Interview with Daniel Hiebert

(University of British Columbia)

May 31, 2013

Daniel Hiebert is Professor of Geography at University of British Columbia and Co-Director of Metropolis British Columbia, a centre of excellence dedicated to studying immigration and diversity.

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

I want to answer that question in a bit of an unusual way. I'd like to say a little bit about what diversity means in my life because that is actually what is behind what diversity means in my work.

I grew up in a place that had a kind of diversity but it's what people now call 'old diversity'. So in the neighborhood where I grew up you were English, German, or Ukrainian. That was more or less it. That was the full scope of our diversity. People from these groups interacted and kids knew what each other’s background was. Each of those groups had a particular religious inflection and so on. And at that time I didn't think about diversity in the way that we talk about it now. Later, when I did my graduate work, I became interested in the moment in the early twentieth century when Canada became defined as a country through the immigration of those European groups, and that of course happened through a closed, racially selective immigration policy. I had a kind of comfortable relationship with that version of Canadian society because I grew up in it, not thinking very much about the exclusions that were at the core of things. And then I got a job in the 1980s at the University of British Colombia. And very quickly my sensibility got shaken up. More and more Asian-Canadian students enrolled in my classes, especially coming from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Punjab, and a few other parts of Asia. At that time, on a day to day level and without any plan or design, without any conscious effort, I became involved in a much more diverse set of relationships than I had ever imagined. On one level this simply amused me. I realized that my doctor is someone who was born in Canada, probably of English origin. But my dentist was born in Brazil. My lawyer, who did my will and my house transactions, was the child of parents born in India, though he was born in Canada. My car mechanic was born in Iran. I can look around my life and it's full of these kinds of connections. My friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and students come from many different places. So, for example, if I want to know something about what's going on in the Middle East I can speak with my Jewish friends, or my Palestinian friends, and I can get a very direct interpretation of those issues personal connections that I made over time.

So all this is to say that first and foremost diversity is something that I have normalized on a day to day level and it's just simply part of the fabric of my life. So as I gradually got more reflective about that it reshaped my research. Well, how did this kind of society come about? How is it that I now inhabit a place where intercultural interaction is normalized, where these kinds of relationships are common. The answer to these questions is partly related to immigration policy. It’s also related to the way that people interact in a cosmopolitan city like Vancouver. It's partly my class position. It's partly the particular place where I work. It's the neighborhood I've chosen to live. All these things kind of come together. And all of those things beg certain questions, both theoretical questions and empirical questions. A lot of my research has been on Vancouver because I find it to be a perfect mirror of the world, something to look at to understand what's going on in the world. And what's very fortunate for me is: my ‘laboratory’ is outside my front door and also it turns out very lucky. People from other parts of the world find that Vancouver story kind of interesting. Now we just had a census two years ago. We are 40% foreign born, getting close to the point where minorities from outside of European origins will become the majority of the population within about 10 years. So-called ‘whites’, whatever that means, will be a minority in my city. These are interesting times. So all this has brought me into trying to understand how this is came about through policy, how it works out in the economy, how it works out in the housing market, how it works out in everyday interactions, how it works out in the changing fabric of the city. All these are the kind of questions behind my work.

Is ‘diversity’ just a Zeitgeist term – a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase, a corporate tool, or can it be a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

It's all of those things but it's not just any of those things. Diversity is a very generic term which means that it has a lot of power but also a lot of limitations. It means that people can use it in hundreds of different ways. The question speaks of the corporate sector. It's true, the corporate sector is always using the term diversity and…we're coming back to my personal experience in my city…you can't get a job anymore at a bank in Vancouver unless you know an Asian language. As a bank teller you've got to know Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, Korean, Vietnamese, one of those languages. So the corporate sector has ‘got’ diversity and of course that is related to other issues about the anxiety that sometimes diversity can raise in a society because now children of white middle class parents are wondering if there a place for them in the future of Vancouver in these kinds of corporate jobs. Anyway, I'm getting beside the point. Diversity is deeply embedded in economic change and corporate policy.

The post-multicultural thing. Now there is something that is kind of important. I think of the people who are closely associated with the Max Planck Institute. I think I'm the only one coming from Canada and I therefore have a bit of a unique situation on these questions because Canada is one of the only countries – maybe you could say Australia, too, but I really don't think it works the same way in Australia – Canada may be as the only country in which multiculturalism is still embraced as the most relevant framework for intercultural relationships. Canada is the only country that has gone so far as to make an Act of Parliament on multiculturalism and even further it's embedded in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It's in the constitution of the country. It's in the skeletal structure, the absolute bones of how Canada works as a society. Every law in Canada actually has to be in sympathy with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that includes multiculturalism. So it's part of the structure of everything. No other society has gone that far. So we don't think of diversity as a post-multicultural term in Canada because there is no ‘post-multiculturalism’. The policy was introduced in 1971 and is now deeply implicated in everything.

So, it is not replaced by the term 'diversity’, as is the case, for example in Germany.

