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.

The Arab Spring and Human Mobility: International Symposyum, University of Oxford, 20 March 2012

Migration in its various forms has been a key part of the popular uprisings that spread across North Africa and the Levant in 2011. The columns of vehicles escaping from cities and villages under siege in Libya, the boats crammed with Tunisians crossing the Mediterranean Sea and landing on the island of Lampedusa, and the numerous Egyptian émigrés and university students returning to Cairo to join the protests in Tahrir Square are a few examples of the ways in which human mobility intersects current events in North Africa and the Levant.

The ‘North Africa in Transition: Mobility, Forced Migration and Humanitarian Crises’ workshop organised by the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) and the International Migration Institute (IMI) at the University of Oxford on 6 May 2011 offered a platform to begin exploring how these events have impacted existing patterns of mobility in the region and generated new ‘mixed’ migration flows. Panelists observed that the regional crises had prompted some economic migrants to become forced migrants; pushed forced migrants into irregular migration channels; and made multiple migrant groups, including seasonal and long established migrants, ‘involuntarily immobile’. Panelists also observed that apart from large-scale displacement within and from Libya, migration patterns from most other countries, such as Tunisia and Egypt, seemed to have remained remarkably unaffected by the political turmoil, in stark contrast with predictions made by some politicians, journalists and researchers about mass displacement.

To build on this event and take stock of further political and economic developments in the region, the RSC and IMI are organising a second international symposium on migration and forced migration in North Africa and the Levant on 20 March 2012 with the participation of international scholars, practitioners and policy makers. This second workshop will examine the extent to which the Arab Spring has shifted migration dynamics and migration and
refugee governance.

The workshop will address the following questions:

  • How have varying processes of political, economic, and social contestation in North Africa and the Levant affected human mobility?
  • To what extent have events transformed or impacted the institutional behaviour and responses of international organisations and civil society groups working in the field of migration and refugee protection?
  • How have publics and governments in North Africa and the Levant positioned or repositioned themselves in relation to issues of asylum and migration?

An immanent critique of the UK government’s use of ‘net migration’ as a benchmark for immigration policy

In an interview to BBC Newsnight (25/8/2011) on the latest ONS figures on net migration in the UK, the Immigration minister, Damian Green, defending Cameron’s vision that the annual rate of net migration should be brought down to ‘the tens of thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands’, reiterates that the government will not lower its target on immigration. ‘It’s very important’ – he said – ‘we get immigration at a sustainable level, not just for our economy but for the wider health of society’. Pushing the medical metaphor even further, the minister also compares the dependency of the British economy on foreign workers to a drug addiction. This is nothing new. Elsewhere, he has blamed the previous Labour government for using taxpayer’s money on ineffective ‘palliatives’, instead of on preventive measures. What seems less clear is the diagnosis of the minister: what exactly is this alleged health threat faced by the country? From previous statements and speeches, it would seem that the threat consists of increasing public resentment, social stresses and strains, social conflict, and pressure on public services due to the mass arrival of immigrants in the UK.

If this is the case, can the ‘net migration’ policy deliver?

Let’s make a not-too-unrealistic hypothesis. As a result of the economic and financial downturn and of Osborne’s draconian cuts, the emigration of British workers towards countries which are adopting different economic responses to the global crisis reaches an unprecedented level. Moreover, due to the increase in university fees numerous British students decide to pursue their studies abroad.  As a result of these events, next year the number of people that leaves the UK doubles. If one follows the ‘net migration’ argument, the government should then welcome a larger number of foreigners in the country without this causing social stresses and strains, social conflicts and pressure on public services. Obviously this wouldn’t be the case.

The problem, it seems to me, is that the way the government employs the ‘net migration’ indicator is misleading as it assumes a symmetry that is not there, failing to acknowledge the complexity of in- and out- migration flows and ultimately treating in- and out- migrants as passive goods which can be moved in a out of a warehouse with limited capacity.