Interview with Brendan O'Leary (Pennsylvania)

Interview with Brendan O'Leary (Pennsylvania), conducted by Karen Schönwälder

Brendan O’Leary is Lauder Professor of Political Science and Director of the Penn Program in Ethnic Conflict, University of Pennsylvania.

Further information:

S:  I would like to begin with some general questions. Does the idea of diversity mean anything to you? Do you use it in your work? Is it common in your field,  or what do you think about it?

L: The word diversity has two immediate connotations for me. The first  is now standard speech in the United States when people are affirming cultural, linguistic or ethnic pluralism. ‘Diversity’ is always used in these contexts to mean ‘celebrate diversity’. So I think of it as an affirmative recognition of difference,  and it's a form of modern American personnel administrative-speak for words that used to encompass the same notion, such as  building a ‘representative bureaucracy’; now it has to be a diverse bureaucracy. Whereas the President’s Cabinet used to be “representative of the United States”, now it “displays America in all of its diversity”. I think these are obviously positive connotations,  and indications of a political victory over traditional notions of assimilation and homogenizing integration.

The second and more intellectual context in which I understand the term is as a reference to the de-homogenization of nation-states that has occurred in many parts of the world, though not all parts of the world. I would say that the general pattern of the world is nation-state consolidation plus some new nation-state formation out of failed states, so that the process of increased diversity is only characteristic of some nation-states rather than others, especially, but not only those which have encouraged new immigrant individuals and communities to settle in their territories.

So in this sense I think of diversity  as a recognition of a genuine empirical change in a range of nation-states. If we take Europe as an example, we can all recognize that  European nation-states were incredibly homogenized,  partly as a result of the twentieth century horrors of the Balkan Wars, WWI, WWII and the subsequent Balkan Wars. These  all tended to make nation-states in Europe quite homogeneous.  But processes of postwar transformation, long-run economic prosperity, movements of people,  engineered both by individual governments’ immigration programs,  and the development of the European Union,  have  lead to “greater diversity”. And this, too, is a good thing. The word diversity is precisely used to emphasize that this is a positive thing and not a negative thing. In previous eras,  particularly those influenced by Rousseauean conceptions of the nation,  it would have been seen as a bad thing. As we are in Germany, I would also associate the notion of diversity with Herderian romantic theological roots, with the suggestion that “diversity and oneness” are compatible and good things.

S: But in a more academic sense, do you think that, apart from these positive more political usages, diversity is a helpful concept to guide your research? Does it feature in your field or do you personally use it?

L: It's not a concept I use directly except when engaged in political prescription. I generally refer to a contrast between states which seek to eliminate political difference or difference based on nationality, ethnicity, religion or culture and, by contrast, states which seek to manage difference. The management of difference can be equated to the management of diversity.

S: Yes, I was about to ask: What is the difference between difference and diversity?

L: The management of difference can take place in ways in which diversity is not at all celebrated. So apartheid was a system of managing difference,  and indeed of cementing and accentuating difference,  but no one would have called it truly a celebration of diversity, though there were some exponents of “grand apartheid” who argued that each of the alleged nations of South Africa had their part to play in the grand division of  labor!

I think that the notion of diversity does have some lingering association with organic metaphors,  but in the sense that it's a good thing to have diversity just like it's a good thing to have bio-diversity. There is a linkage between diversity and organic oneness.

So cosmopolitans in particular are very happy with the notion of diversity because they can still believe in the universal importance of human equality while celebrating difference.

Is there any fundamental difference between diversity and difference? No. It just so happens that in the language I use I contrast states’ strategies by whether or not they are intended to eliminate difference,  or whether they are intended to accept and manage difference. Difference elimination can take many forms. It can take genocidal forms. It can take expulsionist forms. It can take the form of deliberately homogenizing peoples so that their public and private cultures become identical. But it can also take the form of insisting on a public equality of citizens that is compatible nevertheless with immense private cultural diversity, the privatization of difference. And, by contrast, when states choose to manage difference they can choose to do so in either hierarchical or egalitarian ways. The notion of diversity itself doesn't help me think about those things. What matters is, “What is the governmental strategy for managing difference?”

S: And managing is any form of recognizing and directly influencing the existence and forms of difference?

L: More or less any form of recognition of the existence of difference and the supposition that that difference is not going to disappear, that it's in some sense ineradicable.

S: Okay, and different policies, okay. When you say ‘difference’ do you mean mainly ethnic, national differences or do you think it would make sense  - as we do here -  to relate different diversities, ethnic and also lifestyle and maybe even social structural diversity and think of ethnic difference as just one of many differences?

L: The term diversity lends itself to utterly capacious usages. I tend to focus – and it's a research focus but also I think a political focus – on differences which are national, ethnic, religious, linguistic and broadly cultural. I don't tend to focus on class differences. These can, of course, take on national, ethnic, linguistic and cultural connotations but I am not interested intellectually in all forms of diversity. Sexual difference is an important difference and diversity in this domain is to be celebrated but I don't think societies have generally been structured or gone to war on the basis of sexual difference. Likewise,  I don't think class conflict is very often fundamental as a cause of conflict. It's usually only fundamental when it is intensified by the presence of national, ethnic or cultural difference. So,  I tend to operate on the premise that national, ethnic culture and indeed linguistic  and religious differences are more likely to generate conflict,  and present more problematic tasks for political management. People don't have to share these premises,  but they are the premises I operate with.

