Interview with Andreas Wimmer

(Columbia University)

Andreas Wimmer is Lieber Professor of Sociology and Political Philosophy at Columbia University. He was educated at the University of Zurich, from where he received a PhD in social anthropology in 1992 and a habilitation two years later.

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

In the area that I am working in at the moment, which mostly has to do with conflict, violence, state formation, and public goods provision, there has been an ongoing debate as to whether or not high degrees of diversity are linked with bad things such as civil war or low public goods provision or failed states. Some people have argued that high degrees of diversity imply divergence of values and preferences, which makes agreeing on basic policies more difficult, leading to both conflict and underprovision with public goods. Other people have argued that high degrees of diversity, of ethnic diversity more specifically, make it easier to organize rebel organizations because ethnicity provides a ready bond on which to build such organizations. So, diversity lowers the organizational costs of mounting a rebellion and is, therefore, linked to higher degrees of conflict. Yet, other people have argued on the grounds of ethnic nepotism, maintaining that the higher the degree of diversity in society, the more these different nepotistic coalitions clash with each other. Diversity, therefore, increases competition and therefore increases conflicts and lowers public goods provision.

Over the past couple of years, I have been arguing against ethnic diversity as a causal factor in conflict research, and more recently in research on public goods provision as well. The “detrimental diversity” argument has been an important negative contrast point in my work. I have tried to show, together with my collaborators and co-authors, that it is not so much levels of heterogeneity or diversity that matter, but rather degrees of ethno-political inequality and exclusion that produce violent conflicts or under provision with public goods.

So this is how my own work relates to the concept of diversity, but I know that here at the Max Planck Institute, of course, you have a different concept and a much broader understanding of what diversity means - not only ethnic diversity but differences along a variety of dimensions, including social class, gender and so on. This broader understanding has some potential; it might be interesting to explore differences and similarities along different domains of diversity. I'm not sure how far it actually carries you and how far it helps to solve analytical problems that cannot be dealt with otherwise. So, that remains to be seen.

How would you set your work within the debate on social cohesion, which looks to the existence of niches filled by different ethnic groups and the resulting conflicts in society?

Well, I have developed an approach to ethnicity from a boundary-making perspective. I try to flesh out the mechanisms of boundary drawing and boundary shifting and developed a neo-institutionalist theory of boundary processes that takes into account inequalities of power, institutional incentive structures, the networks of social relationships and political ties. So, this does not really relate to diversity as a concept, because I think that diversity is used as a more macro-level descriptive term, an umbrella term to describe different forms of heterogeneity, rather than explaining why they appear in different configurations across cases.

Is ‘diversity’ just a Zeitgeist term – a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase as integration and diversity policy or a corporate tool as in ‘diversity management’, or can it be a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

I think yes, it's mostly a Zeitgeist term. It has been brought to our attention because it has been used by policy makers and by social movements. It comes out of these various identity movements that claim recognition by the state and it has of course started with the civil rights movement in the United States. Later on came the red power movement and all the other ethnic movements and then the gay/lesbian movement and a revitalized women's movement and so on, and all of these various sorts of social movements then rallied under the umbrella term of “diversity”, meaning representation in the higher echelons of society according to demographic shares. Later on these social movements became established, and some of its members marched through the various institutions, as it were, occupying powerful positions in academia, in state-institutions, in politics, in the media, promoting the concept of diversity. So that's how I see the genesis of the popularity of the term ‘diversity’.

Many people in academia have taken the term up as well and try to make sense of it from an analytical, social science point of view. I am not sure whether this is promising or not. It remains to be seen, as I said before. I think it's largely a descriptive term that captures different dimensions of social differentiation: ethnic, religious, gender and so on. And, as such, it is useful because it implies multi-perspectivity; it is not focused exclusively on ethnicity or exclusively on gender or exclusively on social class. So, it brings together all of these differentiations, mode of distinctions and categorizations together and forces us to think about the relationship between them. It thus runs against the tendency to see these different modes of differentiation and categorization as separate domains that are unrelated to each other. It forces us to adopt a holistic perspective on social processes looking from different angles. That is the potential, I think, of using ‘diversity’ as a concept. But that is also where it stops, because it doesn't offer any analytical leverage to solve the many questions that this interrelatedness of different dimensions of differentiation and categorization is posing.

In a way you described your utilization of the term in terms of ethnic diversity. There is very strong political dimension to this, if ethnicity is not organized at the political level, then it is unrecognizable, voiceless. So once it becomes articulated, then it becomes an issue. Is this political aspect a necessity for using the term or not?

