It „Broadened my Horizon and Left me Excited and Happy“: First Report from Our WeberWorldCafé „Diversity – Limits and Opportunities“

A report by Malina Emmerink

It sounded like an academic speed dating event on an international and intercultural level and instantly made me curious: When Gesche Schifferdecker of the Max Weber Foundation asked me if I would like to join the Weber World Café on „Diversity – Limits and Opportunities“ to meet professionals from different fields of expertise and exchange ideas on the fascinating topic of “diversity”, I happily agreed to come to Göttingen for the event.

dsc03437_croppedThe international Weber World Café is organized biannually by the Max Weber Foundation and the Forum Transregionale Studien (Berlin) in changing locations. It brings together people from different countries, professions and ages to discuss a topic of broad public interest. The format is innovative and refreshing: Instead of well-known and often unproductive panel discussions, the participants are grouped around several tables. Each table is hosted by two experts from different academic fields who chair the discussion about a special aspect of the main topic. Every participant is encouraged to take an active part in the discussions and contribute with his or her specific views and perspectives. Each discussion round lasts for 25 minutes after which it is possible to change tables or stay for another, often very different session on the same topic. Paper table-cloths provide a great opportunity to take notes, to sum up important aspects of the discussion and to write down newly raised questions for the next group.

This late fall’s Weber World Café was organized in cooperation with the German Institute for Japanese Studies Tokyo (DIJ), the Diversity Research Institute of the Georg-August-University Göttingen and the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. The subject-matter was highly topical and of great importance: During three hours we discussed many facets of the complex and at times diffuse concept of “diversity”. The organizers tackled the complexity of the phenomenon by organizing the discussion tables around seven very interesting subtopics: They focused on conflicts in multi-ethnic societies, intersectionality, gentrification, body modification, historic examples of diverse societies, the concept of “superdiversity”, and gender-neutral parenting. Experts from all over the globe were invited to host the tables and enriched the discussions with their expertise.

Treppenaufgang der "Alten Mensa" in Göttingen

Stairwell of the „Alten Mensa“ Building in Göttingen

On arrival at the beautiful location of “Alte Mensa” we all chose our first discussion topic and took a seat at the respective table. After a warm welcome by the organizer Gesche Schifferdecker, the first discussion round started. Voices began to rise everywhere around me. Everybody was eager to get to know each other and to dig deeper into different aspects of “diversity”. After about 25 minutes, a bell signaled the end of the first round and most participants, including myself, headed for a new table. Another three rounds followed, each adding new perspectives, ideas and questions to the discussions at the different tables. Most of the time, the bell rang way too early and we could have kept on debating that single topic for the rest of the day. All of the topics aroused my interest and I wished I could part myself and attend all discussions at the same time. Lacking supernatural abilities, I could only participate in four table discussions and missed the other three completely. Therefore, instead of giving an incomplete overview of the separate discussions, I would like to focus here on key aspects and arguments that were raised at several tables, or seemed particularly important to me.

dsc03552The discussions showed that although the word “diversity” has been used extensively in public debates of recent years, and calls for “more diversity” as well as expressions of fears connected to its consequences can be heard in many spheres of discourse, the exact meaning of “diversity” remains ambiguous and debated. The term is used in a variety of contexts, for example with regard to lifestyles, values, ways of thinking, cultural and religious backgrounds, economic systems, and whole societies. Furthermore, scientists, politicians and the media often disagree over the precise impacts of “diversity”, and whether they are beneficial or harmful to the way humans live together and organize their societies.

In 2001, the UNESCO recognized cultural diversity as “common heritage of humanity” and declared that as a “source of exchange, innovation and creativity, cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature.”1 In sharp contrast to that, many people perceive “diversity” exclusively in a negative way: As an external force endangering traditions, values or morals. As a source for cultural misunderstandings, tensions and conflicts. And as a symbol for the unknown, the foreign and the troubling.

