Interview with Ralph Grillo


April 24, 2009

Ralph Grillo is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sussex, Department of Anthropology.

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Good afternoon, Professor Grillo. As you know, here at the Max Planck Institute for Religious and Cultural Diversity, we are grappling with the issue of diversity and trying to figure out the pros and cons of using the term. That is why we wanted to take the opportunity to ask you, as a senior scholar, what your take is on the issue. So the first question I'd like to ask you is what diversity means to you in terms of your work and field of expertise.

Okay. Though I did not use the term ‘diversity’ until recently, all the work I've ever done has been in societies which are ethnically and racially diverse and also religiously diverse and diverse in terms of class. My original research was in Kampala, Uganda, looking at railway workers who were of different ethnic backgrounds and from different parts of Africa, and there were also Asians and Europeans working for the railways. That was at a particular moment, on the cusp of colonialism and post colonialism. Then in France, I worked in Lyon on the relationship between French people and North Africans. More recently I have worked in Italy looking at the situation of African migrants, and more recently still in Britain. It is really in a relation to the work in Italy and then in Britain, from about the mid-1990s onwards, where the term diversity has surfaced - not through the social science literature so much as through what people were saying. ‘Diversity’ became a term that they used. For example, in 1997 in Bologna  there were posters up saying 'Let's celebrate diversity'. I think one has to understand that this was in the context of rising tension between immigrants and non-immigrants, between people of immigrant and non-immigrant background in Italy and also in other countries. And this celebration of diversity comes out of that at least partly. Also,  going further back in the U.K. it comes out of the situation in schools in the 1980s when people were trying to grapple with multiethnic classrooms and some problems happening in the streets and in the playgrounds, and so on, and trying to grapple with racial tension in those contexts.

So although diversity has actually always been with us, the conceptualization of diversity surfaces at a particular moment in a certain kind of way. Almost all societies are diverse in some way or other. (I once tried to identify the least diverse society I could find: it was pre-colonial Tahiti or something like that). But for some societies diversity at certain moments becomes a problem and we're going through a phase where diversity in the broad sense is a contemporary problem. But it's also a sociological problem as was pointed out in course of our recent discussions. So although ‘diversity’ captures a certain discourse and is of the moment it has also a much more long-lasting significance in the social sciences.

How would you define the term in a nutshell?

I want to operate with a very simplistic notion of diversity. I think it is a useful working term. The kind of diversity I'm interested in is that which comes from people thinking they are different in some kind of way, through culture or language or religion or something like that, or ‘race’ in a certain moment. Some of those distinctions people make are superficial, and sometimes they are very, very deep. In some  contexts people may say (or some people may say): ‘Well, there is diversity amongst us, but that’s OK’, and there are other contexts where people (or at any rate some people) will say: ‘We can't tolerate what those other people are, and what they are doing’. And we may find that there are shifts over time from one position to the other – as has happened in recent years in the Netherlands, for example. In short, it is where diversity becomes difference, that is, seen as a problem for societies, and for individuals in those societies, that I think the major questions reside.

As we all know diversity is being used all over the place by all kinds of peoples. It's being used as a policy term. It's being used in the corporate world. In light of this, do you think the term is just a buzzword that is going to go out of fashion or, is it a concept that can really help us to advance social scientific analysis?

That it happens to be a buzzword at the moment does not preclude its significance as a useful if vague term for describing a long-term phenomenon. The question comes up as to whether an institute like MPI-MMG should use the term diversity when it might go out of fashion in the next ten years. Well, I think diversity is a social fact of long duration and from time to time of very great significance and salience in the societies concerned. And that will not go away. Actually, when people say 'well, what's going to happen in 50 years' time? Well, I won't be here. I don't have to bother with that. That won't be bothering me in 50 years' time'.

So you think regardless of the fact that it might go out of fashion as a term that we can still definitely use the term academically?

Yes, absolutely. However, I think that you have to make sure that – with the term out there in the wild – the MPI-MMG’s own take on it is distinctively social scientific. The MPI-MMG has to make clear that it’s employing the term in a socio-scientific, and not just using it in the loose and rather emotive way that the term is used in public discourse.

Yes, I would agree.  As you know at the institute we are in the process of developing research and theory spanning a great and diverse range of immigration societies. How do you see the concept of diversity shaping our agenda or not?

There are two or three things, which I think are of particular interest when one looks comparatively across these different situations.

First of all, something I've said before and I cannot emphasize enough, is that diversity signals for me a process of diversification. Diversity does not just ‘happen’. Diverse societies do not just spring up fully formed. Diversification happens. And the effects on the ground, on demographic facts, if you like, are different from one process of diversification to another. However, while diversification is a fundamental process, it is one which may take various forms. So, that we can observe different processes of diversification (as a general phenomenon) in many different societies. South Africa is a beautiful example. Take processes of diversification happening in South Africa now and what has happened in the past. I mean you could take the whole history of South Africa over the last 120 years and see the different ways in which diversification has taken place, and with different effects, going into reverse, changing in intensity and so on and so forth. So it is very important to look at diversification.

I would add that diversification has to be understood as a process of a political kind that has real effects but also interacts with some underlying social reality. It doesn't invent things totally. There is a kind of dialectical relationship between processes of diversification and what actually is out there on the ground. One feeds back into the other.

