Blog | June 2018

Diversity, anthropologically studied

by Michael Stasik


How does one actually carry out anthropological research on migration-spurred urban diversity? And how does an anthropologist, actually study groups composed of diverse migrants? Asking such questions might come across either as a rhetorical device or as somewhat naïve, especially if the one asking works as an anthropologist at the MPI MMG, which carries the ‘study of diversity’ in its title. Yet, I do not mean to ask rhetorical questions, and I hope that I’m not overly naïve either. Actually, exactly these questions haunted me before, during and after my fieldwork on migration-spurred diversity in urban Ghana. To hurry on ahead with a disclaimer of sorts: I haven’t come up with satisfactory answers. In fact, the more I probe into the details and premises of the question of anthropology, migration and diversity in relation to my research (and to my understanding of anthropological research), the more I appear to deflect from actual answers.

My research is on transnational migration to urban Ghana, and, more specifically, on the lives, livelihoods and experiences of migrants from francophone West Africa who come to (the anglophone country of) Ghana alone, without being able or willing to mobilise transnational networks of kin and friendship. This focus on ‘solitary’ and ‘francophone’ migrants, as I frame their category in my research design, allows me to look at past ethnic and national categorisations, which, in studies of African migration, represent the most commonly applied categories of analysis. And it affords a corrective to similarly common and problematic assumptions about African migration, as being predicated on networked collectives and group endeavours. For, neither are all African migrants part of ethnically or nationally defined migrant communities, nor is all migration in Africa performed as a group effort and practice. People also migrate alone, and those who migrate alone do not necessarily seek company or support from established co-ethnic or co-national migrant networks. In fact, they might even try to actively avoid engaging with co-ethnics and co-nationals, in order to evade social control or political tensions or to enhance their capacity to improve language skills.

This is not to suggest, however, that these ‘solitary’ migrants remain alone. Many of the francophone migrants that I engaged with during my fieldwork invested considerable effort into making and maintaining social relationships, whether for reasons of conviviality or for more instrumental purposes, albeit the two were often rather hard to distinguish. And they relied on both fleeting and more durable forms of friendship, most of which were forged with kindred francophone migrant-strangers. Indeed, in the networks they create, the French language and shared notions of (West African) Francophoness, serve as the two single most important vehicles for group formation. Resulting in remarkably eclectic forms of migrant ‘cliques’, these loose-knit bonds tend to nullify common markers of difference, such as nationality, ethnicity, class, gender and religion. The so-constituted circles of migrant-stranger friends I became part of, which in turn constituted my main ‘study groups’, comprised a sweeping range of nationalities, ethnicities as well as first and second (and often also third and fourth) languages.

To put some more concrete figure on it: one rather loosely defined yet nevertheless bonded group of francophone migrant-friends I spent time with, which mainly arose from their shared occupations as piecework labourers in the main market area of Ghana’s capital Accra, included people from Benin, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Congo-Kinshasa, Gabon, Guinea and Togo. These were mostly men aged between 16 and 42 years. Some were Muslims, others belonged to different Christian denominations. Their educational backgrounds ranged from holding a university diploma to secondary school dropouts through to functional illiteracy. Group cohesiveness, along with practices of support, exchange and affinity it was both source and product of, stemmed not from ethnic or national bonds but, above all, from their shared knowledge of the French language, the individual competences of which varied greatly, however, as well as from shared experiences of English language deficits and of therewith-related experiences of alterity in relation to their Ghanaian hosts.

How, then, to study a group composed of such diverse individuals? As I am asking this question as an anthropologist, the most direct answer to it, I reckon, is: do as anthropologists do. That is, immerse into the ordinary life and activities of the people studied by way of participant observation, ‘deep hanging out’ (à la Geertz 1998) and casual conversations, combined with the more systematised ethnographic interviews (à la Spradley 1979), the collection of life histories, the mapping of relationships through network analysis and, ultimately, the cross-checking of results by triangulating the gathered information. By and large, this describes what I did during my fieldwork. And yet, I couldn’t help sensing that my research didn’t reach the degree of ‘data’ saturation I anticipated. One might, of course, argue that more time and yet more sustained engagements would eventually result in higher degrees of saturation. While more research is indeed likely to produce more results, it will not necessarily (and certainly not automatically) facilitate a better, or ‘deeper’, understanding. How to reach this deeper understanding with regard to the groups of diverse migrants I attempted to study is at the core of my initially formulated question about anthropological research on diversity.

Establishing that a group of people is diverse (in the descriptive use of the term) is a far cry from starting to grasp the points of view of the people studied, the latter of which I consider the genuine goal of any (good) anthropological study. The work of anthropology, in this view, is to provide an account of the social life, activities and relationships of a people, along with their languages, customs, institutions, systems of knowledge and beliefs etc. Ultimately, it is to offer an empathic and ‘deep(er)’ understanding of the webs of significance people themselves spin and are suspended in, to borrow from Geertz’ (1973) trenchant definition of ‘culture’. To be sure, I am not trying to advocate here some holistic ambition of trying to study a people’s ‘entire culture’. Nor do I mean to invoke some antiquated understanding of anthropological practice that hypostasises the notions of ‘ethnos’ and ‘culture’. I fully acknowledge the importance of Gupta’s and Ferguson’s (1992) critique of essentialising assumptions about an isomorphic relationship between the space, identity and culture of ‘a people’ (read: ethnos). To this, one should add the equally important point made by John Comaroff (1996: 166) that once cultural identities (and consequently also cultural discontinuities) are ‘constructed and objectified, [they] take on a powerful salience in the experience of those who bear them’.

