An interview with Jan Blommaert †

April 24, 2013

Jan Blommaert was Professor of Language, Culture and Globalization at Tilburg University (The Netherlands), where he also directed the Babylon Center for the Study of Superdiversity.

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What does ‘diversity’ mean to you?

I see diversity as a question, as an interrogation and basically as the item, the instrument to interrogate whatever is left of structuralism in our intellectual traditions. In my own field, let's call it sociolinguistics or linguistic anthropology, the influence, the legacy of structuralism is still massive in the sense that we still start from a number of objects that have received their orthodox definition, à la structuralism in the fashion of Saussure, Bloomfield and so on, and we haven't really got rid of that. And then diversity comes in as a way of replacing an older notion, which used to be ‘variation’. But variation again was structural variation while diversity adds to it in a dimension of what it means in society, e. g. how languages or whatever one wants to call it, language varieties, do create groups, maintain groups, maintain group dynamics, do contribute to structuring society's social structure, culture and so on. In this way diversity, if we adopt it as a theme and as a motive in our work, forces us to interrogate the foundations of what we do, notably the autonomy of language. In my view it basically precludes any idea of language as a self-standing object. It is always connected to all sorts of all things, culture, society, etc., and not, I emphasize, with culture, society and so forth in a subsidiary, secondary role. No, it's an absolute and intrinsic synergy between all sorts of things. So, we are looking at complex objects. And in my view diversity is the instrument for doing that sort of foundational or fundamental reconsideration of our field.

So perhaps to follow from that, the focus also is on practices? To what an extent is the work of Bourdieu relevant?

There are a number of scholars in social theory over the last half century who worked amazingly productively about language in the sense that a lot of what I read from them was a lot more insightful that what I read from most linguists. An interesting thing is that they… Let me put it this way. They move from society to language and they are interested in language because it elucidates aspects of society. Linguists usually take the other direction, from language to society. Bourdieu is obviously an instance of this productive gaze. But also Foucault, who explicitly (and on a number of occasions) calls his approach to discourse non-linguistic. It is in effect anti-linguistic, and I find that very stimulating. And a third scholar I would like to mention is Carlo Ginzburg, the historian. I've read some of the most lucid observations about language and the way in which language and literacy function in reality in real societies in the The Cheese and the Worms, where you see a confrontation of two people who have read exactly the same books but from within a different sort of cultural sphere; as a consequence they don't understand each other. Those were insights that I have hardly ever seen articulated in orthodox linguistics. In that sense, if we want to study language, very often we need to look beyond and outside language. And speaking for myself I have entirely adopted the idea that the study of language is only useful to the extent that it makes the study of society more interesting or easier. And I do believe that language does provide a sort of vanguard or privileged access to a number of aspects of social life, including cultural dynamics. So yes, they have been very influential and I would always recommend them to my students. Don't only stuff yourselves with linguistics if you want to work with me.

All this is very fundamental stuff. The second question is about diversity as perhaps just a Zeitgeist term – a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase or a corporate tool for diversity management. The question is: can it be a concept that can help to structure an advanced social scientific analysis. You partly have answered that question.

