SCD’s research programme 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, being especially found in state policies, business and management strategies, public institutional programmes and NGO campaigns against discrimination. The categories most relevant to public discourses on ‘diversity’ are race, ethnicity, religion, gender, age, sexuality and disability. In our own 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 a social-scientific way, we prefer to speak of ‘the social organization of difference’, a direct allusion to the subtitle of Fredrik Barth’s seminal collection, Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Culture Difference, of 1969. 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, as well as in how they become 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’, thus making it 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, SCD perspectives are framed by a conceptual triad or model identifying three abstract domains (and, crucially, their inter-relations):
- 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, thus endeavouring to explain a phenomenon by explicating its inherent place within the whole system, including particularly the mutual influences of phenomenon and system.
Using this model, and 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; how representations influence the ways configurations are understood and encounters interpreted; and how 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 overlaps with projects within our departmental research themes.