Interview with Michael Keith

(COMPAS, University of Oxford)

December 03, 2013

Michael Keith is Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), Co-Director of the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities and holds a personal chair in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He is the author of ten books on issues of urban change, race, ethnicity and migration including – most recently – ’China Constructing Capitalism: Economic Life and Urban Change’.

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

I think it enters my own work in two different ways. Firstly intellectually. Some of the conceptual work that diversity does begins to emerge in the 1980s as an implicit critique of Anglo-American ways of thinking about race and ethnicity. I think in the British case the study of ethnic, and racial studies more generally, becomes dominated by the migration to the UK from the new commonwealth in the post-1948 period and the language of diversity qualifies that dominance by directing attention both to histories on migration that predate 1945 but also a focus on new migrations in the post-1970s/1980s period which mean that intellectually diversity begins to challenge some of the conventions of ‘race-relations sociology’. In a social policy context diversity has a slightly different resonance. It brings together different kinds of difference; I think most positively through considering much more complex geometries of the social world bringing together the different identity markers of race, sexuality, class, region, legal status and so on; less positively when campaigns for equality become potentially conflated by a reduction to a language of diversity. So I think it’s an ambivalent term in a social policy context. Sometimes useful, sometimes worrying. And I think historically it’s a helpful term academically most of the time if not always.

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 think that depends. It’s a bit like in Alice in Wonderland when Alice in Wonderland confronts Humpty Dumpty and Humpty Dumpty uses the term ‘glory’. And Alice says to Humpty Dumpty “Well, you’re using that term wrongly”, and Humpty Dumpty says “Well, I can use it when and where I like”. It means whatever I chose it to mean. It is who rules that counts. The point is that I think at it’s worst it displaces a set of unclear concepts with another set of unclear concepts and I think there is a danger to that. Having said that, I mean as with all social scientific concepts it’s contestable and the contest is always as important as the empirical representational accuracy of the term itself. So I think it’s provocative and intellectually provocative in a largely useful way but I think we need to be cautious about issues as well.

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?

I think the social sciences always face a quandary on the one hand. The richness of geographical variation and historical specificity mean that most of the conceptual vocabulary of social sciences is qualified by context. So if we’re talking about social class or if we’re talking about gender or we’re talking about basic conceptual vocabularies of anthropology, terns like the family or kinship these things are qualified by the context in which they’re used. Diversity is no different there. I think that means that we need to be careful on the one hand that those forms of specificity are not flattened by the term ‘diversity’. So for example in China where the vast majority of the population are Han and minorities are normally used or described in terms where a very small proportion of the demos is captioned by the term ‘minority’ or ‘ethnic minority’ the term ‘diversity’ might have slightly difficult usages I guess. Whereas in another context the term ‘diversity’ can be a useful way of avoiding the parochialism of an Anglo-American focus that we talked about earlier on. So in that setting I think we need to be careful about its use, but optimistic about its possibility.

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?

I think it is important to avoid what sometimes is described as the narcissism of minor difference. The notion that whether we’re talking about religious difference, ethnic difference, racial difference, the act of study itself perpetuates the anthropological status of the variables that we consider under the sign of diversity. That becomes a challenge. It becomes a challenge not least when we think comparatively. Having said that I think as we move towards a more global focus in the social sciences, we begin to move away from the notion that societies sit in cells, one separated from another - what’s frequently critiques as methodological nationalism - towards an understanding of connections between worlds. Then I think diversity is a useful way into what sometimes is described as a global sociology or a global anthropology, precisely because the term might mean very different things in different places. So I think we should be prepared to use the concept as much a propagation, as an analytical variable through which we taxonomise and analyze the world.

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Kristen Biehl

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