London Segregation and Weak Ties

By Paul Ormerod

The political map of London is like the United States, with strong geographic segregation.  But is there something more subtle going on?

Thomas Schelling is a brilliant American polymath, who deservedly won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2005.  One of his most remarkable insights is about segregation in cities, which he published as long ago as 1971.

The residential pattern of American cities tends to be pretty sharply divided on ethnic grounds.  The population of many areas is often overwhelmingly drawn from a single ethnic group.  There are white neighbourhoods, black neighbourhoods, as so forth, in which there are very few members of other ethnic groups.

An obvious implication of this seems to be that there is strong racial prejudice in the US, that many people actively prefer to live amongst people of their own ethnicity.

Schelling showed that strong segregation at the level of the city as a whole can arise even when individuals have only a very weak preference in favour of being surrounded by people of their own ethnic group.  There is a big, often highly mathematical, scientific literature on this in the four decades since Schelling made his discovery.  But his basic finding still remains valid.  Very weak individual preferences often translate into apparently very strong ones at the city-wide level.

His work was all the more remarkable given that personal computers had not been invented. Schelling obtained his results using coins on graph paper.  He placed pennies and nickels in different patterns on the “board” and then moving them one by one if they were in an “unhappy” situation.

The first preferences in the 2012 London Mayoral election are a remarkable example of city-wide segregation.  They give the impression of a city which is sharply divided in its political allegiances and outlook.

3 Responses to “London Segregation and Weak Ties”

  1. There is an interesting and significant phenomenon emerging in post-apartheid South Africa. On the one hand there is sometimes vitriolic comment, mainly by white folks, against the ANC government, allegedly directed at its corruption and maladministration, with responses, mainly from black folks, accusing those writers of racism. On the other hand increasingly you’ll see white folks out and about both with adopted black children, and, where they go to the same private schools, white children having black friends with them and vice versa. This is a complex issue and I’m wondering whether value systems and culture might have more to do with it than ethnicity?

  2. John Lipetz says:

    The situation varies across London. I live in Camden where there is a significant ethnic mix. Partly there is an income issue where the more recently arrived are Bangladeshi and others who live in the south of the borough rather than the richer north. Barnet, our northern neighbours, also has a rich ethnic mix with different characteristics. Parts of London have a concentration of immigrant groups eg Southall with a high Sikh community and Tower Hamlets with many Bengalis who have taken over from the preponderant Jewish community who moved out after the war. Racism is still an issue, particularly in parts of East London. I hope the american example never applies here.

  3. Thanks Paul – very interesting article. Can you (or anyone) point us to a display of the first preference voting as mentioned please?

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