Interview with Andre Gingrich


March 10, 2011

Andre Gingrich is Director of the Austrian Academy of Sciences’ Institute for Social Anthropology (ISA) .

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Let me start with a very general question. What does diversity mean to you by way of your own work and field of expertise?

On a general level, I agree with Ulf Hannerz's formulation in the last issue of the 2010 American Anthropologist, where he says that socio-cultural diversity is the key notion in socio-cultural anthropology. As much as most anthropologists in the twentieth century would have agreed that anthropology is the study of human culture, I think most socio-cultural anthropologists today would agree with this kind of focus for our field, and its characterization as an academic discipline. So I am positioning myself within that general line of reasoning. More specifically, it has also been important for my work both in Central Europe and in southwestern Arabia where questions of denominational diversity and also of linguistic diversity have been central throughout the past decades in times of peace as much as in times of conflict-leading to the current dangerous situation in the Yemen that is on the brink of civil war. So studying how one or the other way of maintaining forms of peaceful diversity or conviviality in that sense has been important for me. In a similar but different way, studying neo-nationalism in order to understand how it makes people tick in Central Europe and in Austria has been important for me because by definition, most neo-nationalists are for a non-diverse or less diverse socio-cultural situation and for a more homogeneous monolithic kind of social fabric. Anthropologists cannot agree with this, but studying why and how neo-nationalists go for such a monolithic kind of social organization is an important aspect of my work and for anthropology in general.

Do you feel that ‘diversity’ is just a Zeitgeist term – a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase (as often used in ‘integration and diversity’ policy), or even a corporate tool, or can it like to some extent at least be a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

I think both are true. It has become a certain Zeitgeist Leitmotiv, as much for an entrepreneurial organization as for the organization of business and on a larger scale encouraging diversity in public offices etc. has become part of politics . So that is true and some of it is certainly ideology and public relations etc., but only to a certain extent. At the same time, this came along because a larger general awareness has taken place not only in Europe, not only in North America but in many hubs of globalization from Singapore to the Arab Gulf and from China to South America. So this larger public awareness is a new environment in which anthropologists should move, maybe more like what guerilla fighters of the twentieth century called ‘fish in the water’ and use it for their own purposes. Instead of only trying to criticize it and stay away from it, they should make use of it because it creates a larger interest for our work as well. And we need not be content with the status quo, which I agree includes a lot of ideological and questionable notions about diversity. Instead, we should introduce a critical awareness of what it may and what it may not communicate as a social science tool for understanding life. It also is a useful bridge, because it is in some ways analogous to ecological diversity. And if we think about the two major crises that shake the world at present – the climate change and environmental crisis and the financial and economic crisis – then we are at the core of contemporary problems really with these two concepts. They allow to create the necessary links with diversity to the environment and to social life. I have a critically positive attitude to the notion of diversity.

Here at the institute we are mainly looking to develop research and theory that spans contemporary immigration societies (especially here 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?

Well, in a very long-term perspective, I would argue that we are living in a period of advanced globalization in which multiple modernities are taking place and are being acted out. To my mind, none of these various multiple modernities will be able to fully play out their potentials without some notion of political democracy. It need not be shaped at all after the western model, it may well be formed in accordance with multiple forms of democracy. But democracy is a political form of pluralism – thus of political diversity. The point with relation to immigration and multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies that you ask in this question implies that in the long run we cannot be satisfied with striving for multiple and alternative forms of political diversity alone. We have to enrich these notions with forms of cultural democracy, hence with cultural diversity as well. That is where the notion of diversity of course comes in and helps to inform the agenda for the future of long-standing multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. South Africa, India, and Malaysia will also face the challenge of enriching their emerging forms of political democracies while strengthening the existing cultural diversity through cultural pluralism.

Maybe to conclude: 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?

In some instances inside Europe and outside Europe the call for diversity is sometimes only a camouflage for talking about regionalism and ethno-nationalism in ways that may actually not enhance democratic forms of conviviality but on the contrary may enhance tendencies towards increased conflicts such as secessionism, or the separation struggles of a Basque kind coming close to a civil war situation etc. That's one danger. Another danger is that we talk about diversity in the cultural and/or denominational religious sense in such one-sided ways that we forget about social diversity. We forget about those that are totally excluded from the labor market orthose that are totally excluded from the distribution of wealth.We forget about diversity in this sense or in other forms of hierarchies  such as gender or sexual orientation etc. So the main challenge certainly lies in the danger of getting lost in various forms of bias. I think we have to be constantly aware of that, and continuously correct it and put ourselves back on a more balanced track.

Interviewer: Stefan Lindemann

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