Interview with Sarah Neal

(University of Surrey, UK)

December 26, 2013

Sarah Neal is Professor of Sociology at the University of Sheffield.

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What does ‘diversity’ mean to you by way of your own work and field of expertise?

I come from a race and ethnicity background and certainly the concept of diversity and superdiversity as it’s being developed through Steve’s work and taken up by various scholars and researchers has been really helpful in that it’s a contribution to how we talk and think about race and ethnicity. And in some ways it’s interrupted by how we were using the categories race and ethnicity and migration and allowed our opening out. Certainly in the UK context debates about race and ethnicity and diversity had become very polarized by concerns around cohesion and segregation. In some ways superdiversity captured very profound changes that took place in the twenty-first century. In the UK context that started at the very end of the last century with the  Stephen Lawrence inquiry , marking a shift of race politics in Britain. And then that was halted again perhaps by the riots and disorders in the Northern towns and Ted Cantle’s report about cohesion and parallel lives and this idea of very fixed communities that didn’t interact, that didn’t come together, that led separate lives. Itpushed forward a policy agenda which is all about cohesion and an idea that in order to be part of British multiculturalism you had to behave in particular ways and sign up to a particular set of values. I think something like new migratory flows that we can understand as underpinning superdiversity did disrupt that. And so some of those flows were of course from Eastern Europe, some were from countries around the globe that hadn’t been part of the earlier migration moves that were part of the colonial legacy. So very complex populations were beginning to be formed because of new migrations but also complex populations were beginning to be formed because of older and established migrant communities becoming socially mobile, becoming more fragmented themselves, becoming more diverse and differentiated and moving spatially I suppose from those old urban centers which we associated with ethnicity and multiculture in the south of London and Birmingham and Manchester and Bristol and so on. And that was beginning to be pushed away as people from minority communities began to move to suburbs and smaller towns and outside of those old maps of ethnic settlements. So superdiversity seems to come at a really interesting time and seems to be a really helpful concept to think about what was happening in urban England but also beyond urban England as well. So it’s an idea of flux and churn and things happening quite quickly and complex populations and being very adherent in more places than it had been in the twentieth century. So for me coming from a race and ethnicity background that’s been in a really helpful valuable way of thinking about what might be going on and about the impact of complex populations in places I’m working on at the moment in two projects.

Is ‘diversity’ just a Zeitgeist term and how do you assess the capacity of the term for advancing social science?

Conceptually diversity/superdiversity works as a troublemaker concept if you like. It immediately reflects populations and places as being unfinished. It emphasizes that populations and identifications and localities or places are always in processes of arrival or becoming and. In that way superdiversity is significant because it gets to the idea that nobody can be untouched by human mobility, that we’re all caught up, that nations and identifications and identities will all be caught up and shaped by processes of mobility and migration. Nobody’s untouched by it. It's like early nineties maybe late eighties when they argued that we’re all migrants now. I think superdiversity is a coming extension of that Stuart Hall idea that we’re all part of human mobility even those people who never have been migrants. So I think the superdiversity phrase entailsthat multiple composite identities and that national identities are always something that’s going to be contested. Local identities are always something that’s going to be contested and unfixed.

Do you think the concept is here to stay?

I guess the kind of human mobility has been always something that seems to be needed to be governed and regulated and controlled and contained.I guess that’s part of the contestation and that’s part of the big struggle if you like between human mobility and then governments and policy makers and organizations and local population's contestations about mobility. There are ideas of how very complex populations can be managed, people argue and campaign on those ideas and on entitlements to access essential goods. And what is the lived experience of experiential aspects of diversity like we have in a couple of towns.Human mobility is a driving force of human aesthetic. So that’s not going to stop. That’s I think the converse of attempts to control and contain that and how successful or not and how brutal and draconian those can be. It’s always going to be part of the argument. But there are differences in the level and intensity in such a rapid nature of the change. Sometimes internal migratory movement, within national boundaries, can be as huge as the migration that come across national boundaries. So you have to think about movement within nation states as well as across nation states. It’s always kind of creating this churn and unfinishedness of populations and places.

Certainly my work is within the UK and that has shaped and framed my work But what I’ve been struck by is the need to think about how multiethnic nations have worked with that idea in a much longer framing in places like Singapore or Malaysia or some of the African countries that you mention and that they’re not transitioning in a way. If you think of the UK, the UK has always had significant migrations, they’ve become bigger, greater, more intense during the twentieth century and the twenty-first century. But clearly there are nations that could be multicultural and multiethnic from the beginning. So in some ways we need to look outside of Europe in the European context and see what’s happening and what’s the nature of the arguments, the policy interventions, the political struggles in these nation states which have a long history and being multiethnic had never had that sense of transitioning. So to be nonparochial as researchers and to be not too constantly preoccupied about what’s happening within the particular national context we’re working in. 

