Interview with Matthias Koenig


June 19, 2009

Matthias Koenig is Professor at the Institute for Sociology, Georg August Universität Göttingen.

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I am sitting here with Prof. Matthias Koenig from University of Göttingen, Department of Sociology, and we've got four questions for you. The first question runs as: what does ‘diversity’ mean to you by way of your work and field of expertise?

In a preliminary way, one could perhaps define the concept of ‘diversity’ as a social condition characterized by the co-existence of people with different cultural conceptions of world, society and self, notably with different, if partly overlapping, collective identities. Whether such co-existence is peaceful or not is left open in this definition, and it is also broad enough to capture the various dimensions of diversity including religion, language and ethnicity. At the same time, the definition is narrow in the sense that it excludes what we typically call social inequality, a term that highlights differential access to economic resources, political power, or social status. I find it important to keep diversity and inequality analytically separate, because how the two are related and intersect is actually one of the most interesting and politically crucial empirical questions. In my own work, which in regional terms mostly focuses on contemporary Europe, I have studied how religious pluralization induced by international migration translates into new politics of difference that are transforming church-state-relations, citizenship rights, and national identities.

Right, that's a nice and narrow definition. So the second question: is diversity just a Zeitgeist term – a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase (as for example 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?

The term ‘diversity’ does indeed react to a certain exhaustion of the multiculturalism discourse in public and scientific debates, an exhaustion that is not only attributable to a ‘return to assimilation’ but also to deep conceptual problems of that discourse. The term ‘multiculturalism’ has always oscillated between descriptive, normative philosophical and policy related dimensions.  Speaking of ‘multiculturalism’ as a description of social reality is not the same as defending a normative model according to which ‘thick’ cultural identities should be recognized within a democratic polity or designing public policy strategies to pragmatically accommodate for diversity. Against this, the term ‘diversity’ has the advantage of focusing unambiguously on factual socio-cultural phenomena while treating philosophical principles and policy issue under separate concepts including ‘pluralism’, ‘accommodation’, ‘associationalism’, ‘governance of diversity’ etc. The term thus draws attention away, at least initially, from normative controversies and encourages the sustained empirical analysis of the ways in which people from different cultural backgrounds actually live together. Having said this, I would like to stress that the term diversity hasn’t yet achieved the degree of technical elaboration as other established concepts in the social sciences. So the danger of conceptual vagueness that you are mentioning does exist. Perhaps we should therefore conceive of diversity as a sensitizing concept rather than as a term which already comes along with an articulated theory. Actually, many of the questions underlying research on diversity relate to old theoretical problems in the social sciences. Think of the following core questions of sociological theory: Does social interaction require shared horizons of meaning? Does social integration depend on common value commitments or is a consensus on formal procedures for collective action and conflict-resolution sufficient? What the concept of diversity does is sensitize for a range of new phenomena in contemporary societies, notably the struggles for recognition by various sorts of minorities that might challenge us to rethink some of the received wisdoms on these theoretical problems.  

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 maybe not?

I think 'diversity' is a very good umbrella term for this agenda since it captures very different phenomena that were previously categorized in separate disciplinary fields of research, including migration studies, ethnic-conflict studies, political sociology of plural societies, and post-colonial studies. I think it is very important to have such an umbrella term, since it encourages us to draw comparisons between the many varieties in which different collectivities may coexist within a given social context. Regional comparisons between European and non-European multiethnic and multi-religious societies are particularly important under conditions of globalization; indeed I myself have profited enormously from studying the dynamics of language policy in post-Soviet nation-states of Central Asia with their mix of formerly hegemonic Russian minorities and new titular nationalities. For Europeans who still lend universal aspiration to their historically entrenched polity models, there is much to learn from other experiences in finding common ground under conditions of deep diversity. In addition to such regional comparisons, the term diversity also permits to engage in historical comparisons of polity models in which diversity is articulated: city-states, empires with their highly pluralistic, yet hierarchical modes of diversity, nation-states, and supra-national composite polities such as the European Union. So comparing diversity across regional contexts, across historical settings and also across the dimensions of diversification (ethnicity, religion, language etc.) is a very useful research agenda indeed. However, if we want not only to describe, but also to explain these various patterns of diversity, their representations and their economic and political implications, we need, in a second step, to take on board additional conceptual tools and theoretical traditions.