Yes. I mean it's clear that it is all of those things. It is a fashionable catch word. “Super”-diversity, in particular, is becoming extraordinarily sexy as a notion to use, even if what is hidden behind it has nothing whatsoever to do with super-diversity as we understand it. It is also becoming a marketing tool and what not. The word is just all over the place, you see. And at the same time I think it is a paradigm. It is a social scientific paradigm of which I have outlined the strength on several occasions. The strength, I think, is that it forces you to think about mobile, dynamic and complex objects in culture and society, and in time and space. In that sense it forces us to reconsider almost every traditional object of social science. Just to give you an idea of the sort of complex objects that we try to define and address: In fieldwork in a social welfare institutional environment in Antwerp, Belgium, we find ourselves in a situation in which there is the social worker, three other people from the local administration, welfare administration, an interpreter, an ethnographer and then the client so to speak, a woman from Iraq, a refugee who is there alone with three children – one of whom is very severely disabled – and a computer on skype with her brother in Iraq, all of this in a 12 square meter room, the woman’s flat. The interaction is all about the adoption of the disabled child, which involved highly complicated issues of religion, institutional and administrative procedure, eligibility, poverty, autonomy as an individual, and so forth. Now, we do try to address everything here. There is a long tradition of chopping those moments or events or so, objects, into several features like: you would withdraw the online dimension, for instance, and remove it from consideration; or just extract the conversation between two of the many participants, or focus on the translator. But you wouldn't focus on the space. You wouldn't focus on the multitude of voices that are there. You wouldn't focus on things like religion that emerge, you know, notably in the interaction between the client and her brother. I mean, all of those are issues we used to isolate and also treat in isolation: reduce that damned complexity, that mess we always encounter. Now we refuse to do that. I think real diversity becomes very clear and outspoken the moment you refuse to reduce the social complexity that is inscribed in such events and that basically organizes every social event. And in that sense, that is the paradigmatic dimension. Super-diversity forces us to think in those directions. It forces us to address issues that we have all been trained to avoid and to sideline or to marginalize or overlook - a sort of structured blindness for certain forms of complexity that actually make up the structural diversity in societies. And then, interestingly, just one footnote: those forms of complexity do not only occur in highly diverse Late Modern urban environments. We also find them in villages. I mean, the Iraqi brother is living in a village, but connected with the Late Modern urban metropolis where his sister resides. So, it is not just an urban phenomenon, we need to look everywhere for effects of super-diversity.

The third question brings in also an interesting time dimension I think because here at the institute we’re looking to develop research and theory spanning contemporary immigration societies (mainly in Europe) and longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in Africa and Asia. How do you see the concept of diversity shaping this research agenda so to speak?

If you see diversity as a paradigmatic feature it becomes an instrument for addressing everything. I do believe that there is analytic stereotyping involved in the study of diversity. For instance, as I said just now, there is a big urban bias in our studies. There is a bias towards working in the sort of centers of diversity that you’ve just outlined, the big metropolitan, cosmopolitan environments of the world and so on. Well, people in our team have been doing research in places like The Gambia in West- Africa, what we call ‘peri-urban’ areas. Mind you, even urban Gambia is really not New York City. Other team members worked in places like the periphery of China, very rural, isolated minority regions in China. But you see, in such remote and non-cosmopolitan areas we encounter exactly the same sort of forms of diversity and effects of diversity and of globalized notions of culture and social structure that generate diversity. They are all there. And in that sense, again, we see the big paradigmatic effect of using diversity. It creates a specter in which even officially or let’s say common-sensibly “monochrome” environments become extraordinarily diverse when we start looking into their detailed structures. We need to look into the fine detail, though, and that brings me to another issue. We can look at diversity in terms of the established notions of diversity, e.g. nationalities, ethnicities, religions and so on – you know, the things we know as the ‘big’ diacritics of social life. And then you can say, oh gosh, in the city of Antwerp there are 149 nationalities. But the reflex that we had when we moved into this field of super-diversity research was: we started looking inside such groups, searching in the ‘infra-group’ diversity if you wish. And when you see within social, cultural and linguistic groups, of course, you get an even more outspoken diversification of diversity, in the sense that within groups you see enormous amounts of multiplicity, hybridity and complexity. You also see the creation of ephemeral groups that have the solidity actually or the degree of solidity and certainly the agentivity of the big ‘groups’ that we know - like nation states or ethnic groups, religions and so on. A group of spectators in a bar watching a football game is as robust a group as a ‘nation’, even if that group only lasts for a couple of hours. While they focus on the game, members of that group display tremendously uniform behavior, a robust level of group cohesion, a commonness of body arrangement, language use and interaction patterns. It takes a particular type of approach to see this, though. You need to question the assumption that social and cultural units can only be studied externally. They also need to be studied internally, and in that sense the type of sociolinguistics that we've tried to develop in the context of super-diversity is a kind of sub-molecular or ‘nano-‘ sociolinguistics, in which we enter into the traditional distinctive categories of sociolinguistics - those are basically the usual sociological categories, gender, age, ethnicity and what have you – and we start digging inside them, all the way down to their fine fiber. By doing so you discover all sorts of different forms of group, forms of sociolinguistic life not observed till now. That, then, brings us to a very fundamental level of theorizing in which you begin to see identity and community in a far more nuanced way than what you would get if would stop after having counted the nationalities or ethnic groups. Of course, this is evident in a way. We all know that the 149 nationalities in Antwerp are, for instance, not horizontally distributed; they are vertically organized as well; their co-organization is stratified. There are groups that hold power over groups that are entirely powerless, and in some cases you see quick and unexpected reversals of that in specific social contexts. Language is one of the most sensitive entrances to complex social processes there. It's the linguistic regime that very often informs you first about how these forms of stratification there are. So we know that counting these units itself doesn't really inform about what happens within super-diversity; and if you want to really get into the way in which it operates, it works, it is driven and it changes, then you need to get to another, deeper and more fine-grained level of analysis.

