Interview with Rainer Bauböck (European University Institute)

Rainer Bauböck is a political theorist who also engages with comparative political science. He is a Professor in the Global Governance Program of the Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute. He is also a corresponding member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and Chairman of the Commission for Migration and Integration Studies. From 2018-2019, he was a Senior Visiting Scholar at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg of the University of Göttingen. His research interests include normative political theory, democratic citizenship, European integration, migration, nationalism and minority rights.

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

I am a political theorist and thus always start with concepts and conceptual analysis. So, let us look at this term first conceptually. Diversity is a way of talking about difference. And you can talk about difference in two different ways. Either you see it as diversity or you see it as inequality. It depends on what you put in the diversity box and in the inequality box. Inequality is something that at least in democratic societies is a problem, something that ought to be overcome through policies, institutional arrangements etc. Whereas diversity is generally seen as something that needs to be accommodated, respected, maybe even recognized. So, if we think about different types of difference, such as language, religion, ethnic background, we would usually put these in the diversity box because in democracies these are differences that are not to be overcome but differences that ought to be accommodated, respected or recognized.

Differences of class, race, sexual inequalities etc., are not always problematic per se, but they become problematic if they are associated strongly with social hierarchies and inequalities. In such cases, difference is meant to be overcome, at least as a social status difference. Diversity is a form of difference that is not inevitably or naturally associated with social status hierarchies. And this is why diversity is a positive concept whereas inequality obviously has a negative connotation.

In my own work, I am most interested in the relationship between diversity and democracy. There are scholars who think that democracies need a certain level of homogeneity. People must be alike in order to be citizens in a democracy who have a shared collective identity. And there are people who study this empirically and who claim that if there is too much diversity then there is a lack of trust among citizens and that leads to problems because levels of solidarity and also the possibility to redistribute resources across social classes, for example, are declining when diversity is on the rise. Robert Putnam tried to prove this with empirical data.

Now these are empirically hotly contested issues. Many researchers claim that the data does not show that diversity necessarily leads to a decline in trust. As a political theorist, I want to make a more theoretical point: to a certain extent, diversity is a background condition for democracy. If we were all the same, if there were no differences to respect and recognize, then we would probably not even need democracy. If we all share the same identities, interests and ideas about the common good, then we could all agree even with the rule of a dictator because that dictator would have the same ideas, identities and interests as us. So, the need for democracy arises only in the context of diversity; only if people are different on the dimensions of interests, ideas and identities do they need democratic procedures in order to arrive at collectively binding decisions implemented by government institutions that they can all accept as legitimate. So, citizens need and accept democracy because they are different, not because they are similar. For me there is thus a fundamentally positive relation between diversity and democracy. It is not an easy one because people are not naturally inclined to tolerate others, but because democracy is political system in which they can be made to tolerate others by seeing them as equal citizens rather than just as belonging to different groups.

Do you see that there is a point where there is too much diversity?

I cannot imagine a point at which there would be too much diversity. What we have to fight is not diversity, which is the lifeblood of democracy itself, what we have to fight is segregation and status hierarchies. And that requires a different set of public policies and also narratives about collective identities than you would get if you think that diversity is the problem. For example, from the latter perspective it makes sense to reduce immigration in order to reduce diversity, from the former it does not. There may be other reasons for controlling and limiting immigration, but the preservation of an imagined homogeneity of the people is, in my view, not a democratic reason.

Do you think the term ‘diversity’ is just a Zeitgeist term – a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase (as in ‘integration and diversity’ policy), a corporate tool maybe (as in ‘diversity management’), or can it be a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

Let us start with the Zeitgeist term. I think that it is partly the task of social sciences to operate within the Zeitgeist. We study contemporary societies. Of course, we have to be aware how they are different from each other and how they are different from earlier societies. We need historical comparison. But, we have to respond to current conditions in what we study. And if diversity is part of the Zeitgeist, then that is itself a reason for studying diversity and for trying to understand why it has become such a prominent term. I think this is not just a Zeitgeist phenomenon but is really rooted in material conditions of contemporary modernity. Globalization has opened up societies for external influences and for unprecedented migration flows. Of course, there have been similar periods in the past of rapidly increasing diversity, for example in America around 1900. Colonial societies throughout their history were opened up by force to external influences that lead to enhanced diversity. But today, for the first time, the idea that nation states in the so-called west could close themselves off and thereby remain homogenous is breaking down through the experience of globalization-induced diversity. So, that is what we have to study and understand. It is a reason for promoting the empirical study of diversity as an essential task of a social science agenda.

