Interview with Ewa Morawska


November 27, 2009

Ewa Morawska is Professor for Sociology and Director of Sociology and European Studies.

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Professor Morawska, thank you very much for taking the time today to hold this interview with me. You are Professor of Sociology and co-director of the Graduate Program in Migration and Citizenship at the University of Essex. Could you explain what diversity means to you by way of your work and field of expertise?

Diversity is absolutely central to my work for two reasons: the nature of my research and the theoretical framework that informs it. My research practice can be called a comparative-historical ethnography, and each of its three components is premised on the assumption of the inherent multiplicity or polyvocality of the social world. And the theoretical approach I have used to interpret the findings of my comparative-historical studies, the structuration model --I talked about its application to research on international migration in a lecture given at the MPI in November 2009 -- is likewise founded on the notion of the inescapable diversity of the outcomes of interactions between dynamic and unavoidably “gappy” societal structures and ever-inventive social actors. Come to think of it, there may actually exist yet another reason for my emphasis on diversity, namely, the intellectual counter-reaction of a historian and an ethnographer to a proclivity for simplifying overgeneralizations in American immigration studies (and in American social sciences in general) which, after 30-odd years of residence in the United States, still serve as my primary reference framework. Considering all these factors, if there is a bias in my research, it is probably a tendency to highlight the “unsettledness” and diversity of sociocultural forms at the cost of identifying their steady common features. It is not that I preclude the existence of such commonalities; like Robert Merton, I do believe it is possible to formulate sound historical, that is, time- and place-bound generalizations. It’s just that my “natural” tendency is to bring out the polymorphic nature of the outcomes of social actors’ engagements with their environment.

So for the several reasons that you have just delineated, diversity is a concept that is essential in your research. Perhaps you could let us know how you define the notion.

I can tell you what kinds of diversity I look for in my investigations of the interplay between immigrants and their social surroundings. Because as a historical sociologist I always assume that the past matters to the present, I look for differences in the home-country heritages they bring with them, especially their economic, social, and cultural capitals, attachments, and obligations, and in the effects these attributes have on these people’s decisions to stay at home or migrate to this or another country , the modes of their adaptation to the society they settle in and forms of their transnational engagements. If proven wrong, that is, if I find out that immigrants’ home-country skills, orientations and practices had no impact on their migration decisions and activities in the receiver society, intrigued I look for the clusters of contributing circumstances that made it so. I also look for diversity in macro- and micro-level societal structures—economic, political, sociocultural—which immigrants negotiate as they  pursue their  goals.  Some of them are harder or less permeable than others and this hardness varies for different groups and different times  and different places. I also look for diverse forms and “contents” of immigrants transformative impact on the receiver society and, to the extent these newcomers maintain their transnational connections, also on their home societies.  Since the predominant interest of researchers in our field of study has been on how immigrants themselves change as they integrate into the host society, the latter, undoubtedly interesting, issue is still an under-investigated area. 

As you well know, the term diversity is being used in contemporary times, well pretty much all over the place. It's being used in the business world, in the political world. Do you think that it can be a tool that can help social scientist structure and advance their analyses?

‘Diversity’ has indeed become a vogue term and one hears it everywhere, also in the academic world where it has unavoidably fallen prey to “the logic of consumer capitalism” dictating that last-season’s fashions be discarded for new ones every few months. So it may become passé before the meanings and implications of this idea are more or less thoroughly probed. In the field of immigration studies, however, the notion of diversity can be expected to inform empirical research and theoretical discussions much longer than in other fields. This is because the diversity of the existing forms of immigrants’ adaptation in Europe and North American where this field of study has been most developed  has  not yet  been fully accounted for and  because (im)migration  into and across these Continents is still diversifying in kinds and directions. Furthermore and important, we still know virtually nothing  about  the conditions  international  migrants encounter and  modes of  their integration into receiver societies; considering  the  diversifying  impact of  their home-country heritages and  place-specific societal structures in  non-Western parts of the world which absorb  a huge fraction of worldwide migrations, this long overdue research  cannot but  enhance the notion of diversity  in the  field of  migration studies.  

So you think the term ‘diversity’ is one that is going to be with us for a while, even if it is just passing in other spheres of life.

Even if it would disappear from the media and other public forums, the idea of diversity should continue, I believe, to inform the study of international migration and its impact on the society we live in. I cannot imagine explaining the contemporary global or, better, glocal, world without this concept.

As you well know at the Max Planck institute we're attempting to develop research and theory spanning both contemporary immigration as well as longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies. How do you see the concept of diversity shaping this agenda?

When I received an invitation for a Visiting Professorship at the Max Planck Institute I was delighted to learn that the idea of diversity was the central issue of its programme. The notion of diversity as the “logo” of the Institute is great, but it still requires work – I know Steven and his team are well aware of it – to operationalize this concept, that is, to translate it into researchable questions. Diversity in what? Diversity in – I briefly repeat  what I said  earlier in reply to your question about my understanding of the term – in  the structural and agentic environments in which immigrants make their decisions to travel, in the enabling or constraining “baggage” they bring with them, in the societal structures they encounter in the receiver societies, in their resulting trajectories of incorporation into these societies and the forms of connections with their homelands, and in the transformative impacts immigrants have on the societies they leave and those they settle in. This list of issues related to diversity is obviously not exhaustive and should be expanded. The main point is that work is needed by the MPI researchers and their guests to specify a concrete research programme in diversity—for the next three years perhaps, after which it  will be reassessed and reformulated.

So, you think it is very important to spend some time and intellectual energy in trying to further specify the issues involved in researching diversity?

Yes, to operationalize it or to translate the concept of diversity into concrete research themes.

From your perspective, as a sociologist with a strong historical and anthropological, what do you see as being the key empirical theoretical and methodological challenges currently facing diversity research - apart from the need to further operationalize the field of study?

In addition to what I said above about the need to translate the base notion of diversity into specific research questions (to be reassessed one in a while), I’d suggest four directions of research. First, comparative studies--across time and/or across space, based on case studies or survey investigations—are strongly recommended as they are crucial for building our knowledge about different societal forms. Second, formulating historical, even tentative, generalizations on the basis of the comparative investigation of diversity is recommended as it significantly enhances the strength of the study without undermining the recognition of the multiplicity of social patterns. Third, it would be helpful to review—perhaps reformulate—the existing theories that are compatible with the premise of diversity so that the researchers can choose one or compile from the available models the interpretive approach most suitable for their data (I suggested the structuration framework, but I am sure there are other theoretical approaches worthy consideration). And fourth, inter-disciplinary discussions about the treatments of similar problems--I mean debates, not running side-by-side conference presentations or papers authored by representatives of different disciplines -- can be very helpful in clarifying concepts and approaches and broadening perspectives of the researchers who, embedded in their field-specific research and theoretical agendas, perceive certain things and ask certain questions and do not perceive and ask others.

Professor Morawska, thank you very much.

Interviewer: Christiane Kofri

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