I'm local and foreign

James Rosbrook-Thompson

Dr James Rosbrook-Thompson's teaching specialisms encompass the sociology of ‘race’ and race-thinking, globalisation and education, and the ethnographic method. Meanwhile, his research interests include raciology, urban sociology, delinquency and disorder, the sociology of sport, cosmopolitanism and notions of belonging.

James joined Anglia Ruskin after completing his PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Citizenship is a major area of interest for the media, policy-makers and the wider community. The legal dimension of citizenship has, of course, always been important and there’s been much discussion around formalities and competencies, such as tests and language requirements. Recently, however, people are talking more about the substantive dimension of British citizenship – that is, the more abstract values, such as practices, meaning and feelings of belonging.

Our sense of citizenship and belonging is not necessarily aligned with our country of birth or legal status. I was keen to explore this subject in a recent study. We found that many of the participants, drawn from a semi-professional football club in inner London, shared a sense of ‘denizenship’ (of resident non-citizenship). This was a key component of their make-up, despite a formal status of being ‘British citizens’, either by birth or qualification. That begs the question: how do we foster a sense of belonging in someone who’s legally British, but who has no actual feelings of belonging to or allegiance with the nation state (whether that’s Britain or elsewhere)?

For the study’s participants, the pervading sense of belonging was tied to a neighbourhood, a constellation of council estates, or their particular side of the M25 (the other side was where the ‘English people’ lived). Here we had an assertion that to be local was, by definition, to be ‘foreign’, or to trace your ancestry elsewhere; “I’m local and foreign.” This presents an interesting challenge for policy-makers for whom British and non-British or migrant status is one of the common differentiators.

Human variation, that is the sorts of ideas people use to make sense of the differences between people, is most commonly defined through obvious differentiators such as race, ethnicity, and a family’s original country of origin and/or geographic location. Used in conjunction with citizenship status, quantitative measurements can be taken to describe the population of an area. However, these categories or differences were not the ones described by the study’s participants. Their reality – their sense of belonging – had much more to do with their local setting and the other people within it; namely, how recently you’d arrived in the country, your seniority within the team and the council estate you lived on had much more currency than the more commonly-used designations of variation.

I think that this figure of the denizen, or resident non-citizen, needs to be examined with more depth than before. Quantitative statistics don’t necessarily give an accurate picture. We must undertake more qualitative ethnographic fieldwork and the voices of ‘denizens’ need to be heard more clearly. Danny Dorling, who’s a Professor of Geography at Oxford, talks about London being the most unequal city in the developed world. I think there’s definitely a link between such inequality and this sense of disenfranchisement or non-relationship with the country.

Research Matters

What inspired you?

I’ve been interested in sport since I was a youngster and this stayed with me as my focus changed to academia. While in the USA, I became interested in the differences between the UK and US in terms of capturing kinds of human variation through sport. People talked about players of (so-called) different races having different capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. In the US, everything is rendered in terms of numbers through statistical analysis; perhaps not so much work has been done on the qualitative ways in which people make sense of human variation, particularly the everyday ways.

Any surprises?

The biggest one was the pervasiveness of the idea of non-attachment to the nation state.

Why does this research matter?

We need to raise awareness of the everyday notions of belonging and feelings of belonging in the inner city. I also hope the research underlines the importance of ethnographic fieldwork and the battery of methods available to sociologists.

Research funding

Anglia Ruskin University has supported the dissemination of findings

Reading matter

Sport, Difference and Belonging: Conceptions of Human Variation in British London: Routledge.

Rosbrook-Thompson, J. (2012)

‘I’m Local and Foreign’: Belonging, the City and the Case for Denizenship.’ Urban Studies. London: Sage

Rosbrook-Thompson, J.