What on Earth is Superdiversity?

Over the last few years people from over 180 countries have come to Birmingham to make the city home, meaning Birmingham has become “superdiverse”.  Jenny Phillimore from the University of Birmingham outlines what superdiversity means, and what the implications are for the city.

The past twenty years have seen enormous changes in the way we live, as societies and cultures across the world have become integrated through communication, transportation, and trade.   Globalisation as this process has become known, has impacted on almost every area of life.  Globalisation has accelerated the speed and scale of migration, brought changes to migration patterns, and led to the development of the phenomena of new migration.  The “old” post-colonial migrations of the 1950s to 1980s brought large numbers of relatively homogenous groups of people to a small number of places with which they had some kind of connection, in particular Indians, Bangladeshi, African-Caribbeans and Pakistanis to the UK.  New migration sees relatively small numbers of people from countries across the world arriving to very many places with which they have little or even no historical connection (Vertovec 2007).  Vertovec (2007) argues new migration is superdiverse because new migrants are diverse across a wide range of variables including ethnicity, immigration status, rights and entitlements, labour market experiences, gender and age profiles, and patterns of spatial distribution.  The scale, complexity, heterogeneity and pace of new migration far exceeds that of the early post-Commonwealth arrivals.

Birmingham provides the perfect example of a superdiverse city.  Although decent data is hard to come by, work undertaken by the PCTs for the Universityof Birmingham’s Healthy and Wealthy http://www.wmpho.org.uk/topics/page.aspx?id=6513 project gives us a good insight into just how diverseBirmingham is.  In the three years from 2007 people moved toBirmingham from 187 different countries, that’s nearly all the countries in the world.  They came to live here as workers, marriage migrants, students and, to a lesser extent, asylum seekers. Birmingham still has its well established minority communities but only 25% of new arrivals came from new or old Commonwealth countries.  Significant numbers arrived from countries such as Poland, China, Romania, Afghanistan and Nigeria.  While there are important new communities being established inBirmingham, the city also demonstrates another of the key characteristics of superdiversity: fragmentation.  Rather than being part of established or emerging ethnic or community clusters, many of the arrivals come in such small numbers that they are not part of a group at all.  They may have few or no social connections in the city and are pretty isolated.  For example fewer than five people arrived fromKyrgyzstan, Porto Rico,Nicaragua, andMontenegro.  AlthoughBirmingham has its global neighbourhoods, where no ethnic group dominates and superdiversity is the norm, every part ofBirmingham has seen the arrival of at least some newcomers from countries that previously were not represented in the city.

So what does this all mean for Birmingham?  There is no doubt that the high numbers of arrivals and sheer diversity of newcomers brings both challenges and opportunities.  Service providers struggle to meet the needs of everyone when they know little about the problems facing new groups.  Consultation and communication can be difficult for departments such as housings and social services, when they do not know who lives in the city or how to connect with them.  Our research shows that some new arrivals experience very high levels of deprivation and exclusion because they do not know how to access services or who to talk to get advice.  Superdiversity offers Birmingham unprecedented opportunity.  The people who come here are those who had the motivation, initiative and courage to leave their families and possessions behind and move somewhere totally new.  They are often well qualified, they learn quickly, are hard working and determined.  The levels of diversity within the city mean thatBirminghamcan benefit from cultural and linguistic diversity, and perhaps most importantly in these times of economic hardship, connections with almost every country in the world.  If we can find a mechanism to harness these skills and connections then we may a way to help accelerate economic recovery.  There is also growing evidence that as areas which have previously been ethnically divided become superdiverse there is a reduction in community tensions as no one group, or groups, dominate, and old ethnic cleavages are reduced.

Superdiversity is here to stay.  The phenomenon, whilst pronounced in Birmingham, is in evidence across much of the developed world.  As one of the cities likely to become a majority/minority city in the next few years Birmingham is at the forefront of the global trend.  With vision and imagination Birmingham can use this to the city’s advantage and use the knowledge, expertise and connections from across the world to become one of the world’s leading convivial, cosmopolitan cities.

Leave a comment


  1. JAnice connolly

     /  23rd April 2012

    This is all very true -what are Birmingham City council going to do to make this most of the cities unique profile ? We must match academic research and brilliant ideas with innovative and creative action to make the most of what weve got . Do we have enough people of vision in place in the city who will/can/want to take action ?

  2. William

     /  5th November 2013

    Are there any positive consequences of superdiversity? What kind of community can you have when there is no consensus or unity about a single issue? I imagine the restaurants would be interesting, as would the drunken nightlife and quarreling, but the higher aspirations of humanity seem impossible in such a situation. How would you have anything good if people are constantly at odds from different values and goals? It seems only the trivial and economic would be possible and everyone who wanted better would leave to live in a unified community of successful and capable people.

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