Interview with Josh DeWind

(New York)

March 12, 2009

Josh DeWind is Director of the Migration Program and the Dissertation Proposal Development Fellowship (DPDF) Programs, Social Science Research Council.

For further information click here.


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

Over the past fifteen years, the activities of the Migration Program of the Social Science Research Council have explored aspects of “diversity” with regard to the subjects of research, methods of research and analysis, and the perspectives of researchers themselves. For the program’s first decade, our research activities focused primarily on the incorporation of immigrants of diverse national origins into American society, particularly as related to ethnic and racial identities and status and differences between immigrant and native-born groups.

But within the SSRC, diversity also typically refers to the different analytic perspectives that different disciplines bring to research. The SSRC was created in, 1926 in order to promote interdisciplinary research between disciplines that were becoming intellectually and professionally separated from one another. So we are always considering the diversity of understandings that different disciplines can bring to a particular project.

At the same time, in organizing various research-related activities, we consider the different perspectives that researchers from a diversity of social backgrounds might bring in posing questions or interpreting findings with reference to their own racial, ethnic, gender, religious, class or other identities and positions within societies of different parts of the world.

So, when we are awarding fellowships and grants or considering the ideal composition of a working group, including a broad diversity in all these respects as a means of obtaining project goals is a constant part of the choices we make - academic and intellectual diversity, diversity with regard to disciplines and institutions, perspectives that participants will bring from their different social and geographic origins.  So as an institution, we are interdisciplinary but we also intended to promote greater diversity in the social sciences as a whole.

One way that the diversity of researchers has come up in the Migration Program ,has been related to whether researchers are “insiders” or “outsiders” in relation to the groups that they are studying. “Insiders” are part of the same ethnic, racial, or migrant group that they are studying, but the extent to which they share common perspectives, is still a question. We have identified positive and negative aspects of “insider” research, in that people always bring a social perspective to their research, but do shared assumptions of being an “insider” limit the extent to which unconscious social patterns go unexamined? From another perspective, does the reserved reception of an “outsider” mean that ensuing research is likely to obtain only superficial understandings?

In the studies of migration that we've sponsored, I think diversity has been a more a term of “entry,” which helps to frame the scope of and elements to be included in a project, more than the object of study in and of itself.  For example, we organized three working groups that looked at immigration to the United States from a historical and comparative perspective. The US has had two major waves of immigration: one at the beginning of the twentieth century, and one at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In comparing these two eras, we tried to have some kind of a representation of and comparison of the diversity of the experiences of various immigrant groups at the same and at different times.

But managing the analysis of diverse experiences is difficult.  At times, there have been so many different groups to consider, that we had to a priori establish comparative interests in order to choose what groups we would include in a study, but then the significance of the diversity of groups itself would fall away as not being primary. For example in the book that we've just completed on the religious adaptations of immigrant minority groups in the United States, we paired immigrants with similar patterns of adaptation in the past and present for analytical purposes. We explored four different types of religious adaptations, which became a primary goal, and then we selected particular immigrant groups that would represent those patterns. So, it was the pattern and not the ethnic or racial identity of the groups that was primary.

One comparison was between Mexicans today and Italians in the past, who were chosen because they are both Catholic and they represented the pattern of immigrants entering into a pre-existing American religion, Catholicism in this case. But we could have chosen other Catholic groups, such as Germans and Poles, for this purpose.

Another pattern was immigrant groups who establish a new religion in the United States. For this pattern, we compared Jews in the past with Moslems today. Another pattern was conversion and we compared Japanese who converted to Christianity in the past, with Koreans who are converting to Christianity today. Finally the last comparison was between African Americans in the past, as they migrated from the South to the North or from rural to urban areas, with Haitians who today are migrating to the United States and we examined the various ways in which each group experimented with and adopted new religious forms without abandoning their past religious practices.

So, in this project we began with patterns of social adaptation and then chose particular immigrant groups to illustrate them. While we sought ethnic and cultural diversity, in the end the project could not claim to represent what different or broader identities, such as Asian Americans or Latinos, might signify within American religious patterns of adaptation. Japanese and Koreans or Mexicans could not be taken to represent the experiences of other Asian or Latino migrants.

