What future for diversity research?

Notes on the roundtable held at the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Research intro Superdiversity on 4th December 2013

by Nando Sigona, Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS)

IRiS roundtable, 4 Dec 2013

IRiS roundtable, 4 Dec 2013

IRiS invited three internationally renowned scholars in the field of diversity and migration studies, Dr Mette Louise Berg (Anthropology, University of Oxford), Dr Ben Gidley (COMPAS, University of Oxford) and Dr Susanne Wessendorf (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity) to join IRiS director Professor Jenny Phillimore in an informal conversation on the future of diversity research and the challenges that superdiversity poses to social researchers. The event was also an opportunity for launching the special issue of the journal Identities (volume 20, n. 4) on ‘Ethnography, diversity and urban space’ that I co-edited by Mette Berg and Ben Gidley. Here are a few notes I took while chairing the roundtable.

Cover, Identities: Global studies in culture and power

Cover, Identities: Global studies in culture and power

Speakers were invited to address four key questions: What paths might diversity research take in the next decade? How might these impact on different disciplines? What challenges and opportunities might lie ahead for diversity researchers? How can diversity research engage with different academic and policy agendas?

Susanne Wessendorf opened the conversation with a brief overview on the concept of ‘superdiversity’, stressing its multidimensionality, that is the coming together of different social categories: not just ethnicity and migration backgrounds, but also different variables such as educational and socio-economic backgrounds, legal statuses, disabilities, sexualities, etc. which come together and interact in one place. However, noting that the saliency of various categories is socially constructed and varies in time and space, she invited researchers to avoid essenzialising them and be aware of intersectionality.

For Wessendorf research is needed to explore how different stakeholders cope with super-diversity, including public service providers, local authorities, and long-established communities; and how superdiversity impacts differently in urban and rural areas, large cities and provincial towns. She also identified the need for more comparative analysis that investigates diversity and superdiversity also in the Global South and for research that looks beyond the present to understand from a historical comparative perspective in which contexts and historical moments diversity was or was not seen as a problem for the society concerned.

The focus of Mette Louise Berg’s contribution was two-fold: the methodological challenges for ethnographers and qualitative researchers that work a) in the field of superdiversity and b) in superdiverse field sites. For Berg it is not easy to measure diversity quantitatively and she highlighted the difficult trade-off between how fine grained categories should be and questions of operationality and scale of analysis.

Tracing back its emergence to the 1990s, she describes what one might call the ‘neighbourhood turn’ and places the current ‘diversity turn’ within it. Ethnographic work, she argued, holds the potential to uncover instances of everyday affinities, conviviality and cosmopolitanism from below, as well as experiences and practices of exclusion, discrimination and racism. The challenge lies in how to honour the ideal of immersion, rapport and long-term engagement with the diversity and transnational connections of residents of diverse neighbourhoods. Collaborative research seems a promising approach – there is the potential to capture different processes and angles, the multiplicity of residents’ perspectives reflected in the multiplicity of researchers’ perspectives.

For Ben Gidley mapping and tracking the changing landscapes of diversity in the UK are key tasks for researchers. However, existing system of categorisation seems unable to cope with increasing fluidity of identification and emergence of new ethnicities. There is a need for a new policy vocabulary and new ideas that enable us to rethink ‘integration’, ‘cohesion’, ‘resilience’, ‘conviviality’. Central to the researcher’s task is the critique of methodological ethnicism which has contributed to pigeonholing the population into rigid ethnic-based clusters, with repercussion well beyond academia. An ethnographic approach alert to the sites of interactions and to the spatiality of relations is, Gidley argues, a suitable method for investigating everyday integration and ‘commonplace diversity’ (see Wessendorf’s article in the special issue of Identities) in the era of superdiversity. This should be pursued together with rigorous comparative research that addresses upfront the challenges of translation and develops analytical models attentive to the scales of diversity.

In her intervention, Jenny Phillimore turned to the challenges to social provision in an era of superdiversity and at a time of austerity. Existing models of welfare and social provision were designed for another era and haven’t been adjusted to the demographic transition from a largely monocultural society to multicultural and more recently a superdiverse one. Monitoring of need and outcome is still based on communities that are imagined as fixed and largely homogeneous. Local authorities and service providers struggle to stay apace with scope and speed of transformation. The systems of classifications used to describe the population are no longer adequate, as illustrated by the 25% of Birmingham’s new residents placed in the ‘Other’ category at the latest Census.

