An interview with Thomas Blom Hansen


March 14, 2009

Thomas Blom Hansen (b. 1958) has been appointed professor of Religous Studies at the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences of the Universiteit van Amsterdam (UvA) as of 1 July 2006.

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I am speaking to Professor Thomas Blom-Hansen from Amsterdam and we have prepared four questions for you and I just read them out. So the first question is: what does diversity mean to you by way of your work and field expertise?

One can argue that India historically was the place that most urgently put the question of diversity on the table of the British colonizers. Indian colonial rule was the context in which models of management of diverse communities were first developed. The colonial state in India developed a model of objectification of communities, of counting, delimiting, drawing boundaries, defining who all these different people were;. This is where the notion of multiculturalism actually begins. It begins in the colonial world born out of the necessity to manage and define cultural differences. It gave rise to a model of state management of religion and culture based on the idea that the state should stay away from any kind of detailed management of practices within mosques, temples and homes and instead deal with religious and cultural communities at a distance – as an eye in the sky, a distant rational agency sitting above society, regulating but also refereeing battles between antagonistic communities. I think we should be aware that the model of management of diversity, the conceptualization of diversity has a colonial origin. That model is imported into Britain in the post-war situation, to some extent also into Holland as a style of management of diverse populations that then had migrated into Europe. Think of the attempts to manage migrant groups through designated representatives, bringing community elders together, encouraging forms of internal self-government of these groups by moral injunctions and religious discipline, and so forth. This is the argument made so well by my colleague in Amsterdam Gerd Baumann in his book on Southall in London.

So diversity is in some ways the very basis on which any study of India will have to begin. I worked on Hindu-Muslim conflicts and this is inevitable that diversity is at the heart of one's interest. South Africa is my other field of study where management of difference historically was conceptualized as racial difference from the very beginning. Today, affirmative action and new employment laws are still based on race except that the racial preferences have been turned around. South Africa is going through a very interesting and difficult phase where a racially segregated society is trying to turn itself into a multicultural society. Race gives way to culture and the latter has to be positively valorized. Many people who were opposing apartheid wanted to create a non-racial democracy, where color and race would become of no importance. However, when you exchange race with culture it becomes important for every group to redefine themselves in pretty essentialist terms. I am now looking at a great paradox: post-apartheid freedom has produced a new injunction and a need for groups to come forward and positively define themselves, no longer be defined by the state but now defining themselves in positive terms. The problem is that the difference between the old racial definition and the new definition is not always as big as people would like it to be. You also see new fragmentation. In the study I have done on Indians in South Africa, people are trying to run away from the Indian label and instead redefine themselves as Hindus, as Muslims, as Christians and so on. But the space for defining oneself as a secular non-ethnic South African actually doesn't really exists. I've learnt a lot from thinking about how historically naïve it is to think - like many people in Europe do - that we can have a kind of culture neutral and non-cultural public space where people can interact and express themselves without being defined by, or associated with, a cultural background. It's almost a contradiction in terms if you want to have multiculturalism at the same time.

Is diversity just a zeitgeist term, a post-multiculturalism policy catchphrase 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?

Maybe diversity opens for the possibility of thinking of any group of human beings as being fundamentally diverse; maybe it opens for thinking about people who are otherwise defined as white or “non-ethnic” – the supposedly neutral ground on which the nation stands - as actually not homogeneous, as always shot through with differences. It's true that diversity is fashionable. Diversity is used by companies, public authorities etc. to make themselves appear appealing and modern, with the times and all that. I think diversity can be an advance, especially if used to dissolve or challenge some of the hidden presuppositions about the homogeneity of the native populations in Europe. We need to get beyond the notion that minorities ‘have’ diversity whilst the natives do not. Conceptually, we may point out that the notion of the “normal citizen” is a kind of sociological fiction that is widely deployed in the social sciences. But diversity as such is not really a social science concept. Maybe just a reminder that whatever population or group we're looking at we should always look at how it is defined against other kinds of differences and how it's internally differentiated. So instead of diversity being a kind of division of labor with those of a slightly darker complexion representing diversity one should challenge the very notion of what is average and supposedly normal.

