Interview with Suzanne Hall

(University of London / LSE)

September 22, 2012

Suzanne Hall is researcher at LSE Sociology.

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

My practice is as an urban ethnographer, and before I came to ethnography I practiced as an architect in South Africa, so I work quite explicitly with spatial forms. I want to begin by saying that I think diversity is essentially a social change process. It is on the one hand the varied practices of locating oneself with respect to self and group, and on the other hand it is also about how individuals and groups are officially categorized. Sometimes these official representations and these lived practices intersect and sometimes they are in explicit friction or conflict with one another. For me, these intersections and frictions are a core part of my interest in how diversity is formed.

My focus is very much on migration and urbanization and the diversification of urban spaces, of urban bodies, and most particularly of urban forms of exchange. I think of exchange as both economic and social exchange. I am interested in exploring migration as a form of city-making and I am therefore interested in exploring diversity as a process of urban renewal. By renewal I don't necessarily mean a straight-forward or harmonious process, but processes of making and formation in which there is also resistance, friction and confrontation. And I am interested in how balances are achieved and how and why things explode and when they do explode, how things come to be moderated.

You were talking about city-making. When you speak about city-making and how a city is structured or being planned you would first maybe think of city planners in an official position. How big do you think their impact on city planning is today in the light of diversification and has it changed in the last ten years?

I'm going to answer your question by starting the other way round. When you think that a city like London is populated by 41.6 per cent migrants and that this migrant composition is incredibly diverse, I then begin to think about these migrants as makers, rather than as people who ‘receive’ plans. I think part of the issue here is that the way the migrant makes the city is very fast. It's a kind of 24-hour-repertoire., where things and places are adapted very quickly. There is an everyday way of reading a cultural landscape that is required of the migrant, that's intuitive and fast and the translation is also quick. By contrast, planning processes are very often closely tied to bureaucratic habits which are a lot slower. So you've got one process of making that is very slow, that generally likes to rely on well-established and enduring conventions, and another process of making that's extremely fast. And so these two paces of city-making are often out-of-kilter with one another. I therefore think it's really important to understand the different paces of making and what kind of repertoires the planner would need in order to be able to read these fast processes, but equally what kind of repertoires the migrants need in order to voice up to power or to represent themselves more effectively to planners.

Just one question to follow up on that. You were talking about migrants as makers. There, I would think about the limitations they face when entering a city for example. And then there is again a top-down relation when it comes to planning and how migrants for example spatially can settle - housing policies for example. These top-down decisions, these planning processes, have changed in the light of diversity but you were already saying that it's hard for planners to even grasp the situation and what's going on. Do you think that the diversification reflects to any extent in the planning today?

Planning is also a function of economics and a form of governing ‘effective’ economics, that has been very interesting to observe in the UK, for example. When there was a very healthy financial period, planning adopted the language of ‘mixed communities’, and this was a very explicit program of trying to mix communities in terms of class, race and ethnicity. That program dissipates when the 2008 crisis arrived, and planning, particularly in London then becomes explicitly an instrument of regeneration or developer-driven regeneration. The notion of mixing and of mixed users as opposed to mixed uses almost dissolves from the agenda, as local planning authorities sold off social housing estates and condoned the privatization of public space to address their austerity deficits. So questions of social justice, questions of inclusion, questions of diversity as an asset, very quickly disappear from the planning agenda in times of economic crisis.

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 am not so sure that diversity is a concept. I think diversity is a reality, that incorporates the change processes through which society diversifies. This could be changes in gender, in household orientation, or in ethnic structure. My particular focus is on ethnic migration structures. So if we had to think of a number of these change processes, for me one of the most prominent is how accelerated global urbanization has also accelerated urban migration. The formation of cities in the last ten years has been highly influenced by patterns of city-to-city migration and of course rural-to-urban migration. But I think there have also been very significant changes in household formations and this goes back not only to changes in family structures – more single-parent families, more nuclear families – but also to historic waves of migration and the historic accumulation of these waves. So for example in the UK in our latest census, we know that one in eight households has more than one ethnic group living within it. I think this then becomes a really interesting challenge to some of the very narrow debates around migration and particularly migration within our forthcoming national election. The pretense is that migration is the singular process of flowing in and flowing out. But actually it's a very long -centuries-long - process of how people settle, how they reconfigure themselves, and how households, neighbourhoods and cities continue to reconfigure. There is also an intersecting diversification of bodies in terms of age, gender and sexuality. We know from the recent census in the UK that one in five individuals identifies as being other than white British and that many people are now beginning to tick the “other” category in the census box because they find that they just are not adequately described by one particular ethnic or racial category.