Yes, exactly. And the other thing… I know this is off the pace of the question but it actually does relate to how we think about diversity. Canada has a very particular way of understanding multiculturalism which is totally different from the way it's been approached in other countries. Our policy has a built-in tension: on the one hand, multiculturalism is seen as an invitation to be distinct and on the other hand it's seen as an invitation to belong. So it's these two things in tension. I think that takes us to the meaning of the term 'diversity'. And I think diversity also can in a productive way incorporate that tension. We all want to think of our backgrounds as unique. We all want to think of our backgrounds as having value, but on the other hand we all want to be part of something. I think that the way Canadians have framed multiculturalism is a very productive way of thinking about diversity more generally.

So multiculturalism in Canada is not based so much on a group perspective, like on cultures?

Yes and no. I think one of the biggest differences is that multiculturalism in Canada is not a policy for and of the other. In most European countries – and I know only a few European countries have adopted multiculturalism in the first place – where the idea of multiculturalism was adopted it was about how to incorporate the other into a society. The Canadian version of the term multiculturalism is that it’s for everyone. I mean everyone has a cultural background. There is no primary cultural background. And in my opinion in Canada we have a very, very fortunate turn of circumstances in that we have no clearly defined national core culture, nor do we have a clearly defined other and this is exactly the opposite of Europe. In Europe you have all these countries that have very tightly imagined core cultures and when people think of the other it's the Muslim other, it's the Moroccan other, it's the Turkish other or whatever the case may be. We have neither of those things which makes for a much fuzzier kind of society which in my opinion is all to the good. Like when people ask me: 'Don't you think there should be like a core Canadian culture?' I say 'Absolutely not'. We have to completely avoid the idea of having a core culture because all forms of inclusion are equally forms of exclusion. So the minute you make a so-called inclusionary core culture you've excluded a whole bunch of people. Of course that makes it complicated because when newcomers come to Canada they're not quite sure what they're supposed to integrate to because it's this fuzzy thing. But again, I think that's all to the good.

Now this brings me back to the concept of diversity. I think those are the kinds of ways we have to understand diversity. We have to understand diversity as enabling society to decenter itself, to remove some core cultural sensibilities to which everybody is supposed to conform. I think that is the radical potential of the idea of diversity. It gets us away from a defined center and periphery, culturally speaking. I don't think it's just a zeitgeist term. I think it has a very real potential to offer societies to reimagine themselves in a more socially just way but also in way that I would say is more secure. Madness – and by that I mean anger and feelings of exclusion, extremism etc. – lies in societies trying to map out a particular vision of what they are and expecting everybody to conform to that vision.

At our Max Planck Institute we are looking to develop research and theory spanning contemporary immigration societies and longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’ shaping this agenda – or not?

For the most part I think it's valuable. There are always limitations to every concept of course. I think we need to exercise great caution in adapting or adopting Eurocentric ideas to non-European or North American situations. So I think we do need to get beyond words like multiculturalism, which has a very particular baggage, and expect that we could use such a term in the same way in different places. If I could reflect on just the meetings over the last two days… It's all perfectly fine to use concepts like habitus and conviviality and so forth when we take our research to places like Johannesburg or Singapore. But we have to be entirely open to thinking about that fact that those terms may be utterly differently inflected in those places.

And now returning to diversity: diversity is good as a concept because it's such a generic term. In many ways it's just a descriptive. So it doesn't have a lot of baggage and therefore it's probably more transportable a term than most of the other ones that we could use. But the limitations of course are what we bring ‘behind’ the concept when we encounter a context of, let's say, Johannesburg (as in the meetings these last days). We probably are imagining things like habitus and civility and conviviality and all that kind of stuff—things we might associate with diversity in places like Vancouver. So we have to be very conscious of the assumptions that we're bringing into that research and open to challenging those assumptions but, even better, we have to be open to understanding local ways of a configuring society that can teach us something, that help us to better understand how things work and Gui Ju () is a great example because it's about this Singaporean idea of recognizing another person judging whether they are behaving properly, behaving properly yourself, but also recognizing and respecting another person when they behave properly. This is a valuable insight. It also acknowledges the distinctiveness of diversity and how it is practiced in particular places.

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?

To start methodologically I think our brains don't necessarily have enough capacity to think about the complexity that we have. So if we take super-diversity seriously as a concept we have to be thinking about the intersection of a number of relevant factors in people's lives. And as you have more and more of those factors into the equation at some point you kind of fill the capacity of your brain to think about how all these things intersect. It also leads to a tremendous challenge in terms of deciding where to start our research project. If you're trying to think about 15 different dimensions, which do you begin with? So methodologically this is very challenging and I think that's fine. I think in the twenty-first century we need to have some (so far) unanswerable questions. Otherwise what will be the point? So that's all to the good. As we get into a more globalized situation where people are moving across the globe, where every society is becoming combinatorial our ideas have to be ever so much more open to all of that. Just let me use one example to close this up, the example of habitus. People have been talking about that I think in perhaps too easy a way – so far in the meetings in the last couple of days – as if a place has a single habitus. But what if a place has people from a hundred different countries in it? Why would we expect there would be just one habitus in that place? So, now how do we theoretically begin to accept the challenge of dealing with multiplicity in every set of social relationships? That leads to my last point which is: we're going to have a harder and harder time generalizing because of the complexity of every individual situation, the notion of ‘representativeness’ which has been at the forefront of social science theory for hundreds of years. We have to now rethink what that means. Not a small task.

Thank you very much!

Interviewer: Monika Palmberger

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