Interview with John Eade


March 13, 2009

John Eade is Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Roehampton.

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Hello Professor Eade, we are the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Cultural Diversity. As you know, we are working with the concept of diversity and trying to figure out the positive and negative aspects surrounding the usage of the term. You are a professor of sociology and anthropology. What does diversity mean to you? How would you define the term?

Well, I suppose I think I should preface this by perhaps going back to differences in methodologies. I think this comes from methodological holism really, where you start with the group and then work out how groups interact, and how individual people work within these groups. You look at group categories and the politics of group formation and boundary maintenance. And that solves the very powerful tradition and people like me and others have been working with that. But I think it is also useful to think about it from a methodological individualist point of view, so, rather than starting with the group, you start with the individual. I think that's very useful because what you then are usually drawn to is the multiplicity of identities that individuals construct and engage with. And that really opens up the whole issue of difference making, because the approach leaves the questions open as to what groups people identify with, and how the different contacts they negotiate may shape various group identities. So, I am not trying to deconstruct group identities because clearly they are very powerful, but given the multiplicity of our identities, we are constantly moving across group boundaries and negotiating the competing demands of group identities. So I would suggest that if you are talking about diversity, or any other concept, it is the politics of knowledge really that you are engaging in and what you are saying is ‘how can diversity be a useful concept in a whole variety of different contexts?’ I mean obviously, within the political context of Germany, you have got debates between integration and diversity; these are key issues so you engage with that. If you look at it in terms of a more academic tradition then I think you need to, in addition to working within the methodological holist tradition, also work within the methodological individualist position and see how the two traditions really can engage. Perhaps they will paint different pictures or maybe there is some kind of middle ground where they meet.

Would you see the term as being a synonym for other terms like heterogeneity or pluralism?

Well, of course, yes. I mean that is why I think the question of the usage of the concept is a question of politics. Concepts come in and out of fashion. In the 1970s, for example, people like Michael Banton and John Rex were debating about race relations. Now people don't talk about race relations any more but they are still talking about it in a sense, using different concepts that are chosen according to the politics of knowledge that happens to dominate at that particular time.

So you think that the term could be used as a possibility for finding a common ground between the approaches of methodological holism within groups and methodological individualism?

Yes, I think this is driven much more by debates around collectivities, national collectivities and their changing character through immigration etc. But if you approach it from another angle and start with the individual, then you leave collectivities on the side in a sense, and you come at it from a different angle. I find that quite interesting and useful. Most of my work has looked at the politics of identity and representation. And I do challenge concepts like community, or try to look at the way that these concepts are constructed and used in certain political and urban contexts. And I think if you start with a group phenomenon then it is very easy to get trapped within the language of collectivist representation. Whereas, if you look at it from an individualistic point of view, you are looking at how specific individuals (maybe political leaders) use identities for certain political purposes, perhaps in competition with other individuals that may be using the same concepts or different concepts to pursue that interest. So, in a sense, this is informed by rational choice assumptions, which has limitations because we don't always use reason in an instrumental way. But from a more instrumentalist approach, the methodological individualistic point of view is quite useful.

Okay, well as you've already mentioned, diversity is a term that is being used all over the place by politicians, perhaps as a kind of a replacement for more marked terms like multiculturalism, but it's also being used in a corporate world. Do you think that the term diversity is just a buzz word that is going to go out of fashion or can it be a concept that can be useful for structuring and advancing social scientific analysis?

Well yes, concepts do come and go in and out of fashion. Take, for example, debates around globalization. Globalization came into fashion in the late 1980s. It was trying to describe something going on out there in the real world. But, in migration studies it has to some extent, been pushed aside by transnationalism. And again transnationalism is trying to say something about the real world and about the importance of national borders. So I think certain concepts clearly get pushed by certain powerful scientists. I do see these terms perhaps a little bit cynically - as a form of branding. You have got to establish an identity clearly as a researcher; an analysis of politics and knowledge looks at how we use concepts for particular purposes.  

Do you think that the academic use of the term will be hindered by the fact that all kinds of other people are also using the term? They are using it politically; they are also using it in the business world. Is that something that can be positive, or is that something that could get in the way?

One must specify the purpose of the term. In a sense, it is not the term itself that is important. It is how you use the term, in what context, to what purpose and whether that has an advantage over another concept. An example would be the concept of race. In Germany, it is difficult to use the term race. But in Britain, we do use it - we are not so scared of it. It is the same word, but in one place it can't be uttered, for a number of political reasons, and in another place it can be.

Here at the institute, we are aiming to develop research and theory on heterogeneous societies.  We are looking, not only at contemporary immigrant societies in Europe, but also at long-established multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in South Africa, India, and Malaysia. How do you see the concept of diversity as shaping or not shaping this agenda?

It's very interesting, in the sixties pluralism was a buzzword and in a sense diversity is a current version of that. So, it is about a history of knowledge. Pluralism was coined by Furnivall to try to explain different groups and how they coexisted within a state, as the regulator of relations. So, in a sense diversity and pluralism are synonyms and you could easily talk about plural societies in Europe and compare them with plural societies and debates about pluralism in India and elsewhere.

I just have one last question for you, when you consider diversity research what do you see as being the main challenges? Would they be empirical, theoretical or methodological?  

I think that anthropology is being very much dominated by ethnicity. Before that, it was race. And that fitted into a long history of research. Going back to the pioneers of anthropology in the 1920s and 30s, take Barth’s famous book on ethnic groups and boundaries. Here, you start with the notion of ethnic groups and the question becomes: how are ethnic groups and their boundaries defined and how do people work across these boundaries? Well that has been a very fruitful term but again it is trapped: you start with a particular community, a bounded community, where ethnicity controls the boundaries of the community. The concept of community is a concept that goes straight back to the beginnings of sociology and anthropology itself. So I think the kind of debates among feminists on intersectionality have been very useful. What they are describing is the fact that individuals have multiple identities. In a sense it drives us back towards the traditional methodological individualism, which has to some extent acted as a kind of loyal critique to the collectivist position, which acts as a critique of the collectivist position, which in turn starts with ethnicity research. And of course, people believe in collectives. You can't just deconstruct this. It's not simply a game. But the game of deconstruction opens up all kinds of ways in which people identify and show the dangers of being trapped in a particular discourse or a particular model of group allegiances. If you are working as an anthropologist on ethnicity, then clearly you could easily look at it from a gendered perspective and regard gender as the key identity and ethnicity would then become subservient to that. So, it depends on what kind of group identity you start with. One way of escaping that is going back to some kind of model of how individuals negotiate competing identities. So the main challenge, I suppose, could actually be trying to figure out what is the starting point of the research. And the advantages/disadvantages of starting from there as opposed to somewhere over there.

Thank you very much for your time and expertise.

Interviewer: Christiane Kofri

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