By Julian Shaw, King’s College London
The Independent recently published a story about a Christmas Eve arson attack on a hotel for asylum seekers in the German town of Schwäbisch Gmünd. The author implies that this attack highlights how the positive attitude of the German government to the ‘refugee crisis’, does not necessarily reflect the everyday reality of intolerance in many German suburbs. This violent legacy adds fuel to the continuing academic engagement with diverse communities and everyday multiculturalism.
Ye (2015) expands on such a discussion in her recent article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. Turning her attention to the Jurong West neighbourhood of Singapore Ye explores “how everyday encounters in public reproduce spatialised principles of coexisting with diversity.” (Ye, 2015: 94). Ye focusses her engagement to the notion of ‘gui ju’, a kind of social code familiar to established citizens of Singapore. This code, Ye explains, is a behavioural and attitudinal norm promoted in part by state infrastructure and reinforced through everyday action (and inaction) in public spaces.
By turning to everyday interactions between people appropriating public spaces in Jurong West, Ye has created a narrative of the ‘gui ju’ social code in action. She uses extracts from interviews and her own observations to understand different behaviours of individuals familiar with the code – such as people’s silence when they are on public transport or their decorum when playing cards in the street. Uncovering such unwritten norms she is able to add clarity to the “messiness inherent in shared spaces” (ibid.: 91).
Furthermore, Ye elaborates how it is through adherence to ‘gui ju’ that locals in Jurong West can identify insiders and outsiders to the community. She explains that in Singapore, where a legacy of diverse ethnic communities are the norm, tropes like ethnicity or nationality cannot be used to define belonging. As such behaviours and attitudes in everyday interactions can be used instead to identify belonging.
However, to add complexity to her narrative Ye also states that “There are constant tensions, struggles and disquiet over how things ought to be in [public] spaces.” (ibid.: 96). In other words, the unwritten code of conduct applying to everyday life are not fixed, but are contingent and malleable: belonging requires active living in these spaces.
This compelling notion of a “social organising principle that prescribes proper codes of conduct” in public spaces (ibid.: 92), could also be applied to the UK. A quick glance at the national media following the start of the New Year can provide us with some examples. The Guardian has an article about the cultural valence of ‘booing’ in the UK during live performances of art and sport. Similarly The Telegraph discusses difficulties for British people returning to work after the winter break, including the author stating that she will “do what we Brits always do in times of low-level despond: blame the weather”. Additionally both The Guardian and The Independent imply a range of acceptable responses to the ‘artistic’ New Years Eve photograph of drunken and disorderly behaviour in Manchester. These examples highlight a complex and contradictory ‘gui ju’ of British everyday attitudes and behaviour; to boo or not, to condone or to condemn drunken disorder, and when in doubt: refer to the weather.
However, I feel it is necessary to exercise caution with Ye’s thoughts on social codes of conduct. While there may be some dominant codes and norms, such as ‘gui ju’, this does not negate the existence of multiple behavioural codes that remain hidden to each and every one of us. These can include behavioural and attitudinal codes associated with class, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and all other tropes of identity. Maybe to help find these hidden codes we should adopt the approach of Mr Arnold, an inhabitant of the town of Schwäbisch Gmünd: we should invite outsiders into our private lives – the “Gmünder Weg” (The Independent). This could enable both insider and outsider to learn their different social codes, and mould them into new shared codes.
Ye, J., (2015) Spatialising the politics of coexistence: gui ju (规 矩) in Singapore, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 41: 91–103 doi: 10.1111/tran.12107
The Independent (2016) “Refugees in Germany: Arsonists destroy refugee hotel in ‘model’ migrant town Schwabisch Gmund” Online Article (Accessed on 4th January 2016)
The Independent (2016) “The story behind the Manchester New Year’s Eve photograph likened to a Renaissance painting” Online Article (Accessed on 4th January 2016)
The Guardian (2016) “I used to think booing was healthy. Now it’s out of control” Online Article (Accessed on 4th January 2016)
The Telegraph (2016) “The January blues are bad enough without giving up booze too” Online Article (Accessed on 4th January 2016)
The Guardian (2016) “’Like a beautiful painting’: image of New Year’s mayhem in Manchester goes viral” Online Article (Accessed on 4th January 2016)