An interview with Rijk van Dijk (Leiden University)

Rijk van Dijk is Professor of Religion in Contemporary Africa and its Diaspora at the African Studies Centre, Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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My first question is: What does diversity mean to you by way of your work and your field of expertise?

Thank you very much. In terms of my area of expertise, the concept of diversity particularly relates to religious diversities. The study of religion in Africa and its diaspora means that one surely has to understand and appreciate the enormous variety in religious expressions, in religious social groupings, formations and ideas, dogmas and so on. Limiting this to the field of Pentecostalism means that one first of all has to create a profound understanding of the diversity of religious expressions, for instance that of various different Christianities – in the plural. Christianity in the African context has really developed into a wide variety and all sorts of forms, of which Pentecostalism – my most important area of research – is one of its latest manifestations. Which means that in order to understand the significance of Pentecostalism and what it is doing in African societies nowadays, one needs to be aware of the great variety of Christianities and other forms of religiosity that surrounds Pentecostalism – how this form of Pentecostalism is positioned, vis-a-vis the older forms of Christianity; how its popularity can be explained by looking at all these varieties and what Pentecostals themselves are offering to the domain of religion. While diversity was not automatically the most important focus of my work, it creeps in as a particularly interesting line of inquiry; frankly, an unavoidable line of exploration.

The notion of diversity in a way stands in clear opposition to the tendency of the faith of Pentecostalism. While interestingly, diversity may help us to understand the variety of Christianities in a remarkable way, it is a contested idea within the Pentecostal ideology, which strongly believes in one Biblical truth and not the diversity of Biblical truths in the plural. In a sense, diversity thus stands in opposition to, and in contradistinction from, what the Pentecostals themselves feel they have to offer to society, which is quite a uniform type of thinking and development. In that way, diversity may therefore also have a critical potential. One can think of multiple social diversities that are challenging to the Pentecostal ideological positioning; for instance, if one would consider diversities in sexual identities and sexual minorities. In the African context we have had quite many examples where Pentecostals seem to have become known for their anti-gay public statements, like what happened in Uganda and Malawi and other places. So interestingly, diversity therefore may create a field of contestation, of critical contestations vis-a-vis particular dogmas of the faith. Diversity in that manner gives me a double perspective. On the one hand, as I said, it highlights diversities in Christianities whereby the Pentecostals know that they are positioned on a religious market that is highly competitive in terms of all the other Christian/religious identities that exist. On the other hand, diversity also allows us to see the effects of the monolithic truth that Pentecostalism often seems to emphasize, which turns it into a social political matter. 

Is diversity just a Zeitgeist term or a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase as in diversity management, or can it be a concept that can help us structure and advance social scientific analysis?

The implication of the question is the idea that social science moves forward by pursuing certain fashions; as if certain concepts suddenly become topical and thereby, by becoming so fashionable, obliterate, push aside or make irrelevant concepts that were fashionable in previous times. This is, of course, far from ideal as it blocks the way forward and the ways in which social science should progress. Concepts should be able to stand on their own feet irrespective of the times at which they are produced because, ideally at least, social science should proceed by understanding the value that concepts intrinsically may have for our understanding of certain social processes. Ideally, the concept of diversity as an analytical concept should not be the product of certain fashions. Unfortunately, we know too well that the social sciences are also in a way inescapably informed by these kinds of theoretical paradigmatic, (however you want to call it) fashions that are there.

In terms of the conceptual importance of the notion of diversity there is, however, something new happening here which I feel social sciences should also try to balance. Diversity as an analytical concept creates a perspective where the position of the individual’s status in life – social identity, dis/abilities and so on - is considered. The question that is there on the individual level is the extent to which diversity renders again a possibility, a potentiality, of what we can call methodological individualism. To what extent is diversity a social science concept that allows us on a neutral level to explore how people relate to each other in view of specific social identities? Or is it restructuring and reinterpreting the individual on the basis of a new liberal paradigm whereby each individual is in a sense thrown back on his or himself to make the best out of a situation irrespective of certain social identities, abilities, impairments and so on? Is it promoting a kind of an American model whereby every individual has to make the best of the situation on the basis of one's capabilities, the potentialities that you have, making it a socio-political project? Or it’s a critical concept that is fostering an interest in how certain social structures need to be, can be, or are being rearranged in ways that are productive for society or social groups at large?

