An interview with Rogers Brubaker

(University of California, Los Angeles)

June 07, 2012

Rogers Brubaker is Professor of Sociology and UCLA Foundation Chair at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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

In a sense ‘diversity’ is just a more recent term for concepts that have been central to sociology from the very beginning – the idea of differentiation, for example, or the notion of heterogeneity.  ‘Modern’ societies have been defined precisely by their heterogeneity, by being ‘differentiated’ societies.  Clearly, ‘diversity’ is doing more work than simply referring to this extremely general notion of differentiation or heterogeneity. But there are limits to what one can do by talking about diversity in general.  Different forms of diversity work in different ways, in everyday interaction and in political life.  This afternoon, for example, I’ll be talking about the differences between religious diversity and linguistic diversity. 

That leads on to the second question. Is 'diversity' really just a zeitgeist term, i.e. a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase  such as in notions like ‘integration and diversity’ or is it a corporate tool – we're talking about ‘diversity management’ all of the time – or can it as a concept help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

It’s not only a zeitgeist term, a policy catchphrase, or a corporate tool, though it is indeed all of these.   It’s important to distinguish between categories of analysis – the categories that social scientists use -- and categories of practice that are used in everyday social and political life.  And ‘diversity’ is clearly both a category of analysis and a category of practice.  As a category of practice, it’s used in the corporate world, in universities, in advertising, in public policy discourse, and so on.   So if we are going to use the term in social science, we have to give the term a specific analytical meaning, otherwise we risk simply conflating the analytic category with the practical category. 

For the third question, we're trying to develop research and theory spanning contemporary immigration societies and longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’ shaping this agenda?

This is a valuable agenda.  It’s consistent with a broader trend in the literature towards the development of an integrated comparative field of study.  But I think it's important to note that there is not a sharp distinction between immigration societies and societies with longstanding forms of ethnic and religious pluralism.  In Europe we have migration-generated linguistic and religious diversity, but also longstanding forms of linguistic and religious pluralism.  And in Africa or South Asia – yes, these are countries with longstanding forms ethnic and religious diversity, but those patterns of diversity are changing as a result of contemporary migration flows.  So it’s important to try to specify the connections between longstanding forms of diversity and newer forms of diversity resulting from migration.   In the Netherlands, for example, there is a connection between the longstanding pattern of religious pluralism and ways of accommodating contemporary migration-generated ethnic and religious heterogeneity. Even though the Dutch system of ‘pillarization’ was already disintegrating in the 1960s, this model helped shape ways of thinking about organizing newer forms of heterogeneity.  Or take the German case.  The historically established German system of church-state-relations, built on the distinctive status of a ‘corporation of public law,’ shapes contemporary debates about the legal integration of Muslim migrants and their descendants. 

Another point is that the connections between long-established patterns of diversity and newer forms of migration-generated diversity themselves differ depending on what kind of diversity we're talking about.  This is a theme I'll develop in my talk this afternoon.   The connection between historically established ways of accommodating diversity and contemporary modes of accommodating diversity arising from migration are much stronger in the domain of religion than in the domain of language.  Several historically multilingual societies in Europe, for example, have institutionalized strong forms of linguistic pluralism.   But these strong forms of pluralism are nowhere extended to include languages spoken by immigrants and their children.  On the other hand, historically established systems of religious pluralism have been extended to included religions practiced by immigrants and their children – though not, of course, without prolonged and ongoing struggles.  To take again the example of the Netherlands, the system of state support for religious schools that was established in the early 20th century for Catholic and Calvinist schools has been expanded to include Islamic schools. 

From your perspective – and here you can reflect on your expertise, discipline, country, or intellectual tradition – what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and methodological challenges that we are currently facing in ‘diversity’-related research?

I've already mentioned a couple of these. One is the challenge of distinguishing analytical categories from categories of practice and making sure that we as analysts do not simply re-deploy journalistic or administrative categories.   I’ve also mentioned the challenge of distinguishing different kinds of diversity.  Beyond these, there is the challenge of avoiding what I've called ‘groupism’ or ‘substantialism.’  There’s a temptation to think about diversity or pluralism as a juxtaposition of internally homogeneous, externally bounded groups or blocs.  Pluralism can sometimes exist in such bloc-like forms as a kind of Nebeineinander of bounded groups.  But pluralism or diversity can also take more individualized forms, resulting in the erosion of group boundaries.  I think our representations of contemporary forms of diversity are often excessively group-focused.

One last challenge is to be sensitive to different ways of representing diversity and framing political claims.  In any particular context, some ways of representing diversity and framing claims are going to be more legitimate than others.  This creates incentives to talk about diversity in particular ways.  So in the last century and a half, for example, where nationhood has carried with it a presumption of self-government, there have been strong incentives for political entrepreneurs seeking independence or autonomy to represent the diverse populations of large polyglot and multi-confessional states in specifically national terms, as multi-national.  There are similar incentives today to use the language of indigeneity. And in liberal democratic polities today, where religious rights and liberties and strongly protected, there are strong incentives to represent diversity in religious terms.   The general point is that how diverse populations are characterized depends on what claims are recognized as legitimate and effective in particular discursive and policy environments – and these change over time and vary across contexts. 

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Franziska Meissner

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