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One Step Beyond

A common theme in almost any discussion of social policy is the idea of ever increasing demographic complexity. Whatever field this is discussed within – education, health and social care, families and social security – there is a view that the patterns and variety of social groups present severe challenges for policy making as well as public service delivery. Since the 1960s we have - broadly speaking - seen four major approaches to thinking about this complexity and how it relates to social policy. These are:

• superdiversity

• mixedness

• intersectionality

• post-race

For each approach, we'll identify its main theme, what is known about it on the basis of applied research, and some reflections on what it could mean for social policy.


What is it?

Vertovec (2007) has noted a demographic situation consisting of smaller, scattered, multiple-origin, transnationally connected, socio-economically differentiated and legally stratified migrants. His analysis argued for a move beyond viewing diversity mainly in terms of ethnicity or country of origin. In arguing for this ‘superdiversity’, he maintains that policy-makers need to recognise the ‘multiple identifications and axes of differentiation, only some of which concern ethnicity’ (Vertovec 2007, p.1049).


  • there are relatively few examples of empirical research that directly explore the implications of superdiversity for addressing race inequalities in social policy (with a few notable exceptions)

  • Phillimore (2014) points to the need for new approaches to monitoring and managing complexity in health services due to new migrant groups

  • Bradby and Brand (2015) note that in health policy-making, compared to the UK, other countries have recognised the ‘newness’ associated with recent migration in a more purposeful way. In Canada, for instance, the state of being a new arrival or ‘newcomer’ is described as resulting in ‘less effective use of preventative services’ on the grounds that linguistic, religious or cultural factors can cause social isolation.

  • as professionals are encountering service users with new cultural and linguistic needs that they may know little about, Isakjee (2017) suggests that new and different groups may have differing expectations of how to access services based on their origin countries

The implications of superdiversity for race equality and public policy are still underdeveloped (Boccagni 2015, Aspinall 2012). Analysis of what exactly is lacking and how ‘different’ or similar the needs of communities are still remains an issue. While Vertovec (2007) called for a substantial shift in the assessment of needs, planning, budgeting and commissioning of services there has been little progress on what these new forms of administrative data collection might look like practice (Vertovec 2019). More importantly, what will this new information help to achieve? How should it be used? It is here where more research is required to understand what, if anything, superdiversity understood as a concept and as a method can contribute, in practical terms, to our understanding of the utility of ethnic and racial categories in progressing equality in public policy and public service provision. The work to date has not offered practitioners and policy makers a clear line of sight on how it can be used in their work (other than to describe demographic complexity with a greater degree of sensitivity and granularity), or why it would produce better outcomes.


What is it?

Sociological studies of mixedness offer a theoretical account of the boundaries of identity associated with race and ethnicity by considering the significance of ‘mixed’ and ‘inter’ racial and ethnic backgrounds, as both a global as well as national/international process (King-O’Riann et al 2014). The main policy attention arises from demographic analysis: in 2001 (the first UK census to include categories for people from mixed heritage backgrounds) 677,000 people in Britain identified themselves as ‘mixed’. Just less than half of those who called themselves mixed race were under the age of 16 and the mixed category was set to become one of the fastest growing ethnic populations.


  • The view that mixedness requires attention by policy makers has been around for some time, with Song (2015) arguing that the sheer diversity of mixed people’s combinations and experiences is insufficiently understood. In particular, she suggests that policy-makers need to be careful when making assumptions about what being ‘mixed’ means and ensure they account for a range of disparate kinds of mixed experience.

  • In both Platt and Nandi (2018) and Peters (2017) it is evident that a substantial proportion of people with mixed parentage choose not to describe themselves as ‘mixed’ when filling out social surveys, and that for mixed heritage children in foster care, categorisation is often inadequate and fails to take into account internal variation between identities that are formed outside of birth families / and the ethnic and racial categories of birth.

