Socio-cultural diversity - Research focus

Research focus

The Department of Socio-Cultural Diversity at MPI MMG is devoted to comparative empirical investigation and theoretical development surrounding various modes and manifestations of migration-driven diversity. The categories of diversity most relevant to our research interests are race and ethnicity, reli­gion, gender, class, migration channel and migration status. Moreover, we are particularly interested in the ways and processes by which patterns of migra­tion-driven diversity are related to other modes of increasing social, cultural, economic and political differentiation.

As contextually constructed categories, social differences are manifested in structures of inequality and power, in self-declared and ascribed visible symbols, in practices of interaction, and through discourses and images of sameness or otherness. They are reproduced in status hierarchies, spatial configurations, the activities of interest groups, management strategies, media representations, legal rulings, public sector practices and government policies. These combine in historical and specific configurations of social differentiation. It follows that for global comparison of fundamentally divergent configurations and classifications of difference (ethnic or other), we must talk of multiple or differing ‘diversities’. Ethnicity, for instance, as a sense of peoplehood based on common history, might in one context be most importantly characterized by cultural heritage, in another by language, religion, or geography, and in yet another by economic niche. It might also refer to but one criterion in a hierarchy of classifications determining historical patterns of inequality.

Importantly, we are interested in the reasons for, and ways by which, certain categories become salient in social and political dynamics. Further, our approach is premised on the recognition that across history and various societies, the construction and particularly the intersection of these axes of social differentiation differ considerably. This gives rise to highly variegated outcomes for different ‘groups’ in social relations, settlement patterns, economic activities and labour market positions, formal and informal politics, and access to resources and power.

Conventional approaches to social difference – particularly around categories such as ethnicity, race and nation – have examined processes and phenomena such as boundary making, community formation, identity construction, political mobilization, and senses of belonging with a focus on one or another specific group. Studies aiming to measure assimila­tion, integration or social mobility among immigrant populations have often taken national origin as a kind of a priori category. It is problematic if group existence is taken for granted and not itself investigated, if individuals are summarily assigned to groups, or if ‘community’ is presumed where it may not exist. Further, where uni-dimensional approaches priori­tize one group membership (national origin, race or ethnicity) over others (such as woman, refugee, worker), the complexity of social life and the effects of intersectionality may be overlooked. In addition, existing research does not account for the impact of diversity itself – i.e. the co-existence of multiple group affilia­tions and dimensions of difference – vis-à-vis patterns of interaction, group formation, identity construction, social mobility and such.

The Department of Socio-Cultural Diversity at MPI MMG works toward contributing critically to the body of empirical data and theory-building through an approach that contextually grounds research with respect to broader environments of diversity within which group formation, social relations, political mobilization, and socio-economic mobility take place. In so doing we wish to address a fundamental question that social science has not been able to address adequately: what impact does migration-driven diver­sity (not uncommonly today, in neighbourhoods exhibiting dozens of ethnic and national groups, languages, legal statuses, social identities and milieus) have on society overall, including phenomena such as everyday social exchange, category construction, discrimination and inequality?

Reflecting this orientation, a core notion around which much research has been developed in the Department is ‘super-diversity’. ‘Super-diversity’ was coined by Vertovec in 2007 to describe aspects of changing population configurations and to call for a re-orientation of approaches within social science and policy in order to address these. In many places around the world, over the last thirty years migra­tion has created changing patterns that not only entail the movement of people from more varied national, ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds, but also a diversification by way of migration channels, legal statuses,  gender and age composition, and variance in migrants’ human capital (education, work skills and experience). ‘Super-diversity’ entails a recognition of such co-existing patterns of change and a call to employ multi-dimensional methods to their analysis. The concept has now been adopted widely across the social sciences, in a range of policy initiatives and public debates worldwide.

We are fully aware of, and continually reflect on the fact that currently in many societies ‘diversity’ is a term with a set of meanings of its own in the pub­lic sphere outside of social science inquiry. This is espe­cially to be found in state policies, business and management strategies, institutional programmes and NGO campaigns linked with anti-discrimination initiatives concerning gender, age, sexuality and disability as well as race, ethnicity and religion. It is there­fore an ongoing challenge – of which we are highly mindful – to simultaneously address ‘diversity’ in an empirical and theoretical, social scientific sense and to maintain its distinction from ‘diversity’ as a normative concept of public discourse and policy.

A common conceptual framework provides one way of achieving a research strategy that can pull together several strands of the observations outlined above as well as provide for productive conversation between projects and researchers from across a number of social science disciplines. Hence the department is underpinned by a conceptual framework identifying three abstract domains (and, crucially, their inter-relation):

  • configurations of diversity, or how diversities are structured and conditioned by population characteristics, historical geographies and political economies;
  • representations of diversity, or how diversities are imagined in such phenomena as state policy categories,  discourses and public images of ‘difference’ among a variety of ‘publics’; and
  • encounters of diversity, or how diversities are experienced through inter-group contact, cross-cutting networks and everyday interactions between people within key public contexts such as markets, workplaces, schools and neighbourhoods.

Employing this conceptual triad, we not only isolate content and dynamics within such domains but critically relate them to each other (this was the topic of our Institute’s first Working Paper). 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 brief, from society to society, locality to locality: configurations set the scene for constructing and negotiating representations and for facilitating or restricting encounters; representations mediate how configurations are understood and encounters interpreted; and encounters challenge or reproduce representations and configurational patterns. Although interlinked and mutually constitutive in these ways, it must also be recognized that processes in each domain move at their own pace, such that a discernible ‘domain lag’ often ensues. For instance, aspects of demography or political economy might change well before representations (images and public discourse) or everyday sets of interaction change. Evidence of domain change and domain lag can be observed and measured in many ways – the stuff of our research.  The language and analytical logic of this conceptual triad is echoed in our departmental meetings, regular staff work-in-progress seminars, and increasingly in staff publications. The framework also cross-cuts projects within our departmental research themes.