Interview with Robin Cohen


April 24, 2009

Robin Cohen is Professor of Development Studies and Senior Researcher at the International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.

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

I suppose I don't use it very, very deeply. I use it rather casually. I am interested in a number of aspects of diversity. At the moment I am really interested in the issue of overcoming diversity and I've been working in and around the subject matter of creolization. That is, looking at two or more parent cultures which are diverse in origin but which come together and create a new culture, a new identity, new popular practices and everyday practices; and that expression of creolization, in a sense, is a way, as I understand, it of overcoming diversity. But in a more general sense I suppose it does signify the complexity that arises from contemporary migration patterns worldwide.

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?

I think it is to some degree a term that has been used as a substitute for multiculturalism or for, indeed, multi-faith or indeed for pluralism. All of these terms do signify population groups, ethnicities, religious groups, linguistic groups, of a different origin, of complex backgrounds, that have come together or been forced together by circumstance. And in a way I suppose it is the disillusionment with the idea of multiculturalism that has generated the need for an alternative term, and diversity has emerged into the frame as one of the key ways of understanding this complexity that I alluded to.

Now you also talked about diversity as a corporate management tool. I think it's true to say that in local government, in state sectors, in public policy and in private corporations, there is a cycle of fashion in these terms and they are picked up and discarded quickly as they become unfashionable or they lack utility. I suppose, to be more specific, what was the problem or the perceived problem with multiculturalism was that we seem somehow to perpetuate difference, to create a value of difference, whereas diversity doesn't seem to have that problem. What it does suggest, rather, is that people may be diverse and you have to take into account their diverse needs, practices, backgrounds, cultures, and in the corporate sector their diverse consumer wishes, but the argument that is implicit is underneath that diversity there is some uniformity that is possible, some degree of consensus that can be built. So I think the corporate sector perhaps is clumsier, a little bit more obvious, a little bit more naïve in making those sorts of statements, but it doesn't differ in… It differs only in emphasis from the way in which the term is used elsewhere. Now, you say, "Can it be?", "Is it possible to use diversity as the basis for social scientific understanding?" and I think "yes" is the answer, but with a qualification, and I think the qualification is that, as in all terms which are vague or loaded normatively, I think you have to qualify what you mean by the expression when you first start your work or through the use of a strategic adjective. So I'm talking about religious diversity, cultural diversity, social diversity, political diversity, or to explain in slightly fuller length "By diversity I mean…" before you actually start your study. So I think there is no absolute prohibition or inhibition in using diversity. Why not? But it does need qualification and definition.

At our institute 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?

I think in the case of Europe, I would say it is already becoming a key way of shaping the agenda. I mean, as you indicate, it's adopted in the corporate sector. It is already adopted in social scientific and public policy circles. And so in the European context there is really a strong recognition of diversity, of the fact of diversity and of the need for diversity studies. In the other countries that you mentioned – I think you mentioned India, South Africa and… what was the third?


And Malaysia. Well of course those are countries, if you like, that are inherently diverse. They are composed of, in the case of India, multiple groups, in religious terms at least three very large religious groups, but many, many others that within the huge population of India still are very significant minorities as well as caste distinctions, as well as regional distinctions, and to a degree of course, with immigration and so on, ethnic distinctions that are more than caste distinctions. And this is true of Malaysia and South Africa as well. So if you like, these are societies that used to be called, in the old expression, plural societies, or societies that are ethnically heterogeneous and this has been long acknowledged.

I suppose my doubt in these cases is whether the word diversity and significantly two already existing studies of ethnic heterogeneity… I think in the case of South Africa it does and it's an argument that I've made in a public forum earlier that I make on the tape now, which is to say that I think there is an old diversity, a diversity that the apartheid-regime sought to constrain and organize and shape through its division into four or five major ethnic groups. Of course these were very artificial and very forced but I think it's appropriate to use the word diversity as a new diversity in the post-apartheid period because the society has changed so dramatically. Tourism, for instance, has increased by many times over. There is mass migration from the surrounding countries, and particularly I'm thinking of Zimbabwe, but we might add Mozambique and Botswana and other countries. To be sure, some of this migration was accepted, though rigidly controlled, in the apartheid period. For example, Mozambican migration to the mines was longstanding. But I think this is somewhat different. You're sucking in, or South Africa is sucking in, very large numbers from diverse African sources and from very far afield. So it's quite common now to come across Somalis, Zairians, Nigerians, people from the Ivory Coast, Cameroonians and so on, in Johannesburg, which really was not, was pretty well unknown in the apartheid period and really didn't happen at all. So this is a major change in the ethnic composition, in the demographic make-up of South Africa, and it's useful to find some way of indicating that and I think new diversity captures it quite well.

And the last question. From your perspective, what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and methodological challenges currently facing ‘diversity’-related research?

Well, I suppose empirically the key thing is: I would suspect – although I'm not a quantitative sociologist myself – I would suspect that the kind of work that is represented by Miles Hewstone and others is going to be the way of the future. That is to say, I think we need some way of trying to put the propositions in a much more causal and social scientific sense. Obviously there is need for description and ethnography and for rich description, for thick description to use Geertz’s language. But I think we also need to move beyond that. We need to know certain aspects of causal relations. Does contact enhance conflict or reduce conflict or create tolerance? I mean, under what circumstances do these alternatives become active? I do think we can usefully turn to the more quantitative work of our colleagues in social psychology, in quantitative sociology, in demography and elsewhere, to help us in trying to shape some of these questions in a slightly more leading edge.

At the theoretical level, I think the way I would see it is rather that terms like diversity are sufficiently vague to be useful, but the vagueness means that every few years we have to refine them or in some cases replace them because they've lost their utility, they’ve become too banal, too obvious, and we need to reconstitute what we mean by diversity by perhaps refashioning. So I think there is a conceptual fervent kind of a flux which is difficult, I think, because we don't want to just simply move by whatever is fashionable. That seems to be a rather superficial way of proceeding, but at the same time I think we have to recognize that at certain points, terms lose their power to explain because they have been mobilized for different purposes. They've become too vague in their implications and we then have to mobilize another term, quite often talking about much the same phenomena but using a new vocabulary to try to capture that phenomenon.

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Magdalena Nowicka

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