In studies of multiculturalism in the United States, one of the critiques of a multicultural recognition of diversity has been that “multiculturalism” itself reflects a social ideology –there is, for example, an imbedded assumption behind the concept, that all groups have found some fundamental equality within American society. Such an assumption is based on a relativistic notion that members of different cultures should have access to equal status.

But one critique of “multiculturalism” is that it is a very idealistic or aspirational concept, and that it doesn't represent the social reality of hierarchies that exist between groups and cultures and that American groups do not value one another’s cultures or grant one another equal status.

In this context, “diversity” is a more neutral term and it implies: 'Well, there are differences between people, but the term has no connotation for what the relationships might or should be between diverse groups'. So the idea of diversity is valuable to neutral social science inquiry in the sense of not pre-supposing the nature or ranking of groups within a society as a whole. So the notion of “diversity” is different from that of “multiculturalism,” which frequently has an ideology behind it.

But the idea of “diversity” can only be the beginning of an inquiry whose goal and interpretation of social life must be explicitly defined by the researcher. Diversity does not imply any particular interpretation, at least not as I understand the use of the term in the United States. If you are going to do a study of diversity you don't know whether it's going to be national, racial, gender or age diversity, or whether a group will have greater or lesser status. So in that sense, it's a relatively neutral category.

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 guess my feeling is that diversity, as a term that is removed from every day social parlance, is a neutral enough term that you can use it any way you want. Concerns about the diversity of newcomers disrupting society and the moral attitude that immigrants ought to be welcomed, despite any discomfort, might be seen as part of the Zeitgeist of the contemporary age. But if you call this institute the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic “Diversity”, I don’t think it will engender much pre-conceived meaning as to its perspective regarding the value or problems related to diversity.  It could be a policy management institute or a neutral analytical institute.  

It seems to me that the crucial test would be: what meaning does the term give to the research that is undertaken? In that sense I think it's an available term, ready to be defined by the institute,  instead of characterizing the analytic perspective that will emerge. So, it does not represent a Zeitgeist, it's not yet been socially captured. Relatedly, the term is broad. It does not assume that the focus is on diversity caused by immigration. It can be caused by class or the emergence of nationalism or some other social process. So, in that sense, I think it's useful to the extent that the new institute does not want to be identified as an immigration studies institute. Or at least that is my perspective, one that I developed in the United States in organizing research activities seeking to understand American diversity, particularly as related to immigration.

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 China. How do you see the concept of 'diversity' shaping this agenda - or not?

Whether the concept of “diversity” is useful will depend on how it is used to identify categories of diversity. An issue that has plagued immigration studies, is that most of the social identity categories that are used analytically, are also categories that are used or have their origin in usage by states to manage populations. Many studies are limited to such categories of state censuses, for example, to define racial and ethnic groups that often use more nuanced, overlapping, and contextually distinct categories. A result in the United States has been that, because of the power of state categories in allocating rights, immigrant groups feel the need to redefine themselves accordingly. African-Americans came to define themselves as black or white – thus eliminating multiple color categories of social significance – because of early laws of discrimination and then of civil rights. Asians-American immigrants, who would not define themselves as such at home, have formed Asian-American identities and groups in the United States to have influence in political and social affairs. Members of these groups become combined and studied, as if their relations with one another are somehow created by this identity, when in fact immigrant groups often shun specific national origin identities in, for example, an attempt to dissociate themselves from nationals of different class or educational or other origins.

Academics then have used state categories to frame studies of immigrant group incorporation and mobility, even if members of the groups define themselves as distinct on the basis of language, religion, class or the like. Measuring the “mobility” of Latinos, for example, compared to that of “Asians” is for many members of those groups meaningless, as these categories obscure significant differences between rich and poor, and educated and uneducated members of the groups. In such instances, perhaps a class analysis rather than a national origin analysis is theoretically more meaningful. Haitians, who are separated by race and culture in Haiti, often become “black” in the United States, whether they like it or not. In this particular case, at least, social scientists have recognized the problem of home country social differences being erased by state immigration categories, particularly in statistics, but they have done so only with difficulty. What is good for administration may not be good for explanation.  

