Let’s collect what we know, and identify what we don’t know about prejudice and how it challenges peaceful relations in our communities.

Ahead of the Towards a Better Future conference which kicks off in Belfast on Thursday we have a guest post by Professor Mike Hardy, Director, Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University, who writes for us on the topic

We do not seem to be very successful at living together in our complex and changing communities. And we need to be much better at it if we are serious about creating safe and secure places for our families and our futures. This better future is not just a local matter –it requires a committed effort by the global community both at the institutional and civil society levels, by state and non-state actors, to bridge divides, overcome prejudice, misconceptions and misperceptions, and polarisation which threatens all peaceful relations.

It feels that we are living in an age where the forces for prejudice are trumping the forces for pluralism; an age when the more diverse our neighbourhoods become, the more joined up our world and the more pervasively we communicate with each other in the digital real time, the more intolerant we become, the more divided we appear and the more extreme and vocal our voices emerge on topics like immigration, race and identity. Rapidly changing communities appear to be accompanied by changing attitudes of individuals within broader society: are we more, or less, tolerant? Are we greater or less extreme in our views?

There are many theories about the root causes of community tensions, and about the social and political factors that sponsor prejudicial attitudes and behaviour; equally, there are also many theories about what might be done to alleviate them. But in reality there is little evidence available to back these up. As a result, academics and policy-makers struggle to understand the problem, develop robust solutions and even to evaluate interventions. Some argue that each local case is distinctive and findings are not transferable, others that fundamental themes are unravelling, structural matters such as inequality, or tit-for-tat radicalisation driven by competitive ideologies.

This lack of empirical clarity challenges us to cope with both what we know and what we don’t know: we know, for example, that health, life-styles, health care and education, can all contribute to violent confrontations or anti-social behaviour, and we know that there are very distinctive frames of reference –between for example public order and terrorism, and we know that online activity increases access to messages in the real world. But there is so much that we do not know. In this last case, we are still not clear about the relationship between online activity and off-line behaviour.

We worry about ‘clashes’ of ideas and ideologies, but we are still unclear about the role that ideology has in specific community locations or for radicalisation. We look increasingly at what is called ‘reciprocal radicalisation’ where that of another fuels one community’s extremism, but we are still unclear about the impact on community tensions. Not all extremist positioning challenges safety in neighbourhoods –not all leads to violence.

And then there is the issue that even when we do know and do have clarity from evidence, not all knowledge is easy to digest and apply. Sometimes in this terrain, the most authoritative conclusions may be art odds with what the public wants to hear. A political reality I think is that we need evidence and we need it to be visible, influential and better used. Importantly however we need those who promote interventions based on evidence to be sensitive to the subtleties of government and aware that there must be a demand for it.

So, what to do? We need to be confident about what we actually know, and humble about what remains unknown; we need to continue to sit down together with people who have experience and expertise in data, evidence and knowledge management and with experts on issues of radicalisation and community tensions, be they from government or form non-state agencies. Sharing experiences on similar issues from extraordinarily different perspectives encompasses the diverse nature of this topic and the broad-scale angles from which we can try to understand and tackle the forces of prejudice in our communities and the community tensions that fester.

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.