Making sense of segregation: Transitional thinking and contested space

Joanne Murphy, Sara McDowell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
34 Downloads (Pure)


In segregated societies space is typically a source of conflict and confusion. Everyday geographies are often navigated through complex patterns of movement that are sensitive to the ‘other’ and their spatial practices. Individuals adjust and tailor their movements, in part, because of the fear of the unknown. This paper, using three embedded cases of interface communities in Northern Ireland, considers how processes of spatial ‘sensemaking’ can reduce anxiety about contested spaces in deeply divided communities. The paper makes three important contributions. First it extends conceptualisations of sensemaking to a focused reading of geographical space in a divided society. This marks an important extension for a theory that until now has been largely confined to the organisational studies literature and provides a theoretical scaffolding with which to better understand individual and group responses to spatial contestation and division. Second, it identifies how processes of sensemaking, married with what we term a ‘connecting methodology’, can instigate individuals to make, break and give sense to themselves and others around issues of past contestation and current disputes. Finally, it argues that these interventions can occasion transitional thinking and new movement through contested space, an important contribution for those working and living in divided societies. The paper draws on data from a wider project on community commemoration in Northern Ireland which explore how individuals and communities collectively move through contested spaces. The process of sensemaking, we argue, can redefine the parameters for participatory methodologies and provide unique opportunities to break deadlocks in deeply divided societies.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2835-2851
Number of pages17
JournalUrban Studies
Issue number14
Early online date29 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 30 Nov 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: We would like to thank the Arts and Humanities Research Council for their support of this research.

Publisher Copyright:
© Urban Studies Journal Limited 2023.


  • Sensemaking
  • segregation
  • conflict
  • community
  • Northern Ireland
  • built environment
  • diversity/cohesion/segregation
  • public space
  • history/heritage/memory


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