Interview with Anne Phillips

(London School of Economics)

Anne Phillips is the Graham Wallas Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. She was previously Director of the LSE Gender Institute, one of the largest centres for gender teaching and research in Europe. Her publications include The Politics of Presence (1995), Multiculturalism without Culture (2007); Gender and Culture (2010); Our Bodies, Whose Property? (2013); and The Politics of the Human (2015). She holds honorary degrees from the Universities of Aalborg and Bristol. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2003 and of the (British) Academy of Social Sciences in 2012.

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The interview is about your conceptions of the idea of diversity and how it plays out in research. To start with, what does diversity mean to you by way of your work or your research? What does it mean to you?  

For myself I prefer the notion of difference to that of diversity. This is partly because diversity has become part of an administrative framework that frames antidiscrimination policies in the work place as a matter of equality and diversity, but in a rather empty way. I don't know if this is also true in Germany, but it is certainly the case in the UK. We are searching, I take it, for terms that capture a vision of a world in which people can be accepted and regarded as full equals but without having to assimilate to a single model of person or citizen. This is the kind of concern that lies behind the notion of diversity, but the wider resonance of the term has become associated with more managerial or administrative initiatives. This is a perennial problem with the terms we adopt, as we do not control the meanings that others may come to attach to them.

Actually, the second question is very much related to that. It is actually, if diversity is just a Zeitgeist term like a post-multiculturalism policy or a corporate tool for diversity management or whether it could actually be a concept that can help structure and advance social science?

Yes, that's the worry, that it becomes a corporate tool. But it's hard to come up with alternative terms that are so much better. In some of the work I've done, I've talked about gender equality and cultural diversity and have looked at tensions, but also areas of cooperation, between those two goals. We know there are many areas of conflict, but if you care about gender equality, it seems to me you cannot simultaneously insist on cultural homogeneity. If you object to the subordination of one sex to another, it seems to me that you must also be troubled by the subordination of members of one cultural or religious group to another. To that extent, you must be committed to at least some version of diversity. For me, this isn’t especially post- multiculturalism. In fact I have chosen to continue employing multiculturalism as a positive policy goal, partly because I am disturbed by the easy way in which the egalitarian aspects of multicultural policy have been repudiated in contemporary Europe, the all too rapid move to a more assertive nationalism. But just as diversity gets appropriated as a management tool, so does multiculturalism gets appropriated to describe a kind of parallel existence between self-governing communities that I do not favour. We don’t, as I say, control the meanings attached to the words we use. Diversity is prone to a depoliticization that takes it a long way from the meanings the Institute might want to attach to it. But if one knows there is a problem, hopefully one can deal with it.

So it is the problem of depoliticization of difference and inequalities?

Two things trouble me in the way in which diversity gets used. The first is the kind of emptiness and blandness in which we say “we're all for diversity and all for inclusiveness”, but don’t then translate this commitment into policies with any bite. So that is a depoliticization. The other thing that troubles me is that people may celebrate diversity in a way that reinforces essentialized differences. I’m thinking here of the understanding of diversity as a matter of including people who can represent difference, people who can bring with them the supposedly very different perspectives of their community. At one level, this is indeed what I want: instead of a world in which everyone in the workplace, or all the politicians, or everyone in the media speaks to and shares a single perspective, I want diversity. But when you think of this from the perspective of the people who then have to carry the burden of representing ‘their’ community, the people expected to bring the diversity, this way of understanding diversity can push them into a corner. They become incorporated as representatives of a particular identity group, as if everything about who they are and what they want to do is summed up in that one aspect of their identity. Some of the ways in which diversity gets used in a management or organizational context has this effect: we need a woman to add in ‘the woman’s point of view’ or a Muslim to tell us what Muslims think. This way of approaching diversity reinforces essentialized and stereotypical notions of cultural and other difference. So this is another of the troubles one has to work with.  

Here at the institute, we are looking to develop research and theory spanning contemporary immigration societies like Europe, but also longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies such as South Africa, India and Malaysia. How do you see the concept of diversity as shaping this agenda - or not?