The other zeitgeistisch idea is that diversity is a concept that comes from corperate management. I think, however, that corperate capitalism is responding to diversity through adapting its strategies and adopting the term rather than creating it. There were earlier periods in corperate capitalism that were anti-diverse. Think about Fordism and how Henry Ford tried to not only streamline the production process through the conveyor belt, but also promoted a stereotypical image of the American worker's family and its lifestyles. This involved cooking lessons for housewives in order to teach them what not to cook and how to cook bland American standard meals. So, that was an anti-diversity movement that was again supported rather than invented by corperate capitalism at the time, because in that period of Fordism standardization in the industrial production went together with homogenization at the level of the nation state. It was the period when America itself closed itself off from immigration - for roughly forty years between 1925 and 1965. And that explained why capitalists adapted to and bought into homogeneity rather than diversity. Today, we are in a period where corperations operate at a global scale, and open themselves up both in terms of their work force and their consumers. They embrace diversity because it is a good market strategy. This does not mean that they have invented the concept or the idea; they just use it. They piggyback on diversity that has been brought about through momentous social changes. So, we should better not dismiss the term when we see that it crops up in corperate management handbooks. There are good reasons for social scientists to study it as a phenomenon that is deeply linked, not just to the Zeitgeist of modernity, but also to the economic, social and cultural circumstances of our contemporary era.

At the MPI-MMG, we are looking to develop research and theory spanning contemporary immigration societies (especially in Europe) and longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies (such as South Africa, India and Malaysia). How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’ shaping this agenda – or not?

I think there are good reasons to look for concepts that would work in both environments, the so-called global north and the so-called global south – and diversity is one of these. It is also obvious that in both contexts today, diversity is strongly linked to migration, even if it is not reducible to migration. There are influences that diversify societies, e.g. through the internet, through global media, that are not inherently linked to migration flows. Still, often migration flows are the most obvious phenomenon that makes societies aware that they are no longer as closed and homogenous as they imagine they were in the past. But of course, it is important also to keep in mind the different starting points and contexts in the south and in the north. Specifically, the origins of diversity are quite different in the global south. In post-colonial societies, diversity was originally brought about through what James Furnivall called an ethnic division of labor introducing, for example, indentured slaves that would be imported from India into various parts of Indonesia, Indochina, and other societies and would be kept segregated from the native population. Assigning specific tasks to socially segregated ethnic groups in a division of labor so that people of different origins would meet only in consumer markets is an even older feature of colonial societies than we often imagine. In these societies, I think diversity was strongly associated with ethnic divisions of labor and status hierarchies that were introduced or reinforced through colonialism. And that story is of course a little bit different from that in the north; the European story started with the Thirty Years' War in the seventeenth century, which was all about how European societies could cope with religious diversity after the Reformation. Then there was the settlement, stipulating that initially, the newly formed states would each have one religion only. This initial solution of “cuius regio eius religio” was not sustainable over a long time. Eventually, religious toleration inside states rather than merely across them emerged as the only possible way of avoiding constant war between and within European societies.

That story was further complicated, also in Europe, through migration flows between these emerging nation states and the constant contradiction between the need to import labor, which required keeping borders open – not just for trade but also for migration flows, on the one hand, and the idea that nation states needed to be  based on culturally homogenous societies. While religion faded into the background as the main marker of diversity because of the institutionalization of religious toleration, national languages, cultural habits and lifestyles and imagined national histories became the focus of state efforts to homogenize diverse societies, with compulsory public schooling as the main instrument for assimilating the population into a common national identity.

