Interview with Farida Tilbury Fozdar


July 23, 2012

Farida Fozdar is Associate Professor in Anthropology and Sociology at The University of Western Australia.

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So the first question is: What does "diversity" mean to you by way of your work and field of expertise? So it is a broad question about the definition.

I recognize that there are all sorts of diversity including aspects outside of the ethnic racial and religious but those are the areas that I am most interested in and they are the areas that I tend to study. Being in Australia I guess there is much more diversity within that nation state than there is in many other countries. And that makes it a really nice place to be studying these issues but you can also… because it's so isolated. In a way you can be quite insular about it and kind of start just thinking along the lines of how things are within Australia. In terms of ethnic, racial, and religious diversity I'm kind of interested in all of those things and the overlaps and intersections between them and I think that's becoming increasingly… I mean, you know I find it fascinating that religion was just off the radar ten, fifteen years ago and suddenly it's right back in there. And so I find that interesting because really I like that ethnicity, that religion is seen as a choice; and so how do you talk about diversity then when it is actually a matter of choice rather than a matter of birth or whatever. And I am also interested in the intersections of those things but also in divisions within those things. I was just having an e-mail conversation with a colleague in Australia about writing a paper together on mixed race and I think that is a fascinating area as the world diversifies and we've got this notion of superdiversity and so we're going to have more and more examples of people with these strange hybrid identities and so what does that actually mean and then that kind of links back to the whole question of cosmopolitanism and does that diversity within an individual produce a particular outlook on the world in a sense of kind of openness to difference and so on.

There is an interesting project on creolization run by the French Institute in South Africa. If you are interested in those sorts of things, they've done a lot of work – a couple of conferences I think it is Seychelles – and working with French scholars, South African scholars and also scholars in that region which produce some interesting stuff.

The next question is that it seems that diversity is already or will become in the near future one of the key terms in the debate on immigrants and minorities. Is the term "diversity" used much within Australian migration research?

Well, I've just been reading the working paper, that talks about the way in which multiculturalism may not have disappeared as a policy but has disappeared as kind of a word that gets used and certainly that was the case in Australia. They took the term "multiculturalism" out of the government department associated with it and so on and replaced it with citizenship. And so the focus has been much more on issues of homogenization rather than diversity. But at a practical level, I do a lot of work with providers as well – people, who provide services to migrant communities and so on. They are still talking about ‘diversity’. They are still talking about multiculturalism. And I think that within the Australian context they've – you know how the Cantle report in the UK was focused on community cohesion and so instead of talking about multiculturalism you suddenly had this kind of flip over to talking about community cohesion. In Australia that happened. And they talk about social cohesion in Australia but…

So there is a complex politics to the terminology?

Yes, there really is, and the fact of diversity within Australia – you can't get away from. So, you know, whether we use the term diversity, whether we use the term ‘multiculturalism’ – it doesn't really matter. However, within Australia there has been – as I was talking about today – sort of a movement within the political sphere to focus on attempting to homogenize and to standardize and to assimilate rather than to celebrate diversity which is how it used to be under multiculturalism that you would constantly get rhetorics around the celebration of diversity.

This is another terminological question. I think the question being asked here is about: is this just a fad? So, the question says: Is "diversity" just a Zeitgeist term – a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase (such as "integration and diversity" policy)? Is it a corporate tool (as in "diversity management"), or do you think it's got a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

A difficult question. I think we need some sort of term. There is always the problem with having a term like that because by its very usage it will assume that there are homogeneous groups that are different from each other. You know, that basically is what diversity means unless you try to apply at the individual level and then it doesn't make a lot of sense because they call it "the human paradox". This is one of the tools that they use in these diversity training things that we are like all people, we are like some people, and we are like no other people. So: as an individual I'm like all other people in some respects. I'm like some other people and I'm like others in some respects and I'm unlike anyone else in other respects. So at that level diversity it kind of doesn't make sense but then as soon as you start talking about groups you're assuming similarities between people that some see as that is a problematic assumption in itself. I think for the time being until you end up with ‘creolization’ – is the term you used – until you end up…. And I've written about this when I was doing my PhD. We PhD-students were kind of chatting and we were talking about what we thought society would be like a hundred years from now. And all of them – you know, each of the other PhD-students – all thought that the world would fragment up into units of similar people. These might be similar in terms of like-mindedness or similar in terms of some other parameter but that we would break up into smaller and smaller units. Whereas my vision was completely the opposite. It was that, you know, we would have more and more unified systems and structures within the world and that there would be increasing diversity within those larger structures. And I think that said something kind of interesting about the completely different perspectives that we had on the world. So I think that until we get to a system where you've got so much mixedness that the notion of ‘diversity’ actually doesn't make sense, we need a term like that.