The challenge facing much of Europe is having to think about one’s society more dynamically. We are in a world of transnational migration, and the need that I think everyone has for a sense of belonging then has to find a different focus, a different way of feeling ‘at home’. There has been migration in and across all parts of Europe for centuries, but this has accelerated in the last fifty years, and I expect that process to continue. I live in London, which now feels relatively at home with itself as a kind of global city: the election of Sadiq Khan as mayor is one illustration of that. But as the recent referendum result in the UK indicates, people’s experiences of and perceptions of diversity vary enormously even within one country. Interestingly, it seems that some of the strongest support for leaving the EU – which in the referendum campaign has been very much associated with immigration, hence with one’s perceptions of and attitudes towards diversity -  has been in parts of the country where there is relatively little diversity. People have reacted, that is, to diversity as fear rather than as reality. But that’s not all that is going on. It is also the case that immigration has, in some areas, resulted in separate communities living a more parallel existence, even when, in the larger cities, it has resulted in greater degrees of integration The issues vary within one country, and even more so if one looks worldwide. The degree of geographical segregation in South Africa, for example, is really stark. The policies of apartheid created a geography of separate – and very unequal -  communities, and it is now an enormous task to construct out of this the dream of the rainbow nation that inspired so many in the immediate years after the end of apartheid. The challenge there is of communities that have been living side by side in segregated, highly hierarchized, and racialized power relations. How, in that context, is it possible to create a world in which people can move more fluidly and more equally between and within very separated and segregated communities? The challenges, that is, vary. We live in a world of diversity, but the particular ways in which diversity represents itself vary, for each emerges out of a different historical path. I take it this one of the things that will come out of your research: that the challenges that come up in different countries and different periods vary, and throw up different kinds of policy initiative and priorities.  

I will now move to the final question, also related to research. From your perspective, whether academic, but also concerning your disciplinary background, what are a few key empirical, theoretical, but also methodological challenges currently facing 'diversity'-related research. What would be the pressing issues or challenges for you?

My response is shaped by many years of thinking about equality and diversity in relation to gender, where we always have this dynamic between wanting to say that gender difference is irrelevant and wanting to say “we are equal and different”. There are risks on both sides. If you insist of being equal but different, you risk reproducing and confirming existing assumptions about the degree to which men and women are genetically, socially or culturally different. There is a risk, that is, of simply reinforcing all the stereotypes. Yet if you insist on being recognized as a person, regardless of your gender, you seem to represent our identities as female and male as something we can easily set to one side. You also give the impression that the only way to be regarded as equal is to set aside these differences. The tension between an equality as sameness that seems to deny the salience of living in a male or female body, or an equality as difference that seems to endorse existing gender stereotypes, has been a perennial source of debate, discussion, and challenge within the feminist movement. To me, there are very similar challenges when we think about cultural, religious or ethnic diversity. We cannot make equality depend on pretending away the differences between us, because some of those differences really do matter, both as sources of people’s identity and as bases for the discrimination they currently face, and they need to be addressed in policy and politics. We need to be wary of a politics that argues for equality but makes this conditional on denying difference. But it is also problematic when we simply accept a stereotyped version of what these differences are, when we project an exaggerated notion of cultural, religious or ethnic difference, and take diversity to mean respecting what may be only our own fantasy of the difference.  I think we can learn a lot from the many years in which feminists have been struggling to think through equality in a context of difference, in a way that is neither equality as sameness nor difference as stereotype. For me, this is the key methodological and theoretical challenge. Feminist historian Joan Scott once said that the seeming contradiction between wanting to get ‘beyond’ sex difference and needing to insist precisely on that difference in order to mobilise against inequality was the constitutive paradox of feminism. That seems to me a useful way of thinking generally about the challenges of diversity.

And this very much relates to your talk today about how equality can be made conditional to ignoring differences.


Thank you very much. That was very interesting.

Interviewer: Julia Martínez-Ariño

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