An interview with Ulrich Beck †

April 24, 2009

Ulrich Beck was Professor for Sociology at the University of Munich.

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Do you use the term diversity?

Yes, it appears in my texts in many places almost of its own accord. However, I’m usually employing it within a relatively specific context. For example, I would make it distinct from, on the one hand, difference, which contains relatively clear ideas of the boundaries between specific groups or identities, and on the other hand, let’s say, chaos, where everything is possible. To me, diversity in the sense of “superdiversity”, as Steve Vertovec has introduced the term, appears especially interesting. This term obviously has a potential to create public irritation, a provocation potential. And perhaps this stems from the fact that the more intense accent placed by this term undermines or questions an important prerequisite that is often considered to be obvious when dealing with plurality, with identity, etc. I am referring to the prerequisite that clear boundaries and boxes exist between Us and the Others: one is either this or that. Vertovec shows that equating origin and social position and that treating people from one country as a homogenous group no longer make sense in a situation where migration trajectories, legal status, and other factors are becoming ever more diverse. In a way, the term (super)diversity expresses the impossibility of making distinct categorizations, ascribing this or that identity, and essentializing the categories.

Isn’t that a problem for sociology, which is permanently engaged in classifying?

Yes, without a doubt; but we are living in a time of reflexive modernisation, which means, in a phase of radical modernisation, whose “side effects” question the institutional and cognitive foundations/basic categories of previous modernisations. As we are showing in Munich in the Collaborative Research Center (SFB) “Reflexive Modernization”, the classification according to “either or” is no longer valid in many cases, but rather, as a result of the successes of modernisation, this classification must be expanded by and replaced with a new logic of “Not only but also”.

Allow me to make this clear using a very different example. We have examined this problem within all areas of social life and all topics. To name just one: It is the differentiation between life and death. That almost seems to be an anthropological differentiation or seemed to be so for a long time. But medical progress does away with this differentiation simply in the sense that “better” medical practices create more indicators of death, that someone can be dead in terms of brain death or cardiac death. There are many different kinds of death. This means: medical progress is doing away with the boundaries between death and life through a pluralisation of indicators. When you apply all of these, then people are not only dead but also alive. This leads to restraints: Because no society can handle not having a clear differentiation between death and life, specific operationalisations must be carried out in light of the pluralisation of boundaries. These operationalisations can no longer claim the same degree of anthropological necessity because these sets always remain contingent, meaning that they can be revised through new research and are naturally morally controversial.

This is valid for many areas, also for the differentiation between society and nature, for example. In the case of the climate catastrophe, you can see that that is precisely a mixed relationship between society and nature. The idea that one can clearly distinguish between society and nature is totally outside of reality. And yet again, we must do it, despite that fact. You can experience this with all catastrophes, that we are attempting to ascribe something to nature or to the individuals involved. But we are almost constantly experiencing, this is also the theory of reflexive modernisation, that the hitherto existing dualisms are being undermined as a result of the radicalisation of modernisation processes and their effects.

But in the case of these two examples, there are clear connections to technological progress. In migration research, we tend to often think about belonging to a social group. The old finding that people have multiple identities at the same time already exists within research on nations and research on labour movements. Do you see new dimensions there as well?

Yes, that is the point. On the one hand, we can no longer easily uphold the difference between national and international. That which until now existed outside of the nation-state and of which the nation-state could divest itself outside its borders is suddenly part of nation-state processes in many regards. In light of global risks, the distant Other is within our middle. On the other hand, this is also true for the nation-state construction of Us and the Others at all levels of politics, but also at the level of the construction of identity and groups. I mean, all of transnationalism research shows that the idea that one can assume that territorial boundaries, the political boundaries, the cultural boundaries, and the social boundaries are congruent with one another, this situation simply no longer exists. The container model of nation-state spaces that can be locked – “methodological nationalism” – is useless for understanding Europe, for example, because here everything in these dimensions is getting mixed up. This means that the idea of “Us and the others” as a relatively clear categorization loses its reality-based content and persuasiveness, its empirical validity, which leads to great difficulties within statistics. One can practically forget the statistics on foreigners because they fit under only one aspect, that of national belonging, even though we know that there are domestic students and domestic social welfare recipients who simultaneously hold foreign passports. So, again here we have this falling apart of borders. I think that this irritation of the no longer clear assigning of identity, that is the irritation, the provocative potential of the term superdiversity, which takes on significance especially there where one hitherto thought of the world within the either-or framework. There are chief witnesses for this historic situation of the not-only-but-also: Nietzsche, who early on spoke of us living in an “era of comparison” in which cultural oppositions and symbols are present in every place on earth; and Georg Simmel, who said: “The stranger is he who arrives today and tomorrow stays”, so someone who is both native but also foreign.

Yes. Perhaps we’ll take a last question, the ideas that exist within the institute about comparing contemporary immigrant societies in Europe and multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies, such as in South Africa or India. Do you believe that the term diversity is a sensible foundation for such a comparison?

Well, I must admit that in my opinion, the term as such is not enough. I don’t think it makes sense to organise research simply based on one term. One can define it like this or like that, then you don’t have any firm ground to stand on. It would depend on how one enriches this term theoretically, how one located it within theory, but also making it usable for different development trajectories, contexts of experiences of the past and expectations of the future, making it “able to travel”, if you will. In my opinion one would have to move away from the idea of analyzing superdiversity in London, Stuttgart, Delhi, I don’t know, Singapore. That wouldn’t be enough for me. Because one would have to see how one could bind this term more tightly into middle-range constellations, for example that you put it into the context of a welfare state background, which is certainly a completely different way of dealing with it than post-colonial, post-communist constellations. We know that welfare states are all more homogenous and therefore have big problems because diversity is always regarded as a competition for resources. That is experienced very differently in America or especially in India or Africa, where social welfare doesn’t exist or isn’t a given. But that is only one point.

You would have to put it in relation to a series of concepts. The cosmopolitanisation or methodological cosmopolitanism could certainly be one of those. Perhaps I could quickly explain that: A week ago we had a workshop on Varieties of Second Modernity. And we had colleagues from Korea, from Japan, from China (partially located in China) partially in America, etc, and from many other parts of the world, who partially seized upon the basic thought of cosmopolitanisation, of individualisation, also of the definition of risk (these would be such middle-range conceptualisations) and simultaneously reinterpreted them within the realm of their experiences, simply produced other interpretations, which are then a challenge to the way we have seen and done it in Europe until now. For example, individualisation and with that also diversity in Europe require rule of law and the social welfare state as prerequisites. That is not the case in China, Japan, South Korea, respectively. This forces one to find variations of the path to individualisation and with that to revise the European trajectory as being one among many. So, a level of, I would call it methodological cosmopolitanism again, must be organized as an interaction between different realms of experience, which allows us to place different assumptions about diversity, that are anchored within different contexts, in relation to one another and in this way to develop a method of comparison. If all you do is go there and say: I am looking at superdiversity in different contexts, I am afraid that one will only “see” superdiversity. And that would not do justice to the social theory-based and political force of superdiversity research.

Interviewer: Karen Schönwälder

Translator: Diana Aurisch

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