Interview with Amanda Wise


June 17, 2011

Amanda Wise is Senior Research Fellow at the Macquarie University, Sydney Australia.

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

For me, well my preference is to approach diversity through an ethnographic lens. So ‘diversity’ is a sort of container for, I guess not just ethnic difference, but also of other lines or intersections of difference; and how these intersections then produce and overcome boundaries. In a sense, ‘diversity’ is just a container word for me to look at the everyday lived reality of existing with ‘diverse others’. And from a research point of view, ethnographic research helps us to understand the situated nature of diversity – in cities, in particular social and institutional contexts.

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

I guess, for me, the way that the term is sometimes used in policy is not particularly helpful as it classifies difference into ethnic ‘boxes’, and posits ‘diversity’ that is something to be managed and contained. I use diversity in a more fluid, perhaps minimalist way to describe of a group of people, who are culturally different in different kinds of ways and who share a space, and whose co-presence shapes their own and others identities, life ways and opportunities. But it's not diversity in the policy sense of integration, of social cohesion or multiculturalism.

At the MPI-MMG, 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 and Malaysia). How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’ shaping this agenda – or not?

I think one of the really important things that you are doing here is acknowledging that diversity doesn't only exist in western immigrant societies, that there are places with longstanding and often successful histories of living with cultural difference. I think we can learn a lot from societies where the dominant white majority isn't always the mediating factor for how we live with and experience difference. The place that I've been doing work is Singapore for example. In Singapore there is no dominant white majority – the majority group there is ethnically Chinese. So the experience of difference in diversity is not always through that lens of colonial histories of whiteness.  I think you're going to get some very interesting material out of comparative work and I guess there are lessons to be learnt for Europe from other places and other histories. Europe is so often caught up in its own angst over the so-called ‘failure of multiculturalism’ as if ‘multiculturalism’ is a thing that exists outside of time and place. It is named as a universal failure. Comparative work can really show that perhaps it is not ‘multiculturalism’ that has ‘failed’, but the European version.

Our final question: from the perspective of your intellectual tradition, what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and/or methodological challenges currently facing ‘diversity’-related research?

I started out on my every-day multiculturalism research probably ten years ago now. At that time nobody talked about positive modes of living with difference. The only way you could ever talk about difference, immigration and diversity, was through the lens of race, discrimination and racism. I think that that has been shifting recently and we can say from the conference here today on conviviality that that is the case. I came to that through an ethnographic lens – what I was seeing in my fieldwork in ‘diverse suburbia’ simply did not match up to the more dystopic versions of multiculturalism that predominated – especially in my home discipline of cultural studies. What I saw were, by and large, positive and mostly benign modes of living with difference, where people simply ‘rub along’ with those different from themselves – particularly in extremely diverse urban settings.  Obviously racism exists, and there are flashpoints and ‘out groups’, but that is by no means the only story one can tell. The larger story, the one that matched most with people’s experience, was this generally convivial co-existence, where often difference simply ceased to matter. So I guess methodologically, if you employ an ethnographic method, you actually get to say that there are messy realities that don't match up with some of the grand theories that were floating around probably a decade ago. And in terms of research agendas, I think one of the most pressing questions is how it is that ‘benign diversity’ is actually being ‘done’. What are the dispositions, discourses and practices that underpin these mundane situations of togetherness? What makes up ‘everyday cosmopolitan’?

You know Steve has been talking about super-diversity. Take somewhere like Australia, which is where I am from. We've been ‘super-diverse’ for quite a while longer than European countries. One in four Australians are born overseas, and 45% of Australians have at least one parent born overseas. This is impressive compared to the case in Britain – where it is only one in 10. We also take in almost as many immigrants a year as Britain does, but we have half the population size. So when I come to European events, I find it quite interested how infrequently Australia comes up in scholarly conversations around diversity and multiculturalism, given our multicultural policy came into being about the same time as Canada’s, in the early 1970s. So maybe there are some lessons to be learnt from that part of the world. We do by and large co-exist peacefully there. While we do have our problems, we don't have the kind of segregation and race based modes of poverty and deprivation that you get in the US and parts of Britain and so forth. So, again, comparative work I think is important with other parts of the world.

Interviewer: Cihan Sinanoglu

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