Superdiversity raises important ethical questions about who “we” are and whose needs are met in ever shifting populations. Researchers should pay attention to new forms of exclusion that are emerging and how access to services may create and consolidated them. To address these challenges, Professor Phillimore invites researchers to cooperate closely with institutions and agencies and to focus on the local but without losing sight of the national and global context.

IRiS Superdiversity conference 2014

IRiS Superdiversity conference 2014

In concluding the roundtable, I put forward a few points for further discussion, possibly at the forthcoming conference ‘Superdiversity: Theory, Method and Practice in a Era of Change‘ (23-25/6/2014). One of the main challenges for diversity research is to be aware of its limits. There is no doubt that ‘super-diversity’ as a concept has heuristic value in that it shed light on a rapidly changing reality that existing concepts and categories seem no longer able to capture, providing a novel standpoint from which to look and interpret a society that is getting increasingly complex, composite, layered and unequal. However, as any concept it works as a spotlight that by illuminating some aspects of reality leaves inevitably others in the shade. One of these shades concerns the increasing wealth inequality that characterises neoliberal economies – is there a risk for ‘superdiversity’ to become a way to disguise super-inequality? On a more abstract level, is there not a risk that by paying so much attention to what makes us different, ‘superdiversity’ is itself the product of a neoliberal logic that ultimately can lead to the atomisation, if not annihilation, of society? To counter these criticisms, questions about solidarity and what binds people together need to be at the forefront of our work of rethinking and reimagining society in an era of superdiversity.


Further readings

Berg, M. L., and Sigona, N. (2013) ‘Ethnography, diversity and urban space‘, Identities, 20 (4): 347-360.

Faist, T. (2009) ‘Diversity – a new mode of incorporation’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 32 (1): 171-190

Gidley, B. (2013) ‘Landscapes of belonging, portraits of life: researching everyday multiculture in an inner city estate’, Identities, 20 (4): 361-376

Phillimore, J. (2011) ‘Approaches to health provision in the age of super-diversity: accessing the NHS in Britain’s most diverse city’, Critical Social Policy, 31(1): 5-29

Wessendorf, S. (2013) ‘Commonplace diversity and the ‘ethos of mixing’: perceptions of difference in a London neighbourhood’, Identities, 20(4): 407-422

Vertovec, S. (2007) ‘Super-diversity and its implications’, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30 (6): 1024-54

Vertovec, S. (2014) ‘Reading “super-diversity”‘, Migration: The COMPAS Anthology, B. Anderson and M. Keith (eds), Oxford: COMPAS.


Anti-reason & unreason in immigration debate

Dr Phil Cole and Dr Louis Cabrera at IRiS Seminar Series

Dr Phil Cole and Dr Louis Cabrera (discussant) at IRiS Seminar Series

The podcast of the first seminar in IRiS Series on Migration, citizenship and diversity is now available. A summary of Dr Phil Cole’s talk on the politics and philosophy of immigration debate in the UK is also available on INLOGOV blog. For Dr Cole:

 ‘One of the dominant features of public debate about immigration in the United Kingdom is the absence of reason. Many political commentators have begun to notice the reluctance of people to abandon basic myths about immigration, despite the prevalence of evidence that shows those myths to be false’.

Next week, Dr Madeleine Reeves from the University of Manchester will talk on ‘Making up a passport: hyper-documentation and the ethics of ‘illegal’ residence in Russia and Kyrgyzstan’.

Migration, citizenship and diversity: IRiS Seminar Series

IRIS black2Below the programme of the first IRiS multidisciplinary seminar series I am convening next term in collaboration with Dr Katherine Tonkiss (School of Government & Society, University of Birmingham). We will be pairing each speaker with a discussant, I’ll post the list of discussants early in January.

The seminars take place in the Muirhead Tower, Edgbaston Campus, B15 2TT, University of Birmingham. Unfortunately they gave us three different rooms for four events! All welcome, and hopefully no one get lost in the Muirhead Tower.

15th January, 3pm (429 Muirhead Tower)

Phillip Cole, University of the West of England

Beyond Reason: The Philosophy and Politics of Immigration

29th January, 4pm (415 Muirhead Tower)

Madeleine Reeves, University of Manchester

Making up a passport: hyper-documentation and the ethics of ‘illegal’ residence in Russia and Kyrgyzstan

12th February, 3pm (427 Muirhead Tower)

Agnieszka Kubal, University of Oxford

Struggles against subjection: the consequences of criminalization of migration on migrants’ everyday lives

26th February, 3pm (429 Muirhead Tower)

Sarah Neal, University of Surrey

Conviviality, encounter, diversity, migration: But where did race go? Thinking about multiculture by bringing sociologies of race and superdiversity together

