Interview with Manuel A. Vásquez

March 13, 2009

Manuel A. Vásquez is a prominent Salvadoran scholar of religion and society.

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Professor Vasquez, it's my pleasure to interview you today about the topic of diversity. As you know, we already have “diversity” in the name of our institute and it is also our research focus, since we want to empirically and theoretically investigate modes or manifestations of diversity. We conduct these little interviews to try to clarify some questions we have concerning the notion of diversity.

First, I would like to ask you: what does diversity mean to you by way of your work and field of expertise? I know you have done a lot of work on immigration, especially Latino immigration to the US, and in your presentation last Wednesday you mentioned multiple layers of diversity. So diversity seems to be a concept you work with in one way or another.

So what do I think about diversity? And how do I come to diversity? There are two sorts of background conditions that I would look into to make sense of how diversity comes to the fore for me. The first one is located in religious studies, since I'm trained in religious studies. The key concept that was used up until the late 1960s and even into the early 1970s was the concept of “world religions” and so this was a concept that has always been criticized for reifying religions. The famous founder of the discipline of religion -- 'Religionswissenschaft' -- was Max Müller and his famous motto was: “He who knows one knows none.” And so the idea here was that people are trained as experts, capable of looking at comparative religion. And that was a model that was very much dominant in the main schools that were training people up until the 1970s, in Chicago and Harvard. Those were the places where religious diversity meant the comparative study of religion. And it meant comparative study in a very ahistorical way. The fundamental assumption was that all religions are the same phenomena; that, even though there is diversity in manifestations on the surface, at bottom the essence of religion is the same. This was part of this whole ecumenical movement in the 1960s and 70s, stressing that we can all get along and still preserve difference. Difference within unity – that was the model.

My generation is trained to be very suspicious of this model. Within religious studies, we are a little suspicious of the concept of diversity because it seems to carry some of the baggage that was part of the world religions' approach. And so, there has been a tendency to localize. You know, you become an expert on a particular religion and you can't presume to know the other religions, that's reductive. If you don’t adopt a localized view, you can end up essentializing. Then you can end up dehistoricizing religions. You have to go deep historically and so you have to undertake very deep ethnographies of your particular religious reality and then you present it as your work. That's part of where I come in: diversity as skepticism toward the grand narrative of comparative religions.

Then, the second suspicion of the word diversity comes from the American experience which has tended to equate diversity with what I call the show-and tell-mentality that I see in my kids when they go to school. My children have a Multicultural Day – or now it is called Diversity Day or Diversity Fair – in school, where basically they are assigned a country. One has India, the other one has Brazil, and so they are supposed to go do research on that particular culture and language. And they are supposed to come in and do the play. So, it's diversity with no pain. It's diversity that is happy diversity: “isn't it great that America has all this diversity,” but the assumption, of course, is that the United States has a certain kind of core values that everyone and every American is supposed to accept. If you don't accept them then you cannot play the diversity game. It is a problem.

So, from the beginning, I'm kind of suspicious of the word diversity. However, I think that if the word diversity can be reformulated to take into account what I would call otherness or alterity, that is, that diversity is not about finding commonalities right away but rather highlighting specificities and the fact that we sometimes share common spaces but that sometimes communication is not possible. Communication may sometimes be difficult but it is still necessary. If by diversity is meant a systematic effort to really come out of one’s own perspective and understand otherness or at least attempt to extend one’s hand, to be open to the surprise of the other, then I like that notion of diversity. That would be the notion of diversity I would work towards.

The next question I would like to ask you is the following: Is diversity just a zeitgeist term – I guess you said something about it already - or a post-multiculturalism policy catchphrase - or a corporate tool, as in diversity management, where it is en vogue at the moment – or can it be a concept that can help to structure and advance social scientific analysis?

Why does it have to be one or the other? I think it's all of the above. If a center is going to be studying diversity the first thing it has to do is to be reflexive about the multiple meanings of diversity. And diversity is itself a contested term. It can be appropriated, as you say, by corporate… Benetton, for example, will like to talk about diversity. Diversity sells, as Roland Robertson, a famous sociologist, says. It's not homogeneity that sells anymore. Everyone wants to be distinctive but the fact of the matter is that, because we are all globalized to different degrees, we end up sometimes reproducing the same scripts and the same practices, although we like to think of ourselves as different from someone else. So, I think it's all of the above, I would say. But that does not mean that the category of diversity is not useful. The category of diversity can still be useful provided that we know when we're using it, how we're using it, who is using it; provided that we understand the discursive regime in which the term is being used. And we strategically place ourselves in ways that allow us to maximize this openness to otherness. If we are open to otherness, if we're open to the fact that we're limited, that we are partial, that we're embodied and emplaced beings and recognize that therefore our perspectives are by definition biased and that there are other perspectives, then I think it's a very useful tool.

