Interview with Nina Glick-Schiller


April 24, 2009

Nina Glick-Schiller is Emeritus Professor at the University of Manchester.

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What does diversity mean to you by way of your own work and your field of experience?

Much of my experience has been in the US where the term diversity has been used in university contexts since the beginning of the 1990s.  However, my career goes back to the use of the term ‘cultural pluralism’ both by academics and in urban community development. This term was replaced by multiculturalism and now diversity.  Despite the changing terms of reference the same issues are being signaled. These terms have emerged in relationship to the racialization and marginalization of persons defined as different from the normative culture of the nation-state. Each of these terms have become salient as a result of struggles to positively value the backgrounds and on-going cultural and religious differences of such populations. Those who have faced discrimination and stigmatization have sought to highlight and celebrate their contributions to nation-state building projects.  State and institutional actors have responded through hegemonic processes of containment including the provision of symbolic representation rather than empowerment and equal opportunities.

In the 1990s US universities began to develop diversity requirements and diversity strategic plans as way of insuring that in their academic program, faculty and staff hiring, and student recruitment, universities reflected the contributions of their culturally plural country.  The term ‘diversity’ was thought to be less political and broader than the term multicultural, which in US discourse reflected populations racialized as of African, Latin American, and Asian, and Native American backgrounds. The term diversity recognized that the US had never been a homogeneous society in terms of culture but rather was built by contributions that people from all over the world had made and were making.

However, the meaning of ‘different’ and diversity began to expand in response to  the demand for developing broadly inclusive university curriculum and in hiring. To develop university policy around this issue it became necessary to operationalize the term and this led to many questions: 'What about gay people? What about transsexual people? What about women” What about Muslims? What about Hindus? What about Jews? What about the working class? The answers led to some startling answers and a curious repoliticization of the term. When the topic of diversity was approached in this way, then the only people not in a diversity curriculum are white Christian men of dominant classes. And that was a very interesting moment because then everyone had to acknowledge: we're really talking about who is in power and how culture as well as racialization had been used in the US nation-building projects to normalize some cultural behavior and religious behavior and gender expectations and to denormalize, marginalize, and disempower virtually everyone else, despite the state’s foundational discourse about equality and freedom. So in that sense the term became very useful as a way of actually thinking about power and normality and representation.

So from that time when it started emerging to today do you think that it has become somewhat just a zeitgeist term?

It can be. That is why I learned from my experience in trying to develop a diversity curriculum and hiring policy. The term diversity is socially constructed, as are the terms race, multiculturalism, and cultural pluralism. In each case, you have to ask in what context is the term being raised? By doing that you can look at the narrative, the relations of power. This is a more useful approach than either just taking the term as a neutrally and apolitically descriptive or a term you should discard because it is politicized. You have to ask: who is asking the question, who wants to know and for what purpose in order to understand why the term is being used in a specific place and a specific time and what is being highlighted and what is being silenced by the use of the term.

It is also interesting to look at the way the term ‘diversity’ and its predecessors fit into nation-state building projects. Whether we speak of diversity or multiculturalism, we tend to leave out the transnational ties of people all over the world. If you say: this is a diverse nation such as in the often repeated statement, 'Germany wasn't a diverse nation and now it's become diverse’, you actually distort German history. Because Germany is a recent state occupying territories of historic migrations, developing industries built on migrating labor, and experiencing changing borders as a result of war, Germany has never had a culturally, linguistically, or religiously uniform population. The populations that make up Germany have been diverse and Germany has been built through transnational processes. This reading of Germany can challenge the current framing of debates about migration by making diversity an ongoing part of what it means to be German. Furthermore, this approach helps acknowledge that everyone in a nation-state experiences globe spanning ties as part of their national experience, not  only persons defined as migrants or those connected to social movements.  Now that the world economy is in crisis the fact that  nation-states are not bounded and discrete in their economies, politics, or cultures is becoming more apparent. But the use of the term diversity within contemporary discourses about nation states tends to negate the deep history of global interpenetration and connection and  projects certain parts of the population as the bearers of difference from the outside. This makes a discourse of diversity a nation-state building narrative because by inference other persons are imagined as living until recently having lived within a bounded homogeneous national culture.

So you think it's too much related to place and does not include the transnational aspects?