At least that is the semantic context within which the term stands now – diversity. It is very closely linked to my understanding of the term, to demands for recognition and to a politicized form of ethnicity. It immediately directs our thinking toward the domain of political and symbolic struggles, in the sense of Bourdieu. But again, if you want to use it as an analytical term I think it offers a useful perspective. It avoids the overspecialization that comes from looking at gender, or at ethnic differentiations and so on exclusively, and forces you to think about the relationship between the different dimensions of diversity. It has also the advantage of avoiding essentialization, because diversity is a concept that describes a plurality of modes of categorizations and differentiations that are internally complex etc. So, it avoids all of the more problematic and essentialized notions of gender or sexuality or ethnicity. But, as I said before it doesn't help to solve the problems and the questions of the interrelationships between different modes of categorization. It might be useful to structure and advance social scientific analysis by avoiding some of the pitfalls of overspecialization, but not for much more.  

At the institute we are looking to develop research and theory spanning contemporary immigration societies (especially in Europe) and longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies (such as South Africa, India or Malaysia). How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’ shaping this agenda – or not?

Thinking of immigration societies and of these long-standing plural societies together in a single movement of thought, is very promising. It might be interesting to bring them into the comparative realm to overcome the overspecialization on immigration questions in western societies. The concept of diversity, again, doesn't do much except outlining a comparative horizon by bringing in all these other constellations and other forms of non-immigration based diversity and differentiation. So, it is useful because it enlarges the analytical horizon but that is all that diversity as a concept can do, because if you ask the question of why you have a specific constellation or configuration of diversity let's say in the Ottoman Empire and another particular configuration of diversity in contemporary Germany, then of course “diversity” doesn't help you to explain anything. It just brings the two cases together in a comparative panorama, which is good enough for a term.

Does this comparative horizon open up the possibility for building up useful theoretical and analytical concepts?

You might have to develop other conceptual tools that are more precise, more specific, that get at these configurations of power and categorizations and the various ways that different dimensions of differentiation, like ethnicity, class and so on, interact. All of that has to be fleshed out in precise analytical terms. And, diversity, being a vague and inclusive concept, cannot fulfill these analytical tasks very effectively.

From your perspective (expertise/discipline/country/intellectual tradition), what are the few of the key empirical, theoretical and/or methodological challenges that are currently facing ‘diversity’-related research?

There are many challenges. First of all, the theoretical challenge is to look at different constellations of diversity or different configurations of social classifications. If you want to explain this variety of configurations, then you need the adequate theoretical tools that allow you to link macro-level social processes and developments, such as individualization and globalization, with meso-level processes of institutionalization, processes of group formation and political mobilization and so on, with the micro-level aspects of individual practices of classification and categorization, of social networking and distancing, of discriminating against certain kinds of people and favoring others. Then these micro-level processes need to be linked back up to meso-level institutional consequences that they have in the aggregate. So we need a complex theory of social classification and closure that go from the macro-level to the meso- and the micro-level and then back up again to the meso- and macro-level. So that's the theoretical challenge that I tried to address in my recent book “Ethnic Boundary Making”. And it's basically the challenge that all social theory and all genuinely analytical approaches to studying social phenomena face. So it's nothing specific to the field of diversity.

And on the level of empirical data, let's talk about methodology for a moment. There is the challenge of going beyond case studies. There are too many case studies and there is too little really systematically well-designed comparative research. So designing comparative research that can answer causal questions, and that can get at the different conditions under which different modes of classification and closure emerge, that's a big challenge. And, I think, ideally one would then combine quantitative research that is good at finding general patterns with controlled case comparison in the tradition of anthropology, but also of comparative historical sociology, which allows you to identify causal heterogeneity, different counterweighing tendencies operating at the same time producing, depending on the scope conditions, different configurations, and then finally, with fieldwork and/or surveys that can get at the more individual level processes, you know, interactional sequences that can be observed and ways of talking, speaking about diversity that can be directly observed in the field. Ideally one would – and I think the Max Planck Institute could do something like that – one would build a truly integrated research enterprise to combine quantitative, comparative and fieldwork based methods.

Data-wise, there is a huge problem of measurement and how to actually observe these things. The whole question of developing comparative datasets that are sensitive to context and the contextual embeddedness of all social phenomena, on the one hand, but nevertheless allow you to compare the whole range of cases, on the other hand. So there is a serious dataset challenge that needs to be addressed.

Finally, just to wrap up, in your own work: Are you happy with the term and how it develops or how it is being used?

I don't use the term. I think it is useful as an umbrella concept that brings cases and domains of differentiation together. It might be useful for organizing a new institute like this one. I use concepts such social classification and social closure, that I find useful to analyze the genesis and transformation of ethnic groups and categories, gender, social class and so on. I like to believe that the theory of social classification and closure that I developed recently allows you to identify mechanisms of how such processes work across different domains from ethnicity to gender to social class. It provides good conceptual tools to address such processes comparatively across domains. So diversity is useful because it helps to avoid, as I said before, overspecialization on the one hand and essentialization of social categories on the other hand. But then to meet the theoretical and analytical challenges of comparative analysis one needs other conceptual tools. That's perhaps a good final sentence.

Thank you.

Interviewer: Goran Janev

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