Documenting diasporic identities: report on the CRONEM conference, 11 June 2009

Yesterday, I presented a poster about our work at the annual conference of the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Migration (CRONEM) at the University of Surrey. The abstract for the poster is available here and the final version can be downloaded here. (Condensing it to A4 size did some funny things to the layout – sorry…).

The aim of our poster was to stimulate a discussion about future research challenges relating to the role of online ‘archives’ in constructing identities in diasporic communities. No one has as yet given us any pointers as to how we might design an appropriate research methodology, but there was a broad consensus that these are important future questions.

An additional reason for attending was to catch up on the latest debates about how societies ‘manage’ diversity. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years about the ‘backlash’ against multiculturalism, a phenomenon which has filtered through to the heritage sector (for example through the side-lining of the Heritage Diversity Task Force at the GLA). Ien Ang, the opening keynote speaker set the tone by taking on this issue right from the start.  She argued that the policy shift needs to be situated not just in the context of 9/11 and its aftermath, but also within the wider framework of neo-liberal globalisation, which has fuelled transnational flows whilst at the same time raising anxieties about diversity in many populations undergoing rapid change. She highlighted the need for social conditions to facilitate conversation and exchange between ‘different’ people, in order to contribute to the ‘normalisation’ of cultural diversity. But she also did not suggest that inter-cultural dialogue was any sort of panacaea: as she put it, “there is no definitive way of resolving the multicultural question,” only “ways of juggling multiple identities.”

This weary (although not necessarily pessimistic) realism seemed to me to characterise many of the arguments I heard, and this seems to me to be a shift from the tone of the discourse of few years back, when ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘inter-cultural dialogue’ were being touted as possible paths towards harmonious liberal democracies. Perhaps liberal democracies have also lost some of their sheen; certainly, the erasure of conflict around aspects of identity no longer seems either achievable or, to some, entirely desirable. Amanda Wise for example posed the very pertinent question, drawing on her research into interactions between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Australia, of just what the best possible outcome looks like? Should we be worried if friendships across cultural divides remain rare, as long as people can find ways to ‘rub along together’ in the workplace, or civic spaces?

The theoretical thread was pursued by Floya Anthias, who offered a ‘thought piece’, rather than research findings. She made a number of useful points, including on the theme of ‘identity’, which she sees as an unhelpful category (as do many others). Instead, she argued, we should consider ‘claims’ people make on ‘representational or distributive resources’ (on the basis of a strategic identity) and the ‘attributions’ that are imposed on members of particular groups. Overall, the emphasis should not be on ‘difference’ per se, but the way ‘identities’ are mobilised to construct boundaries.

One of the most troubling sessions I attended was about citizenship, and specifically the introductin of citizenship ceremonies and education in the UK. Eleni Andreouli, Bridget Byrne and Charlotte Chadderton all seemed to confirm that in both registry offices and the classroom, an implicitly racialised, exclusive notion of ‘Britishness’ is being pushed by registrars and teachers, who have received minimal (if any) training in order to enable them to fulfil their new roles. This is partly because government guidelines have produced a Britishness that is negatively construed; in other words, it is a concept that is presented as having become necessary because our national ‘community’ is experiencing unprecedented threats (from terrorists, benefit cheats, illegal migrants etc.). There is nothing in this formulation to suggest everything that immigrants have contributed to Britain, or indeed that we are all, on some level, immigrants or descendants of immigrants.

The thing that concerned me most however in this respect is the extent to which there is a huge gap between academia and policy; very little of this critique seems to me to feed through to the government agencies in question. This discrepancy is most marked in the area of border controls. Over lunch I discussed this with Dama, a Madagascan musician who was performing that evening and who has been participating in Southampton’s fantastic TNMundi project. However much ‘transcultural capital’ individuals like himself may enjoy, travelling between Europe and Africa across networks of musicians, promoters, producers and so on none of this counts when he has to cross a border into the EU. His immense capital is immediately devalued; few border officials (and the policy-makers who instruct them) speak only the language of threat and control, very often with racist undertones. Social theorists need to work harder to engage a hostile and suspicious audience, it seems to me.

And finally, I experienced a disconcerting turning-of-the-tables when Suzanne Wessendorf presented a paper based on her ethnography of an area of London I know very well, and where I used to live. The tensions she observed across class divides (primarily, rather than ‘race’ or ethnicity) rang very true from my own experience, and I found myself thinking of endless episodes that could have constituted moments from her fieldwork. It is not always comfortable, being the observed rather than the observer, however remotely and it reminded me just how important it is to present findings in the form of a dialogue, rather than an academic judgement if they are to be at all well received.

Mary

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