If mixedness is to be used as a framework to determine the public service needs of the population in the future through more granular analysis of service outcomes, then understanding the factors that shape decisions to identity as ‘mixed’ will be an important line of inquiry for policy makers. In particular, there are opportunities to explore, in more empirical detail, the nature of underlying beliefs and choices that policy-makers, analysts and mixed people make when defining people as ‘mixed’. How do existing patterns of racialisation and structural inequality shape the process of defining and responding to the public services needs of particular parts of the population? How do these beliefs apply to decisions made about administrative categories employed by public authorities to monitor difference? Mixedness would also require a more intersectional approach to racial identities (acknowledging the social construction of race in conjunction with other aspects of identity such as gender and class) and while this is apparent in youth and cultural studies its implications for and in social policy to address race inequality are still much less understood.


What is it?

Intersectionality has only been used in the UK social policy lexicon in recent years where it has been associated mainly with specialist equality issues and legal matters (Atrey 2018, Solanke 2017) where one form of discrimination is ‘added’ on top of another. However it has been proposed as a more dynamic alternative to equality approaches based on more static, one-dimensional forms of identity and inequality such as age or sexual orientation (Dustin and Held 2018).


  • In practice terms, despite providing a nod to complexity and intersectionality, policy makers often continue to treat gender, ethnicity and disability as separate processes that produce particular kinds of social inequalities. Hence it can be argued the concept has been denuded of its radical edge

  • Within civil society too, a number of authors have described how the UK has been slow to embrace the application of intersectionality in women’s rights movements and it has revealed differences of approach with UK feminist movements (Christofferson 2020).

There appear to be continued conceptual and practical barriers to the application of intersectionality in policy and practice. It currently has limited currency in UK policy-making, and is generally associated with international development policy. The term is used descriptively rather than critically, and even then is seen as requiring a relatively high level of investment of time and resources to work at a level of granularity required – understanding the complex relationships between gender, race and class for instance. In other words, the widespread recognition of the need to understand the intersectional identities and experiences of those using public services, the practice of policy analysis and public service planning has not caught up with how to address these multi-dimensional aspects of inequality.


What is it?

This has a number of meanings that are often confused. Used as a descriptor of the state of ethnic/racial diversity it shares a number of features with the approaches above in contending that racial categories do not helpfully capture experiences of inequality and discrimination in contemporary society. Yet, in a departure from superdiversity, post-racial viewpoints have also been drawn on ethical and ontological propositions to questions of social justice. This racial ‘eliminativist’ perspective maintains that, even though racism has not been overcome, we should still eliminate race from our ontologies, political discourse and scholarly inquiry due to the negative, reifying effects that arise if it is retained (St Louis 2015).


this approach aims to move beyond identitarian politics

post-race is also used to a critique of ‘race blind’ viewpoints, that deny race and racism as an issue for political and policy attention

in Trevor Phillips’ 2015 television documentary “Things we won’t say about race that are true” he proposed that actions on race equality under the banner of ‘multiculturalism’ had actually been counter-productive for both racial minorities who had been ‘ghettoised’ and white communities who had been alienated by ‘political correctness’ and special treatment for non-whites.

What are the implications of post-race for policy and practice? A reluctance or refusal to count by race makes counting racial inequalities a particular challenge as is known from mainland Europe (Simon 2017) as well as beyond that. From a UK perspective, racialisation of groups and associated race inequalities problematise the adoption of race-blind forms of equality policy frameworks. Contemporary arguments about sovereignty vs. security, as in Brexit debates in the UK, or about alleged cultural incompatibility of Islam reveal the intersections of racism, nationalism and populism with migration issues and religious minorities. This would underline arguments that race categories and identities are still needed given the fact that racial inequalities are still so clearly evident across a range of policy fields (Byrne et al 2020). Thus a key challenge in this area is about identifying a balance between acknowledging that race categories are imperfect and heuristic, whilst at the same time resisting the post-racial view that denies racism, or limits it to the past or an extreme fringe.

This blog is based on a full research report, which you can download here.


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