Interview with Ben Gidley

(COMPAS, University of Oxford)

December 27, 2013

Ben Gidley is an Associate Professor and Senior Researcher at COMPAS.

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

I'm primarily an urban researcher. I research cities and city neighborhoods and social life in cities. So it's both an inescapable fact of city life in Britain and everywhere and an interest of mine is the fact of diversity, the everyday lived reality of diversity – not diversity as policy or as philosophical orientation but just this sheer facticity of mixedness and living together, what we might call multiculture or multicultural drift. When I think of diversity my bias, the lens that I tend to bring to it, is probably more of an ethnic lens, although I understand intellectually that diversity is really about lots of different axes of difference, but the axis of difference which has to do with ethnicity and migration is the one that I tend to think of first.

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 think that the way it has become a Zeitgeist term is a danger and a concern. I recently heard a quite senior German official talking about a school. She said there was one person from a classroom ‘from a diverse background’ and I thought that was quite shocking that she was able to use the word 'diverse', which is about difference, to refer to the one person that she saw as different . It seemed extraordinary to me. So there is a huge danger. I think the fashionable currency of the term has some advantages as well though. For example, the Council of Europe talk about ‘the diversity advantage’: intercultural cities or diverse firms having a competitive advantage due to demographic diversity, and some businesses have taken up this language.  However, I think that if used well,  diversity is a concept that certainly can structure and advance social scientific analysis. The danger in social science is the way that diversity can obscure inequality. Class for example is a cleavage that is harder to fit into a diversity lens than other cleavages such as ethnicity.

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 Malaysia). How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’ shaping this agenda – or not?

This agenda is a really important agenda. I strongly welcome it. Attending to different imaginings of difference from other times and other places can really enrich our understanding of the ethical practice of living with difference here today. I think that social science around diversity has really been limited by the North Atlantic centricity of the emergent tradition. So I think this turn to extend the concept in time and in space really tests our epistemologies and ontologies of belonging and difference. We need to look at other cosmopolitanisms, alternative multicultures. This is an interest which we would love to pursue at COMPAS as well. We have Kristen Biehl's work on Istanbul, on the way in which old forms of diversity around national minorities structure new forms of diversity around migration. In History at Oxford, Milena Grabacic is doing work on Venice and the way in which in the Venetian Empire different migrant groups were positioned. In anthropology at Oxford Ramon Sarró looks at West African small villages , which have four- figure populations but multiple languages. I think this is a really rich area to pursue. Those who are working in places like London need to pay more attention to these sorts of other diversities, rather than assume that our metropolitan version is the only. This does raise the challenge of disciplinary boundaries: social scientists need to work with disciplines such history, and this will open up translation problems across disciplinary and methodological traditions, but those can be fruitful.

From your perspective (expertise/discipline/country/intellectual tradition), what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and/or methodological challenges currently facing ‘diversity’-related research?

I want to mention four agenda items for the research which bring theoretical and methodological challenges.

The first one is around mapping and tracking the changing landscape of diversity. This is a task everywhere in Europe, although my perspective is in the UK, where the decade of migration that we've had has profoundly changed the cartography of difference both in cities but increasingly in suburbs and rural areas. The challenge that that brings is primarily the challenge of categorization, of translating between the very old and anachronistic solid categories that exist in the data sets such as in the census, in the context of the very fluid identifications of ordinary people that particularly in the age of migration fit very poorly with the official categories – while recognizing that tracking changes over time requires we hold on to categories that are no longer meaningful. So that's one big challenge, both methodological and conceptual.

Secondly the need to escape from ‘methodological ethnicism’ and beyond the country of origin paradigms of migration studies. I guess the ethnographic turn, the everyday turn, the focus on everyday integration commonplace diversity, is both a response to and creates a need for a turn away from ethnic groupism.. There are a whole number of methodological challenges, around seeing past the group categories, and around the limitations faced by researchers in trying to research everyone in a given place in a context of heightened diversity. Collaborative ethnography might be one attempt to come up with the right tools for the job. And related is the ‘spatial turn’, the shift from groups to sites of interaction. There the biggest methodological challenge is that of scale. This workshop at the Max Planck Institute has really grappled with that: is the neighborhood the right scale, is the street the right scale, is the city…? How are these different scales implicated in each other?

The third big agenda item is the aspiration to a rigorous comparison – diversity in different sites both within cities, between cities, across time, across continents. There have been so many interesting projects like the GEITONIES project, the Concordia Discourse project that I was involved in or LiveDifference project at Sheffield, which have tried for this comparison. But here I think there are challenges of translation, not just language but the ways in which different national traditions structure diversity in such different ways, different national contexts that make comparison hard. So, for example, if you are interested in sites you reach the question of what is a ‘neighborhood’: a neighborhood means something different in Germany than it does in Spain.

And then finally there’s not so much a theoretical or methodological challenge but I think there is a challenge around articulating a new policy language, a new political language to reflect diversity. The old language of multiculturalism doesn't seem to work anymore. Emergent vocabularies like “cohesion”, or “resilience”, “conviviality”, “interculturalism” are still up for grabs but need a lot of work before they can work for us. And behind this is a kind of panic, policy panic, the way in which migration is used by the moral entrepreneurs of fear: if we talk about diversity there is an alarm bell that rings for some political actors, which we can combat but we can also feed into by emphasizing diversity and by using an ethnicist lens on diversity.

Those are the key challenges which I identify.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Interviewer: Paul Becker

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