Losing Culture or Finding Superdiversity?

Losing Culture or Finding Superdiversity?

Les Back (Goldsmiths University of London)

David Goodhart’s book The British Dream (2014) is a good example of the impending sense of anxiety that many commentators have with the idea that London, and Britain more generally, is ‘losing its culture’. Goodhart writes: “London is not the happily colour-blind multi-racial city that many people imagine or that one might think from wandering around the centre of the city” (2014: 51).  Rather, ‘urban England’ has become, in his words, a set of “mysterious and unfamiliar worlds just around the corner or… a few tube stops away” (2014: 47).  The city of multiculture is a source of anxiety and worry particularly for the elderly and poor. For him ‘race relations’ experts and ‘academics’ have censored the understandable and legitimate concerns of ‘ordinary citizens’ about the social costs of immigration.  The building of a ‘mega mosque’ in Merton, south London is for Goodhart symptomatic of the damage done by excessive diversity.

Merton is an outer London suburb that has been little remarked upon by researchers or political commentators.  Like much of suburban London is it a patchwork of affluent neighbourhood alongside post-war social housing for working-class residents many of whom bought their homes from the 1980s onwards.  The mosque is a place of worship for the non-conformist Ahmadis, who have been largely, shunned by mainstream Sunni and Shia Muslims.  Opened in 2013 it is located in a repurposed local Express Dairy that lay unused for several years.  Goodhart comments: “It dominates the neighbourhood, though as part of the planning deal no call to prayer rings out from the minaret.  It replaced an Express Diary, which until the late 1980s provided a few hundred skilled and semi-skilled manual jobs, for the local people and, of course, lots of milk bottles – an icon of an earlier, more homogenised age.” (2014: 47-48).

Goodhart’s political pun captures the heart of the matter for him.   While the Ahmadis are in many respects ‘model immigrants’ they are also the symptom of the unacceptable excesses of multiculture. He offers the example of them paying for posters on London buses to congratulate the Queen on her 2012 diamond jubilee as an example of their commitment and gratitude for providing a home for their ecumenical form of Islam.  At the same time, he argues for many white people the “giant Ahmadiyyan mosque with a capacity for 10,000 worshippers” is a symbol of the disappearance of their “familiar mental and physical landmarks”.  Taking a side swipe at political correctness along the way, he concludes: “As one man – described as White Heritage Elder Male in the jargon of race relations – told a Merton council focus group: ‘We’ve lost this place to other cultures … it’s not English anymore.” (2014: 53).

Like many critics of immigration before him, Goodhart styles himself as a brave solitary voice speaking uncomfortable truths in the service of the ordinary people who he sees as the true victims of the ‘failures’ of post-war immigration.  It is important not to dismiss this work without taking its contents seriously because some of its key themes have become a rallying point for the political mainstream.  Goodhart’s supporters range from Trevor Phillips, former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to David Willetts, British Conservative Party politician and cabinet minister, to the Labour politician Frank Field.  An interesting and motely crew of metropolitan elitists and working-class advocates has assembled behind the message that diversity has gone too far.

Stories like the case of the Merton mosque matter because they so often reveal the moral and political commitments of not just the teller but also the audiences that find them compelling.  Kenan Malik points this out perceptively:  “the story of Merton mosque, and the re-telling of that story as a narrative of ‘cultural loss,’ gets to the heart of the contemporary debate about immigration” (2013: 42).  However, this is less about the facts than the ‘existential impact’ because “Immigration has become symbolic of the disruption of communities, the undermining of identities, the fraying of belongingness, the promotion of unacceptable change” (2013: 42).

As Malik points out you could re-tell the story of the Merton Mosque a different way revealing the moral commitments evident in the initial version.  For example, during the seven years when the Dairy was effectively an industrial ruin, drug users made it into a ‘crack den’.   “So, one story we could tell,” suggests Kenan Malik,  “is the that of economic forces closing down an unprofitable dairy, with the loss of several hundred jobs, and of local Muslims subsequently rescuing the abandoned, crime-infested site, creating news jobs and in the process transforming Merton for the better” (2013: 42).  However, doing this would change the point of the story.  It would shift a tale of culture loss and white melancholia to a one of urban renewal and cultural reconstruction.  The problem herein though for people like Goodhart and his ‘White Heritage Elder Male’ is that this still wouldn’t make the Merton Mosque English or amenable to inclusion within ‘fellow citizen favouritism’ (2014: xxxvii).

Seemingly from the opposite end of the political spectrum, academic researchers have rallied attempts to tell a different kind of story around the idea that London is now an exemplar of ‘super-diversity.’   Coined by Stephen Vertovec in a much-cited essay (Vertovec 2007), super-diversity has quickly spawned academic research that is itself equally problematic.  Vertovec starts out his discussion with the assertion that today: “Diversity in Britain is not what is used to be” and in the new context super-diversity results from the “dynamic interplay of variables among an increased number of new, small and scattered, multiple-origin, transnationally connected, socio-economically differentiated and legally stratified immigrants who have arrived over the last decade” (2007: 1024). He argues that super-diversity is a ‘summary term’ to name this new unstable situation in which patterns of migration are more variable and he argues that it is important to move beyond the study of particular ethnic groups as the sole objects of study.  “London”, he suggests, “is the predominant locus of immigration and it is where super-diversity is at its most marked” (Vertovec: 2007: 1042).

