An interview with Ash Amin

(Cambridge University, UK)

May 22, 2012

Ash Amin is Professor of Geography at Cambridge University.

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

In the present political moment, which is suspicious of heterogeneity, the word is an invitation to think about the value of living with difference, and more generally, the open society. As publics and politicians deepen their suspicion of the open society, scholarship becomes clearer about the properties - largely positive - of complex open systems.  I am thinking, for example, of the work of William Connolly on pluralism, building on William James's thinking on radical excess. There is also the tradition of work on complexity, building the science and philosophy of non-linear dynamics, emergence, and uncertainty, where - echoing Derrida's insights on la différance - 'diversity' is a proxy for justifying the social too as open, plural, non-fixed, messy, non-predictable, always uncertain. The normative challenge, one that progressives need to shout over the heads of those who fear or vilify pluralism, is to fashion arguments and policies for the society of strangers and cosmopolitan engagement that take us beyond the currently narrow language of multiculturalism versus assimilationism. Diversity, for me, therefore is a way of widening the debate on managing complex and uncertain environments without the option of eliminating these qualities.

The second question is: is diversity then just a Zeitgeist term or a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase as in ‘integration and diversity’ policy or a corporate tool, or can it be a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis? I think you've already started touching on this.

The concept of diversity started out as a kind of Zeitgeist term to manage a pluralism considered by some to be a dirty word, something to be avoided. It still retains these qualities for those who wish to make a virtue or necessity out of living with difference. But equally, as I have intimated, the term also signals a particular turning point in social scientific thinking away from the world of specialisms, linear thinking, linear dynamics, towards a sense that we need a new social science that is able to grasp the world in both its complexity and its everyday evolution. In this attempt to renew and rethink the social sciences, I think diversity can play a more interesting role as part of a new social science lexicon.

At the Max Planck Institute 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?

It helps and it doesn't. It helps in signalling a plural research agenda in terms of thematic and spatial focus; to say that here is a globally-oriented institute with an open and evolving agenda. But at the same time, as a working concept, it has to find its shelf-life. It should be used strategically for a short period because inevitably, since it is a hollow word in its own right, other keywords may be needed to shape a research agenda close to new developments.

From your perspective – you can chose either expertise/discipline/country/intellectual tradition – what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and/or methodological challenges currently facing ‘diversity’-related research?

On the analytical intellectual side, I think diversity – if it is put in an appropriate theoretical setting – is an opening, but I don't see at the moment a huge amount of reflection on the body of thought into which concepts such as diversity fit. I alluded earlier to the need to reflect on what the term says about the ontology and epistemology of the social. You don't see this kind of reflection happening a great deal amongst researchers who do and think diversity. Diversity needs to part of a rethinking of the social sciences on the one hand, and on the other hand, an opportunity to maintain the case for such things as the unknowability and unpredictability of things; acting in an uncertain world, as Michel Callon would put it. There is a profound methodological challenge here, for a certain kind of open-ended work. Even now, with all the influence of complexity thinking in the social sciences – diversity related or otherwise - we're still stuck to a linear tradition, for example, that of starting with the research question, then nailing the most appropriate research method, then conducting comparative research, then finding the generalizable answer. The irony is that in the world of science itself those who work on open complexity systems now actively say that they are the producers of only provisional and partial knowledge. Social scientists too need to find the courage and conviction - with concepts such as diversity - to change the expectations of society from research on the plural society, to reveal the finer implications of placing in close proximity stranger entities. 

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Franziska Meissner

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