Interview with Peter Kivisto

(Augustana College, Illinois, USA)

February 23, 2010

Peter Kivisto is Richard Swanson Professor of Social Thought Chair of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Welfare at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

For further information click here.

I'm sitting here with Peter Kivisto. Thanks for agreeing to do this, and I'll start with the first question: What does ‘diversity’ mean to you by way of your work and field of expertise?

Although I may not have defined it in precisely this way, diversity has been the focus of my work throughout my entire career, ever since I became interested in immigration during my graduate school days. In my earliest work, I looked at diversity in the American past—the last major wave of immigration, indeed, what historians often call the “Great Migration.” And what particularly intrigued me about that era, the 1880s roughly to the 1930s was that although the US was an extraordinary diverse country, perhaps the most diverse country in the world, the impact of diversity was subsequently largely ignored in the years immediately after WWII.  The national imaginary, under the influence of melting pot imagery, tended to ignore the fact that the nation had a profound impact on immigrants and their generations.  At the same time, and the aspect most ignored, was that the nation was itself transformed by the presence of newcomers. It is precisely this lacuna that became the focus of interest by the late 1960s for a generation of social historians and historically inclined sociologists like me  who sought to reexamine that past. This extraordinarily productive era of scholarship  occurred coincidently at a time when the United States  once again added to its diversity in the aftermath of a major immigration reform law passed in 1965. So taking the lessons learned from the past and moving into the present has been my preoccupation during the past two decades.

Now the second question reads: 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, and this is important for us, can it be a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

I suppose the real answer is that if one could say 'It's one or the other,' it would be good because then you would know whether you want to embrace it. But in fact it's probably all of those. It's a Zeitgeist term in so far as it's a  word that has gained popularity at a time that the concept of multiculturalism has taken a beating.  Indeed, there are those prepared to use diversity as a replacement for  ‘multiculturalism,’ a term that has been so damaged by critics that its utility as a concept for analysis has been impaired. But it also is certainly  being used by corporate managers and policy makers in a Janus-headed manner. Given all that, I believe that diversity can still be a particularly useful term in contemporary scholarship. Understanding what people in the public sphere, state officials, business officials, and ordinary people mean by the term is in itself important. There is clearly something to be gained by treating it as an object of inquiry, and I would add that one of the presumed virtues of this term is that it does, in fact, accurately describe a readily observable reality. Nobody can dispute the fact that we, in my country and in many, many countries, are living in highly diverse settings that are, if anything, becoming more diverse. That's just an empirical reality. The real question is: how do you live with that diversity? How do you live with it, and through it? The term can be useful because, at the moment at least, it doesn't come with any kind of baggage that gets in the way. So it has the potential for being a useful concept.

But in regard to its analytical value for social scientific analysis…I mean, it's a good description because as you say, it's empty and somehow neutral. But I think this is what we're really struggling with: can it become a concept or is it too wide?

I would venture to say that most people would see it as a descriptive term at the moment. That's what has to be overcome if it's going to become a concept that's useful in explaining or unpacking things. If something is going to be a useful tool of analysis it's got to be more than descriptive. It isn't there yet. But since it bears more than a family resemblance to multiculturalism, it certainly isn't starting from ground zero in terms of trying to formulate some sense of what it is—or might be. Perhaps what’s happening is akin to what happened back in the 1940s, when social scientists began to make extensive use of the term ‘ethnicity’ as an alternative to the more value-laden concept of race.

At our institute, we are looking to develop research and theory spanning contemporary immigration societies (especially in Europe) but also longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies (such as South Africa, India or Malaysia). How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’ shaping this agenda – or not?