The second thing is that looking comparatively across different situations enables us to look at diversification in relation to intersectionality in different kinds of socio-historical contexts. I think intersectionality is really important, and for me one of the most important intersections is between diversity of a cultural and ethnic character and  class. We could see that in the context of, let's say Britain, the one with which I am most familiar at the moment. You can see it in South Africa. You can see it in Mumbai in all kinds of ways. And of course underlying this intersectionality are some very fundamental socioeconomic processes, political and economic processes, of which the most significant in the last couple of decades has been neo-liberal globalization. The way this impacts on the intersectionality of ethnicity and class is of great significance,

The third thing concerns diversity as a ‘problem’, by that I mean how and why it is seen as constituting a problem for the society concerned. As I said, all societies are diverse and diverse in different kinds of ways, but in some societies at some times, diversity or processes of diversification constitute a problem. They are seen as problematic, not necessarily from the social scientific point of view, but from the point of view of the actors in the society. Putnam’s work is correct to the extent that he taps a vein of popular feeling of worries about diversity. I think his explanation is totally wrong or rather the way he deals with it is totally wrong, but he is right to say that diversity is seen as a problem. And we can observe that currently in Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia and indeed all of Europe, in one way or another. But also, one sees it as an issue in countries like South Africa, or in a country like Mexico.   I’m quite interested in Mexico for personal reasons, and I recently find myself thinking through these problems in relation to the little I know about Mexico.  Mexico City particularly is a place where you can see a lot of these things going on. So that's one thing. The next thing really, is in respect to how people handle this. If they see diversity as a problem, how do they handle that problem? Whether we are talking about this at the level of the nation state or in a particular locality – Hackney for example, a neighborhood in London – or within a family, or in terms of an encounter in a market or whatever it is. So the issue of how to confront what is seen as problematic diversity and deal with it, whether at a grandiose political level or at a deeply personal level, is a common issue across all of these societies that we are talking about. Sometimes the problem of diversity and how to handle it creates huge anxieties, and people get deeply worried about their own personal situation from this point of view

So those are some of the issues that I think are important. Looking across immigration societies and other polyethnic societies enables us to identify these things happening in a variety of contexts and lets us contextualize what's going on.

Before I go to the last question I would just like to ask you another question. You brought in the term diversification and I was wondering – it was an issue that we talked about yesterday where some scholars have been saying 'Okay, diversity has always been around', and others who insist that this concept of diversity, diversification, implies increasing diversity. Would agree that this term implies a kind of compounding of diversity?

It doesn't necessarily. You could argue that in the current context diversification is leading to more complex kinds of social composition and social formations,      through globalization, transnational migration and so on and so forth. But diversification doesn't necessarily imply super-diversity, for example.

So, depending on the context?


As the last question it would be great if you could let us know from your perspective what you would indentify as being the key challenges facing diversity related research empirically, theoretically or methodologically.

I’ve covered some of this ground a little bit, but I’ll mention some things which are more directly related to this point.

First, I think that to a large extent it's all about politics. And the issue of representation comes into this, but representation in two senses. One is what people think about things that are going on. How they see Muslims for example. And the other is the way in which ideas about Muslims and their place in societies like Britain or Germany, are then conveyed  to the powers that be. Who represents the representations? What kind of representations get represented in the insights of power?

Secondly, and related to that, is something in which I'm personally very interested and want to explore. The term multiculturalism has now been increasingly bypassed in all sorts of ways and one of the routes people are taking to bypass it via the notion of interculturalism, for example Parekh in Britain, or Touraine in France. So there are important research questions around intercultural knowledge, intercultural interaction, intercultural understanding and language.

Thirdly, from the social scientific point of view one of the great challenges is talking about diversity and particularly cultural diversity without falling into the trap of essentializing the notion of culture, people's culture. I'm finding this constantly in work I've been doing on legal practice and cultural diversity, particularly around the notion of cultural defense when somebody stands up in court and says, tries to say something about the culture of the defendant, what the defendant says about himself or herself. How do the represent what the other says?  And who has the right to say what the culture is? So, we want to talk about culture but we want to talk about it in a way which doesn't fall into the trap of essentialism, which is also a political trap.

I have one last question. You have written a lot on pluralism. How does pluralism differ from diversity? 

In my book (Pluralism and the Politics of Difference: State, Culture, and Ethnicity in Comparative Perspective.  Oxford: Clarendon Press), when I was talking about plural societies I was using the term to refer to societies which are culturally diverse and diverse in other ways, i.e. it was pretty much synonymous with diversity. But the term ‘plural society’ was used historically in a rather different way by Furnivall. He used the term to characterize societies such as Indonesia. Later on M. G. Smith used the term in relation to societies in the Caribbean. Essentially they were referring to colonial societies within which there were blocs of people who were hierarchically ordered and separate. I think this is one form of diversity, not the only form. If one were to talk about a spectrum of pluralities, or more simply, diversity, then at one end would be probably South Africa in its apartheid phase and at the other end would be somewhere like… I don't know …  what seems to be emerging on the streets of London, perhaps. From that point of view diversity is more useful and wide-ranging than plural, a term which carries its own historical baggage in the social sciences.

Thank you.

Interviewer: Christiane Kofri

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