The meaning of peer interaction from the perspective of newly arrived migrant students

Featured image of blog meaning of peer interaction from NAMS' perspective

Authors: Denis Tajic and Anna Lund [1]

We have studied the meaning of peer interaction for newly arrived migrant students (NAMS) in Sweden. This is an important social relation as it has consequences for both school achievement (Takeuchi, 2016; Rodriguez-Izquierdo & Darmody, 2019) and sense of belonging (Stretmo & Melander, 2013). Of specific importance are social relations between NAMS and students who were born in the country or are longer-term residents. However, language (Fridlund, 2011) and NAMS that are often stigmatised in society (Bunar & Sernhede, 2013; Sharif, 2017) can be barriers for peer interaction and friendship.

Yet, there are also other stories to tell – stories of everyday solidarity between peers in school and an unpanicked approach to superdiversity and its complexity of migration-related difference (Vertovec, 2007).

Superdiversity creates new encounters and learning processes within institutions and between individuals and groups (Vertovec, 2019). There is also a potential for a sensitivity for diversity to become a new common concerning ‘the ways people perceive others’ (Vertovec, 2012, p. 306). This shapes the way of thinking of an individual in ‘more complex terms,’ concerning, for example, linguistic differences, religious practices, traditions and lifestyles; forming ‘contingent openness to people, corporations and societies’ (Vertovec, 2012, p. 307). The possibility of changing one’s perspective and being empathic is central to this process and can be essential for a multicultural mode of incorporation that in interaction recognises differences as equal ‘variations of the sacred qualities of civility’ (Alexander, 2006, p. 452).

In our research we have used empirical fieldwork data (interviews and observations) collected in 2018/2019 from two superdiverse middle schools in Stockholm. The schools have a long history of welcoming new members from different parts of the world. Generations of immigrants have resettled in the surroundings and studied at the schools. This allowed us to analyse how individual action and self-understandings concerning peer interaction are linked to shared meanings in school communities.

A multicultural mode of incorporation and an inclusive school culture

Our findings show the importance of a school culture characterised by a multicultural mode of incorporation visible through staff members’ collective work, sensitivity and openness to diversity, as well as conscious efforts to move away from deficit discourses about NAMS. The schools are organised around multicultural principles. These principles shape teachers’ understandings of their work and their interaction with students. This means that the students learn within the school culture that they are capable not only of learning, but also of interacting with one other in these superdiverse environments.

Rita, a newly arrived student from Bulgaria, describes her experience in her former school (a school characterised by homogenous Swedish nativity in another Stockholm neighborhood): ‘No one talked to me. I had no friends. I was all by myself.’ But something happened when she moved to one of the superdiverse schools in our research. ‘On my first day at school, I met many friends. Everyone started talking to me.’ Her current life in her new school is described as positive. She simply says that her emotional state can best be described as ‘ordinariness’, which means, in her own words: ‘I feel like everyone else. There’s no difference [between me and my friends].’ Being new in Sweden and in school can be ordinary. Ordinary means being seen as an individual. In peer interactions, you are then made sense of by others as one among all of us. You belong to the ‘we’ of the school. You are visible but not neglected; respected but not harassed. The results of the collective work from the teacher perspective ‘enter into’ students’ relational practices of caring, supporting and interacting.

Another example is given by Kirre, a boy from Syria who has been in Sweden for two years. He felt lonesome to begin with. He remembers one day when he was entering the school dining hall – a socially exposed space where students without someone to interact with become very visible – he was like being on a stage where who you hang out with reflects who you are.

One time I was in the school dining hall. They [other students] saw me standing by myself. They felt sorry for me. They didn’t know who I was. Then, one of them reached out and said: ‘Come, come. Sit with us.’ Then we started to talk and now I know pretty much everyone at school.

The collective work of welcoming new migrant students to the school is done through interactions characterised by multicultural incorporation by acknowledging that the face of another human being is a face they have collective responsibility for.

The meaning of ordinariness

We could see in our research that peer interaction within a superdiverse setting generates meanings, which bring us to our analytical point of what can be called the call or a phenomenology, and of ordinariness. One common way of addressing social and emotional belonging among NAMS in the participating schools is to use the unpretentious word ‘ordinary.’ Having a friend is often connected with being a culturally legitimate individual at school. We tend to evaluate our own self-worth through how we believe others see us and how this is connected to shared cultural values (Cooley, 1922), such as having friends and being seen as unproblematic and not shameful to hang out with. The social stage of school enhances the value of peer interaction because other students confirm your existence and value by being audience of your everyday social performances. Peer interaction and friendship are relations that signal mutual affection. Hanging out with or being friends with students born in Sweden or being longer-term residents transcends the position of having a body associated with ‘otherness.’ Instead of being ‘stopped’ – symbolically and quite literally – the newly arrived student can feel comfortable and safe within the space.

So, for newly arrived youths, sense-making of peer interaction can be explained by a desire to be ordinary. Ordinariness is made possible by interactions characterised by a mode of multicultural incorporation.

The role of an inclusive school culture that creates valuable interactions needs to be discussed as this can be crucial to school achievement, social belonging and hence self-worth. A conversation with Kirre sums up the meaning of peer interaction for NAMSs – they are important to his well-being and school achievement.

Interviewer: What is important for you to feel good at school?

Kirre: At school? You need to have friends.

Interviewer: So, the social bit is important to you?
Kirre: Yes!
Interviewer: And, what would you say is important to you in relation to learning things in school?
Kirre: My friends, because they help me a lot.

Research projects such as TEAMS can continue to dig deeper into what facilitates school communities that promotes social cohesion and solidarity as self-evident ingredients for migrant students’ everyday life at school.


The present blog article is inspired by research published as an original article by the authors, see: Tajic, D. & Lund, A. (2022) The call of ordinariness. Peer interaction and superdiversity within the civil sphere. American Journal of Cultural Sociology.


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