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?

For me, one way of thinking about diversity is to think about complexity and in my ethnographic work I am very much focused on the social formations of complexity. When I relate this to the city I am looking for the formation of new kinds of urban spaces. In our research on multi-ethnic streets we're seeing a really profound change in the way micro-retail is organized. Some of this is about the imperatives of an economic recession where land values become so expensive that people subdivide their shops into smaller shops. But some of this is about migrant disposition and about when people move from places in Asia or Africa, for example, they take the habit of the bazar or a different mode of practicing retail, and they reenact it on a British high street, actively changing the economic and cultural practices of retail. I think another question for me that leads out of this - and it's not something that I focused on but it's something that I think needs a lot more attention - is what kind of politics is possible in an intensely ethnically diverse society. Many researchers address exploring that question through what kind of state politics is possible, and people like Charles Taylor have been leaders in that field. But for me, because I deal mostly with streets, the question then is what kind of civic or ‘street’ politics is possible. How do diverse, ordinary citizens in the course of their everyday life mobilize collective resources in order to deal with two things? One, the day-to-day management of life on a street, dealing with things like: how do you think about parking? How do you react against a new planning bill? This first politics is prosaic, very much a day-to-day collective mobilization. The other is the mobilization of a collective future. For migrants to be able to think that they are entitled to invest in the future, requires a very different kind of political articulation. It means that you need to find a ‘platform of civility’ or a form of political mobilization where you are regularly and actively voicing up to power.

About this platform of civility and voicing up to power: When it comes to planning or policy-making there has been the discussion about the shift from government to governance, the taking part of civil actors in the policy or politics process. Do you think that in the last one or two decades the diversification of society again has changed this, are these just changes that are happening in parallel, or have they also been influencing each other?

I think there have been profound structural changes that alter the resource base that is available for people to self organize. In the diverse and comparatively deprived urban areas in which I've done a lot of my research, up until the late eighties the primary form of mobilization or collective organization was done through the trade unions. And as that form of work and that structure of economy was actively dismantled, the kinds of resources available to people to self-organize dissipated. They were effectively dismantled politically the question then is: what resources are going to be available to very diverse communities to begin to form these platforms of civility. Of course the one resource is fundamentally time. Who has enough time to commit to regularly sustain these platforms? The other resource is capital. You need some kind of financial capital to keep the momentum of collective organization going. The trade unions had an adequate supply of capital through membership subscription, as well as well-developed infrastructures of leadership. But who leads in ethnically diverse societies and who gets the entitlement to lead?

In these contexts the challenges of civic organisation are immense, but in our street research we were aware of the wonderful asset in contemporary life of the internet, and how this becomes a resource not only to mobilize, but to fairly effectively and fairly easily communicate across a diverse membership.

The one task is to have the communication within this diverse community but then how would you transfer that to the top, to the planners in order to have an influence on this?