Once the ethnic status hierarchies in the global south or the homogenous nation states in the north start to break up, this creates huge irritations. Diversity is thus an irritant in both contexts, especially if it is not of the known kind, involving groups that have already been accepted because they have been around for so long. So, this is a good reason to study new diversities: how do they shake up societies and how do people respond? As a political theorist, I am most interested in how they should respond in terms of public policies and institutional arrangements that can accommodate diversity rather than fight it.

Our final question: from the perspective of your intellectual tradition, what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and/or methodological challenges currently facing ‘diversity’-related research?

I think that the main challenge is probably to study diversity without essentializing identities. When the term diversity first became popular in the context of the debate about multiculturalism in the late eighties and in the 1990s, it was often associated with distinct group identities of minorities that suffer various kinds of disadvantages: immigrant minorities, but also indigenous peoples or traditional national minorities, with different languages and separate territorial homelands. There was an inclination to see these groups as clearly distinct from each other and as sharing a strong form of collective identity that binds them together. That was a more plausible assumption for some indigenous peoples who actually mobilized on the basis of shared collective identities in order to stake their claims. It was also to a lesser extent plausible for the so-called national minorities: the Québécois, the Scots, the Catalans, the Basques, the Flemish etc., because there you had political entrepreneurs claiming that they represented distinct nations with their own homeland and language and therefore rights to self-determination. Sometimes these were successful, sometimes they were not. But ordinary people often rallied behind these claims because they had various grievances against the imposed dominant majority identity.

For the study of migrants and immigrants, the group essentializing approach was, however, never very plausible. As migrants came from increasingly diverse origins and had diverse cultural traditions, thinking of them as a single category did not make sense. Originally, however, in some new countries of immigration, the debate was very much about a group categorized as being foreigners. In the German speaking countries in the 1960s and 1970s the debate was about an “Ausländerproblem” rather than about ethnoreligious diversity. Yet the legal category of the foreigner was always coloured by a prototypical ethnic image referring often to the largest group of origin. In Germany these were Turks, in Austria they were the Yugoslavs.

One thing we have learned, partly through studies initiated here in Göttingen at the MPI MMG by Steven Vertovec is that we have to study the diversification of diversities. Steve’s concept of superdiversity is, for me, still a very useful approach because it provides an essential antidote to essentializing group identities. Once you are aware that diversities intersect in many different ways – there are diversities of origin that overlap and intersect with religious diversities, linguistic diversities, diversities of legal statuses, and diversities of cultural orientations in constructing ways of life – then the risk that you would go on constructing essentialized group identity in the theory and then reifying them through the empirical tools that you use, is diminished. Once you look through the conceptual lens of superdiversity, there is much less risk that you would have these fixed categories in mind and design your questionnaires accordingly in such a way that you build your assumptions about identity constructions into the questions that you ask and then get the answers that seem to confirm them.

We still need to do more along these lines, not by giving up on the study of diversity but by focusing more strongly on how diversities intersect and overlap, and how they shift at the individual and collective level over time. One way of doing this is to look at superdiverse contexts like major cities around the world and to look at the spatial patterns of how different categories distribute and change over time. The other approach, which seems to still be applied less often, is to look at life courses, i.e. take the individual as the unit of observation – not the country or the city – and study how social events and environments structure their biographies across time. If these individuals are migrants, then they are exposed to different contexts of migration, of origin, of transit countries, of destination countries or of home countries who have changed over time in case of return migrants; they are members of transnational families that have been dispersed across places. We need to study how that changes their self-constructions of identities: how do they perceive who they are through exposure to these varying and shifting contexts over time? This would probably lead to something like a concept of superdiversity at the individual and not only at the aggregate level that we have not yet fully explored and thought about.

Thank you Prof. Bauböck, for you time and for these fascinating insights!

Interviewer: Michalis Moutselos

September 2019

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