All too often in modern history, homogeneity was declared the only possible goal to achieve unity, security and strength for a society. Less frequently, politicians acknowledged the possible contribution of cultural or religious plurality to enriching a society. Two examples of “diversity” as a way of living together in multi-ethnic societies were at the center of attention in the panel I attended, entitled “Learning from the Past? Facts and Fictions from Historical Societies with Greater Diversity”. Referring to the city of Istanbul during the 19th century Ottoman millet system, Richard Wittmann (Orient Institut Istanbul) particularly stressed the personal freedom of action individuals of different ethnic and religious backgrounds shared within the late Ottoman society. Lorena Ossio Bustillos (Max Planck Institute for Social Law and Social Policy) used the example of 19th century Latin America to highlight the importance of legal discourses for the cohabitation of indigenous and non-indigenous peoples and the construction of identities. The following discussion showed that it often seems hard for people living in today’s globalized world to imagine a similar complexity in the past, although the homogenous nation-state is a rather recent invention of the “West”, and much of human history was shaped by more diverse social constructs. This last aspect indicates, once again, how history was and is frequently used to justify politics.

Throughout the four discussion rounds it became clear that there are two dimensions of discussing “diversity”: On the one hand, like in the discussion mentioned above, we talked about specific social structures that enable or disable cultural or religious plurality in past and present societies. Related questions were: When and why do societies allow “diversity” to be constitutive of the cohabitation of their members? To what extent and how do societies profit from cultural “diversity”? Why and when do efforts to bring about homogenization emerge in societies and communities? In other words, we discussed the possible social functions of “diversity” and inclusion, as well as exclusion and homogeneity on a practical basis.

Foto: Malina Emmerink

Photo by Malina Emmerink.

On the other hand, we dealt with the phenomenon of “diversity” as a political desideratum: What can we do to overcome mechanisms of exclusion in communities and societies in order to establish “diversity” as a positive possibility for cultural enrichment? How can members of a society contribute to empowering people of diverse ethnic, cultural, religious, and social backgrounds who live amongst them? In this sense, during our discussions we joined in the calls for “more diversity” as political agendas against the discrimination and suppression of minority groups in our societies today. This aspect was particularly stressed at the table on “Conflicts in Multi-Ethnic Societies – How Do We Get Along, If You Are Not Like Me?”, which was chaired by Bouke de Vries (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity) and Banu Karaca (EUME). We kicked off with identifying challenges that “diversity” poses to social stability and cohesion in multi-ethnic societies such as language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, conflicting traditions, or behavior that is perceived as religiously offensive. We then discussed how we could avoid social conflicts related to cultural plurality. While we agreed on the importance of tolerance for a peaceful and supportive coexistence in a society, the discussion also made clear that no objective moral truths and values exist that are valid in all human societies. Regarding this aspect, it was very interesting to hear the views and experiences of the other participants of this very internationally composed panel. Concerning the current so-called “refugee-crisis”, we agreed that its perception depends a lot on different perspectives: Describing the current migration flows as a new and dangerous development and connecting it with deep-rooted fears of social deprivation makes it impossible to determine how immigration brings about social change and who is in which way affected by those changes.

The importance of different perspectives in approaching „diversity“ and related topics was also a key aspect in the discussion on “Facing Various Axes of Oppression – Individual, Political and Legal Approaches to ‘Intersectionality’” moderated by Andrea D. Bührmann (University Göttingen) and Guilaine Kinouani (Writer, Feminist & Therapist). Kinouani underlined that our individual perspectives on “diversity” are based on specific ideas of what is familiar and therefore perceived as “normal”, as well as the opposite. In the same way, perspectives define how we deal with intersectionality, which is understood as the interconnectedness of discrimination. It became clear that approaches to intersectionality must rely on the personal experience of the individuals, since they determine how different patterns of discrimination are experienced and dealt with. The question of common values and morals was also raised at this discussion table and we came to similar conclusion: Since basic values of coexistence are neither globally accepted nor practically institutionalized in all human societies alike, it seems impossible to find easy and universal solutions for the many social conflicts related to „diversity“.