So, I find an intriguing challenge with the notion of diversity as a social science concept: Is it allowing us to see, to perceive and to understand certain wider ranging social structural changes of any sort? Or does it allow us to see how individuals are increasingly better placed to exercise certain rights on the basis of what diversity laws that may have been put in place? While these are two different forms of analysis – a critical-theory notion versus a policy-driven idea - I feel that we are not yet able (at this moment) to see the extent to which diversity as an analytic concept allows us to understand the emergence of particular new structural changes that us, social scientists, otherwise would have missed or would not have noticed. That’s an intriguing matter, because the concept has been around already for quite a number of years, as we all know. Does diversity really allow us to see particular forms of social-structural changes that we would otherwise have failed to see or would have misinterpreted? From my own working in the religious field, I can see the potential of diversity as I said as a challenging concept. In order to understand socio-religious changes that I have been exploring, the question could have been if the concept of diversity as being a challenge to Pentecostalism could have been contributing to our understanding of important changes in the African situation? I am not sure there because up to now I have been doing my work basically without referring much to the concept.

At the Max Planck Institute we are looking to develop research and theory spanning contemporary immigration societies particularly 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? I think you sort of touched on that in your previous discussion around diversity as an analytical concept, for instance diversity as a descriptive concept.

Multi-ethnicity, certainly in the African situation, is by far not a new thing. It is actually the common experience of most people in many African situations that they are living in and are dependent on a multi-ethnic context and multi-ethnic setting. The situation that there would be mono-ethnic situations is certainly in the current situation hardly thinkable in the African context. So, multi-ethnicity is an everyday reality and I would be amazed if we would be able to locate people who would have issues in terms of locating themselves in life, or engaging in meaningful relations with their social environment, by the sheer fact of multi-ethnicity as such. If we are ready to accept the fact that multi-ethnicity is a long-established reality of life, then the issues that we have seen emerging in African situations where a lot has been attributed to ethnic violence, ethnic clashes and so on, we may want to reconsider if placing this in terms of ethnic labelling is actually more concealing than it is revealing of the ways in which these forms of violence have emerged. Ethnicity is often not the root cause of these issues, whereas actually the ethnic labelling that has been attributed to the conflict may obfuscate other underlying conflicts, political or economic contestations, or whatever forms of contradictions. So, there is a strange process going on in terms of the understanding of these tensions and conflicts. On the one hand we know that multi-ethnicity was and has been for long a reality of life, while on the other hand in much of the journalism and so on the ethnic label is easily taken as a shorthand to talk about certain violent conflicts, contradictions and tensions. In that sense, the ethnic label starts to conceal more than it reveals about what is happening. These aspects of conflict and intolerance therefore seem to point to other underlying contradictions that may require specific perspectives on how to analyse and understand these contradictions. So, in terms of the academic agenda, the concept of diversity is there to push us to open up certain domains for further interrogation and investigation. It is not the end term of understanding. It's the sparking point of further analysis and pushes us to compare certain situations in which these diversities play out.  In that sense diversity becomes a point of departure to try and investigate and explore these differences in how diversities seem to work out in actual situations, instead of perceiving of diversity as the answer to that question. This is also of relevance in the religious domain where I am collaborating in research that looks at Christian-Muslim, Christian-Islamic relations where these diversities and religious identities exist. The question is: Does this lead automatically to conflict, contestation and violence, or are there particular and cultural forms of coexistence that relate to certain elements of everyday social life in which we can see that these coexistences exist? To come back to my own field of expertise – Pentecostals, Pentecostal leaders and others will often emphasize that they work towards a superseding of ethnic, cultural, class or whatever differences they may find within their own communities and congregations. So, while they realise there might be a lot of diversity within their groupings – because people may come from very different cultural, ethnic or social class backgrounds – and while they realise that their Pentecostal groupings are really placed in a kind of intersectional formation – they often proclaim that this gospel, this faith, will be able to speak to all and will also unite them in a common concern. Again, this is of course ideologically driven which, if you look at it from an anthropological perspective, obviously does not always work, as there still are important internal differences and contestations.

