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January 16, 2012

Ken Hassell and his students from Elon University are currently studying ethnography in London. Much of their programme consists of fieldwork in the London area so they can really immerse themselves in the immigrant communities that are dotted all around London. London has been a cosmopolitan melting pot for almost 1,000 years as a centre of trade and industry.  The last century has brought West Africans, people from the Caribbean, and South Asians in mass, so what better place to study ethnography than London.

The main component of their three week programme is field work in different areas in London, such as Tooting, Upton Park, and Bethnal Green. Each of the students interviews people that they meet in these neighbourhoods to learn more about what brought them to England, their expectations, and also their experiences.

Sarah Hathaway and Brenna Humphries talked to Proscenium about some of the challenges they face in the field. “When we go to Tooting we are in cafes, shops, restaurants and different businesses and we have to ask people, strangers, about their experiences.  Sometimes they are a bit suspicious about why we asking them all of these questions. But once we tell them we are students from America and tell them about what we are doing they start to open up a bit more,” Sarah Hathaway tells me. Brenna Humphries says, “It really helps to have a partner.  We have some idea of the questions to work from which we discuss in advance, but really we just have to see where the conversation takes us.”

While London has seen centuries of immigration waves, Professor Ken Hassell’s approach is to look at the present with a mind to past and also wanted to make sure that students had a chance to sample an alternative to London.  So the group spent two days in Ironbridge and Birmingham.  Ironbridge, a World Heritage Site, and “the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution”, set the backdrop as to why Birmingham became a centre of immigrant communities from the 1840’s onwards.

Birmingham’s industrial heritage and its status as the “city of a thousand trades” made it an obvious place to immigrate in the post war era, when the city had been heavily bombed. 20,000 houses needed to be rebuilt and a labour shortage in the factories meant work for South Asians and anyone else in the Commonwealth. Between 1948 and 1962, immigration laws were relaxed and thousands were encouraged to come Great Britain to rebuild.

Elon’s travels take them straight to the multi-ethnic epicentre of Birmingham where today 35% of Birmingham’s population is non white immigrants. By 2025, the estimates suggest that percentage will reach 65%.   In Birmingham, the students visit the Ghankol Sharif Mosque to learn more about Islam and the mosques community outreach programmes. Their host provides and very candid introduction into this worldwide religion.

They also visit the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, one of Birmingham’s busiest Sikh temples to learn more about a religion which has 30 million followers worldwide.  One of the main components of their religion is hospitality and to host anyone who arrives on their doorstep, so they provide Elon students not only an insight into their religion, but to a vegetarian lunch. The Gurdwara is so busy, and open 24 hours, 7 days a week, so in any given week they will serve 30,000 meals. It’s a thriving community guide Ian Braisby also gives the students a tour of the local area, showing the students that the city of a thousand trades is now the city of a thousand cultures!