The Stranger

This month NatCen reported that 77% of the British public “want to see a reduction in immigration” and more than half want immigration reduced “a lot”. The situation is more complex than these figures suggest, but immigration is clearly still an important issue to the British public as we enter 2014. The problem is not the number of immigrants per se but the perceptions of the numbers and the ideas people have about who migrants are and what they are (still) doing in the country.

German Sociologist Georg Simmel wrote The Stranger back in 1908. He described this ‘stranger’ as “the person who comes today and stays tomorrow,” a “potential wanderer” whose position in society is determined “by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning.” Although the stranger is a spatial member of the group, in that he is physically present, Simmel explains that he is not a full member in a social sense. Because he is from somewhere else, the stranger instead occupies a specific position ‘in’ the group but not ‘of’ it.

In the past, it was often expected that even though immigrants were here today they would be gone tomorrow. After WWII, several European countries needed immigrants to supplement depleted labour forces. The UK recruited large number of workers from the colonies, but many assumed that the presence of immigrants was only temporary, that they would work and then leave. However, over time it became obvious that this was not the case; immigrants were settling, having families and could not be removed. With this realisation, the question of how to incorporate large numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean and Asia and subsequent generations of ethnically different people came to the fore and anti-immigrant sentiment grew. Although they were from elsewhere, immigrants were staying here, just like ‘the stranger’ who “comes today and stays tomorrow.”

The resident immigrant is an obvious manifestation of ‘the stranger’ who lives among ‘us’ but is not of ‘us’ and Simmel’s idea has often come up in discussion of immigration. Immigrants are physically present in most countries but are not always accepted as part of the social or national community. Not only are they not accepted as ‘one of us’ but the diversity they contribute to society is sometimes considered detrimental. The thing about the resident immigrant is that he is physically part of the community and therefore shares national, social, occupational characteristics with the established non-immigrant community. He lives, works, schools with ‘us’ but is not ‘one of us’.

The Stranger is close to us, insofar as we feel between him and ourselves common features of a national, social, occupational, or generally human, nature. He is far from us, insofar as these common features extend beyond him or us, and connect us only because they connect a great many people. – Simmel 1908 [1950]

Coping with Strangers

Anti-immigrant sentiment remains rife across much of Europe. Given that we inevitably having some things in common with immigrants, who are after all part of society, perhaps the best way forward is to focus on the things we share, rather than that which divides us. A focus on the everyday life of people in local neighbourhoods could help to achieve this aim. By focusing on the everyday lives and interactions of people in society, we quickly realise that we share public spaces, parks, shops, commitment to family and friends, a concern with the local economy, we may even share a concern over immigration (although I’m not suggesting this is the best thing to unite over!). Through a focus on the micro level of home and family, we may come to realise that we have more in common than we think.

This is the thinking behind popular initiatives that tell the stories of migrants like the Open Society Foundation’s Meet the Somalis series. Meet the Somalis is a collection of illustrated stories “depicting the real life experiences” of Somalis in seven European cities. The website explains that “the stories allow readers a unique insight into what everyday life is like as a Somali in Europe” including experiences “many of us will never know” but more often stories portraying “the values shared amongst many of us, like the importance of family, well-being, and identity”. By highlighting the values we share, rather than our differences, initiatives like this attempt to open our eyes to the fact that we are as similar as we are different and that by focusing on differences of origin we risk obscuring more fundamental similarities.

There is, however, a risk that the commonalities we find between us are only the most general human qualities. If the only thing we seem to share is that we care about our children, or live in the same city, it emphasises the fact that that is all we have in common and our differences will be emphasised instead of our sameness. This is Simmel’s understanding and there is certainly some truth in it. Nevertheless, in the very real world of anti-immigrant Europe, finding some sameness, however vague, must surely be helpful in breaking down the division between a native ‘us’ and immigrant ‘them’. And the chances are that once we find one thing in common, and open our eyes to the possibility of sameness, other commonalities will become visible.

Thinking Beyond ‘Us’ and ‘Them’

As long as he is considered a stranger in the eyes of the other, he is not an ‘owner of soil.’ – Simmel 1908 [1950]

In the same way as racialised people are constructed as un-human, strangers tend to be seen not as individuals but as “strangers of a particular type.” By revealing the inevitable similarities between ‘us’ and an immigrant ‘them’ we might be able to break down the imagined divide between us. The fact is that we all have things in common, shared human values and shared ideas and concerns about our local area, for example. Initiatives like Meet the Somalis, force us to question what it is that really matters, who we are in relation to other people, and why it is that we make decisions about who fits in and who remains on the margins.

The resident immigrant, from elsewhere but living here is an obvious manifestation of Simmel’s ‘stranger’ who come today and stays tomorrow. Immigrants are additions to society but are also part of it. In Simmel’s view the stranger lives among ‘us’ but is not of ‘us.’ He lives in our society and interacts with us, but is always defined by his origins elsewhere and never fully establishes himself as part of the group. Immigrants are often marginalised from mainstream society, perceived as living with us but never ‘one of us’. But it doesn’t have to be like this! A little open-mindedness could go a long way to making people realise that in the end we’re all, pretty much, the same. Instead of thinking of immigrants as ‘different’ we should be asking ourselves why it is we think that, and whether there are parts of the picture missing.

Further Reading

Amin, A. (2012) Land of Strangers, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Anderson, B. (2013) Us and Them. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Open Society Foundation (2014) Meet the Somalis.

Simmel G. (2012) The Sociology of Georg Simmel, New York : Nabu Press.


  1. tonybareham · · Reply

    Nice post, but personally i think there are far more issues involved than seeing migrants as strangers who don’t go home and i don’t think there is one perception that explains all cases. historically some ethnic groups are perceived to have all gravitated to one location and effectively created ghetto’s and not integrated, another group a few years ago started campaigning for acceptance of Sharia law in their ghetto’s. More recently limited employment opportunities and continued migration were always going to clash.


  2. Thanks for your comment Tony. I agree that there are many important issues at play whenever we talk about migration or migrant integration and the lack of social mixing and segregation is often brought up in debates in the UK. However, the significance of migrant self-segregation is often overstated. You might be interested in Finney and Simpson’s book “‘Sleepwalking to Segregation’?: Challenging Myths about Race and Migration” on this issue. In a blog this size it is obviously impossible to cover everything and this post was intended to spark an idea, rather than cover the whole issue of integration. Admittedly it may be a bit abstract but I believe that it is worthwhile to think through and reflect on what it is that separates migrants and non-migrants in the public imagination.


  3. tonybareham · · Reply

    Keep up the good work, and i look forward to reading more of your posts 🙂


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