Host Qudsiya Kontraktor talks discusses x with our Science Reporters Malina Emmerink and Kristin Oswald.

Host Qudsiya Contractor talks discusses with our Science Reporters Malina Emmerink and Kristin Oswald.

In the final round, the moderators had also the opportunity to leave their tables and join other discussions. Although the hosts of “DiverCities. Gentrification, Social Mobility and Public Spaces” Anouk Tersteeg (EU-project DIVERCITIES/Utrecht University) and Qudsiya Contractor (Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai) stayed at their table we did not talk about gentrification and urban “diversity” in the last round. Instead, we discussed a key aspect of dealing with “diversity” that had been touched upon in all other discussion rounds so far: The issue of racism. In order to treat every person in a society as an equal member, his or her ethnic, religious, cultural, and social background has to be acknowledged and tolerated. In contrast to this basic principle, racist discrimination was a common feature of many historic societies and it is on the rise again in many countries today. For me as a scholar of German racism in the 19th century, it was particularly interesting to discuss the topic of racism with researchers from India, Iran and the Netherlands. Learning that the Iranian New Year’s celebration involves a case of “blackfacing”, hearing about oppressions and violence against ethnic and religious minorities and so called “untouchables” in India, and discussing the endurance of racist traditions in the Netherlands, broadened my horizon and left me excited and happy.

The Weber World Café in Göttingen brought together experts from different countries, professions and ages to discuss the interesting and highly controversial topic of “diversity”. As a personal conclusion, I am convinced that the intensive and far-reaching discussions were to a great extent enabled and enriched by the “diversity” of its participants, due to their different cultural, religious, disciplinary and personal backgrounds. During the event, I discussed with people from Armenia, Bolivia, England, France, Germany, India, Iran, Israel, the Netherlands, and Syria. They all had had different approaches to the topic but also shared many of my views. We all agreed that instead of defining “diversity” as a threat to the cohesion of a society, it should be seen as a chance for broadening narrow horizons and correcting unquestioned beliefs. On the micro level, the format of the event showed clearly how diverse perspectives on one issue enable a more facetted and more accurate analysis – which holds true for the macro level of a society as well.

In the end, the Weber World Café did succeed: It raised more questions than it answered, it challenged traditional patterns of perception, ideas about the meaning of the term and much more. It successfully connected experts, students and other interested participants by bringing them together in an innovative and refreshing discussion format that encouraged everybody to actively participate in the debate.

During the event, further interesting discussions took place on the following topics:

  • »Optimizing the Body: From Health Protection to Genetic Embryo Modification«
    Simon Ledder (University of Tübingen)
    Nitzan Rimon-Zarfaty (University Göttingen)
  • »Fighting Complex Structures with New Concepts: How „Superdiversity“ Can Help Us Understand Contemporary Migration Flows«
    Alexandre Tandé (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity)
    Laurence Lessard-Phillips (University of Birmingham)
  • »Can Cool Little Boys Wear Skirts? Gender, Parenthood and Sexuality«
    Ronald Saladin (German Institute for Japanese Studies)
    Sabine Grenz (University Göttingen)

Malina Emmerink studied history and social anthropology in Hamburg and Dunedin/New Zealand and is now a PhD Candidate at the department of Modern History and a member of the Graduate School of Humanities at the University of Hamburg. Her dissertation deals with “Antisemitism and Colonial Racism in the German Empire. Functions, Connections and Interrelations”. Malina has a deep interest in racism, (post)colonialism and intersectional theory. You can find her on twitter @MEmmerink.

  1. Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, Adopted by the 31st Session of the General Conference
    of UNESCO in Paris, 2 November 2001, Article 1. []

Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, concentrated around the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with distinctive and independent focal points. Through its globally operating institutes, the Foundation is able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and the host countries or regions of its establishments. By promoting scientific dialogue and merging academic as well as non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the Internationalization of research in its three fields of dedication.

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