As you have probably heard already, our institute tries to span its research from contemporary immigration societies to longstanding multiethnic and multireligious societies such as South Africa, India, Malaysia. In this bridging we see the originality but also the challenge of our institute. Therefore I would be interested to hear whether you see the concept of diversity shaping this agenda or not?

Again, if diversity allows you to trace the ruptures and the continuities across times and spaces not in ways that you… In the modern social sciences you cannot avoid the fact that when you're comparing, you're reducing one to the other. You know, basically early social scientific approaches operated through dichotomous understandings of things. There was Gemeinschaft and there was Gesellschaft, or cold societies versus hot societies, or organic solidarity versus mechanical solidarity. These were the kind of dichotomous ways in which we tended to understand diachronic processes, historical processes. Diversity should not be used as a teleological device that posits a progressive movement from societies that are not diverse, that are homogeneous, to societies that are increasingly diverse and complex. I think seeing diversity as part of an evolutionary linear movement that privileges the U.S. and Western Europe as end points is going to be very limited and it's basically repeating the same prejudices that social sciences has had throughout the twentieth century.

Now, if diversity is used to highlight contingencies of how the present is organized today, how did the present come to be this way? Could it have been different? And why is it that it is the way it is? Why is it that it became stabilized this way? If diversity allows you to disaggregate and to show all the myriad of identity struggles and struggles over space and struggles over land and resources and how there have also been alliances, because that's the other important thing. Diversity does not just involve tension but it's also about cross-fertilization. Different cultures, racial formations, and religions are also constantly interacting, as they encounter each other. So we have a dialectical purity and hybridity. If diversity can help you highlight those two phenomena then I think it's a great, useful concept, but I think you guys need to make sure that when you draw your statement and your philosophy that you have a constant reflection on this term. But I think it's useful. I think it's still very useful to look at the historical as well as the present.

One problem that the immigration literature has had is that it tends to be very what I call presentist. It tends to focus on the ruptures. The assumption is that what is going on today is very different from the past immigration because of globalization, because of new advances in communication and transportation technologies. Transnationalism is often assumed to be something entirely new. That's wrong. I think the genius of the approach that you guys are setting up is that you're not just looking at immigration today in isolation, but you are looking at immigration as part of a process of the negotiation, the politics of difference of the negotiation of identity that has been an ongoing process throughout civilizations. You can go back all the way to Rome. You can go back all the way to… you know, the whole word syncretism, which is a very contested word in religious studies because when you talk about, say for example, a very multicultural society or a diverse society like Brazil, you talk about syncretic religions such as Candomblé or Umbanda. But the word, the whole origin of the word syncretism goes back to Crete, goes back to this meeting point where all these Mediterranean civilizations and African civilizations were coming together. If you can have a longue-durée approach, an approach that emphasizes junctures and disjunctures and doesn't like to fetishize the new as the really new, I think it's a very useful term.

That's what we are hoping to do. The last question I would like to discuss with you is the following: what are a few of the key empirical theoretical and/or methodological challenges currently facing diversity-related research?

Again, going back to the point we began with the discussion of world religions. Our forefathers in the study of religion tended to essentialize religion. So one real challenge that we're facing in our own study that we're discussing these days is this idea of how to take into account religion as an active agent of diversity formation, of cross-fertilization,, and sometimes oppression and suppression of difference, without once again making religion into this kind of thing that is disembedded from other social processes. How do you study religion without being reductive and acknowledging the dynamic creative power of religion and the fact that religion matters for a lot of the world's population?

One of the challenges is not to fall into a clash of civilizations thesis like Huntington, who said: Well, religion and culture are going to determine difference and collective identity. According to him, we have these diverse global civilizations that are in contestation and, among these, Islam and Christianity are locked in a particularly fierce geopolitical struggle. We need to acknowledge that there are tensions and how to acknowledge that there are misunderstandings and conflicts and frictions without essentializing – and that religion plays a key role in these differences – without essentializing the category of religion and saying: well, here is Christianity and here is Islam and these two things are irreconcilable, and that's where they are fighting each other at the places where they need each other, i. e., in Africa. In Nigeria, you see how they are rubbing against each other and creating, generating conflict. From my point of view, as a scholar of religion, this is a real, real challenge.

Yes I agree and I believe we have to be very careful in this respect. We have to be cautious that our research is not misread and misused to please theses like the one of the clash of civilization.

Okay, I hope that was helpful.

It was very helpful indeed. Thank you, thank you very much Professor Vasquez!

Interviewer: Monika Palmberger

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