Do you have any idea how that would look because that I think really is the one million dollar question? How would you conceptualize anything that goes into the second step?

I think, for the time being, it is hard to give an answer that would fit all the various sub-fields in which important research on diversity is being conducted. While as I said it is certainly important to open up these fields for greater inter- and transdisciplinary exchange, my sense is that much fruitful research will continue to be oriented towards disciplinary rooted problématiques. Consider sociology’s literature on nationalism and citizenship in which immigration and cultural diversification have been addressed as crucial factors contributing to far-reaching macro-institutional and cultural transformations. Or consider the economic literature on the impact of diversity or ‘fractionalization’ on growth, disparities, and other economic indicators; or political science debates over consociational democracies, or anthropology where the day-to-day negotiations of identity and otherness are centre stage. All these literatures are shaped by distinctive research questions, theoretical traditions, and methodological techniques. Building up encompassing theoretical explanations of variably patterns of diversity will require, at least at an initial stage, starting from within these existing research traditions and broadening their scope conditions successively. In the long run, it may be hoped that this will ultimately lead to common vocabularies and understandings that allow for easy cross-disciplinary fertilization. Contemporary discussions about social and symbolic boundary-making processes might be a promising attempt to build such bridges between various research traditions.

The forth question is: From your perspective or your expertise/discipline/country/intellectual tradition, what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and/or methodological challenges currently facing ‘diversity’-related research?

Some of the more general challenges I already mentioned. First, we generally need more nuanced descriptions of varying forms of diversity. Second, once we have mapped these socio-cultural patterns of diversity, we need to engage in explanatory theory-building, analyzing for instance the conditions for diversity’s greater or lesser coupling with social inequality, or its greater or lesser propensity for conflict. To highlight some more specific challenges, let me come back to the symbolic boundary approach which currently attracts wide attention in the social sciences. Patterns of diversity are here characterized by several properties of boundaries, e.g. their degrees of stability, politicization or cultural differentiation. Explaining these properties requires reconstructing the boundary making strategies of various actors whose action is, in turn, enabled and constrained by situational conditions, institutional frameworks, power relations and the like. A specific challenge in this context is to grasp the situation-specific salience of various cultural distinctions such as ethnicity or religion. When and why are latent differences activated in social interaction and become constitutive of potentially conflicting groups? Or how can manifest differences be de-activated through institutional design and policy-making? Understanding these dynamics of nested diversities is crucial for the more general question that lurks behind most research about diversity, i.e. the question how political communities are formed and how political allegiances are sustained which in liberal democracies by necessity require a minimum degree of commonality. In other words: how is a deeply diverse demos possible? This question which has been hotly debated in political philosophy implicitly motivates quite substantial portions of social scientific research on diversity. What makes this question provocative is that it challenges those conventional images of the demos that are still highly impregnated by the classical model of the nation-state. Taking up this challenge has become a central motif of my own research where I study modes of governing diversity that precisely go beyond classical arrangements that were formed in modern state-formation and nation-building processes. Human rights that have been globally institutionalized in international law and transnational advocacy networks are a prominent example in that respect. Their continuing evolution shows the complexities of balancing individual rights, group rights, and social cohesion. And, once more, comparative research on their context-specific interpretation and adaptation shows how beneath seemingly similar trends of rights-based constitutional design, policy-making or judicial arbitration highly variable models of cultural diversity continue existing whose logics and dynamics we haven’t yet sufficiently understood.

Thank you very much, that was really inspiring!

Interviewer: Gabriele Alex

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