Interview with Kim Knott

(Lancaster University)

March 13, 2009

Kim Knott is Professor of Religious and Secular Studies at Lancaster University.

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These are the questions and I think we go through them and you take as much or as little time as you think. So the first question: What does diversity mean to you by way of your work and field of expertise.

Well, it's a term I've used for a long time. So in the mid-seventies when I was first a research student in the University of Leeds where I was studying and where I still work we were establishing a group, a research group called the Community Religions Project and it was the aim of the project or one of the aims was to work on religions in the local area region of West Yorkshire. The reason for doing that was because even by then Leeds was so quite evidently a multicultural, multireligious and multiethnic place. So the thinking was that actually by looking at the locality we could not only study multiple forms of Christianity but we could also explore religions in their local context, religions that normally we would've only been able to look at either by making lengthy field trips to other parts of the world or in the library. We could engage with Hinduism in the library but very often we'd be engaging with some kind of text book for Hinduism in the library whereas here we would be able to go to the local Hindu temple and explore what Gujarati and Panjabi Hindus – some of whom had come direct from India, some had come via east Africa as twice migrants – you know, what they will make of Hinduism and how they shaped in that local context of being in Leeds. So we set up this project called the Community Religious Project which still exists and students are still working on these … some of these kinds of issues. But it was quite obvious that we needed to find ways of talking about the multiplicity of cultures that were present locally and different ethnic groups who are present locally and I would say that the word diversity is one that we use from very early on in that process but not with giving much weight to it, merely to express a notion of plurality. But rather than … I think maybe we did sometimes use the term plurality but it became problematic quite quickly to use the term plurality because many scholars very quickly started to use – and I've seen German scholars do this as well – use plurality and pluralism interchangeably. So they would be using the term pluralism which I personally like to reserve or speaking about a particular kind of ideology of people engaging and working together living alongside one another or whatever. They would be using the term pluralism to speak about the array of groups we could find in a local context, in any particular context. So we prefer the term diversity because that term diversity didn't signal, it couldn't be confused with some kind of ideological view that it was a good thing to bring about a society where people are engaged in a particular way or whatever. So I think we chose the term diversity as I say we weren’t  putting a lot of weight on it but  was being used in preference to other terms. So I would say that right from early on even maybe from the middle of the 1970s we did use this term but I … until people started to really use it: Steve in the context of super diversity and some other people in preference to multicultures and multiculturalism … I haven’t  really given  much thought as to whether it is a good term in other ways. So that's probably the  kind of history of my engagement with the term.

So the second question is: is diversity just a zeitgeist term, a post multiculturalism policy catchphrase 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?

This is tricky … this is quite a tricky question. I think any concept has the potential to become a zeitgeist term. So for example maybe multiculturalism I think maybe some people didn't expect it to take off in the way that it did. You know these kind of things have … start at scientific concepts that we can work with and we can think they have some power, some explanatory power and then they get taken up in policy circles and then they take on a life of their own in contesting particular theories about the way we go, about making social relations work in a public context or some theories about how cultures relate to one another or challenging the reification of culture or whatever. So any term I think has that potential. Will diversity be a term like that? I don't think. I don't see it. I don't think it's as likely to become a term like multiculturalism where again it's the ism-part, it's that ideological inflexion which really has been – what in English we would say a red rag to a bull, something which attracts critical engagement and deep contestation and so on. So I'd be surprised if diversity became a term like that but I can see that probably in the way that I said within the early mid-seventies we used it often in opposition to other highly charged or potentially highly charged terms, in that case pluralism. And diversity could be used maybe because it is precisely … appears to be a more neutral term that does not bring with it ideal or a particular kind of ideological baggage which certainly multiculturalism now does both in academic circles and in political circles.

But the point that it would help to structure and guide analysis… I mean, from what you said it it's good because it's not loaded with meaning as in pluralism …

and multiculturalism, yes

… multiculturalism. It's a more open … It's not already shadowed by all these other meanings that have been given to these terms over the last years. But for social analysis do you think it's useful, do you think it could change the way people look at whatever plurality by using a new term?

Well, there are two other terms I might also draw into the discussion here. One would be difference and the other would be intersectionality which is another very popular term now. And I think obviously however we see the term diversity being used it is used in a context where we are still debating the tension between cultural difference … not just cultural … social and cultural difference and social cohesion. So whereas  societies – particularly in Europe but not only in Europe – where we are trying to figure out how we can respect cultural differences and at the same time how societies work where people are not existing in parallel but were they are willing to engage with one another. So the term holds the idea of difference which was once certainly intellectually a very very popular concept. It's kind of tempered  these days with a recognition that difference like multicultures could imply communities, groups, cultures existing in parallel without engaging with one another. So I suppose diversity might still have the same problem. It might still … because I don't think there is anything intrinsic about the word diversity which is suggestive of social cohesion. So diversity like difference is possibly like multicultures, not so much the … where you add the ism to the end of that word. There is still the potential there for a critique from the perspective of a social cohesion agenda that it might reify difference, celebrate complexity without actually requiring communities to connect or engage with one another. So I am not sure it gets round that key social problem, set of problems that we have around squaring cultural difference and social cohesion. So I am not sure how useful it could be. Having said that I think we still will need terms which do the work of describing, certainly so just to use it as a descriptive term first of all describing our social complexity. And used alongside a term like intersectionality which brings in to play the idea that diversity isn't just an endless list of differences but layered differences which cross over one another and might exist within the same individual or the same group or whatever. I think so with other terms it could perhaps be a useful descriptive term. Could it be a useful  analytical term? I'm looking to Steve to see what he does  with it, see if it can become that. But I think a theoretical agenda would have to be built round it in order for  that to happen. I think that's, the potentials there to do that, I don't think there's anything intrinsically about the word diversity that necessitates that happening. I think it can still have and I think it does still have a kind of … Capacity is a fairly unloaded term to do the work of describing that kind of social difference within any given society. But of course that doesn't take away from the fact that at the moment in certain policy circles diversity is doing the work of the old term multiculturalism which it certainly is. Where do we go next?