That´s a great question. I’ll give you an explicit example from my research site. Two years ago on a street we were researching, there was a racial incident that developed and rapidly grew, partly because the structure of street retail is very loose and unregulated: Someone had gone into a shop, bought a mobile phone, and wasn't given a receipt. The phone didn't work. When the customer went to return the phone, the proprietor refused to give him his money back. This very quickly generated into a contestation between what was represented as an Asian Muslim ‘community’ and a black Afro- Caribbean ‘community’. What was interesting in this process of crisis, was that one of the proprietors realized that there was no form of mediation between day-to-day citizens and proprietors. Collectively they began to form a trade association which has been in formation over a two-year period. It's a fairly fragile process. It's an under-resourced process but in the words of one of the proprietors: “It is a process of learning rights and learning rights together”. This trade association has now linked with other civic associations, including religious and heritage groups in the area, and they are actively in communication with the council or local authority. The council now has to legitimately recognize them as a formally established group. They are also a formally established group who pays rates and they pay a significant amount of rates. So they are now a recognized group with a degree of economic capital. What's going to be really interesting is how the civic politics progresses. At the moment the trade association is largely organized around day-to-day disputes and conventional planning disputes. But whether they'll be able to transition to a kind of higher politics - if you like - about actively being able to say, 'This is our future in the area and this is how our future should be accommodated in the ‘regeneration’ of the area' is the next step. But as I say, these are fragile processes. In a way they're largely fragile because they're profoundly under-resourced. People are busy. They have limited time. They have limited money to put into the pot and they have to find ways of communicating with one another across gender, across ethnicity and across class. The challenges are significant.

Now you have mainly talked about bottom-up approaches. The second question already included this diversity as a policy catch phrase - diversity being good for the community, for cohesion etc. My question would be: How far do you think these planning agendas are already set, and whether this is in your opinion just an implicit way of dealing with these problems or do they explicitly lead to actual changes in the way of planning?

Again, just to repeat, I think diversity is not an abstract concept, and as such it should not be an agenda; it's very dangerous when ‘diversity’ becomes a political agenda. What's much more important is to follow practices of social change and transformation. In planning the street, for example, the agenda should not necessarily be about ‘mixed use’ but about how mixed users contribute to the vitality of the street, and are able to communicate effectively with the planners. I think this is difficult because planners and bureaucrats don't generally work explicitly with processes of social and cultural change. They more often work with their pre-determined agendas: ‘regeneration’; ‘mixed-communities’. What emerges are very different sets of intentions and very different vocabularies of who counts and what matters. The question there for researchers is to try to engage with what would mediate between the agenda of ‘diversity’ with a capital D, and the actual lived practices and realities of diversification as something that's not necessarily a good or a bad process, but a means of participating in how one actually lives with day-to-day and future prospects of mobility and difference.

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?

For me this question is explicitly organized around the question of accelerated migration, and the accelerated regulation of migration The first challenge is how we can begin to think about migration as integral to broader processes of societal change, which is precisely how in UK political and public discourse at the moment it is not being framed. It is being framed as a dire social problem that challenges national cohesion and that overburdens public resources. From there the discourse very quickly advances into the articulation of the migrant as a ‘problematic outsider’ that can be primarily regulated at the border through counting inflows and outflows. If we could begin to shift that articulation of the problem, as that which is being done to us ‘from the outside’, and as a numbers game, towards thinking about broader change processes that are absolutely integral to urban life in the twenty-first century. In terms of research I think this means how we begin to work through many varied ‘truths’. We have official truths about migration that live through authorized discourse. We have regulatory truths about migration that live through statistics, policies and programmes. We have ‘street’ truths about migration and diversity that live through the everyday life of materials, spaces and practices, or an infrastructure of diversity in which harmony and disputes cohere. In researching urban migration, I think we need to think about how we work across these many varied truths, and in this respect I have begun to think about the approach of a ‘trans-ethnography’.

The second challenge is how we then begin to find a vocabulary of diversity. As I discussed earlier with respect to our street research, the current agendas and the practices of regulating ‘diversity’ are frequently out-of-kilter with the practices of living with diversity on the ground. As researchers who may participate in policy debates, we need to develop the vocabularies that mediate between these spheres, and in my work that largely translates into trying to think about different measures of value of these street economies and whether migration and diversification begins to make a different micro economy that is about a form of renewal that is integral to city vitality. I am trying to find textual and visual vocabularies for alternative measures of value, that encourage us to see migrant formations across the scales of the city, and that may interject into policy.

Thank you very much.

Thank you.

Interviewer: Christian Jacobs

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