Socio-cultural diversity - Research focus

The research programme at the Department of Socio-Cultural Diversity at MPI MMG is devoted to comparative empirical investigation and theoretical development surrounding various modes and manifestations of socio-cultural difference, particularly regarding migration-driven processes of diversification. ‘Diversity’ is a term with a set of meanings of its own in the pub­lic sphere outside of social scientific inquiry. This is espe­cially found in state policies, business and management strategies, public institutional programmes and NGO campaigns linked with anti-discrimination. The categories most relevant to public discourse on ‘diversity’ are race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, sexuality and disability. Within our work, the challenge is to address ‘diversity’ in a social scientific sense while maintaining its distinction from ‘diversity’ as a normative concept of public discourse and policy. [These issues, which underlie the SCD approach briefly described below, are set out in Steven Vertovec’s (2015) Introduction to the Routledge International Handbook of Diversity Studies.]

In order to address relevant ‘diversity’ issues in social scientfic way, we prefer to speak of ‘the social organization of difference’ (this is a direct allusion to the subtitle of Fredrik Barth’s [1969] seminal Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference). Within this term, each noun has an important bearing: ‘social’ refers to interpersonal relations, practices, exchange and behaviour; ‘organization’ concerns patterns, orders, structures and institutions; and ‘difference’ refers to socially- constructed, cognitive categories. We are interested in the ways these elements are formed, shaped, interrelated, manifested and reproduced. Further, we study how these elements are contextually and historically specific to given societies (indeed, to specific cities, neighbourhoods and micro-settings). Each assemblage of these elements represents a discrete social organization of difference or ‘diversity’; hence it becomes possible to address distinctive ‘diversities’.

Our goal is to understand better the nature of changing conditions and outcomes concerning the social organization of difference. Further, in order to build theory more productively, comparisons of the social organization of difference are a core component of the SCD research programme. Therefore, we have developed projects and collaborations in European, Asian and African societies.

Reflecting integral elements within the social organization of difference (this was the topic of our Institute’s first Working Paper), SCD perspectives are framed by a conceptual triad or model identifying three abstract domains (and, crucially, their interrelation):

  • configurations of diversity, or how social differences are structured and conditioned by geographies, labour markets, legal frameworks, public institutions and political economies;
  • representations of diversity, or how social differences are conceived and imagined in phenomena such as policy categories,  discourses and public images of ‘difference’; and
  • encounters of diversity, or how social differences are experienced through inter-group contact, cross-cutting networks and everyday, fleeting and sustained interactions.

In using this model, the task is not only to isolate phenomena and dynamics within such domains, but critically to relate them to each other in an act of systemic theory-building. In such systemic theory, one endeavours to explain a phenomenon by explicating its inherent place within the whole system, and particularly what components of the system have influence on it (and what elements the phenomenon itself influences).

Using this model, in order to gain a fuller understanding of what is happening in any specific domain, a researcher must take into account aspects of the remaining two domains. In this way we can discern, from society to society, locality to locality, how: configurations set the scene for constructing and negotiating representations and for facilitating or restricting encounters; representations influence the ways configurations are understood and encounters interpreted; and encounters challenge or reproduce representations and configurational patterns.

The language and analytical logic of the social organization of difference and its model of configurations-representations-encounters is echoed in our departmental meetings, regular staff work-in-progress seminars, and increasingly in staff publications. The approach also cross-cuts projects within our departmental research themes.