Interview with Arjun Appadurai (New York)

Interview with Arjun Appadurai (New York), conducted by Tam Ngo

Arjun Appadurai is Goddard Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University in New York City, NY.

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N: I would like to ask you several questions. What does diversity mean to you by way of your work and field of expertise?

A: First of all, thank you very much. I am happy to be here for the first time at this new institute, which is devoted to the study of both religious and ethnic diversity. I think that this is a good moment to launch this initiative and I will begin by saying that a lot of my work directly or indirectly has been concerned with issues of diversity or of things connected to diversity. First of all, in my early life in India, diversity was always a keyword because of the regular use of the slogan of “unity in diversity”. It was the theme that Jawaharlal Nehru and other nationalists used for how they hoped to bring India together when it was obviously a country of enormous diversity. One of my colleagues once said that India is a land only of minorities. There is no majority. We have a myriad of castes and many religions. We have twenty or twenty-five major languages, and maybe five or six hundred dialects. Today, we have twenty-seven or twenty-eight states in the country, many of which are based on language difference. We also have significant religious differences and that is the source for a lot of fundamentalist politics in India. So, I grew up in an atmosphere where a lot of the public discourse was about how to hold this new country together in the face of all the pressures of difference - of social difference, religious difference, and linguistic difference. So in a way (without knowing it), I was growing up in a society in which some of the central questions were:  how do we develop? How do we modernize? How do we become part of the modern world without denying the huge amount of internal difference? When I became a student and later a professor of anthropology, I realized that my upbringing was very congenial to the central issue of culture, of how to recognize difference, of how to interpret difference, and of how to translate and transcend difference. So this is the personal history of what makes the subject of interest to me, but as I developed professionally as a scholar and researcher, I became even more interested in the question of how people coexist with each other. This is due to the fact that the bulk of my academic career took place in the United States, which conceived itself as a melting pot - but the discourse of the melting pot was beginning to change when I was a student. Gradually, people in the United States had begun to say: "No, we are no longer a place where everybody becomes the same. We don't really melt. We remain who we are but somehow we become the same". So in a way, I ended up in a new place where, as with India, the question was “why are we are all Americans, but still not all the same ?” So that is the background, which I think has influenced my interest in diversity.

As I gradually became interested in the study of globalization and of transnational cultural processes, I saw that I was most interested in something that was always an issue in anthropology: the issue of assimilation or what we used to call “culture contact”. These were the older terms, and though the terms have changed the issues are much the same. What happens when people who have one kind of experience encounter, either voluntarily or by force, people who have completely different views? To me globalization, as a process, adds a different set of questions to this older question. We have more dynamic economic interactions, more rapid movement, more rapid communication, more traffic but the fundamental issue still is: how do people both change their identities as well as somehow retain some idea of who they are or who they were?

N: Is diversity a zeitgeist term, a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase as in ‘integration and diversity’ policy, a corporate tool as in ‘diversity management’, or can it be a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

A: I certainly think that it is a term that is being used by many people, and if we think about the history of social science and of anthropology and of sociology, many of our basic terms are used by everybody. That is why they are important. We are no longer the only people who use the word ‘society’ or ‘community’ or ‘nation’ or ‘self’. All of our basic terms are also everyday terms for rules, norms, and institutions. We have tried to make a science of all of this, but we are trying to make a science of words that are in common use. In this way, we are not like natural scientists who make up terms that we have no place in ordinary life. Even our more complex terms like capitalism, modernity etc., are not unique to us, and everybody uses them.

So, yes, diversity as a term is in the air, and I think there are a couple of reasons why that is so. One, is that the issue of migration and immigration is a worldwide problem, one way or the other. No society is ever neutral in relation to immigration. Emigration, the departure of people, is sometimes an issue, but the arrival of people from other nations is invariably a challenge. This is why many people have argued in the US that immigration is the issue of the 21st century. In Europe, we know that it is in the top few issues. In other big societies in Asia, like India and China, for historical reasons it is an issue, if not in the same way. If we take China, for example, internal migration is a central challenge for the Chinese Government and Chinese society. And in a place like India the question of people from Sri Lanka, from Bangladesh, from Pakistan and from Nepal, is not absent as a concern. Or, consider Japan where there is a major concern about who is qualified and who wants to be properly fully Japanese, as for example with Koreans or Japanese-Brazilians. Or, take a totally different place like Switzerland. We know that Switzerland is extremely tight on the question of who can enter and stay freely in Switzerland. So you can roam around the world and it is very hard to find a place where borders are not tricky, and the question of who is a legitimate migrant and who is allowed to enter and stay for however long, is a neutral issue.

