Monash University sociologist Associate Professor Anita Harris, who is studying how young people deal with cultural diversity and manage conflict and change, said those in culturally diverse communities were shrugging off efforts to categorise them.
Her research is part of a four-year international project that includes Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney, as well as Johannesburg in South Africa, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Prato in Italy. All are rapidly changing areas of high cultural diversity.
“Typically young people in those environments are seen as a problem. There is a lot of worry about ethnic youth gangs, young people fighting, or failing to understand each other’s backgrounds or needs,” Associate Professor Harris said.
Many young people’s sense of identity and their affiliations were in flux, she said: a mash-up of social and political networks that stretch from the local to the global, and incorporate ethnicity, religion, gender and individual interests.
The Australian component of her research has drawn on interviews with more than 100 people aged 15 to 25, from a wide range of backgrounds including Indigenous and Anglo Australians and young people with Afghan, African, Asian, European, Maori, Middle Eastern and Pacific Islander heritage.
“For this generation it is normal to be surrounded by diversity and to interact with people of different backgrounds in a way that it is not for older people. That doesn’t mean that young people in these diverse communities always get along well, or that they embrace diversity, but they accept it as normal,” the Monash University Associate Professor said.
She found that when there was conflict it was most commonly the result of sexual jealousy, male posturing, or access to limited shared resources. Combatants might “play the race card” in the heat of conflict, but race was rarely the cause of the conflict.
“Young people weren’t saying that they didn’t fight, but talked about conflict that had been resolved, things that were in the past, but which local media or politicians would not let go of,” she says. “And the people they fought with were also, at other times, friends. The popular notion that there are big ethnic groupings clashing with each other just didn’t bear out.”
Associate Professor Harris said that when it came to the question of national identity, or “being Australian.” many young people resisted a single allegiance. Hybrid cultural identities allowed them to feel part of many different groups simultaneously, a feeling enhanced by their ability to join the flow of global youth culture, via the internet.
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