While this position seems at odds with that of those who lament ‘culture loss,’ many of the key elements in Vertovec’s argument are strikingly similar to Goodhart’s.  Both stress that within the last decade or so a quantum of diversity has been breached.  Equally, both authors minimize the significance of racism in understanding contemporary multiculture.  Goodhart is open about this, when he writes; “the threshold for the use of the word racism has fallen too low in the past two decades” (Goodhart 2014: 122).  For him racism continues, with but residual minimal effects and accuses anti-racists and Left academics of refusing to get beyond their ‘race pessimism.’  Vertovec’s insouciant treatment of racism works largely through omission.  He includes just one short paragraph in his super-diversity essay on ‘new patterns inequality and prejudice’ and mentions the word ‘racism’ just once.  So enchanted are both Goodhart and Vertovec with their own apparent novelty, they pay no serious attention to the extensive tradition of work on the cultural politics of race and new ethnicities inspired in large part by the work of Stuart Hall (1987, 1988).  They effectively erase close to thirty years of scholarship on the relationship between racism and urban multiculture (Gilroy 1987, Alexander 1996, Jones 1986, Back 1996).

While Goodhart and Vertovec play down the continued social vitality of racism, they insist that explanations can be found for the patterns of life changes within migrant communities need to be explained in ‘cultural terms’.   Goodhart particularly is right to point out that anti-racist writers have been skeptical of the use of culture in this way, the reason being that culture becomes an absolute variable invested with independent explanatory power.  Various authors historically have called these cultural archetypes ethnic absolutism (Gilroy 1987) or cultural essentialism (Hall 1992).  This view casts the victims of a divided society in circumstances – culturally speaking – of their own making.   While admonishing the Left for its unwillingness to address these issues, he proceeds confidently falling foul of this very syndrome. Goodhart admits: “I want to be more culture and colour conscious” (2014: 55). He foregrounds the significance of ‘inherited cultures’ and ‘collective reputations’, while dismissing racism as a fading social force separating it from the powerful current of anti-immigrant sentiment in wider public circulation.

Vertovec’s conception of super-diversity is concerned with a more complex understanding of culture.  He argues against the tradition of scholarship that has tended to emphasis the uniformity of ethnic groups limited to the patterns of migration and settlement associated with the post-colonial relationships.  Usefully, he observes that the varying kinds of immigration status within migrant groups have profound impacts on their life chances and conditions of belonging in Britain, noting, “there may be widely differing statuses within groups of the same ethnic or national origin” (2007: 1039).  However, there is little connection made between racism and the legacy of empire that constitutes these orders and hierarchies.  The result is a ‘thin-culturalism’ offering accounts of migrant experience that skims the surfaces of their complex and mutable cultures. Vertovec and others connected to this school seem concerned with little more than the social arithmetic of diversity.

Super-diversity is a vacuous superlative like the simplistic paeans football fans sing for their team’s favourite player. More seriously, this emphasis on superlative difference feeds the fire of public anxieties of an already panicked debate about immigration.  While there is an urgent need to find new ways of notating and representing the cultural kaleidoscope of the migrant city, to do so without paying equal attention to the ways division lines are drawn within urban multiculture is profoundly ill-judged. As a consequence, super-diversity as a concept is politically one-dimensional and ultimately culpable in letting the sentiments of anti-immigrant times go unchallenged.

As Claire Alexander and her colleagues comment celebratory diversity narratives occlude: “the ‘dark side’ of cultural difference – as positioned through relations of power, inequality and exclusion, history, resistance, conflict and profound, troubling ambiguity” (2012: 4).  A commitment to understand the complex realities of London’s multiculture is important to give equal attention to the forms of division and racism that persist within worlds of divided connectedness.

This entails a careful attention to what Amanda Wise and Selvaraj Velayutham call the “micro-politics of everyday life” (2009: 15) in which state power and policy filters down into the smallest scale and become entangled with new emergent modes of co-existence.  A growing literature is emerging that seeks to explore this intersection and the sensuous texture of multicultural life. But as Sarah Neale and her colleagues point out paradoxically: “notions of ethnic segregation, cultural withdrawal, and multicultural crisis have dominated public and policy debate despite the new complexities and newly emergent spaces of difference and diversity” (2013:319).

Extolling ‘cultural loss’ or finding ‘super-diversity’ offer equally inadequate understandings of the combinations of division and accommodation. Patterns of people flow are more chaotic and the elsewhere of postcolonial London is changing.  Paying close attention to these processes reveal not only the omissions and glosses within the public debate about immigration but also we can glimpse the ways in which new modes of living take hold in the city.



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Les Back is professor of sociology at Goldsmiths University of London.


Image: Morden South station and Ahmadiyya Mosque by Marathon (CC BY-SA 2.0)