Last question. You've addressed these things already to some extent but perhaps it is another way of looking into this. From your perspective whether that's in terms of discipline or country or intellectual tradition, what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and/or methodological challenges currently facing ‘diversity’-related research?

Let me speak from my own position which is that of a scholar of language, but broadly understood in the sense that I've given earlier. What we have noticed is that language is an enormously sensitive barometer for getting the dynamics of diversity and super-diversity. And the reason is basically – and here comes common sense – when a space, a place changes, one of the first ways of noticing that is by hearing something, something that you haven't heard before. You see a person and he looks like you. He is dressed like you. He wears a suit and a necktie and it's obviously somebody with a white-collar job, and he is on the mobile phone. You hear him making that phone call in a language you don't understand, and you say “hey, that is strange, I haven’t heard that language here before”. Very often that is the first notion that you have: this is different, there is diversity here, there is a new language here, or I've never seen those people here. And interestingly you tend to notice such new forms of diversity often several years before the phenomenon shows up in statistics. And incidentally you tend to notice it more or less at the same moment in several places; it becomes an issue in all the frontline environments in society at more or less the same moment: in schools, in hospitals, in jails and in the administration. So what starts like a small observation quickly turns into a systemic phenomenon. In that sense, working around language in the context of super diversity gives us that little edge, in which we very often have a predictive or early-warning dimension to our work, in which we can say: hang on, things are beginning here in a particular way, and even if they are statistically insignificant they may exactly be the trigger for a big movement, a big change, a big transformation of a particular social arena. This is the position I think that language research has within that broader panorama. I've already spoken about the huge effect it has theoretically and methodologically on our own field: it basically changes the whole spectrum with which we work, and it makes a range of huge questions inevitable. We can no longer avoid, for instance, questioning the phenomenology of language itself, of dialects, regiolects, sociolects and so on. All of that vocabulary, which we were so used to, now becomes obsolete and basically an obstacle to clear thinking. And one of the discomforts we have of course – to be sure, we're not the only ones, I guess anthropologists and sociologists and other people will have similar experiences – but the discomfort is that we have lost the clarity of a robust vocabulary and that a lot of what we have to do is to develop a vocabulary for actually describing what we now see and begin to understand. But I find that an enormously stimulating exercise. It will forever be unfinished, but that’s the very nature of it. The stuff is so dynamic and never stops changing. It will forever be dynamic, also as an intellectual endeavor, and that makes it hugely attractive.

Only because it is dynamic or creative?

And as relevant at the same time. It is clear that diversity in the 21st century is becoming one of the big topics both politically, socially, economically. For instance, we are moving to a labor market which is truly global and that creates labor and professional environments that are fundamentally super-diverse. It's all a matter of getting ready for that, or at least recognizing that it is already there and beginning to understand it. So the relevance of this is massive. In my own practice, we get lots and lots and lots of requests from the field, notably the front-line environments I mentioned, for advice, expertise, information about super-diversity. Why? because it is clear that those are the places in society where diversity very quickly becomes a serious practical issue. The reason being that the established traditional tools for handling a classroom or hospital ward, a courthouse, are no longer adequate to cope with these new people, these new constituencies that are there. As a consequence, we need to start thinking not just about new ways of learning but also new ways of having interactions with these people and new forms of thinking about justice, of fairness, of adequacy in administrative treatment and so on. So a lot of what we do is in response to actual and real questions from the field. These questions prove to be of immense complexity, and we need to go through the whole exercise of fundamental questioning and unthinking of the basics of our science, if we want to be able to solve what looks initially always like a very simple question.

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Karel Arnaut

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