S: We're also debating to what extent and possibly with what concepts it would make sense to compare the European immigrant societies and plural societies like South Africa, but also, for example, India or Brazil. Do you have an opinion on that?

L: Yes, I tend to think that it's important to draw contrasts between settler states which have destroyed indigenous communities and states in which multiple peoples are living on what they regard as their ancestral homeland. Comprehensively successful settler states tend to create the possibility of wholly new states organized around the principle of immigration. No one can plausibly claim that it's been their home since time immemorial,  so that leaves open the possibility of building a state around  all newcomers,  and it's possible for political leaders to say that we were all once immigrants. So Argentina, the United States, Canada and Australia, New Zealand, have these characteristics,  partly because they are built on the destruction of native communities.

S: And South Africa?

L: South Africa is different. South Africa is rather like some places in Central America and other places in Africa where the European settler society did not comprehensively destroy native societies. By contrast, it controlled them or dominated them, and obliged them to work in forms of coercive labor and detailed forms of political subordination. These for me are genuine “plural societies”  because they were built upon the deliberate accentuation of difference,  where the settlers had no intention of assimilating the natives,  and indeed deliberately tried to prevent that very possibility in many cases.

If we contrast that with modern Europe, then Europe comprises a number of states which were formerly imperial states which sent settlers around the world. Partly because of those associations they created citizenship and labor market relations with lots of their former colonies,  and subsequently decided to import or were obliged by their own legal systems to permit the arrival of large new communities. For many of the European states this was a deeply uncomfortable process,  generating nativist  and racist reactions. For me,  this is not surprising because homeland peoples have homeland characteristics. They don't like outsiders threatening their homeland. So it requires major efforts of political management and transformation to educate homeland peoples,  to be tolerant towards newcomers and indeed to accept newcomers. Generally that's easiest when the state – and the immigrants - are oriented towards either assimilation or integration. When such programs fail then there can be problematic political circumstances.

S: So you believe in the force of political intervention?

L: Yes, though it  can also backfire. It can also have multiple unintended consequences. States can, governments can,  begin programs without knowing their long-run consequences. For example,  the United Kingdom started importing Caribbean labor and thought it would be a temporary process. Likewise, the use of “Gastarbeiter” by a large number of European countries – these processes were intended to be temporary, not to generate large “stocks” of different people living on the homeland.

S: Would you like to mention a key challenge you see for researchers in your field, a methodological or an empirical challenge?

L: I think there are a range of challenges. One is whether political scientists are capable of identifying the conditions necessary for political systems which can manage difference and equality in stable ways. I would translate that question and say, are they able to specify the conditions under which pluralist federations are possible? These are federations in which more than one national community has a territorial expression of self-government,  but it can also take the form of territorial autonomy within an otherwise predominantly unitary state. And,  secondly,  it takes the form of asking, under what conditions might consociational arrangements be stable. These are arrangements in which there is power sharing based upon communities which have collective self-government,  but not necessarily in a territorial form. It can take the form of the management of intermingled linguistic communities with their own educational institutions,  or it could take the form of rival religious communities which are located in the same territory but have their own forms of self-government. That's a major area of evaluation.

S: It's obviously a huge challenge.

L: It is, and linked to that are numerous  questions of institutional design. What forms of executive,   forms of legislature,  forms of judicial and non-judicial protection are most appropriate for managing the particular patterns of diversity in question? So it may well be that for one group it's appropriate to have its own territorial parliament,  whereas another actually wants to accomplish a certain distance from the rest of society,  culturally,  and wishes to resist and opt out of certain kinds of laws. So there are actually – and the word is appropriate – diverse policy responses,  depending upon the relevant groups. And what's fascinating about all this is that usually it's a question of strategic interaction. Government intention and planning may be one thing, group strategy and response may be another,  and of course groups and governments are rarely homogeneous. They are comprised of multiple actors with different agendas.

S: So it's legitimate to define their objectives.

L: Yes.   One other aspect – it is the topic I am working on at the moment, is which electoral systems are most appropriate for national minorities and for ethnic communities and religious communities? This question is not a simple one. There is a whole variety of electoral systems,  and you have to ask yourself the question, what is the electoral system likely to promote?  Is it going to promote assimilation? Is it going to promote accommodation in the form of separate political parties for given groups? Will it promote power sharing,  and if so, how? These are I think very interesting questions that are not so far richly explored by political scientists. What makes them interesting is, of course,  that electoral systems are rarely designed with the interests of minorities at heart,  and at best they are configurations or by-products of other strategic choices. And,  I am also interested in security systems: armies, police forces. The  management of coercion is absolutely critical in intergroup relations,  and usually in a range of conflicts you are not going to get a worthwhile political settlement unless you have a stable security settlement,  in which all of the relevant communities can find a sufficient order and sufficient legitimacy in the forces of coercion.

S: Yes. That's something you know a lot about from the Northern Irish experience.

L: But not only there.

S: Not only, of course. Thank you very much.

L: Thank you.

Academic citations

O'Leary B. Interview on ‘diversity’. 2009 Available at: Accessed ###date###.

APA (6th edition):
O'Leary, B. (2009). Interview on ‘diversity’. Retrieved ###date###, from

Chicago (16th edition):
O'Leary, Brendan. 2009. 'Interview On ‘Diversity’' Karen Schönwälder. In person. (accessed ###date###).

O'Leary, B. (2009). Interview on ‘diversity’. Available at: [Accessed ###date###].

MLA (7th edition):
O'Leary, Brendan. 'Interview On ‘Diversity’'. 2009. in person. Accessed ###date###.