At the Max Planck Institute and Max Planck Society we are looking to develop research and theories spanning contemporary immigration societies especially in Europe and longstanding multiethnic and multireligious societies such as South Africa, India, Malaysia. How do you see the concept of diversity shaping this agenda or not?

That's not a very easy question. Probably should have spent a bit more time thinking about that. I certainly think the idea of looking at the linkages and maybe thinking comparatively about these different types of societies maybe  even trying to draw some lessons or find some answers by looking at these longstanding plural societies or whatever we want to call them. I think that's a very useful idea. I think that's a really good idea and I'm really pleased, Steve, and others have decided to do that thing. That's a really good idea. How useful … . I think the term diversity can span those different kinds of societies, ones which are predominantly the receivers of new groups of immigrants and those that have been multiethnic, multicultural, multireligious over many generations. I think the term diversity can work to cross the boundary between those two different types of societies. But again I think it will need some theoretical purchase to make it work in those two different kinds of context because they're evidently historically as well as sociologically, politically, legally very different types of societies. So one could see that a term like diversity could mask some of those differences because it could be applied in either context. One of the dangers would be that it might mask important historical, state-based, legal types of difference between newer migration societies and older longstanding plural societies. So a challenge would be to develop a diversity theory in such a way that that doesn't happen. I mean I'm not sure how that would best be done but I think it could be a danger. In a way you do use a term, one term across very different kinds of social formation. I can't think of anything else to answer that right now.

So this is the last question. 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?

Primarily I'm a religion scholar. So diversity is a term that will do for thinking about societies in which … – or societies or places or cities or whatever it might be – in which there are a number of different religious organizations present representing to some extent different religious traditions, specific branches or groupings of those religions. So any perspective I would have on diversity would be at least in part from that perspective but I've also always been interested in issues about ethnicity and caste and class. So again those intersections remain for me very important. That doesn't make much sense to me to look at one without also thinking about the other but certainly in terms of what my own personal knowledge base is and therefore some of the skills I've got, it's around those issues of religious diversity. One of the things religion scholars can do is they can unpack what sometimes look like to outsiders and religious study scholars may have  themselves contributed  to this but look like kind of monolithic whole religious traditions like we've so often see Islam being referred to as a monolithic entity in the media because that's how it's so often represented whereas in fact … We know also from the media but only partially that there're enumerable groupings within that. So one of the things that religion scholars can contribute is a knowledge of the complexities within these what we have often been depicted as kind of reified as religious traditions with often taking the model let's say of Catholicism whereas there is an overarching authority and some sense in which one could talk about a single institution. So religion scholars can actually help to unpack some of the diversities within those broad groupings. And we don't tend to have those kind of  broad big reifications when it comes to ethnicity or some other forms of identity. So it's a special problem that occurs around the hardening of the boundaries around religious identity, around the identity politics surrounding religion and around the historical constitution of the concept of religion that we've had in Europe and then export it elsewhere. So we've been part of the problem but we can also be part of the solution in terms of understanding and unpacking the complexity that lies within that. And the term diversity certainly can have application there so religions are internally very diverse. I think the other thing about that is that I think because of the problem about – I mentioned earlier – about difference and social cohesion that increasingly on the policy agenda is the issue of connecting communities not just describing phenomena logically or recognizing internal differences or you know, whether those differences are ethnic or cultural in some other way or religious specifically religious. It's about engaging communities despite their differences around a common agenda or whatever that might be. In the UK it's often around the agenda of urban regeneration for example but it might be around the agenda of some kind of educational agenda or investment in health or whatever it might be. So I suppose the question for any kind of diversity theory will be also taking seriously a policy commitment to these issues about connecting communities. So that's certainly I think a big agenda in the UK how to what extent government will really be able to fund research on this I'm not sure but I certainly there the research council is certainly talking about. They are not talking about research on diversity. They are aware that such diversity exists. They are much more interested in how to respond to that diversity than they are in having it theorized. So I think anybody who is investing in research on diversity also needs to know how that development of theorization of diversity is going to be able to engage with a policy agenda of social cohesion and connecting communities. It doesn't take away from the problems I think raised back in the middle of the 1990s by Gerd Baumann when he talks about the reification of cultures of community and so on. That I think will remain a problem in policy discourse for a long time. So again another challenge for people working on diversity will be not to harden the boundaries of community boundaries represented within any kind of portrayal of diverse identities, diverse communities, diverse cultures or whatever it might be. So what are the units constituted by this diversity is always going to be a question. You know: diverse what? Does that make sense? Diverse what – and then once you start to put something in the 'what'-place then the issues still could be there of the reification of communities or cultures or religions or whatever it might be. So, 'diverse what' I think could still be a bit of an issue.

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Gabriele Alex

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