The Project

The Question

This project is broadly interested in the Politics of Complex Diversity in Contested Cities. Institutional solutions to ethnic and national cleavages have become more common around the world and these systems define political processes across multiple levels of governance. It is the unique microcosm created within urban environments that is of particular interest for this project. In such cities, long-standing rivalries emerge across multiple fields, manifesting themselves in conflicts over language use, state-church relations, cultural symbols and narratives, schools, neighbourhoods, access to local institutions and resources. But as these urban environments are generally defined around a specific set of established status hierarchies they are not necessarily suited to a diversifying population and increasing migration and population flows. This multi-city comparative study interrogates this interaction between "ethnic newcomers," such as immigrants and other newly mobilized ethno-cultural communities, with the institutional settings defined by historical divisions.

We begin by asking the question:

How do ethnic newcomers assert political agency, if at all, in historically divided cities, and if so, to what effect?

From this initial research question, the project explores how this political agency differs from that found in cities that are not historically contested; and how different forms of mobilization might affect the structure of the historical contestation.

The Divided Cities Context

Historically contested cities in democratic states reveal the difficulties of accommodating competing ethnic claims in unique detail. Our focus on “contested cities” reflects the reality that cities have long been primary sites of contested politics and of interethnic negotiation (Bollens 2007; 2012; Davis & Duren 2011; Stroschein 2008). Historically, state capitals and major regional cities have also been the primary sites of nation-building—places where “national” theatres, presses, media, universities and memorials became building blocks of nationalizing narratives for the larger society. In contested cities, historic divisions made nation-building inherently difficult, often generating competitive projects.

Large cities are also magnets for ethnic newcomers (broadly conceptualized to include both new immigrants and newly mobilized ethnic communities). Immigrants have always seen large metropolitan centres as their gateway into a new country. Although studies on immigration in multination countries provide insights on the experience of immigrant interaction with historical divisions, they tend to focus on states or major regions of a country, and comparative cross-regional analyses are rare. Newly mobilized “older” ethnic groups are also significantly present in cities—often as a result of migration from rural areas.

Minorities excluded at the state level often find it easier to win representation locally in municipal and city-level government (Andrew 2004). In effect, cities offer an alternative site of power for otherwise marginalized groups, and representation and contestation between historic groups and newcomers tends to emerge first at the municipal level.

Finally, cities have integral significance in the larger policy development process. Often, the need for daily management of diversity makes local processes less susceptible to symbolic framing (which can predominate at the state level), facilitating pragmatic problem-solving and accommodation of difference.

The Theoretical Framework

Our approach is institutionalist: rather than searching for causality between discreet variables, we study institutions as processes of adaptation, learning, and negotiation by multiple actors who have a stake in them (Thelen 2004; Hall & Taylor 1996).

There are two sets of independent variables: the Policy Regime and Group Characteristics. The Policy Regime consists of the wider institutional setting within which the city operates. It establishes a larger, macro-level, integrationist or accommodationist model for city-level immigration policies; and it defines the domains of authority devolved to municipal governments.

The Group Characteristics consist of a diverse set of variables which define the resources available to each newcomer group. These are an evolving set of variables, inductively produced as the city-level research is conducted in each case. We focus on characteristics that are relevant for organizational capacity (e.g., numbers, intra-group coherence, socio-economic strength, etc.).

The core dependent variable is the mode and effectiveness of contestation, which we anticipate will vary between formal political participation and informal or non-political modes of contestation. We also anticipate that these modes and levels of effectiveness may differ across a variety of sectors. Thus, in each case the impact of the institutional and diversity setting upon newcomer contestation will be evaluated across a core set of claim, or issue, areas.

The Comparative Methodology

To address the question of how new entrants to traditional ethnic competition mobilize and participate in forms of contestation, we designed an integrated comparative analytical framework for in-depth qualitative research in four major municipalities. We focus on historically contested major cities, which are also sites of multilevel governance (urban, regional, state-wide, and sometimes trans-national), allowing for a rich variety of policy experiments and diversity strategies. We have selected four cities from a range of contemporary democracies: Montreal (Canada); Brussels (Belgium); Belfast (UK); and Vilnius (Lithuania). This range of cases allows us to explore how differences in institutional environments and collective resources available to ethnic communities shape the outcomes of mobilization and contestation.

Each city team is tasked with collecting empirical material about the policy regime in which ethnic claim-making takes place, and about the claim-making activities of the “ethnic newcomer” groups we are including in the project. Individual interviews with key stakeholders (from the city government and minority organizations) are undertaken in each case to identify the main arenas and modes of contestation, and to gain insights about the effectiveness of various forms of claim-making.

The city-level interviews are coded for comparative analysis using NVivo qualitative analysis software.

NVivo logo


Andrew et. al., (eds.). 2009. Electing a Diverse Canada: The Representation of Immigrants, Minorities, and Women. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Bollens, S. 2007. Cities, Nationalism and Democratization. London and New York: Routledge.

________. 2012. City and soul in divided societies. Abingdon: Routledge.

Davis, D.E., & Duren, N.L. 2011. Cities and Sovereignty: Identity Politics in Urban Spaces. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Hall, P. and R. Taylor. 1996. “Political Science and the Three New Institutionalisms,” Political Studies 44: 936-57.

Stroschein, S. (ed.). 2008. Governance in Ethnically Mixed Cities. London and New York: Routledge.

Thelen, Kathleen. 2004. How Institutions Evolve: The Political Economy of Skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan. Cambridge University Press.


The project is funded by a SSHRC Insight grant.

For more information, please contact the project via the Centre for the Study of Democracy and Diversity at Queen's University.