At the 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?

The point you're making is that you're studying aspects of migration but you're also studying aspects of diversity from within societies that are not necessarily receiving a lot of migrants currently but that have an internal diversity generally.

No, I think also that diversity is very much a term that acquires political and a popular sort of salience in the European and North American context, also to a certain extent in places like Australia and now the attempt I think behind this institute is let's say: well, does this makes sense when we go to other contexts and trying to apply it where it doesn't have that baggage. So that I guess is the agenda behind that question.

I'm trying to remember whether it's Malaysia or Indonesia that has as its kind of national phrase "unity in diversity". I think maybe Indonesia rather than Malaysia but there is a similar kind of sense within those nations that in order to create - and you know it's back to the notion of the imagined - the nation state as an imagined community that you have to create a sense of some sort of connection between people, some sort of sense of unity between people. But the fact of diversity remains and so how do you incorporate that within a national identity? I think that's what those nations South Africa, India, Malaysia and so on are needing to deal with.

Yes, so this is sort of a post-colonial dimension here like being confronted with extremely complex societies and needing to…

That's right and with borders that are not necessarily of their own making but you know since we've got those borders you know, it will turn into a nation. So again, depending on what the political situation is within a country. If there is an internal conflict then nobody is going to be interested in talking about diversity in a positive sort of way. Whereas if the country is relatively peaceful – Malaysia for example, relatively peaceful, hasn't had a conflict for a while – then diversity may be something which is taken up by politicians as a positive thing in a way that it was in Australia between 1970 and 2000 basically where multiculturalism not only was the buzzword and part of government policy and so on but it became part of the Australian identity and remains to some extent part of the Australian identity and something that we can point to as being distinctively Australian. And so I think that there are I guess political climates in which diversity can be seen as more or less useful for whoever is in government.

I mean this is just a personal question that I'm interested in hearing a response. Do you think that in Australia in that context the multicultural moment has passed?

It's hard to tell. Who was it? It was you that I think this morning said something about that what Howard did was give permission for basically the xenophobic opinions to be expressed and, you can actually watch it in a way that the general public started to talk and think about difference. And so I do you then say that multiculturalism was kind of a blip and that I think it was the Grillo paper I think that talked about the multicultural moment was kind of a thirty-year blip that happened around the world and perhaps we have kind of come out the other side. So that's not the normal but those of us kind of "that were our formative years".  We're trying to think "Well, hang on a minute!” No, that's my paradigm! So, do I think it had its day in Oz? No, I think fundamentally I don't. You know, it strobes through different phases and we've had a phase in the last decade with a particular style of political leadership that has encouraged us to retreat from celebrations of diversity and from seeing ourselves as multicultural and seeing that as a positive thing. I think we’re kind of the tail end of that and that at some point it has to kind of swing back up. But that could just be optimism.

I guess you've sort of spoken to this but this is about different types of diversity. I'm just going to read it again. In some ways that the diversity concept implies an opening-up of the more narrow focus on ethnicity or nationality in migration research. So diversity is not only about ethnicity, it's also about other types of differences like gender, class, age, legal status. Do you think this is a conceptual progress or is there the danger that the attempt to observe too many dimensions of differences at the same time will cause a lack of focus?

I think I probably tend towards the latter but on the other hand, you know it's difficult not to have some acknowledgement of those other dimensions as my answer to the very first question: that there are lots of dimensions of diversity in class, and gender and so on. Whether that waters down the concept and one might say "Well, that's actually the political agenda. It's to move us away from looking at the ethnic and racial identities and kind of focusing on other aspects" That could be a use of the notion of diversity. You know, you get back to that debate between the liberal scholars who say: Well, what we should simply need is a functioning state that seeks to encourage equality for all and then you don't need to provide people with anything based on any of these categories – so, you know, gender or ethnicity or whatever. They shouldn't need to be programs that are – not privileging but they are kind of focused on helping people according to whatever category they fit into. It should be simply that if you are disadvantaged then there are programs available for you. I think that that presumes too much for the political system, that it assumes that it is completely interested in terms of having a kind of self interest in supporting the position of the white male, for example. And I think that's naïve to think that. That's why I think that it is important to focus on categories sometimes – not to say that that's the be all and end all and in two hundred years from now we're still be doing that. But I do see it as an important thing at this point in time.

Thank you. 

Interviewer: Darshan Vigneswaran

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