So the question of diversity is inevitable once people are together in a place to face the question of who came when and who is properly there. It is difficult to separate this concern from the era of the nation state, because in the era of the nation state, your citizenship and your ability to be fully human is substantially dominated by the nation state itself. This is not quite like the condition of people moving across territories a thousand years ago or even five hundred years ago. Now, we move across national borders and these nations to some extent set the rules: who is welcome? Who is not? Who do we want? Who do we not want? So diversity is partly a big issue for that reason.

As to the corporate world, I think there is a slightly different dynamic there. It is not very easy to understand why diversity has become a corporate catch phrase, because global corporations or modern corporations mostly have an internal discourse of quality, excellence, striving, and talent. These values do not have much to do with difference, but corporations also have to live in a globalized world. I think they have their own reasons for taking on this discourse. But whatever those reasons may be, and whatever the reasons may be for people in the governmental world (whether national or international) to be using this word, I think that this does not in any way take away from its significance for social science. If anything, it adds significance, because people with a lot of power, a lot of resources, and a lot of interest are going to make use of this word. For that reason alone, we should be paying even more attention to the currency of the term “diversity”. What follows from the ubiquity of the idea of diversity in corporate, governmental, media and popular discourses, is that social scientists need to take a position on the relationship between politics and policy in this area.

N: At our Institute, we are looking to develop researches on societies that are profoundly impacted by migration and diversity in Europe, South Africa, India, China and Malaysia. How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’ shaping this agenda – or not?

A: I think, to go back to something I said at the very beginning, this is a very good moment to have diversity as an organizing topic, and the two main reasons for this are quite different from each other. One is that it is a pressing public policy issue, whether under the rubric of immigration or under the rubric of tolerance or under the rubric of multiculturalism or under the rubric of reconciliation when there has been severe conflict or ethnocidal violence. On the other hand, I also think that diversity remains a basic feature of human societies, and of how human societies organize difference itself. In this sense, I would say that diversity is a lens on the idea of culture itself. So you might say diversity – though it sounds like a very neutral and very innocent term – actually forces us to re-examine older ideas of culture and rethink some of the following questions: how does it work? How is it organized? What is culture as a system? How does its symbolism work? How do get people socialized into it or out of it? These are perennial questions, but I would say that in the context of diversity, what we see is culture when it becomes a kind of hot word as opposed to a cold word, i. e. when it becomes a source of mobilization, when it ties up to identity and to identification, when people can be drawn into either profound distrust or deep trust of each other even though their prior acquaintance is limited. So, we have a chance here to examine several interesting and fundamental social science questions. One is the question of the key source of cultural difference. What is more important: is language more important? Is religion more important? Is the one affecting the other? These are all perennial questions. We have to continue to study them because the subject has never been exhausted.

Secondly, there is the question of complexity, which is of specific interest in social anthropology. What is a complex society? Is there a simple society? Are there really societies so simple that we cannot see that they have some kind of complexity? How much complexity can any human society tolerate? Some very distinguished social scientists in the past have tried to use analogies from biology, for example, and say that if an insect has a very small body and hundreds of feet it can accomplish certain things. It can walk in a certain way, but if its physical properties and organic properties are very different it is more unstable, it is more vulnerable etc. So though we may not today wish to make any direct analogies to the natural world or to the biological world, there is a question about how difference can be optimally organized. Is there a level of internal difference that is acceptable, healthy, and positive and a threshold beyond which the society cannot handle or manage its own diversity?

In today's world diversity is usually not internally cultivated or endogenously evolved. It comes from migration. It comes from accidents. It comes from external pressures. The question is: how can we develop an institutional arrangement to provide some kind of sustainable order in a world with a lot of diversity; diversity with changing content. You cannot have a single physical or mechanical setup and say: this is it. You cannot stop the music. All societies are facing the question of what they can manage, what they can tolerate and what they can handle both as systems as well as politically, morally, and ethically. What are we open to? If you are in Norway you see diversity in one way. If you are in the US maybe another way, India in another way, in China perhaps, yet in another way, but commonly all societies have come to some decisions about how to organize and manage diversity. And while that looks like a policy problem and not our business, actually it is a basic social science problem that we have not yet resolved. One of the most important things that diversity is a lens for is the question of the whole matter of thresholds. When upheld, things are okay, but when something big changes, either there is conflict or there is some explosion and social science always seeks an understanding of how certain thresholds have been crossed - either the threshold between peace and war or the threshold between tolerance and instability. These are all things we have looked at in the study of crowds and riots, for example. One day there is nothing going on, and the next day people are at each other's throat. These phenomena raise a fundamental question about what you might call the physics of social life. When do people hold together? When do things pull people apart? When do things explode? This might sound as if I am treating societies like machines, but I would say that is what social science partly needs to do. Diversity is not necessarily the only way to look at it but it is certainly a great lens into these basic aspects of social dynamics: stability, change, thresholds, etc., and I think given the great traditions of the Max Planck Society in the sciences: the natural sciences, physics, mathematic, biology, chemistry and in recent times the social sciences, I think that this is a great institutional history within which to directly and enthusiastically take up these basic questions which also happen to be urgent policy questions, but which are by no means merely policy questions.

