Blog | September 2010

Diversity, cosmopolitans and locals

by Steven Vertovec


Earlier this year, the American economist and futurist Jeremy Rifkin published The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis (Tarcher/Penguin 2010) [see and]. It is a massive work that considers the long history, current prospects and potential political and sociological roles of the human propensity for empathy – how individuals feel and experience another's situation as if it were one's own. The following blog represents one reaction to Rifkin’s book.


More than ever before, today more people are moving from more places to more places. Over the past twenty-five years, there has not only been a substantial increase in, but also a remarkable diversification of, international migration flows. While United Nations statistics suggest that in the near future, migrants may account for up to 10 percent of the total population across developed regions, they will also comprise ever more varied social and cultural backgrounds. We are entering an age of super-diversity. 

As Jeremy Rifkin says in The Empathic Civilization, international migration provides new opportunities for exposure to diverse others and for empathy, through which people become more tolerant and open towards one another. Led by migration, the diversification of diversity will certainly bring plenty of these opportunities. But increased diversity – especially via immigration – also conversely prompts some people toward increased intolerance, deepened disengagement and hardened social identities.

For those who do engage diverse others, there are significant effects. Demonstrated in studies by social psychologists like Miles Hewstone of Oxford University and Tom Pettigrew of the University of California, Santa Cruz, constructive contact between members of different groups reduces prejudice and stimulates positive intergroup attitudes. This is because people who have affirmative intergroup contacts acquire a capacity for perspective-taking, which is closely associated with empathy. Perspective-taking includes imagining how the other perceives a situation and how he or she might feel as a result. When one is able to take the other’s perspective, one gains a better understanding of the effects of prejudice. Further, research shows that empathy with at least one member of a stigmatized group tends to reduce bias against the group as a whole.

Open willingness for contact is often described as a key attribute of cosmopolitanism. Additional cosmopolitan traits include a reluctance to pre-judge, an ability to learn about and navigate through different meaning systems, and a practical competence in picking up cultural behaviors or ‘doing as the Romans do’. Cosmopolitanism is to be found not just among jet-setters or adventurous tourists, but in everyday encounters among diverse neighbors and workmates from both migrant and non-migrant backgrounds.

Cosmopolitans are often juxtaposed to ‘locals’, referring to people with limited cross-cultural experience who might indeed actively resist cosmopolitan attitudes and practices. Many locals are thus purposefully insular: constricted in outlook, with limited inclination to engage the new, wishing to remain on their own, known social islands. For insular locals, out-group members are uninteresting or outright unwelcome. One mechanism behind such insularity, when it takes a more hostile turn, is what Wilhelm Heitmeyer and his colleagues at the University of Bielefeld call the syndrome of group-focused enmity. This describes how various aversions – especially racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, and the devaluation of disabled people – tend to amalgamate or occur together. At the core of this syndrome is an implicit ideology of inequality, through which all kinds of out-groupers are categorically ranked as inferior.

There is another strong motive for the anti-cosmopolitanism and empathy-resistance that often accompanies insularity: fear. Many people who shun diversity have a genuine fear of loss, including loss of their own social status and relative advantage, loss of material well-being, loss of community and the comfort of ‘us’. The kind of complexity that people associate with ‘too much diversity’ also entails fear of uncertainty. Many are troubled with the sheer pace of diversification because they are afraid that what they know will no longer provide a basis for prediction, especially the prediction of how others will respond to and socially interact with them. Alongside fear of uncertainty is a fear of moral doubt, a fear that empathic tolerance toward diverse others will lead to an unbounded cultural relativism in which anything goes, any set of beliefs and practices is unchallenged, accepted, valued, even celebrated. Remaining insular in outlook and interaction is a strategy for defying such fear.

Will further migration and the emergence of super-diversity continue to deepen an apparent divide between the open and the closed, the empathic and the insular, the cosmopolitan and the local? Only one thing is sure: societies are going to get more diverse, more complex. Under such conditions, in order to ensure a social order characterized by common goals of decency toward one another, civility and accord, insular locals should be encouraged to take up opportunities for intergroup contact (no matter what the group) in order, if not to foster empathy, than to attenuate the ideology of inequality and mitigate fears of diversity. In turn, emphathic cosmopolitans should direct their openness and willingness to engage not just towards diverse others, but also – perhaps most challengingly – towards insular locals.


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