Diversity discourses, when used in certain contexts and by certain political actors can be nation state building projects that contribute to the construction of national identities. We need to ask why the term enters certain political discussions at a certain points of time and in certain places. We need to inquire about  the agenda of the people who are popularizing the term, examine how is it used by people who are being marginalized and what the term highlights or obscures. To ask these questions about diversity is to use the term within  a process of inquiry and in that sense it can become  a very useful term.

At the Max Planck Institute we are looking to develop research and theory spanning contemporary immigration society across the world but also longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. Do you think that the concept of diversity could shape this research agenda? Do you think it would be useful to shape it or not?

I certainly think that we need to rethink the history of all nation states. I'm trying to think of state that is not diverse. It is not just South Africa or India. The more I have worked in Germany the more I have learned about the diversity of Germany. Germany has been diverse because it has very strong regional identities, because it is a relatively new nation state, because people continue to have differences of dialect and local culture, and Germany has been diverse because it's been built by migrating people for centuries. The whole industrial development had to do with migrations from other parts of Europe and migrations of Germans to elsewhere. So I would not phrase the question by way of comparing the new to the old.  Germany has certainly always been and continues to be multi-religious, because, for example, Christians did not agree with each other about whether Protestantism and Catholicism were both Christian. In fact, it was different Christianities that brought bloody wars to the territories that became Germany. 

So do you think by looking at this from a historical point of view we can look at changing ways in which different kinds of diversities are being negotiated, for example in Germany with the different Christian religions, and how this diversity was perceived to be a problem, whereas today other kinds of boundaries have become problematized?

I think the creating research projects that do not assume diversity is novel or problematic but rather ask when does diversity and multiplicities of culture, religion, politics, identities suddenly become a problem is certainly a useful. These projects have to be conducted within a historical and global perspective. And I also find the word multiplicities very useful t because diversity can be defined as multiplicities of belongings, practices, sociabilities, relationships and then you remember that people have multiple identities. The same people, the same nation state generates the possibilities of multiple identities because there are multiple constituting forces.  Every individual has multiple positionings that lead to multiple identities.  If you use the word ‘diverse’ without the concept of multiplicity, it is essentialized difference and it ends up as a naturalizing discourse in the same way that multiculturalist discourses sometimes project fixed difference. In that approach to difference-- you have your base of difference and I have my base of difference. And then we have to understand how we can relate these block uniform internal homogeneous differences to each other, rather than saying 'You have multiple ways of experiencing the world and I have multiple ways of experiencing the world. Some of these are common practices and sensibilities that are going to bring us together in shared relationships of sociability and some of them are not.'. Diversity as fixed difference and diversity as overlapping multiplicities are two very different views of how social life works. So it is an important research strategy to look at the underlying multiplicities, when they are taken for granted and when one aspect of those experiences is made primarily and contrasted to somebody else's experience.

To turn to my last question. From your perspective, what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and methodological challenges that we are currently facing when we do diversity related research?

I think we need a Sociology of knowledge, we need a historical Sociology of knowledge about the term diversity and the contexts in which diversity discourses are generated. We need to question the idea of homogeneity that lies on the other side of the discussion of diversity. In some conexts, as I have indicated, the discussion of diversity that actually constructs some kind of imagined homogeneity. In other contexts it can lead us to researching sociability. In my research I am increasing interested in examining comparatively the transnationality of migrants that create possibilities of cosmopolitan sociability in particular cities in specific ways. To conduct this kind of research and to develop grounded theory about it, we have to think move beyond the binary of diverse and homogenous societies.  I have critiqued these binaries by writing about methodological nationalism. Methodological nationalism is an intellectual orientation that equates a nation-state as a society and assumes that as a society it must contain a shared history and set of norms and values----that is it is not diverse. Such an approach to the nation state means that  you cannot see multiple identities,   multiple social relations,  multiple forms of differentiation by class and gender and multiple intersecting interrelationships that simultaneously constitute forms of sameness and differences.

So I think it is important to critique methodological nationalism and examine our unit of analysis is. I think the work that is being done here in terms of reviving and building on concepts of networks, social fields (as networks of networks) and ordinary daily interactions including conviviality.  This can serve as a necessary corrective for much of the work that has been done on immigration and ethnicity.   I think it takes a collective project to break with the normative assumptions of much of social science and forge new directions. I am hoping we can do that here at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity.

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Susanne Wessendorf

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