Interview with Bruno Riccio


Bruno Riccio is Researcher and Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology, Social Anthropology and Anthropology of migration at the University of Bologna.

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What does diversity mean in your field of expertise, for your work?

It’s a very immature way of getting around this concept because I never use diversity as an analytical term. For me, it is a term meaning a situation, a setting or a context characterised by various interconnected or crosscutting processes of diversification. Let's for instance look at Senegalese associations or West African associations in Italy. I think this is a setting of diversity, but it is also a product of various trajectories of diversifications stemming as much from the interplay with different local contexts as from being involved in different kinds of transnational projects in the sending context. But then what struck me in that research, for instance, was the fact that you could find a single migrant belonging to very different kinds of associations: national, religious, ethnic and village associations. I would call this diversity: the fact that you can be situationally identified as belonging to different kinds of organisations. So it's something similar to Yuval-Davis’ concept of intersectionality, the fact that you are German, trained in Britain, that you're young, male, from the south and working in Northern Germany; juggling with various criteria of categorisation. Diversity evokes to me this kind of setting.

You are talking about two different levels there. On the one hand you are talking on an identification level, on a personal level, and on the other hand you are talking more on a descriptive level about either associations or groups, i.e. different categories in a society.

Yes. This is a true distinction. When I think about the word 'diversity', I think of a sociological gaze. I wouldn't say necessarily a bird's eye point of view but it's someone looking at a morphological situation. This situation is made by people, and so analytically you can separate the fact that diversity is made by people through processes of identification, diversification and so on and so forth - but then we go beyond the word diversity. But it is true; it is not the same thing.

So it really has been a more descriptive term so far for you and it is very strongly linked to social and cultural processes; to things that change. It is permanently in flux.

Yes. Whereas sometimes when we talk about difference, although we do difference, it evokes something more static, if you like. But it is a more descriptive term for me. Therefore, I buy from this institute the fact that it can name a field. A field, I said: a situation, setting, context. But the concept field is very good because it has two meanings: it is a field of research but it also evokes a scenario. So, I think it can become perhaps an analytical term if there is a lot of flesh provided by ethnographic and sociological research giving instances, examples to this field.

You also said something interesting in your first elaboration: that is that diversity is something about interaction with the local context, about locality. It is interesting that you came from this angle because the institute is also trying to look into other diversities which aren't necessarily influenced by migration.

Yes, and I think this is a very strategic move. Let's talk again - because we are all biased by our own work experience – about Italy. I could also take Senegal but let's take Italy for a moment. It was a “multicultural” society much before knowing a meaningful international and transnational immigration. History stratified different cultures and classes, there were foreign influences. So I think it is very important to study diversity by connecting to the multilayered nature of contemporary society, so not just focusing on migration. Migration is a process that produced changes and diversification but it is not the only one. By focusing on diversity in itself we juggle with migration in interconnection with other social phenomena that produce diversification. When we were talking about Brighton (UK), I said it is interesting because there are multiple generations, generally it's family-friendly, but it's also the capital of gay-pride, it's also for young students and international ones, but also for elderly people because it's a classical retirement venue and so on. So this is diversity, although it's pretty white. So you see diversity is not necessarily synonymous with race, different religions, or differences of migration. There are other sociological categories to take into account in exploring diversity.

So would you say that the concept of diversity, if it is a concept, is actually shaping the recent agenda of the institute in a positive way in that it also takes these other dimensions into account?

Absolutely. What is important from a theoretical and methodological point of view is to start to sketch a first conceptual framework. I personally like the three keywords shaping this preliminary conceptual frame that's going to become perhaps more nuanced and sophisticated along with the results of the different research projects. Encounters, to me, that means interplay, interaction and power relations. So it can be accommodation but at the same time it is an asymmetric relation. Representation: reciprocal representation, dominant representation, the sphere of ideologies and so on. First of all it’s good to start with figurations or configurations. Figuration is a very old concept. It actually was born from Norbert Elias, was interpreted by the Manchester school and it's one of the concepts that gives structure and agency at the same time if you want. But it looks at something wider –hosting diversity if you like, i.e. the political economy, the law, the opportunity structure – different aspects that are hosting the setting you are analysing. So, I see that these three perspectives or points of view already help to draw up the field that is going to become more and more precise as long as it has empirical evidence to connect to. But, having said that, it's good not to start - from my point of view - with a very narrow definition. This is perhaps because I'm an anthropologist, because I'm inductive. But if you have too strict a definition, sometimes you can suffocate the empirical reality you want to explore. At the end of the day this institute is run by two anthropologists, and then these aspects make sense for me.

