Fences Between Neighbors: Break Them Down or Build Them Up?

If you’ve read the last couple of entries from our blog, then you might have noticed a theme emerging from our interviews.  We’ve spoken with a handful of representatives from various immigrants’ rights organizations, and the takeaway point from most of these conversations has been that Iceland is in need of some sort of “awakening” in which Icelanders will recognize the benefits of immigration and the value of diversity.

The people we’ve spoken with are contributing to the substantial progress being made for immigrants’ rights in Iceland, most of them immigrants themselves.  They provide information, counseling, legal advising, etc. to immigrants in the country.  However, while progress is being made, these representatives agree that a change in mindset from the larger public is necessary.  Our interviewees have expressed hope that knowledge and awareness, as well as inclusive attitudes, will continue to spread throughout Iceland in order to promote peaceful and productive integration for immigrants.

Among those we’ve interviewed, integration of immigrants into Icelandic society seems to be the obvious goal of their governmental and nongovernmental programs for immigrants.  However, a recent academic article titled “Good Fences: The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Peaceful Coexistence,” which was recently mentioned in David Brooks’ New York Times column as a notable piece of social science research, argues that integration may not be the best recipe for peace.

After looking at case studies such as Switzerland, diverse in both language and religion, as well as the former Yugoslavia, the article concludes that separation of differing groups of people is conducive to peace, contrary to the popular push for integration.  The authors write, “Our analysis shows that peace does not depend on integrated coexistence, but rather on well defined topographical and political boundaries separating groups” (1).

It’s important to note that this study looked at various ethnic/religious groups geographically rubbing up against one another, which is not necessarily the case in Iceland.  Rather than tension arising between large established groups of people, Iceland faces the challenge of integrating a small but growing number of immigrants, all of whom come from very different and diverse backgrounds, into a homogenous and isolated society.

However, the research essentially concludes that based on their examples, separation rather than integration brings peace.  Although perhaps an imperfect comparison to Iceland’s situation, this research presents a provocative question.  The authors’ conclusion regarding ingredients for peace is not what we have been hearing as the ideal solution from the people in Iceland who are working on these issues.

Our initial research questions, along with the guiding missions of the organizations we have visited, are based on the assumption that integration of diverse populations is the ideal for a peaceful society.  Is this something we should question?  The authors of the article write, “Achieving peace requires a vision of what it looks like. How we imagine peace affects the steps we take and our ability to implement it in diverse locations around the world. Does peace in one place look the same as in another?” (2).

Yet imagining a vision of peace that relies on “good fences,” as the article is titled, or separation rather than integration, cannot be discussed without evoking memories of South African Apartheid or American segregation and the legacies of those systems.  Where is the line between separation for the good of peace and separation because of racism?

As this is our final blog post, we’ve decided to present this article to raise questions about our findings in Iceland.  If everyone working for immigrant rights in Iceland agrees that the key to peaceful success is efforts towards integration, how does that fit in with this research, which proposes isolation and boundaries (the opposite of integration) can bring peace?  What conclusions can your draw from these varying opinions?

If you’ve been reading our blog throughout our project, or even are just stumbling upon it now, we would love to hear your input and thoughts, no matter how brief, in the comments of this post.

Landakotskirkja, Reykjavik’s Catholic church which holds mass in Icelandic, English, Polish, and Spanish

Landakotskirkja, Reykjavik’s Catholic church which holds mass in Icelandic, English, Polish, and Spanish

We have had such a wonderful experience in Iceland over the past 8 weeks and are incredibly thankful to the Kathryn W. Davis Foundation for funding this project, as well as Colgate University, especially Professors Susan Thomson and Jacob Mundy (you both rock), for connecting us to this opportunity and advising us on our project.  And, of course, we are incredibly grateful for all of the amazing people who have spoken to us in Iceland.  Everyone has been so welcoming and open with us- this is a great time to use the only Icelandic word we can pronounce: Takk!

Sarah & Michelle


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