Interview with Thomas Faist

(Bielefeld University, Faculty of Sociology)

July 12, 2012

Thomas Faist is Professor of Transnational, Development & Migration Studies at Bielefeld University.

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

For me, diversity has two dimensions. First, diversity is a description . It's a descriptive term really suggesting that there is a kind of increase in the pluralization of lifestyles, of cultural practices, of social practices, which can be observed in certain parts of the world due to processes called globalization or transnationalization. So as such, the first meaning would be a descriptive one.

The second meaning for me would be the policy-related meaning – as in diversity management, where diversity is seen as a challenge to be managed, so to speak. And in my own work I see the term diversity as a very fruitful point of departure for very specific questions to be asked about how organizations and states have responded to societal changes, and my particular interest here lies with social inequalities. In my view, all the discussions about diversity serve to redirect attention, especially in social structural analysis, to the necessity of bringing this concept, and what we call ‘heterogeneities’ (in the framework of the Collaborative Research Centre 882 ‘From Heterogeneities to Inequalities’), into the discussion of change.  

For example, how do patterns of inequalities emerge and become sustained along the heterogeneities of gender, age, sexual orientation, income, class, etc.? In other words, how do such heterogeneities turn into categorizations relevant for social inequalities? Such questions are a first step in overcoming unifying categories such as class, and ask about the multiple sources and manifestations of inequalities along differences which are deemed cultural or connected to social practices. So I think that what I have just called heterogeneity and what you call diversity is a kind of an impetus to really start discussions of the nexus between inequalities and differences anew. After all, I think when we go back to this first meaning of diversity as a kind of descriptive term, or the de facto diversification of what are called societies, this serves as a point of departure to bring in the social inequality question beyond the usual structural analysis of class.

Do you think it has analytical value or is this just a trendy or catchy phrase, with so many different meanings depending on the field of diversity management or processes in relation to the integration of immigrants? But can it also have analytical value?

I think the term as such would not have analytical value because diversity would be hard to define beyond the very general kind of description, namely a mixture characterized by differences and similarities . The next step would be to inquire what function the term or concept of diversity serves in public debates or in academic research – which relates to the two meanings I introduced before. In general, the analytical value of diversity is being determined more by the kind of perspective it is associated with. Therefore, the primary question would be: what is its function? And that function might turn out to be quite diverse . We may be redirected to political models of social integration of migrants beyond the assimilation model, where diversification was seen as a kind of threat to the homogeneity of societies, of melting into the core, and go beyond multiculturalism, where you have diversification linked to rights and thus more meaningful as a resource.

And I do think that once you look into the functions of the term diversity and the discussions it inspires, one can then distill the questions to be answered, questions regarding the political models of social integration based on diversity. For example, what is the outcome of diversity management policies dealing with equalities and inequalities between certain types of people, between certain groups of people, such as those addressing discrimination along ethnic or gender lines? And so the term diversity alerts us to the ongoing discussions and discourses and to the processes it is connected with, such as ‘diversity management’ in private and public organizations. And that could be then a point of departure for more conceptual and empirical work . So I think diversity is a kind of gate opener which leads us to interesting questions, to interesting puzzles. For example, what are the new lines of demarcation that emerge through the institutionalization of diversity policies?

In the more specific context of our own research at our institute, which is looking at the old and new diversity, how immigration societies are then being affected by longstanding, interethnic and multireligious diversity and new dimensions coming in through new immigrants in different geographical contexts, would you also see that diversity as a gate opener or as a functional term?

Yes, because I think diversity helps to link disparate literatures – let's say the literature on immigration in so-called Western societies to your research on diversity and longstanding diversity, not only in those societies that experienced new immigration over the past decades in Western Europe or Eastern Europe or North America or Australia, but also longstanding diversity differences in countries which are usually not seen as being in the same mode – such as Brazil, South Africa, India or Indonesia . And that's what I think is fascinating in the work you do here because usually there is a kind of regional concentration of research on diversity with either colonial societies or postcolonial societies, on the one hand, and those societies in a metropolis or in a center, on the other hand. And often that is connected to a kind of understanding of the principle of how to deal with diversity through diversity management, but also through human rights, through political rights, which tends to spill over from one region of the world to another . And I think by taking very different kinds of societies as the point of departure one may be able to avoid this kind of globalist, modernist trap of simply assuming as given certain principles of how to manage and deal with diversity.

The emergence of diversity is not taken to follow one model; by exploring the very different ways of dealing with diversity one acknowledges, so to speak, the heterogeneity of diversity. And that is why your institute fulfills such an important role . First, you do not need to buy into certain theoretical assumptions which undergird much research, instead, you can look at the spread of concern around diversity from various angles, not only from a pattern of Western modernization but also as a set of interdependent discourses connecting certain parts of the world and not necessarily others. Second, by being regionally specific you can look at various modes of the production and change of diversity and are not bound to this homogenizing view on what is good or bad about diversity.

Do you see the main challenges facing this diversity agenda in terms of theoretical development or in terms of methodological and empirical issues?

Although this has been done before, the research agenda in the future will have to look much more carefully at how categorizations among groups are made and how these categorizations evolve – social-psychological work becomes important and necessary here – and really try not to essentialize heterogeneities, such as gender, age, certain types of orientation and class and so on, but really look at the processes of categorizations and see what impact these categorizations have on the life chances of people . Also, heterogeneities should go beyond the issue of cultural difference and include social practices such as types of work, for example, formal and informal work.

For the agenda of the Collaborative Research Centre ‘From Heterogeneities to Inequalities’, the implications for inequalities are then at the center of attention. We should not connect diversity or heterogeneity to inequalities in a static manner. We rather aim to look at the processes of production and reproduction of inequalities by way of an analysis using the concept of social mechanism. Mechanisms such as stereotyping, exploitation, opportunity hoarding or hierarchization, which help to uncover regular patterns connecting an initial situation and specific outcomes, help us to account for categorizations along heterogeneities. While doing so, we also have to determine which categorizations become salient for inequalities in which context. I believe that there is a considerable methodological challenge here, namely, how to capture categorizations. This opens up a realm of analysis beyond interviews or participant observation and includes approaches such as experimental design. So I think there is not only a conceptual and theoretical challenge, but there is also a methodological challenge ahead for research on heterogeneities.

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Magda Nowicka

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