N: Thank you. We are moving to the final question. From your perspective your expertise, your discipline, country, and intellectual and tradition, what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical or methodological challenges currently facing diversity-related research?

A: Well, I think to some extent, I have touched on some of these already, like the question of thresholds; the question of when conflicts break out, but maybe I can give a slightly different angle now. At the empirical level, I think the kind of studies being done on all sorts of migration behavior are central, because the question is why do people leave a place they know and how do people survive when they arrive in a new place. I would like to touch upon Albert Hirschman, a great development economist, and what he wrote in one of his most important books about loyalty, voice and exit. By loyalty, he meant that in any collective people can just be agreeable to the broader consensus. By voice, he meant people are still agreeable but they are expressing dissent. And by exit, he meant that people leave. So, his question was: what conditions encourage loyalty and voice or argument as opposed to exit from party, product, or nation? So studies of why people feel the need to leave, why people take chances, why so much risk is taken with new lives and new worlds on such a large basis in the world we live today, are of great importance. Obviously, that is an endlessly rich empirical subject and there are many, many kinds of movement, voluntary and involuntary that we do not fully understand. So this is a huge source of research.

The second empirical area is the question of – from the receiving end or the place where the people end up – what affects the degree of tolerance or inclusiveness. I have come recently to think, that what in German is called Inklusivismus, is very different from the idea of tolerance because tolerance is somehow open, whereas inclusion is more rigid about its conditions. So I would think it is very interesting to study how in different societies, balances are found between the conditional inclusion and the active tolerance of difference. So that is a second empirical project. There is also the question of exit: when do people leave? And, is this also somehow tied up with the question of diversity, which may affect who leaves and who does not? Who is more reluctant to leave in terms of either communities or age groups or types of people and who leaves even when it looks very risky to leave? So the questions of exit and arrival, I think, are full of rich empirical subject matters. As far as method is concerned, I think there is nothing especially new that diversity studies face, which is not shared with other sorts of inquiry in a globalized world. How do you study people whose lives and identities and aspirations and experiences are shaped by migration, in the course of which they multiply their affiliations and their identifications. How do they negotiate their past or their ideas of their past with their hopes for the future? How do they negotiate these with new external demands? How do they negotiate internally? How do they negotiate across genders, across ages? Now these are not new questions but maybe in the Max Planck framework, we can bring in new angles, such as the question of social risk. Why do people take certain risks with each other in the context of movement and diversity that they might avoid at other times or in other places? The questions of trust, aspiration, imagination, and last but not least the question of the media, have become relevant once again in this new framework. So whether people leave or stay or whether they enter a new situation that they like or dislike, everything about their experiences or about their efforts to create a local world – it is how people construct meaning – is intimately and irretrievably tied up with the images that they see, absorb and of course make on their own, and which come from newsprint, from television, from film and numerous other media and the Internet as well. And these images become ingredients in the way that they either make the new situations workable or determine that they are not workable and provoke what Hirschman would call exit solutions. Both anthropology and sociology have seen media as a special subject since it is now a key component of the circulatory system of the world. So everything you study has to take that into account. So that is another special opportunity. And just as it is with media, so it is with religion. The subject of religion at one time in the history of anthropology, was almost the center of the field along with kinship studies. In the last 20 or 30 years, religion has become a more specialized and exciting field because of the study of Islam, the study of global fundamentalisms, and of related topics. There is no society in which religious organizations, religious leaders, and religious congregations are not somehow affecting the field of play in which people construct their own ideas of the self and others. So I would say that religion and media are important subjects indeed, but they are also the medium in which everything else cooks and circulates. Diversity is similar, in that it remains an important subject or topic, but it is also a lens and a medium, in which and through which we can approach other forces and processes. This is an exciting challenge.

N: Thank you very much.