Interview with Paul Spoonley

Interview with Paul Spoonley (Massey University)

conducted by Karel Arnaut

Distinguished Prof. Paul Spoonley is Pro Vice-Chancellor for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Massey University, New Zealand. He is the Director for the Integration of Immigrants Programme and the Nga Tangata Oho Mairangi/Regional Impacts of Demographic and Economic Change Programme, both funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

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A: What does ‘diversity’ mean to you by way of your work and field of expertise?

S: Diversity for me invites us to pay attention to the outcomes of the enhanced flows of contemporary mobility and migration around the world. So it is really a descriptive term to indicate that the way in which we live, particularly in gateway cities, has changed quite dramatically since the mid-twentieth century. People from communities that are different to longstanding host communities are now living alongside in close proximity and they often speak a different language, practice a different religion and contribute different cultural practices. It invites us to interrogate why we might use a word like “different” and what it means. Different to who or what? Are hyper-complex patterns and relations of difference the new normal for these gateway cities. The answer is yes although the politics of difference are still problematic. So my definition of diversity is actually a very narrow one and it relates essentially to cultural and linguistic differences - and the fact that those differences now characterise many cities if not countries around the world. What frustrates me is that as a sociologist, I'm not sure that we've made that additional step towards providing a new and compelling theoretical or conceptual understanding of this world of enhanced mobility and diversity. So I think there is an additional challenge to generate a deeper definition of diversity which links the diversity that we often take for granted (cultural diversity) with other changes that are occurring globally and locally.

A: Just a side-question perhaps. How does super-diversity you think fits in this? Is this an attempt to work towards such a broader theory of perhaps social change?

S: No, but it could be. For me super-diversity draws attention to the fact that we've always had diversity - cultural and religious and ethnic diversity - but that we've entered an era in which that diversity is now emphasized or enhanced because of the nature of mobility. It operates as a concept which draws attention to this hyper-diversity. Could a concept like super-diversity be a step towards a more extensive theorization of contemporary society? Only if it linked to a theoretical explanation that links super-diversity with the contemporary nature of a society in other areas. For example, part of my research concerns the nature of contemporary employment. Employment is increasingly characterized by casualization and precariousness. It includes much more diverse pathways in and out of employment and people engage in paid work and non-paid work in ways that are quite different to the mid-twentieth century and Fordism. Does super-diversity address the diversity of contemporary employment and what we might want to label the super-diversity of employment. I think we are at an interesting moment of transformation.

A: We move on to the next question asking about: what is the importance, the way of a concept like diversity? Is it just a Zeitgeist term or can it be a concept that can help structuring in advance social scientific analysis.

S: I'm a pragmatist and I always accept that diversity means very different things in different settings. When I work with a government or a firm, they are inclined to see diversity as something which is important in managing the workforce because of its composition and because the successful management of diversity has economic dividends. In other words: you can make diversity impact on bottom lines. However, when it comes to an intellectual project of the sort that we're engaged with, we always need to remind ourselves that we need a concept or concepts that serve quite different purposes. Diversity has everyday meanings that are situationally defined. And the question for us is: can we give it a conceptual and theoretical integrity that provides those of us who come at the issue from diverse theoretical perspectives a language that encourages debate and understanding. For me personally, while we might not have a theoretical framework which successfully incorporates diversity or super-diversity into a broad explanation, there is more than enough to suggest a common agenda for a set of debates and explorations that makes migration and diversity one of the liveliest areas of debate in intellectual life in contemporary society. We will always differ on an exact meaning of super-diversity. You will have a particular conception of it as a social linguist. As somebody who deals with social cohesion in a broad policy sense, I would conceptualize diversity in quite a different way. But is there a sufficient communality in what we're discussing to progress an agenda of diversity research? I hope there is.

A: Yes, it's true. Once you start working with a concept that gains some prominence let's say in scientific circles I think the rest of the world walks away with it. And describes it of course in all sorts of discourses and practices and stuff which you have then to take into account as well.

S: Yes. If you and I, in discussing diversity in the work that we do, didn't then see it being used by others in non-academic settings, then we would have failed. I've done research on neo-nazi and extreme right wing groups and what I struggle with is when you see the term being inverted and used by such groups as part of a language or an agenda of intolerance. For me, multiculturalism is a word that in England and Germany has been given a very different inflection – that migration and the recognition of diversity has failed.

A: Here at this institute we are looking at contemporary immigration societies as well as longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’? How could that shape this research agenda which is quite broad?

