Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Why is the UK segregating when we get on ok?

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We know that the UK is becoming segregated – by income, age and ethnicity. We know because of the research – an OECD report last year showed that our schools were among the most segregated in the rich world*. And many of us know by experience – our friends are mostly like us by income, age and ethnicity.

Yet – how is this happening – when most of us are keen to be open to people from different ages, incomes and ethnicities. I may have a small preference to chat with ‘people like me’ but I don’t want a segregated country.

At the end of the 1960’s Tom Schelling – an American academic provided the answer using a chess board and some black and white counters.

He took the chess board, and placed a number of black and white counters on the board, leaving some free places.

He then assumed that each counter had a very small preference to be placed next to ‘counters like me’.   If a one in three of next-door counters were ‘like me’, no counter would move.  But if less than a third, they would move to a space with more ‘counters like them’ next door.  In other words, a black counter would move if it meant it could increase the number of black counters next door to more than a third.  He then chose one counter that wanted to move and moved it to a preferred location.  Then another, then another …


He continued until no more counters wanted to move.  The result? Segregation within 40 moves.


This small preference for being around ‘counters like me’ had led to segregation without any counter actively wanting a segregated community.  They just wanted a few more people like them.

We have two choices – we can either let this happen or we can find ways to make people of different ages, incomes and ethnicities feel like ‘people like us’.  

* ‘Education at a Glance’, OECD, 2012

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