Research report

Religious visibility, disadvantage and bridging social capital: a comparative investigation of multicultural localities in Melbourne’s north

14 Aug 2017

This project explored neighbourhood experiences of residents in two ethnoreligiously diverse suburbs in Melbourne’s north, Fawkner and Broadmeadows. The two localities were chosen because they both have large Muslim minorities (25 and 30 per cent respectively at the time of the 2011 Census, and 32 and 36 at the time of the 2016 census) and the project’s primary focus was on the impact of (primarily Muslim) ‘religious visibility’ on the local bridging social capital. Bridging social capital is an important aspect of social capital, especially in large, diverse and socially anonymous urban contexts. It refers to interactions and connections among people with different demographic, ethno-cultural and socioeconomic characteristics. Bridging social capital is crucial for (but not limited to) local community cohesion, which translates into friendliness, neighbourliness and safety of (sub)urban communities. Literature on social cohesion and social capital in the context of ethnically diverse Western cities is extensive and its findings are varied, depending on the specific characteristics of the local context under investigation, as well as wider national and international contexts at any given time. Some studies found that urban ethnic diversity tends to decrease social capital and social cohesion, while other studies came up with different conclusions. One of the reasons for the inconclusive findings is not just real differences between localities but also methodological difficulty of precisely measuring social capital and social cohesion. Our study was informed by theoretical and methodological insights of Australian and overseas studies, as well as our own earlier research on diverse neighbourhoods and the impact of ‘visible difference’ in Australian urban contexts. The project also built on our recent (2012- 13) empirical research in Melbourne’s diverse north.

Case-study locations: This project set out to explore and compare two localities where large Muslim minorities have different characteristics, including different levels of ‘religious visibility’: in Fawkner, many recently arrived Muslims, predominantly from South and Central Asia, are publicly identifiable as Muslims through their traditional attire, whereas in Broadmeadows, in spite of a somewhat larger proportion of Muslim residents, predominantly from Turkish, Lebanese and Iraqi backgrounds (many of them Australian-born and/or bred), the Muslim presence is less publicly visible. There are other differences between two suburban Muslim populations, including the length of residence in the locality and in Australia in general, and socio-economic characteristics, with Fawkner Muslims being more highly educated and more recent arrivals, on average.

The central research question (RQ) guiding this project was: How does religious visibility (as opposed as religious diversity per se) impact on social cohesion in case-study localities?

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