We are moving to the final question. From your own perspective in terms of expertise or discipline, your country focus or country focusses, your intellectual tradition – what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and/or methodological challenges that you think are currently facing diversity-related research?

Yes, I highlighted perhaps a few already. In terms of methodology, perhaps. Take for instance, the situation of Pentecostalism where the whole idea of sexual diversities is often turned into a troublesome issue. I can imagine that in terms of let's say testing the challenging aspect of diversity there, especially but not exclusively so, in case the researcher belongs to a sexual minority him or herself, is to explore issues in Pentecostal churches that indeed produce methodological challenges related to one’s own positionality. This is, for example, representing a challenge of queering social science methodologies that diversity research might be helping us to see, because the identity of the researcher is part of the diversity topic as such. Another issue is on the increasing complexification of society; people being faced with increasingly higher complexities requiring more skills, more education than perhaps ever before. The methodological challenge here is how to reason away from the here and the now and to be able to have a much longer duration type of research where these shifts have occurred over time and thus to explore how the increasing complexification of various domains of social life can be recorded and investigated. If I look at my own research, the opportunities to do longer duration research have become so limited because of issues of funding, time and publication pressure. In terms of Pentecostal Christianity, the range in which a community or institution becomes complex is much shorter than in Christianities like Catholicism, which have very established structures, doctrines and beliefs. But within Pentecostal Christianities, in terms of how it can easily become complex, I would argue that it is probably much harder to grasp, as complexification is not only more condensed and takes place in much less time, but also because Pentecostalism develops by forming all sorts of small groups in which increasing complexities of social relations are much harder to follow for the observer.

What diversity research seems to imply so far in migrant situations of assimilation and integration, is that processes of social creativity are expected to be part of this experience. People develop creative ways to get around, they find ways to live together, to solve problems. And so, what you get here is that diversity research seems to be also about the art of living, at least to some extent. I mean, conflicts and contestations are definitely part of that, but a good deal is also about the creativity of how to devise ways by which issues of diversity do not cause forms of social cohesion to crumble and fall apart constantly. In a sense, like what James Ferguson is telling us about the issue of what he calls the ‘Share’, the idea of the presence of the other in one’s social environment means that the social environment is bound to creatively accommodate the presence of somebody. The effect of somebody being there who might not share your identity or might not share your social status, class or religion, does not mean that there is no social interaction. There is an obligation of social interaction. And as James Ferguson is teaching us, this obligation means that you are obliged to interact. While this means that there is no escape, it then implies, in my view, a level of inescapable creativity; of how then precisely to devise new ways to interact with each other. How creative is a religious form, such as the kind of Pentecostalism that I study, in accommodating precisely this? Where and how can we record and explore this kind of creativity where we perhaps least expect it?

And so, the theoretical challenge of diversity research might be how we can get closer to a further understanding of the expressions of social creativity that we might be witnessing which may perhaps lead to things that we can call a kind of arts of diversity, perhaps also in unexpected domains. For example, Adriaan van Klinken’s latest book talks about the ways in which he gained access to certain religious groupings in Kenya where there was not an anti-gay type of sentiment that one often expects to meet in such contexts, but rather the opposite. So, he was also able to uncover aspects of the ways diversity leads to forms of new religious expressions that are not that yet well-known. Adriaan van Klinken points to the fact that exceptional religious groupings that do embrace homosexuality – we even know certain Pentecostal churches are entirely made up of homosexuals as some scholars have been recording in South Africa, etc. – show that there is still a level of creativity beyond the apparent dogmas of a particular faith and a particular practice, and that people devise means and ways to create something new, to establish something as a social form that was not yet there before. Something that at first seems to have been an impossibility, even a contradiction, while nevertheless diversity is given meaning in creative ways. This might mean that in a strange way diversity research may perhaps have to borrow more - in terms of further inspiration in how to study such social creativity - from the humanities than from the social sciences. A humanities approach to diversity research may show that there is more room to understand diversity as a form of arts than as a form of social analysis in the end. And that would be of interest also to my field of religious anthropology which is a kind of border-zone between the social sciences and the humanities. How does diversity research perhaps allow us to understand more about different forms of religious creativity? Does it need to include much more of the humanities or arts related type of research in order to understand these social productions of new social imaginaries?

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Tinashe Chimbidzikai

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