I think it can. I mean, as I’ve already said, there are very few societies that aren't more diverse today than they were not so long ago, and so understanding what's happening in one place is in and of itself worthwhile. But understanding what's happening there in comparison to what's happening somewhere else is also important. Comparative analysis is important, but it's also difficult for a variety of reasons. You have to bring to the table a pretty rich and deep understanding of the history of particular societies, you have to know all about the current political/economic/cultural contexts, language differences, and the like—all sorts of things make it difficult. But that shouldn’t deter the effort. I have done comparative work, but I always limit myself to looking at liberal democracies. I'm more than comfortable comparing and contrasting the US and Canada or the US and the UK because in many ways the political systems and the societal cultures are sufficiently alike that these comparisons seem reasonable, and because I have a deeper familiarity with these particular societies. I always hesitated to make bigger comparisons, comparisons with countries like South Africa or Malaysia or some other place alongside western liberal democracies, partially because I don't know very much about these places, but also because I always am worried that whatever kinds of tools you're using to analyze what's happening in a liberal democracy might not be precisely the same tools needed to analyze quite different societies. You have to be cautious about that. This is not to say that such big comparisons are impossible, just that they are especially challenging, and an awareness of the challenges is in order. So the bottom line is simply that such research agendas ought to be encouraged, but you also need to understand the problems inherent in doing that kind of work.    

We come to the last question: from your perspective what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and methodological challenges currently facing ‘diversity’-related research?

One problem is that it has been shown that concepts don't translate across borders well all the time. Thus, what the word ‘integration’ means in one society or in one country might be different than its meaning in another place and you have to be cognizant of that. I think that one of the things that we need more of, and since we were just talking about comparative research, we need to have an ability to do two kinds of research. One of the things I've discovered is that if you look at European researchers and American researchers, they frequently operate rather differently. Sociologists and political scientists in the  United States like to employ large data sets. They like to do survey research, with fairly large sample sizes, etc. There's something important about that kind of work. When you look at  two major projects on the second generation—by Portes and Rumbaut and by Kasinitz and colleagues—you readily see the significance of such a methodological approach. The virtues of quantitative analysis are there. On the other hand, doing a more qualitative kind of research— a little more in depth, where you're interviewing in depth 20 people, 15 people, and doing participant observation, whatever—  seems to be an approach that you find far more frequently in Europe. And that's useful, too, but what would really be a good situation for this community of scholars to aspire to is that Europeans would do more research along American lines and Americans would do more research along European lines. First of all, you’d have a couple of different data sets, “triangulating your data” I guess is the way we could describe this, but you’d also then have an ability to do more comparative analysis.

One of the big challenges in working with diversity is that who the researcher is has to be considered in a way that it doesn't have to in some other kinds of research, or at least not to the same extent. What I mean by this can be illustrated with the case of social historians a generation ago. Most of them studied groups that they were members of.  I did my research on Finnish-Americans. What you have is this insider/outsider distinction that Merton long ago talked about. Insiders can have a kind of knowledge that is hard for outsiders to come by. On the other hand, insiders can have blinders because they're too familiar with the territory, and they can't look at their subjects in a fresh, new way, or they want to be overly protective, defensive, whatever. So there is a need for the outsider perspective, too, but then there are all kinds of limitations there because their ability to look at the group more dispassionately in a novel way is complicated by the fact they don't know a lot about the group. They may not have the linguistic skills to really get into the group, members of the group might view them with suspicion, and so forth. But these are inherent problems that we always have in this kind of work.

I would suggest that we should  spend more time trying to understand how ordinary people, everyday people--not  simply elites and leaders within communities—live their diversity: how they make sense of diversity in their everyday lives, how they interact with people both within their group or groups and with outsiders. That's actually harder to do than it seems because we don't always have ready access. Moreover, such research takes a lot of time, it's not quick. But  I think is a very important task in front of us. For example, when you think about Islam in Western Europe today, many people who are looking at the significance of Islam are using the pronouncements of various religious leaders to suggest that this is what ordinary Muslims think and believe. And it's not necessarily so. One of the key questions is: in terms of people's world views, how similar or how different are they? We can only assess that if we have data. And acquiring that data is, I think, one of the real challenges facing us in the future.

I think you're right. You're very much right. Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Gabriele Alex

Go to Editor View