Interview with Loren Landau


May 27, 2011

Loren B. Landau
is the Director of the African Center for Migration and Society (ACMS) (formerly Forced Migration Studies Programme, FMSP) at Wits University in Johannesburg, South Africa. With a background in political science and development studies, his work focuses on human mobility, development, and sovereignty.

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

For me diversity is about different ways of being in space, particularly in urban space, space that itself is shaped by people's backgrounds whether ethnic, class, race, political orientation. But it is not only this, but their aspirations: economic, social, sexual, or geographic. I think this is one of the areas that cities bring together people all of these different backgrounds with different trajectories and it is how they conflict or they don't, how people coordinate their actions or they don't, and how community emerges from these differences. This is what we are only beginning to understand, whether we are talking about a political or social community and the institutions and the mechanisms that promotes that a sense of conviviality or prevents it from coming to be.

And is ‘diversity’ just a Zeitgeist term – a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase or a corporate tool like ‘diversity management’, or can it be a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

I think any concept can be used for any of those purposes. It can be manipulated by corporations as a buzzword or it can be used as a social science tool. Diversity’s strength is the focus on difference – however defined – within a particular space or globally. But that is also one of its greatest weaknesses. Without clarification, we risk speaking past each other when we think we are speaking of the same thing. Take for example, gender diversity which is fundamentally different in many ways from diversity based on class. By lumping these together as a common category or phenomenon, we can hide the fact that there are often very different processes that are associated with creating those differences or come into play when they interact.

At the institute 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 or Malaysia). How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’ shaping this agenda – or not?

I think diversity as an object of research in itself is less interesting to me. What drives me, and why I have always studied migration, is what human mobility allows us to say about other things. If your interest is religion, what does it mean for example to have Nigerians or the Congolese opening a church in London? What does it mean for your community when Catholicism, the state religion in France and elsewhere, is being undermined or threatened by the Burka and Islam? What does it mean when a Pentecostal preacher in Johannesburg denies the authority of the state altogether or the rights of citizens to censor what he says? That to me is what's interesting: migration or diversity helps reveal something about the nature of power and politics. In that sense, it is useful as a heuristic, as a way to challenge preconceptions which are based on sedentary or stable societies. As an object of itself I don't know how far it gets us in these comparisons if it is not coupled with something else around which we have much greater theories and probably many more presumptions.

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?

One of the greatest challenges I think is that the discussions of diversity have been framed largely by the European, North American and maybe Australian examples. The whole debate around multiculturalism, discussions of integration when it comes to migrants – I think there are different intellectual starting points if you shift the geography of your gaze. The question for me is: is there a value added for the people in those areas—the areas where I do most of my work – from engaging with the European and North American experience or would we be better off to have a kind of autarchic, separate development approach.  As it is, we are typically demonstrating why Africa or Asia is or is not like Europe. Why, intellectually, should Europe be the reference point? In global term, the Euro-American experience is the exception. However, because of how knowledge is produced, we tend to think of it as the norm.

In terms of methods and theory building, one of the things that come through most clearly in my own research is the importance of space in structuring how diversity is practiced. And we are not talking there about comparing Mumbai with New York or Munich. We are talking about comparing two neighborhoods that maybe half a kilometer apart. And when you see such variations at that local level one begins to wonder what the value is of comparing with somewhere that is halfway around the world. This is one of the fundamental methodological issues for an institute that promotes a global perspective.

Having worked closely on issues that elicit strong popular opinions, I’ve come face to face with the ethics of researching diversity whether it's race, class, gender, sexual orientation. For those of us who are personally committed to promoting some vision of tolerance, we must always be wary of framing our research simply to contribute to contemporary political debates. Doing so turns us into activists and allows our research to be framed by what is often political nonsense. To do otherwise means risking irrelevance and financial support. We need to ensure that we come out with questions that are socially relevant but are also theoretically or intellectually driven. Doing that is a skill that few of us have in our stable.

Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Daniel Volkert

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