the origins of neighbourhood conflicts and the best ways of preventing such quarrels. He will be awarded a PhD by the University of Groningen on 6 January 2010.
The cultural diversity of a neighbourhood is a reliable predictor of conflict. ‘You would therefore expect these conflicts to be culturally based. Consider the stereotypical examples of the goat in the backyard or unfamiliar kitchen odours.’ However, the results of interviews and studies of research data prove that social conflicts are mainly caused by everyday annoyances. ‘Noise, untidy gardens, the poor maintenance condition of the gallery in a flat. In other words, the same annoyances as in any other neighbourhood.’
Ufkes carried out several surveys among the inhabitants of struggling neighbourhoods in Arnhem. When asked to what degree they experienced behaviour as annoying, residents of original Dutch descent indicated that they were more annoyed by the nuisance behaviour of fellow Dutch neighbours. Ufkes thinks the explanation lies in the black sheep effect. ‘If a member of your own group causes a nuisance, this has negative repercussions for yourself as a member of the same group. Expectations are often different too. People expect more of others with the same cultural background. If a negative event occurs, the disappointment is all the greater.’
Ufkes’s research also demonstrates that preconceptions can cause conflicts to escalate faster if the causer of the nuisance has a different cultural background. People are less likely to react constructively if they are prejudiced, in other words if they think in stereotypes. Ufkes: ‘Although these are not major cultural conflicts, many small annoyances in neighbourhoods are viewed through glasses fogged with prejudice.’
Ufkes’s research was commissioned by the Gemeenschappelijke Overleg Woningcorporaties (GOW), a joint consultation of housing corporations in Arnhem, and the Institute for Integration and Social Efficacy (ISW). One of the main aims of the research was to find effective methods for dealing with conflict situations.
The Netherlands invests heavily in projects and interventions aimed at improving the relationships between neighbourhood residents. The money goes towards activities such as neighbourhood barbecues and parties, projects whereby neighbourhood residents are stimulated to visit each other and neighbourhood mediation projects. Interventions like these are often laughed off, but according to Ufkes they play an important role in preventing conflicts in a neighbourhood.
You can react to conflict behaviour in various ways, says Ufkes. He distinguishes two different intervention types. Intervention type one is problem-oriented: what can you do if there is a conflict. Intervention type two is aimed at reducing prejudice in culturally diverse neighbourhoods, which in turn leads to a decrease in perceived nuisance behaviour. The neighbourhood barbecues belong to the second category. However, Ufkes thinks such interventions are often organized at the wrong moments. ‘This makes it too easy to conclude that such projects do not work.’
A strongly shared neighbourhood identity can help to improve perceptions of other groups in culturally diverse neighbourhoods. This contributes to more tolerance of other cultural groups, which in turn can help prevent neighbourhood conflicts. By removing preconceived notions about each other, everyday conflicts can be prevented from escalating. ‘An annual neighbourhood festival can really help to strengthen a neighbourhood’s identity. However, there is no point organizing such an event if escalating conflicts already exist.’
An intervention that has been proven in neighbourhood conflicts is neighbourhood mediation. In neighbourhood mediation, volunteers are trained to mediate in conflicts that residents are not able to resolve between themselves. Ufkes: ‘They do not try to find the solution; instead their role is to bring both parties together.’ An evaluation carried out in Arnhem indicates that neighbourhood mediation is successful. ‘Conflicts involving neighbourhood mediation are often resolved within a month, often going hand in hand with improved and enduring relations between the neighbours.’
The best results of this mediation were felt by the party who suffered most from the conflict. Even a simple listening ear works in some cases, noticed Ufkes. ‘Acknowledgement and emotional support are great boons. Even if the nuisance has not decreased following mediation, the relationship between the neighbours is better.’ In practice, this means that housing corporations have to think carefully about what they wish to achieve with interventions. ‘Timing is extremely important. You mustn’t organize a neighbourhood barbecue if there is already an escalating conflict. And do not fail to acknowledge that there is a problem. If a resident calls with a complaint it can help to let them know from the start that you appreciate they are in an unpleasant predicament. Such communication with residents can be a first form of intervention.”
Elze Ufkes (Assen, 1983) studied psychology in Groningen. He will be awarded a PhD at the Faculty of Behavioural and Social Sciences where he studied with Prof. S. Otten, Prof. K.I. van der Zee and Prof. E. Giebels. The title of this thesis is Burenconflicten in Cultureel Diverse Wijken [Conflicts between neighbours in culturally diverse neighbourhoods]. As of 1 January 2011 Ufkes will be employed as a postdoc researcher at Yale University in the US.
Contact: Mr. Elze Ufkes, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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