At a conference a couple of weeks ago we were talking about diversity commissions and there were contributions from Singapore and Malaysia and Australia and Canada – it was really striking – about the different ways in which this national context we're engaging with structures the debates and how commissions are being set up to address diversity or religious diversity. I was struck by the colleague who was talking about Malaysia And the idea of enabling community conviviality sounded not unlike some of the debates and taking place in a kind of context of urban England. There are clear connections as well as obvious distinctions. So it is also important to look at that. You can't get really fixed on a particular setting that you're working in and researching.

From your perspective what are a few of the key empirical, but also methodological challenges? to research diversity?

There is a whole range of political or ethnical as well as research design challenges around investigating what diversity means, how it's lived, how it's responded to. I suppose there are broader challenges about what is the relationship of research to the social world, how do we enter the social world, how we're in the social world as researchers in thoughtful, careful ways and certainly how do we capture and access very complex lives effectively as well as responsibly is the dilemma that we need to think about very attentively as social researchers. That means working through research design and the idea that I was talking about in my presentation of complex lives and how  researchers need to adopt complex methods and complex design in terms of their projects. Researchers are describing the projects that I'm involved in as: 'Oh, it sounds so complicated and so busy' and actually that's completely necessary because if we didn't have complex design we didn't have what has beencalled multiple vantage points. If we weren't drawing on all this kind of skills and tools and combinations of methods that we have at our disposal we won't be good researchers because we can't think that we can easily capture or hear or understand what participants are explaining to us if we didn't have all those complex ways of listening and trying to listen in more effective ways. For me the question is: what happens then? What happens when we've collected our data, when we've been in the field, when we've been amassed, when we've built up relationships with the people that way, working with the participants. Where do we go with that. And I guess this sort of academic social research, academic output is one side of that. But clearly, there are other important and necessary ways to engage with dissemination and talking about the work: the data of a family, the interpretations that we've made about data. So for me an ongoing struggle is how – you know, as a qualitative worker I am sort of committed to imagine and research relationships – that once those are established how do we then exit those social worlds that we've been investigating. How do we leave them responsibly and what happens to those social relationships that you've built up as a researcher. So complicated geographies need complicated research design, need in-depth extended careful responsible research relationships to be built up. But how do we then dissemble those research relationships once the projects are finished. And that's the nature of our work. We work with two year, three year, five year projects. I think for older ethnographies ten years were not necessarily an unusual timeline for a project.

Quite intense disclosures are made to you when you're interviewing or talking or saying or being involved and then this has an impact. If you weren't moved emotionally or politically about what you were hearing, what you listened to and you were seeing that also would be wrong. So I think the idea that we can be objective or detached is clearly something that we should be aiming to do and to achieve. But that does have an impact in terms of how we manage our relationships in the field. It is the first time I'm working with schools, working with eight-, nine-year-old children and that's been interesting because again the intensity of the relationship is really apparent. I'm working with a researcher and she gets into school twice a week and I go once a week. Every time she goes in without me it's just: 'The children were asking for you Sarah'. So certainly working with different participants means that you have different levels of connection. When you are working with policy makers or activists or community organizers it can clearly shape the nature of the relationship and that's different to fieldwork with the children or fieldworking with people in informal social life. So I also conduct research withleisure organizations, doing mobile or walking interviews with people around their area. This is something I experienced: walking with people in the park and they meet someone they know and they introduce you and everything's shifting. As a researcher you're completely decentered as you enter into a participant's life and through this technique of the mobile interview if you like and I think that's fascinating as well having the privilege to enter into someone's life for a little bit of time and being introduced and being of that is really important. We need to think about how can I be here as a social researcher and at what point are we being intrusive? What is the right way to go and as people about their sort of personal worlds, that sort of micro of people's friendships and micro of the personal lives which are embedded in the more macro social world.

Interviewing children to me is really interesting because they're much more direct. Sometimes you aks a question and they just say – 'no' or they said: 'yes'. I think with adults you can coax and craft and encourage them toget the conversation going. You have to think at the beginning of an interview you can see that it probably happened here. That takes a bit of time to warm up and built a kind of relationship but then once that dynamic gets going it happens quite quickly. An interview can be a very intimate setting, a very intimate conversation, of sharing and somebody listening. But with children they're quite at ease and they get bored. You must think about activities to do in the interview to keep things going to prompt the conversation. So you have to be a bit more inventive with kids. I guess that's the other thing. We're always learning as social researchers. That identification that you might have as social researcher has always got to be similarly open and better to take on board lessons and experiences and change according to those.

Thank you.

Interviewer: Maria Schiller

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