Interview with Phillip M. AYOUB

(Drexel University, Philadelphia)

Phillip M. Ayoub is Assistant Professor of Politics at Drexel University. His research bridges insights from international relations and comparative politics, engaging with literature on transnational politics, sexuality and gender, norm diffusion, and the study of social movements. He received the biennial 2013-2014 award for the best dissertation from the European Union Studies Association, as well as the 2014 Kenneth Sherrill Award for the best dissertation in the field of sexuality and politics, and the 2014 award for the best dissertation in the field of human rights from sections of the American Political Science Association.

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What does ‘diversity’ mean to you by way of your work and in your field of expertise? How do you relate to this term?

The pursuit of and the benefits of “diversity” in an open society is at the core of my work and subfield, in that I have focused my research on the incorporation of LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) peoples into the fabrics of their societies and argued that their heterogeneity and difference (which is a common way to think about diversity), makes their societies richer. At the same time, the mainstreaming of groups as a subject of diversity in state institutions is also a complicated process, which I will touch on more as we continue here. My concern about diversity is that is has sometimes been depoliticized to a degree that makes it feel quite hollow in many debates. Often associated with anti-discrimination initiatives or other forms of institutionalized mainstream politics that can overshadow the radical politics and the fervor that many of the social justice groups that I study advocate for. So, I see “diversity” as term that we have to think about quite carefully.

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

Diversity is a complex concept and I think that it can be all of those things, depending on how it is used and who it is used by as a concept. It still holds many of the qualities we have attributed to it as a Zeitgeist term; especially in a world that is increasingly interconnected through technologies that shrink time and space, bringing difference into interaction.

At the same time, as I have begun to note above, I think it is useful to think also of the limits of how we often think of and deploy the concept of diversity, related to what you say about it as a “catch phrase” or “a corporate tool”.

What do I mean by that? I think that we have relied too much on the idea that one axis of identity is associated with a certain type of politics. For example, the idea that gender diversity leads to a certain type of progressive gender politics, becomes complicated in my country [USA] where a majority of white women voted for Trump’s horrifically sexist political agenda. This means that we must think of multiple axes of power and how they shape politics of different individuals with multiple identities.

The scholarship and thought of black women, for example, many of whom were excluded both in the civil rights movements (because they were women) and in the women’s movement (because they were not white), has opened the door to think about inclusivity differently. A productive concept for me in these times is their concept of intersectionality. Intersectionality brings us closer to the complexity of contemporary politics, in which we recognize that race, gender, sexuality, gender identity, ability, and class all intersect in ways that determine very varied life experiences. Making space for voices that are often shut out on multiple dimensions, or oppressed by multiple vectors of power, is to me a less hollow, more meaningful, and more politically transformative way of bringing about a diverse and inclusive society.

Such a way of thinking challenges us to question essentialized difference and binary dimensions of identity that we often celebrate under the term “diversity”. This is not to say that we have not benefited a great deal from diverse representations in many sectors of society; this is something that I do celebrate, and I find it to be incredibly important, both on a personal and scholarly dimension. But intersectionality as a concept, shines light on many marginalized voices that are left behind in that process. As my colleague Cai Wilkinson said of contemporary gay politics, “it becomes evident that other vectors of privilege and marginalisation operating in relation to class and socio-economic status, race, religion, and gender normativity (amongst others) remain undisturbed and unchallenged, or put more graphically, [and here she is quoting a blog] she says ‘the gay quarterback gets to be the homecoming king, but the freshman who likes wearing make-up and listening to showtunes is still a f-g–t’”. I think this type of thinking has helped us to understand why a linear march to progress is something that we have not realized; and it takes the complexities of the social world quite seriously.

At MPI-MMG, we are trying to develop research and theories 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?

This institute and its agenda are making important contributions to understanding diversity and I think especially in these times, we need such work more than ever. Also, the multi-disciplinary nature of the institute allows for a complex understanding and use of the concept of diversity that I would advocate for, so I think that in this form it is very welcome in terms of the work that is being done here.

From your perspective (and here you can reflect on your expertise, discipline, country, intellectual tradition), what are a few of the key empirical, theoretical and methodological challenges that we are currently facing in ‘diversity’-related research?

Let me try to touch on empirics, theory and method. For my line of research, I have become deeply concerned with the cooptation of equality politics around some diverse and marginalized groups into narratives of nationalism and populism. With the LGBT groups that I have spent over a decade researching, I increasingly notice the realities of what some scholars, like Jasbir Puar, refer as ‘homonationalism’ and ‘pinkwashing’. To present a simplified notion of these ideas, homonationalism is about the cooptation of sexual diversity politics by the state, to use them as an example of Western modernity, including projects that reproduce and justify nationalism, imperialism, white supremacy, war, and consumerism. It is the use of the rights of one marginalized group, to oppress another. And it might explain why some gay men and women (still very few, but still some), would vote for far-right parties like the AfD here in Germany.

For example, the increasingly common perception in Western countries: one that paints marginalized migrants and refugees as intrinsically bad for LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer or Questioning) people and their rights, which is obviously, I think, a very problematic notion that needs to be dispelled. But, it is used by elites across the continent — typically on the right, but occasionally also on the left — including Alice Weidel, the lesbian chair-woman of Germany’s AfD party. This association is, what I think, part of a tried political strategy of homonationalism, which involves appealing to some gay citizens by painting them as part of a nation under threat by ‘homophobic’ others (often characterized by other outsiders like migrants or refugees). In a time of populism and nationalism, it is a rhetoric that has been used by groups claiming to represent LGBTQ people, and it presents, in my view, a real challenge to diversity. 

These claims are puzzling, if we consider that LGBT rights have expanded rapidly as the world has become more interconnected and states have become more porous. While scholars have pointed to the inherent problems in such a simplistic popular association between “good” and “bad” diversity, we still have too little work in social movement scholarship that tests this relationship. Which is why some of my newer research projects also explore the relationship between migration and mobilisation for LGBT rights; and the findings are that there is a positive relationship and that there is a very long history of transnational LGBTQ organizing that is related to migration and mobility. In fact, actually, one of the first gay rights organizers, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, was a student at the University of Göttingen and he also had a very mobile history at the time the various German states that would become unified Germany and also worked with activists in other countries. And even the coining of the term homosexuality was with a Hungarian compatriot of his. So, this kind of mobility being central to LGBT politics as a positive thing is definitely something that I think all of my research points to. And it is an irony that we see, you know, mobility and migration being painted as a threat to LGBT rights, which I find really concerning because those are the people who understand sexuality in its complexities and how it works in different contexts.

Finally, to answer the last part of your question, with a focus on intersectionality, comes also some serious methodological challenges. Much of our practice and assumptions in positivist social sciences for example, like the construction of binary variables around gender, race, etc. are in and of themselves not heeding some of the advice of intersectional thinkers that challenge putting human beings, in all their complexity, into these kind of binary boxes. I think we still have a lot of thinking to do in terms of what we value as, you know, sound social scientific work when we think also in different ways about the complexity of peoples’ identities.

There are many challenges these days for the communities I study, but these are a few of the empirical, theoretical and methodological ones that come to mind right now.

Interviewer: Chris Kofri

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