What future for (super)diversity research?

Notes on the round table 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 round table, 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.

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