At the Max Planck Institute we're looking to develop research and theories spanning contemporary immigration societies especially in Europe and longstanding multiethnic 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 hope that one could begin to learn something from these other experiences. Social theory and standard ideas of how societies develop still entertain the idea that when it comes to political culture, democracy, civilized co-existence and so on, Europe has a lot to teach the rest of the world. I see no evidence of that. I see that Europe has been quite lost in a narcissistic love affair with itself. European social thought does see its own unique features as conditioned by the exclusion, or down-playing, of a lot of its own history, including the colonial past. I think there would be a lot to be learned from places like India, like South Africa and many other parts of the world that have a very, very long experience in dealing with multiethnic societies and multiracial coexistence. We often tend to focus on conflicts in these societies – that's also been part of my own work – but what is also true is that such societies build on the daily coexistence and interaction between many different groups. We have not really started to record and explore how people live with difference, how people draw many different lines around aspects of their private life, their public life, and how people are able to deal with many different kinds of publics and audiences. These are also multi-lingual societies which is very often forgotten. The average urban Indian uses at least three languages on a daily basis because one needs that in order to exist in a major Indian city. South Africa is pretty much the same thing certainly for any person of color. Urban dwellers in such spaces have developed a kind of agility and ability to live simultaneously in many different spheres. It doesn't mean that it is always pretty or friendly or that people do harbor hostile feelings vis-à-vis other groups, by no means. There is undoubtedly a capacity and a tolerance for difference that is completely different from a European sensibility. Habermas once said that the essence of democracy is the capacity to endure difference. It needs to be explored much more how people actually juggle different linguistic worlds, the different conceptual worlds that come with linguistic diversity; how people negotiate different sensory regimes of smell and sound and impressions; and how people deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise around the very distinctive different bodily regimes, what you eat and what you can't eat in these situations, and so on. I also think we have underestimated the sheer accumulated experience in dealing with complex social institutions in these societies. I always marvel at the Indian capacity to pull off elections and make it work, and make many of their institutions work in a situation that is under-resourced and strained by corruption and many other problems. There is a flexibility, an agility of mind in all that which is very often dismissed by Europeans in a rather arrogant way - as an imperfect version of “our form” which is the real form. If that could be reversed and one could begin to study some of these societies and their micro-practices as forms of dealing with diversity that we still need to tap into and learn from, then I think Max Planck would do something truly new.

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?

Certainly to get out of European self-obsession as I said. To begin to understand ourselves in Europe as people who are only beginning to learn about this in our own imperfect way and very often impeded by all our inherited prejudices about color and culture. There are many, many places where there has been a long history of dealing with diverse populations and we should ask how people draw boundaries between themselves and multiple others by deploying multiple selves. There is in anthropology a tradition of drawing a stark line between the notion of a unique, individualist western self and other people (of color) in the East and elsewhere who are supposed to have more fragmented and open selves and so on. That is pretty hopeless and clunky. First we must analyze how social science has been willing to accept a certain ideological image of Europe as a de facto situation. This social science image has become sort of schematic and theoretical truth of western society. The other side of this fallacy has been the culturalist notions of a deep Hindu personality, a deep Buddhist personality, and so on. Instead we must look into how people, East, West, everywhere, actually deal with diversity and diverse categories of people both in their very private sphere and in all those concentric circles around your house or your home or your family. These modes of being, modes of practical coexistence are still under-explored. Personhood is an old anthropological category which needs to be taken apart and reassembled in a new and much more flexible way that can be commensurable with what is actually happening.

I am very interested in rethinking the nature of the large Asian and African post-colonial cityscapes. How do they function? How is the reality of many, many conflicting forces experienced in those cityscapes - from deep segmentation of space, to forced conviviality that is not always enjoyed, but also new forms of solidarity. How should the realities of these enormous cities revise our standard received notions of what urban life is. Ninety percent of all theory ever written about cities base themselves on a standard sociological narrative (partly fiction) of the western European and American city. We have to rethink that and the notions of civic life, conviviality and much else that came with this inherited corpus of text. So I think there is a lot to be done there.
Another issue is that is globally more legitimate to embrace a religious identity today than it was thirty years ago. I see this happening in South Africa where people go from an ethnic/racial category to a religious category which seems to imply an element of choice: 'I embrace my religion' or 'I am this now and no longer my old self constrained by ancestral culture”. That larger tendency has consequences for the way in which diversity is being expressed and the way in which people choose to represent themselves. This produces a form of ethical turn in religious thought and practice. What people are looking for in religious communities is not necessarily a deep ontology, a deep explanation of the world in cosmological terms, but a set of very practical codes and ethical injunctions as to how to deal with the world on an everyday basis. Some people find immense pleasure in strict laws that govern themselves and their own body in the situation of chaos surrounding them. Other people find more pleasure in a flexible ethical code that nonetheless allows them a measure of moral certainty in the face of overwhelming diversity or what they see as a hostile and unintelligible environment. I think of religion, neither in the large institutional sense nor in an essentialized sense but more as a sort of ethical register within which one can draw different models of behavior and moral judgment. This is what religion has come to offer in this age of ours. So it's a kind of a form of authority you can lean on but an authority that also makes it possible for yourself to retain a measure of choice, an illusion of empowerment, at least. This is not to say that all religions become more like Protestantism but rather than that modern societies wherever they are – in Asia, in Africa – demands from people an ability to make these kinds of ethical choices in everyday life. The more rigid precepts and rigid injunctions don't really work anymore in a large, diverse, urban environment.

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Gabriele Alex

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