S: I answer by beginning with some words of caution. One is to say that I'm always struck in most European contexts by the language used and the normative assumptions underpinning that language use. I come from a group of societies that have always used immigration as a way of nation-building and therefore it's part of the discourse of the nation. Migration and migrants are important contributors to the construction of a nation and sense of nationhood. They are seen in a positive sense. But for countries and their communities that do not see immigration as part of their national story, then immigration and the visibly different other is problematized. The language used and the way in which public understanding treats these issues varies considerably. So my first caution is to say that there are very different approaches and historical trajectories when it comes to both immigration and diversity. We need to be very clear about the different starting points and even though we might use the same language, the different assumptions do mean that we talk past each other at times, even amongst research and policy communities. Secondly, there should be more of an investment in a comparative project (or projects) which generates both quantitative and qualitative data and provides the basis for interesting inter-disciplinary and inter-country discussions about what is occurring as a result of new migration flows and outcomes.

A: And is enough comparative work being done?

S: No. And very often the comparative work that is done tends to be done most easily when it generates and draws upon positivistic evidence and approaches which frame what is happening in quite narrow ways. I'm always struck at the lack of insight that  some of these empirically driven projects produce. And I've always got a "So what?" question. One of the things about the global diversity's project that is occurring here at Max Planck is that it is beginning to generate a rich understanding of interactions that occur in super-diverse cities. It is good to see a mix of orthodox methodological approaches and some innovative ethnographic research. And why not use film in a much more integral way to explain what's occurring in cities and neighborhoods? So let's broaden our methodological tool kit.  And let's have a robust discussion about which methodologies work, especially in cross-country, multi-ethnic situations.

A: Perhaps the fourth question is an occasion to talk a little bit more about your work and your research and tell us with reference to that work what you think are some of the empirical, theoretical, methodological challenges currently facing diversity related research?

S: I have mentioned some of the broad issues but let me rehearse them. The first is that we have a number of projects which tell us about the super-diversity of many of our global or gateway cities. The next stage - and a major challenge - is to then develop a more compelling theoretical explanation which includes super-diversity alongside other social and economic change. The result would be not simply a set of conceptual constructs and a theoretical explanation of super-diversity but we get an explanation of why super-diversity is important in terms of post-industrial change more broadly.

The second frustration or gap that I see occurs with the fact that we often define cultural diversity simply in terms of immigration – and this includes my own approach. For me, there are some significant silences. One is that we do not spend a lot of time researching hegemonic or majority groups in situations of super-diversity. I don't know why that is but we tend to focus “down” rather than horizontally or vertically. We are beginning a project which is looking at the majority “white” group in New Zealand and how they respond to and think about diversity, including the super-diversity of Auckland. The second is that we're in that phase where diversity is very strongly associated with immigration and immigrants. Some of the more exciting material is going to come from those who are descendants of immigrants but who hybridise their identities and adapt from both immigrant and destination cultural repertoires. We have just completed a report on American-born Latinos in San Francisco. (I don't like the term 'second generation'). These post-migrant generational cohorts are adding new complexity to cultural or diversity politics and we need to find a more appropriate terminology to label them in the first instance and conceptual approaches which address and understand their experiences and contribution. They are adding to the layers of diversity and super-diversity in very exiting ways, particularly in popular music or dress and language.

The third area of which there is quite a significant body of knowledge and scholarship - but which I think we need to continue to look to expand - is the way in which the nation-state remains an important way of managing a population. How does the nation-states discursive and management practices interest? And it is important to challenge the state in terms of its own diversity management. One of the major challenges we face is the dysfunctional and disruptive ways in which countries and their governments have responded to super-diversity. Should there be new forms of rights recognition and resourcing? How do we deal with new layers of linguistic diversity?  California would be a classic case of one that is struggling with how to adequately recognize large Spanish-speaking populations. What governance structures and policies need to change? It is not simply an issue in terms of how diverse communities interact in day-to-day situations. It's also of course about recognition in terms of the various institutions that run our society : education, justice, health and government.

The final point I would make is to repeat the issue of how we actually collect information on diversity and how we understand that material. It seems to me that our traditions in various disciplines have provided us with adequate tools. But given the availability of new technologies and the presence of social media, are we actually capturing real world situations? We could use more exciting forms of engagement with communities that we are researching with. Can we not provide iPads and iPhones to record daily life and the way in which diversity features? We're still governed to a large extent by traditional methodologies and approaches and super-diversity provides an exciting test bed for new approaches.

Academic citations

Spoonley P. Interview on ‘diversity’. 2011. Available at: Accessed ###date###.

APA (6th edition):
Spoonley, P. (2011). Interview on ‘diversity’. Retrieved ###date###, from

Chicago (16th edition):
Spoonley, Paul. 2011. 'Interview On ‘Diversity’' Karel Arnaut. In person. (accessed ###date###).

Spoonley, P. (2011). Interview on ‘diversity’. Available at: [Accessed ###date###].

MLA (7th edition):
Spoonley, Paul. 'Interview On ‘Diversity’'. 2011. in person. Accessed ###date###.