An interview with Lourdes Arizpe Schlosser


July 05, 2011

Lourdes Arizpe Schlosser is Professor-researcher at Centro Regional de Investigaciones Multidisciplinarias, National University of Mexico. Apartado Postal 4-106, Cuernavaca, Morelos, 62431, Mexico.

For further information click here.   

So we have four questions for our interview of the month and the first would be: What does ‘diversity’ mean to you by way of your work and field of expertise?

I think that diversity is inherent to human experience. Even in seemingly homogeneous cultural groups there are many ways in which differences are established. Your accent in speaking, the family and community you belong to, your choices, all establish boundaries. So there is diversity always. Then, of course, if you look at a wider community or a nation you will find many more differences in terms of language variants, social customs and lifestyles. The key question is how societies perceive, highlight, then define and manage such boundaries. Today, conditions have been created that make us much more aware of this endless criss-crossing of boundaries in people´s daily lives. As work conducted in this Institute and as Ulrich Beck has said, it is the first time in history that we are so self-aware of the need to live with people who have different ways of organizing politics, organizing communities, organizing economic life and that this awareness must bring us to create a new cosmopolitan vision. Although I must say that this awareness has been a permanent feature in many, many societies, but it has just entered the arena of the European intellectual consciousness. And this is creating very interesting dilemmas for Europeans, and for all scholars, on intellectual leadership, universals, cosmopolitanism and what we in Mexico have debated as ´self-adscribed cognitive thresholds´.

So the second one is: is ‘diversity’ just 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?

It depends on how we apply it. It has always been an analytical tool, yet there are reasons why today it has become a politically useful term as globalization expands communications and economic interdependence. Closer contacts and the rebuilding of structures need a new vision of difference but, in my view, also of convergence. This is why I began to speak about conviviality. Since the nineties, the term culture has also been reified in public discourse in order to classify people in a purportedly seamless world. Of course we need conceptual tools to understand this but it is important to show that diversity cannot be used simply as a management tool. Showing diversity in corporations or universities defeats its purpose. Instead, diversity is crucial for innovation. Only when the interaction between actors allows for an exchange of knowledge or understanding that will bring about new ideas or paths will diversity give a new sense to the world. This is why it is so important, in the scientific use of the concept of diversity, to specify on the basis of which elements the boundaries of such diversity are being defined. That is where we have to be very careful and not dissect diversity into a hundred little differences that actually make no difference.

At 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 it is shaping it at present, on the assumption that recognizing diversity, by itself, will solve problems. But it doesn´t. One has to be very careful in analyzing who is shaping this agenda. In the work I have been carrying out in the last fifteen years on multiculturalism, cultural diversity and cultural pluralism, it has become clear to me that the best way of organizing things is letting people themselves decide how to manage their interactions. If you have an indigenous group in Mexico, they have to decide which cultural heritage they want to keep and which customs from the outside they want to adopt. We anthropologists tend to want to safeguard intangible cultural heritage and protect the people who are holders of ancient, rich, varied cultures. Yet, they have to become the agents of their own future. They have to demand human rights, political participation, economic opportunities. It is up to them to keep their cultural differences or to create new symbols, ideas or images that reflect their locations in today´s world. Sometimes such symbols or ideas are emptied of meaning. Placing things or images in a glass cage will not protect them. On the contrary, it will take away their substance. Even so, they may be worth conserving. We, in the present, are also free to provide new meanings for the old. But real people want to be alive and, therefore, have the liberty of inventing. I have been told that, when directing cultural projects in countries around the world, by many, many people. Nor do all immigrants, coming from Latin America, the Middle East or Africa want to keep their cultures intact in host countries. Some do, some don’t.  This is where the political and economic context counts so much in allowing this freedom of choice. So it is up to the people to decide how much they want to change, how much they want to adopt, how much they want to forget. They also have the right to forget.

So the last question would be: From your perspective like expertise/discipline/country/intellectual tradition, what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and/or methodological challenges currently facing ‘diversity’-related research?

I could write a volume on that. That is a very broad question which must be answered, firstly, by asking yourself: why am I interested in understanding diversity? Our assumptions about the value of diversity must be made explicit. Because what we are finding very much in the whole area of research on culture, on multiculturalism, on diversity is that the same things are done over and over and over again and we have to go beyond that. There are key conversions that have to be made in conceptual and methodological terms. And that's where I think we are lacking new theories to understand diversity at another level of abstraction, as André Gingrich said in his meeting, so that we can apply new theoretical instruments to very different societies around the world.

Thank you so much for the interview.

Interviewer: Theresa Funke

Go to Editor View