Ok. So far we've been talking very positively about diversity as a name for a field, as something that triggers interesting questions. But we can also think of it just as another zeitgeist-term, as another fashionable term to use for concepts, as you have pointed out, that have been around for some time; configurations have been there, encounters - you named them interactions - have been there, network studies...

Why not complexity for instance?

Yes. Why not complexity? Why not plurality? Like there are other terms out there. So if you see it from that angle, does diversity actually advance social science analysis?

That's difficult to say in advance. I think this is a question that needs to be answered after 3-4 years of research. If I remember correctly, diversity is also in the everyday marketing world, and in policy talk as a substitute for multiculturalism. There has been a crisis of multiculturalism. But then again, multiculturalism was a concept capturing very different interpretations and meanings: weak and strong multiculturalism, multiculturalism compartmentalised, or multiculturalism as actually just a descriptive term and so on. But for me, diversity more clearly evokes the cutting across of boundaries made by units. I think diversity is not a precisely analytical concept, but in not being precise, I think it's got some precise aspect. It cuts across common-sense boundaries - splitting and separating the different units of analysis. I think it comes from the attempt to going beyond methodological nationalism, beyond the ethnic lens, beyond the culturally bounded concept, beyond a lot of things. Obviously it's the product of the fact that academia has to invent new concepts for the way of looking at things, and to do policy-oriented research. But as Weber already told us, there is nothing in social science that is not historically bound somehow. I think that this is the time of diversity somehow. Or it is the revival of diversity. Because even within the Roman Empire, and amongst the classic historians or philosophers of the ancient classic period in Greece as much as in Roman Latin literature, you've have data on diversity and plurality. So it is not necessarily new, but the way it is presented now is new. And it is stemming from the need to go beyond a concept like multiculturalism on the one hand, or assimilation and integration here in Germany on the other; and giving a less loaded concept. It cannot be criticised for the opposite reason. It is not a precise positivist analytical concept, at the same time it is not an overloaded concept. And this is the “weapon of the weak”, that it is not too loaded and that it can be inductively charged with meaning through empirical research.

Yet, I wonder if it is still fresh enough to be actually a constant structuring and encompassing research agenda, or if it is already tilted to a certain political agenda.

That's actually an important question. It runs the risk of becoming multiculturalism number two, in the sense of becoming a Benetton multiculturalism in Gilroy’s sense. In seeing diversity studies as the new sexy work, don’t we run the risk of underestimating social exclusion, actual discrimination, and these sorts of things? This is important. Diversity is used by people but sometimes as difference. And the politics of difference is to essentialize this boundary making concept, sometimes also with a moral language to distinguish us and them, to legitimise asymmetry, or even worse things. I think the scenario of diversity also has this potential. So it is up to the researcher to find a good balance between avoiding useless celebration and the self-referential demonization typical of activist people. I think this is the analytical stance of research. But the concept itself is not charged in either direction. This is a good thing.

That brings me already to the last question really. Can you think of some empirical, methodological and/or theoretical challenges that diversity related research is facing at the moment? Can you think of some aspects given your expertise, your discipline, your country and your intellectual tradition?

Let's try to recapitulate. The first theoretical methodological challenge is the fact that diversity is not too precise. It's not something you’d easily know the way to measure, to talk in a positivistic way. On the opposite side a postmodernist would say that it may be too policy loaded. Now, the real challenge is what we will see in the future: It's important to be intellectually honest and in three or five year’s time not to have excessively bent the research findings to meet the concept of diversity as is now necessary. But the other way round – a bit like Benjamin was saying of the translator: the language that is translated should shape the one that translates – so from an empirical point of view I think it would be nice if in three to five year’s time, we have a more defined, richer conception of diversity thanks to the work of this institute, having been intellectually very honest not to bend the findings too much to what is already there. The fact that it's loose, as a concept, for now is actually a resource because it allows modulating to the different ethnographical research contexts. The point is: the kind of translation that you'll manage to do between disciplines, between areas, and between moments in history is the challenge. You were asking about what is the challenge. I think this is theoretically, empirically, and methodologically the challenge of this institute and the study of diversity.

Ok, thank you very much.

Interviewer: Tilmann Heil

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