My cost of living just went up. In a small supermarket in Lower Saxony, I bought a pint of milk with a 50 euro note and got change as if I’d paid with 10 euros. I noticed straight away, but hesitated to speak and so the next customer was served by the cashier. Why did I hesitate? And why, after some minutes of reflection, did I leave the shop without a resolution? Shouldn’t an “auslander” clutching the wrong change in a shop find herself on a level playing field with the local Saxons? Hindering my physical ability to check the inadequate change was, not only the litre of ‘Frische Fettarme Milch’, but also a book clutched awkwardly under one arm. The book’s physical presence was mildly annoying, but its content casts some light on the minor socio-cultural disaster in hand.  It was ‘Land of Strangers’ by Ash Amin (Polity 2012).

For Ash Amin, social policies aimed at enhancing cohesion and integration among hyper-diverse populations are not only misguided, but also wrong. Attempts to foster common identities though interpersonal and communitarian ties potentially punish the stranger in our midst, particularly at a time when the prospect of global catastrophe permits the identification of ‘sources of threat’ whether these are people, organisations or technology. Amin asserts that rather than engineering co-presence to overcome the antagonisms of the plural city, we should attend to the mediation of social relations of community and identity. Mediation via material infrastructures, organisational forms, technologies, and embodied dispositions and habits make the transactional environments in which strangers do or do not get along complex, contingent and potentially creative encounters.

For one reviewer, Amin’s analysis neither presents ‘a vision of radical democracy’ nor, critically, how it should be achieved.  Amin’s failure to issue a cry to arms might be related to his suggestion that studying open complex systems, like cities of strangers, means that we can only ever hope to produce provisional and partial knowledge.

In the end I abandoned my materially-mediated encounter in the ‘Frishemarket’. It is the only food shop within walking distance of the research unit where I am spending the next 6 weeks. I had already troubled the cashiers with my inappropriate and foreign expectations of how to conduct myself in a financial exchange. While steeling myself to confront the cashier with both her arithmetic error and my inadequate language skills, I realised that the resulting interpersonal tension was well worth avoiding. Tomorrow I’m going further afield to the hypermarket where card-payment is accepted.

Ash Amin is interested in how a politics for the stranger might be forged and suggests that a certain  ‘civility of indifference to difference’ is what is required.

The thing about politics is that it can require compromise. Relationships with strangers are, of course, mediated; in this case via a bank note, some milk, northern European inflected networks of etiquette of supermarket-appropriate behaviour, the cash desk, the technology of commerce and of trans-European currency. What is unusual about my case is being able to put a price on maintaining indifference to the stranger. In my case it was slightly north of 40 Euros.

Further information

Review of: Land of Strangers by Ash Amin
Paperback: 200 pages
Publisher: Polity (Mar 2012)
ISBN: 9780745652184
ISBN-10: 0745652182
(Also available in hardback)