Imagining a new research agenda in an era of superdiversity

Here there is me trying to look at my research through a superdiversity lens and think at what spaces a superdiversity turn would open in terms of new research questions, methodological challenges and ways of looking at a society getting increasingly complex, composite, layered and unequal.
You can watch also my IRiS colleague Dr Chris Allen exploring the role of religion and faith in an era of change.
To find out more about the Institute for Research into Superdiversity: www.birmingham.ac.uk/iris

On the diversity turn, publication announcement

The special issue of Identities. Global Studies in Power and Culture on ‘Ethnography, diversity and urban space‘ that I  edited with Mette L. Berg and Ben Gidley (University of Oxford) is out. Below an edited and substantially abridged version of the introductory essay I wrote with Mette L. Berg. Full version available here

By Mette Louise Berg and Nando Sigona

photo credit: Chris Devers via photopin cc

photo credit: Chris Devers via photopin cc

The demise of multiculturalism as a public policy, and as a political discourse in several European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, began over a decade ago in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York and the subsequent so-called war on terror. The multiculturalism backlash that ensued effectively left European immigration countries that are de facto multicultural – in terms of languages spoken, religions practiced, ethnicity, etc. – without an explicit policy for dealing with this fact. Meanwhile, in scholarly discourse, ‘multiculturalism’ as an analytical concept has gradually faded away.

The critique of multiculturalism has given way to a broader expression and recognition of different kinds of differences, resulting largely from the waves of new migration that have transformed the demographic profile of urban areas, and increasingly also rural ones: what Steve Vertovec has termed ‘super-diversity’. ‘Super-diversity’ is increasingly used where multiculturalism would have been used previously, but, as we argue in the Introduction to a new special issue of the journal Identities, in sometimes contradictory ways.

The special issue on ‘Ethnography, diversity, and urban change’ is co-edited by Mette Louise Berg, Ben Gidley, and Nando Sigona and brings together an introductory essay on uses and abuses of ‘diversity’, seven ethnographic articles, and an epilogue that use ‘diversity’ to gauge and examine processes of everyday intercultural encounters and practices across European countries, from capital cities to small provincial towns and suburbs.

Cover, Identities: Global studies in culture and power

Cover, Identities: Global studies in culture and power

The articles are concerned with the politics and poetics of belonging, and how they relate to social and spatial practices of inclusion and exclusion. However, unlike studies based within a multiculturalist framework, they consider not just cultural differences, but also class-based differences, housing trajectories, and lifestyle and consumption practices. They analyse practices of the majority, ‘white’ population as well as of minority or migrant groups, thus unsettling established categories of difference. They are attuned to both the micro-level of everyday encounters in streets, housing estates, markets, and neighbourhoods, but also to transnational connections and belonging.

Ben Gidley discusses the commensurability and incommensurability of lives lived in a London housing estate. His article is followed by Camille Schmoll and Giovanni Semi’s reflection on the shadow circuits of trade in the Mediterranean. Alex Rhys-Taylor takes a sensuous approach to the study of local intercultural encounters at an East London street market. Susanne Wessendorf discusses intercultural encounters and relations in an area adjacent to the street market, namely Hackney. Ben Rogaly and Kaveri Qureshi’s article by contrast is set in a new arena for diversity, namely the provincial English city of Peterborough. Ole Jensen moves to another new site for discussions of multiculture, namely an English suburban town. Finally Lars Meier echoes the themes of nostalgia and loss evoked in Gidley’s article. Here, in the former company town of Werderau, a Nuremberg neighbourhood, retired industrial workers lament the loss of a well-ordered, hierarchical world. The Epilogue by Karen Fog Olwig reflects on the theoretical and methodological implications of the diversity turn in ethnographic studies of migration.

The issue as a whole explores how diversity is experienced locally, but also takes into account people’s transnational connections, linking these to the micro-level of everyday life. It opens up a new agenda for scholarship, pushing us to go beyond static categorisations, which constrain our understanding of social life and towards a better understanding of the contingency, spatial specificity and complex conjunctures of multiplying axes of difference.

This new agenda attends closely to how histories and sedimented narratives of encounter shape such conjunctures, while also revealing new sites of encounter as shifting cartographies of difference emerge. As the articles in the special issue demonstrate, a fine-grained, ethnographic understanding of the diversification of diversity as lived experience helps us understand when, where, how, why, and for whom some differences come to make a difference.

This blog post is a substantially abridged and edited extract of ‘Ethnography, diversity and urban space’  by Mette Louise Berg and Nando Sigona. Full version available here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/1070289X.2013.822382