An interview with Mette Louise Berg

(University of Oxford)

December 30, 2008

Mette Louise Berg is a lecturer in anthropology of migration. She has a Masters degree from Copenhagen and a DPhil from St Antony's College, Oxford.

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

I suppose I see diversity as both a new term and an old term. I’m trained as a social and cultural anthropologist and there is a tradition within anthropology of looking at plural and diverse societies. The most relevant to me would be literature on the Caribbean; I’ve worked on Cuba and the Cuban diaspora for a number of years and there is a long tradition of looking at Caribbean societies as diverse in terms of people coming to the Caribbean from many different places of the world bringing different cultural traditions, religions, languages, and it all being grouped together within very hierarchical colonial structures of plantation societies. So that’s one trajectory of diversity that I think is helpful and inspiring. And then of course there is this new take on diversity in which diversity is replacing multiculturalism as a way of thinking through complexity, thinking through ethnic, religious, class and all sorts of diversity mainly in urban contexts, but increasingly it’s also being applied to suburban and rural contexts. In this context, diversity is a way of overcoming the problems of multiculturalism and its tendency to reify and essentialize and only look at cultural differences; diversity has the potential to also bring in other markers or axes of social differentiation.

Then, 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?

I think it is a Zeitgeist term. There is no doubt about that. I recently read an interview in the Financial Times with the dean of the Insead Business School. Diversity was in the headline for this interview and the dean was saying that he thought it’s a good thing. Quite clearly the term has been taken up in the corporate world to a degree that multiculturalism never was. Another example: while I was working on the introduction to the Identities [] special issue that I edited with Ben Gidley and Nando Sigona I went to a family get-together and talked to a cousin of mine whom I haven’t seen for years. When I told her that I was doing research on diversity she said ‘Oh, that’s what I work on’ and it turned out that she is the ‘diversity manager’ for a large multinational firm. That brought home to me how far this term has travelled; it’s clearly a globally mobile term. It does raise the question: can we still use it in a helpful way analytically or has it just come to mean too many different things. Of course it’s important for us to think about the different ways it’s taken up and why it’s taken up in a way that multiculturalism never was. But I don’t think it necessarily means that we therefore have to discard. I think Steve’s [Vertovec] idea of super-diversity has had so much resonance and has been taken up so widely exactly because it captures something that people were struggling to find a term for. So super-diversity is trying to capture an increasing complexity where migration trajectory, legal status, nationality, faith, ethnicity, gender, age, class, occupation, social economic status and so on intersect and interact in different ways. I don’t know that we have a better term to replace it with. And of course what happens is – and we should want that as well – that the work that we do as academics also has an impact in the wider world and so people take it up. We don’t own the words. So it is a Zeitgeist term but I think it’s still useful as well.

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?

That’s really interesting because a couple of years ago I co-organized with some colleagues in Oxford a conference on Ethnography, Diversity and Urban Space [] and we hoped that we would get submissions from people working across the globe on the uses of diversity and we were keen to have a global conversation but actually it was quite Eurocentric what we got: a few papers from the US and a few from elsewhere but otherwise it was very European and lots of UK papers and even within those from the UK it was very specific -- there were a couple of London neighborhoods that came up a number of times. I think it’s really important that we try to look at diversity more globally and that’s really the test of the term as well: is it useful in other contexts? So I think that’s important – both the more global application, but also that we take a longer historical, a longer temporal view, looking at diversity historically as well. I would love to see a conference that brought together historians with scholars from across the globe working in the contemporary world on diversity issues. I think that’s when we’ll find out how useful it is. And it might be that it’s not useful everywhere at all times. And then that’s fine as well.

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

I think it’s really important that we widen the scope geographically; that we look at it globally and also historically. That’s very important. For me personally I’ve come to diversity research from a background in research on transnationalism and diasporas. When the transnational approach emerged it was really new, a paradigmatic breakthrough, and it came from the bottom up. It grew out of ethnographic research with migrant communities where some of the pioneers such as Nina Glick-Schiller and others found that the conceptual apparatus and the conceptual toolkit they had didn’t really fit what they were seeing. So they had to come up with new terms to describe what they found in their ethnographic fieldwork, and I think it liberated the anthropological imagination and creativity. Some of the things we’ve learned is that people are able to sustain translocal relations across vast distances both in time and space, that they can be very close to people who are geographically distant from them. I hope we can keep those insights with us when we look at diversity in local spaces so that we don’t just revert to neighborhood studies but that we also look at the transnational dimensions. In other words, I would like to see the richness of neighborhood studies, the study of the micro-politics and the micro-dynamics in a particular space, combined with the transnational and diasporic aspects of people’s lives. I think this is a challenge that still needs to be worked out both conceptually and methodologically.
So that would be one thing. And then the other thing is the obvious scope for more combinations of quantitative and qualitative work. You can do some very interesting and graphic illustrations of diversity in terms of deprivation, ethnicity, languages, etc., drawing on quantitative sources and data sets and that’s really helpful. Where the qualitative comes into it, is to look at how these different variables then intersect and interact with each other. There is also scope for work that draws on visual modes of representing diversity. I think there are challenges as well where we could learn from working with film makers, photographers and others. Those are the challenges that I am grappling with at the moment.

That is very interesting, because here at the MPI we are also approaching the study of diversity through visual methods. How do you think a visual approach can contribute specifically to the analysis of diverse social environments?

I think there are two issues there that are really important. One is actually that some of these places we are doing research in are being transformed quite rapidly by urban renewal. That’s certainly the case in Elephant & Castle in London that I’m working on with colleagues at COMPAS in Oxford []. We’re working with a professional photographer and I’ve realized that what we’re doing is almost immediately becoming part of the historical record of the area, because the urban fabric is quite literally being reshaped as we’re doing the research. And then the other thing is that I think the visual has the potential to convey the non-narrative aspects of social life, the unspeakable, the gestures, the facial expressions, the clashes of color and textures and so on that it can be really difficult to convey in text only. We as academics are of course trained to be very logocentric; it’s a very textual tradition, and bringing in the visual then is really helpful.

Regarding the combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches that you mentioned before: are you trying to make that combination in your current research?

Yes! We’ll be doing some analysis of the most recent UK census, which is from 2011, looking at the smallest output areas for the area we’re studying. We still don’t know what’s going to come out of it but that will be really interesting to see. So far we’ve done some mapping exercises looking at maps of multiple deprivation, looking at maps of skills and occupational status, educational attainment and so on. It’s really interesting to put these maps on top of each other and see what comes out. And we’re looking forward to seeing how the insights from the qualitative fieldwork and the quantitative analysis will inform and enrich each other.

Well, we will be looking forward to see what comes out of it. Do you have any final remarks, advice or proposal?

I think it is really important to be aware of the ways in which diversity is being used. It has helped us move away from the essentialism of multiculturalism but there is this lingering question about its potential for political mobilization, or, put differently, whether diversity might contribute to depoliticization or individualization. It sits very, very well with neoliberal discourses about the individual. I don’t have the answer to that question but I think it’s something we need to be aware of and to be mindful of.

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Damian Omar Martinez

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