Research Programme: Diversity and Inequality

The research programme of the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University focuses on the interaction between diversity and inequality. It studies this interaction from different disciplinary perspectives, based on the cooperation between anthropology and development studies. Its research programme is embedded in the Radboud Social Cultural Research institute.

Following globalisation and migration processes, intercultural encounters have become an everyday reality around the world. At the same time, innovations in communication and information technology have changed the face of migration, which has become much more dynamic and fluid with the emergence of transnational networks. As a consequence, the question of how to live with—and govern—diversity has become a key contemporary concern. It is articulated in heated debates about integration, multicultural society, and national values, but also in contestations over ethnic, class, gendered, sexual, racial, and religious identities. The concept of intersectionality draws attention to these multiple dimensions of difference in the struggle of emancipation movements for recognition and equality. Indeed, the debate about diversity is inherently linked to widespread concerns with socioeconomic inequality, understood as differences in access to essential forms of capital, including social, cultural, and symbolic capital. The principal question this programme seeks to address is, therefore, how diversity and socioeconomic inequality influence and perhaps reinforce each other.

The interaction between diversity and inequality is complex and the analysis of it is made even more difficult by the fact that the ascribed identity of people is not always clearly distinguished from their socioeconomic position. Sociocultural characteristics of different categories of people are regularly cited to legitimise and strengthen existing socioeconomic inequalities, or they are manipulated to create unequal opportunities. As a result, debates about different dimensions of diversity in multicultural or multi-ethnic societies are, often implicitly, about social and economic inequality. Marginalisation and discrimination are frequently explained in terms of sociocultural differences. Conversely, socioeconomic inequality has repercussions for diversity. Sociocultural identity, for example, can be an important marker of social status, especially in situations that are characterised by diversity, which sheds light on why it is often managed or even manipulated to express aspirations for social improvement. Social inequality might also influence the degree to which groups or individuals cling on to their identity. A dearth of opportunities to attain upward mobility, for instance, can mean that people with a migration background share the same challenges and are thus forced to rely on each other—a situation that contributes to forms of collective identification. In studying such issues, our ambition is to advance and innovate theory development in order to enhance understandings of the experiences and interests of groups that are marginalised by the exclusionary effects of today’s neoliberal regimes and markets.

Within the overarching theme of the interplay between diversity and inequality, our research group addresses two concrete subthemes.

Subtheme 1: Inequality and Relatedness in Multicultural Societies

Migration and mobility are having a significant impact on societies, both in the Global South and the Global North. An increasing number of societies are characterised by diversity, which often entails new forms of inequality. Ethnicity, class, gender, and religion lead to complex combinations of difference and inequality, which presents the nation-state with challenges to existing forms of relatedness, cohesion, social solidarity, and notions of citizenship and belonging. By focusing on socioeconomic inequality in multicultural societies, our aim is to study the various ways in which social and cultural positions are related.

The innovative aspect of this subtheme is that we aim to examine and theorise the challenges of increasing inequality in multicultural nation-states by focusing on the politics of relatedness between different groupings. The central question in this context is: How does the politicisation of relatedness perpetuate and/or transform various forms of inequality? The theoretical concept of relatedness draws attention to the ways in which cohesion, community, solidarity, and social obligations are imagined, shaped, and brokered between different people in various contexts. As such, it provides an analytically fertile point of departure for studying and developing theory about the complexities and paradoxes of sociocultural relationships in multicultural societies around the world.

Debates about relatedness, or its putative absence, are central to reactions against migration and multiculturalism, and to new forms of nationalism all over the world. Idioms of relatedness are also pivotal in the notion of a crisis of democratic politics and in concomitant reconfigurations of citizenship in neoliberal and communitarian programmes that entail a shift of tasks and responsibilities from the state to communities and individual citizens. The latter also gives rise to new civil society organisations and forms of volunteering. A multilayered approach, from the perspective of relatedness, therefore enables crucial insights into questions of inequality and cohesion in today’s multicultural and increasingly neoliberal world.

Subtheme 2: Diversity, Markets, and Natural Resources

Across the globe, neoliberal reforms have changed the face of late capitalism with the introduction of the market—and its attendant market-related terminology—as a frame for viewing and defining human social relations. Although regulatory policies in markets are becoming more common than so-called “free markets”, the social is still, importantly, understood in terms of the market. The central question in this subtheme is: How are different forms of diversity and inequality within and between societies related to the functioning of markets and concomitant changes in access to natural resources? In this context, markets constitute an important institutional connection between socioeconomic inequality and diversity. This subtheme therefore analyses and theorises how diversity influences the creation of various markets, the regulation of people’s entry into markets and the emergence of a skewed balance of power between parties in markets.

These are pertinent topics for research as diversity among (potential) participants in a market complicates any analysis of how markets function. Different groups have varying views about whether or not something can be “marketed”, such as, for example, land and other natural resources that belong to a “community” (“the commons”), or non-material resources such as indigenous knowledge and religious ceremonies. Underpinning these discussions are different opinions about the common good, property rights, development, the value of “intangible heritage”, and whether or not these are being dealt with legitimately by the market that is being liberalised on a global scale. Moreover, cultural diversity entails differences in how things are valued, which is not limited to the goods and services that are traded on the market, but also extends to the resulting prosperity and welfare that the market potentially offers to the different parties involved. In its most extreme form, this sets in motion processes of exclusion and exploitation that give rise to socioeconomic inequality.