The point I want to make, however, is that for understanding people (here without the prefixed ‘a’) and for sharing, at least to some degree, their views, it appears imperative to have some knowledge of the webs of (cultural) significance that frame their norms, beliefs and behaviours. This knowledge, in turn, necessarily comprises languages, customs, institutions and so forth. And with the groups of francophone migrant-strangers I was concerned with during my fieldwork, I largely lacked this knowledge. I had little to no idea about languages in the Central African Republic, customs in Cameroon, institutions in Congo-Kinshasa and so on. Moreover, there was virtually no chance for me to engage in processes of enculturation; save perhaps the rather vague construct of a (West African?) ‘culture of migration’, or, for that matter, the even more nebulous ‘cultures of individual migration’.

There is a parallel to be drawn here to the challenges posed by multi-sided ethnography, only that, in the case of my study group, the multi-sitedness is in fact manifest in situ and it relates to more than a dozen different sites at once. And similar to multi-sided ethnography, and indeed to transnational anthropology more generally, these challenges are not mere logistical difficulties related to the organisation of fieldwork practice but concern the more profound dimension of ethnographic competences, linguistic as well as cultural ones. The conversations I engaged my interlocuters in mainly took place in French, along with some English and with sporadic borrowings from other languages, including Ghanaian Twi, Nigerian Pidgin and Hausa. I managed to learn a few colloquial phrases in some of the many first languages of the migrants I dealt with, but I remained way below even the most basic speaking competences. The linguistic diversity of my study group exceeded my capacity for multilingual fieldwork by far, and it demonstrated to me the limits of what, following Hannerz (1998), might be described as ‘scholarly cosmopolitanism’.

Of course, I was not alone with my lack of linguistic and cultural skills. The main vehicle of communication among the groups of migrants I engaged with was French, for none of whom it represented the first language. The discrepancies in French proficiency regularly obstructed mutual understanding and even simple conversations between them. And they, too, had little or no knowledge of the cultural backgrounds of most of their francophone migrant-friends. In this respect, my situation resonated with James Ferguson’s fieldwork experience in urban Zambia, where the people he set out to study did not inhabit any stable social world he could try grasping from an insider’s point of view but, much like the neophyte ethnographer, ‘lack[ed] a good understanding of what is going on around them’ (1999: 19). And like Ferguson, I too, felt (and continue feeling) a sense of unease that stems from the kind of confusing void produced by an ‘ethnographic object’ that is bereft of a ‘knowable social world of which a field-worker might acquire a sense of mastery or confident familiarity’ (18).

I do believe that I have reached some understanding of the lives of the people I was engaging with, and that this understanding, at least to some extent, is grounded in systematic anthropological examination. But in my examination, and in my eventual analysis, I largely have to make do without references to the larger webs of (cultural) significance, in which my research participants construct the respective worldviews they draw on to invest their experiences with meaning. As my research design – which I adopted from individual migrants’ practices of settlement and social affiliation – implied a kind of inevitable lack of competence about the cultures of the people I set out to study, my results will necessarily remain partial, perhaps even superficial, and my theoretical formulations more tentative and inchoate.

Diversity, taken as an analytical tool, certainly bears ‘the advantage of avoiding essentialization’, as Wimmer (2009) argues. ‘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’ (id.). The avoidance of overspecialization in the study of diversity, however, almost necessarily provokes a form of methodological under-specialisation. The issue of how to accommodate (or compensate for?) this lack of specialisation, as it foregrounds, for instance, in the anthropological study of groups of diverse migrants from francophone West Africa, remains an open question to me.



Comaroff, John (1996) Ethnicity, Nationalism and the Politics of Difference in an Age of Revolution. In: E.N Wilmsen & P. McAllister (eds) Politics of Difference: Ethnic Premises in a World of Power. Chicago: U of Chicago Press.

Ferguson, James (1999) Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt . Berkeley: U of California Press.

Geertz, Clifford (1973) The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York: Basic.

Gupta, Akhil & James Ferguson (1992) Beyond Culture: Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference. Cultural Anthropology 7(1): 6-23.

Hannerz, Ulf (1998) Transnational Research. In: H.R. Bernard (ed.) Handbook of Methods in Cultural Anthropology. Walnut Creek: Sage.

Spradley, James P. (1979) The Ethnographic Interview. Long Grove: Waveland.

Wimmer, Andreas (2009) Interview, conducted by Goran Janev. MPI MMG. <> (accessed June 4, 2018).


Other Interesting Articles

Go to Editor View