Practicing neighborliness in public space: an ethnographic study of everyday social encounters among asylum seekers and local residents in rural Denmark

Postdoctoral project by Birgitte Romme Larsen, Centre for Advanced Migration Studies and Saxo Institute.

This anthropological research project investigates everyday practices of neighborliness among asylum seekers and local inhabitants co-living in the small Danish town of Jelling.

Where asylum centers in Denmark are often faced with local opposition and are often remotely located far from nearby settlements, the center in Jelling provides a different scenario in that it is placed in center of town, where asylum seekers and local inhabitants share everyday residential and institutional public space.

As a consequence of the everyday physical interaction that follows from co-living within joint space and co-participating in joint institutions, different kinds of social encounters emerge among local inhabitants and residents of the asylum center.

Instead of approaching this everyday local meeting in terms of a pre-defined dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’, a discourse characteristic of much public debate on interethnic social encounters, the project asks how, on a micro-sociological level, various perceptions of togetherness and separateness are actually formed and enacted in daily life, through physical and social interaction within shared public space.

When co-residents move about within the same everyday public space, ”something” happens, a certain familiarization, not necessarily with one another, but with a particular social streetscape.

Within this streetscape, the project sets out to examine the various local encounters ethnographically, not as meetings between national, ethnic or socio-legal categories, but as a social encounter between co-residents within the same village, parents of children in neighboring kindergartens sharing a playground, children/adolescents enrolled in the same youth club, co-skaters using the same skating track, etc.

The project seeks to advance knowledge of how everyday relations of proximity and distance are actually shaped and practiced across ethnicity and socio-legal status, concurrently analyzed from migrant and native perspectives, and it seeks to promote an understanding of migratory outcomes and multiethnic co-residency outside of an urban context.