So if studies of “diversity” begin with given categories, rather than utilizing categories that are directly appropriate to the analysis, then the categories end up being more of a problem then being useful or they get in the way of understanding. Another example would be, if research begins with ethnic diversity as a basis for examining success in schools, the effect of class diversity or educational diversity, which may be the more important, tends to become obscured. Does national origin or class explain the relatively low rate of Mexican school achievement compared to other groups?

But then, if you wish to explain marriage patterns, national origin or ethnicity might be relatively very important.

So using diversity to frame internationally comparative studies, requires that the categories of diversity be defined in accord with the questions being asked and not on the basis of state collected data, unless appropriate to the questions being asked.

So in and of itself, as I have already said, the concept of “diversity” doesn't shape an agenda. An analytic agenda must be added to the term. As a term of entry, it doesn't tell you where you are going or what to do. The question is what terms do researchers choose to redefine  the concepts of membership and identity, and what difference does it makes whether those concepts are from the state (e.g. the census), the commercial sector (e.g. consumers of different foods), the military (e.g. who is expected to fight for a nation), or based on religion (e.g. faith-based membership versus membership by birth), and so on.

Ethnic diversity is central to many debates about immigration, but the use of national origin or cultural identities by different sectors of society, influences the outcomes of immigrant integration, whether they get excluded or included, whether they can become citizens, members of congregations and so on. So those categorical names generated by a receiving society, including those used by researchers, may not be the categories that best explain immigrant incorporation or perhaps the perpetuation of certain kinds of diversity, as opposed to assimilation.

An example would be, people who are categorized as refugees as opposed to immigrants, end up with very different life chances in a country of resettlement because of refugee and immigration laws will provide them with different opportunities. But, often there is no difference between a refugee and an immigrant for analytical purposes. The category of “refugee” is given political meaning, but it doesn't have any meaning in terms of how those people themselves see their lives or live their lives with one another. They experience “diverse” categorization based on the the context and outcome. Public discourse and debates about immigrants and how categories are produced by different sectors of society need to be taken into account when creating a research agenda based on the idea of studying “diversity.”

Yes. So it's more important, let's say, to look at the opportunities people have in their lives. It's not only ethnicity, but also all their living conditions.

Yes, and if the main focus is on ethnic diversity, then you have to make sure that you don't attribute outcomes to ethnicity, that are really determined by education or class or political opportunities or something like that. In addition to explaining differences between groups, you need to explain differences within them, so that the ethnicity does not block understandings of social differentiation within ethnic groups. I would say that in any categorization of diversity, researchers have to look at internal variations within as much as between groups in order to get to explanatory factors. If you don't look at the internal variation within the groups, then you may give too much credence to issue of diversity itself.

So this might be a shortcoming in public debates, that look only at ethnic or racial diversity, and don't mention other diversities? From your perspective, what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical, and methodological challenges currently facing 'diversity'-related research?

One key issue is for scholars of different disciplines to recognize the contributions to those challenges that different disciplines offer. In the United States, Anthropologists whose research is based on ethnography, often respond to the research of Sociologists that is based on survey research, with: 'Yes, but it's more complicated than that'.  Economic modelers explaining European 19th century emigration often have very different explanations than do historians as to why this massive movement took place. So, for example, if a researcher wants to understand “trust” as a relationship between groups, a survey Sociologist examining inter-group ethnic relations may obtain findings that an Anthropologist might find un-nuanced and simplistic, because they are based on an aggregation of responses rather than on recognition of different types of relationships within, as well as between, group members that are not based on ethnicity and that might be revealed by ethnography.

A related key issue is that social scientists of migration need to explore international comparisons both with regard to the differences and similarities between societies and in the ways that researchers of different disciplines pose questions, carry out research, and analyze their findings. Migration studies, in the United States at any rate, have grown in isolation from the experiences of other societies.Before the findings of immigration studies there are taken as having broader theoretical import, then we all need to undertake potentially corrective research that compares both analytic approaches and empirical experiences of “diversity.”

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Sören Petermann

Go to Editor View