The Diversity Turn

Mette Louise Berg, Nando Sigona

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.

identitiesThe 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.

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 an article in Identitiesby Mette Louise Berg and Nando Sigona.