A superdiverse group

Superdiversity changes the world and people in it

Social Identity in the Age of Superdiversity

7 minutes to read
Monika Nemcová

All of our lives are touched by superdiversity in one way or another, and that is why we have to rethink our ideas about social identity and forget it as a fixed, hard-line category.

Looking into Superdiversity

Every morning, I dismiss the alarm on my Chinese-made cellphone, which is enveloped in a case that I ordered online from Germany. I brush my teeth with a Swiss toothbrush and then I proceed to get dressed. I put on a pair of jeans made in Bangladesh, a T-shirt from Romania and a sweater from Turkey. At my Dutch university, I attend lectures conducted in English taught by Belgian, Finnish, Italian and Turkish professors. I sit together with classmates from all over the world. In simple words, my daily life- as well as lives of people around me- are intertwined with and affected by the lives of so many various people, we can hardly even grasp the idea of it. The term 'diversity', which “emphasizes the multiplicity, overlapping and crossing between sources of human variation” (Dietz, 2007, p. 8), is gradually becoming deficient. And as such, Vertovec (2007) proposed a new term encompassing the 'diversification of diversity' (ibid, p. 1025): superdiversity. This word particularly exists in context of migration.

Daily lives are intertwined with and affected by the existence of so many other various people that we can hardly even grasp the idea of it.

This notion challenges the traditional understanding of what diversity is, referring to, "differences between cultural groups, although it is also used to describe differences within cultural groups” (Diversity Dictionary, 2015). Such groups have been considered as having members who share certain qualities, for example, physical or biological features, or stylistic aspects (Ely and Thomas, 2001, p. 230). This is closely related to the concept of identity, specifically, cultural identity. Stets and Burke (2003) state that “one’s identities are composed of the self-views that emerge from the reflexive activity of self-categorization or identification in terms of membership in particular groups or roles.” (ibid, p. 226)

Cultural identity can be considered as a subcategory of social identity, which "refers to ‘us’ versus ‘them’ categorizations—all the attributes that come to the fore when the perceiver compares his or her group (as a collective) to a psychologically relevant outgroup.” (Onorato and Turner, 2009, p. 259) However, Vertovec (2007) argues that many other factors enter an interplay creating the current superdiverse environment. Such factors include “differential immigration statuses and their concomitant entitlements and restrictions of rights, divergent labour market experiences, discrete gender and age profiles, patterns of spatial distribution, and mixed local area responses by service providers and residents.” (ibid, p. 1025)  Thus, cultural groups are only blurrily defined and it can be troublesome for people to identify with one or more of those.


Problematicity of ethnic and racial identities

One of the long-established identity categories has been ethnicity, which entails belonging to a particular cultural group. Ethnic identity is a social construct used as a “frame in which individuals identify consciously or unconsciously with those with whom they feel a common bond because of similar traditions, behaviors, values, and beliefs” (Chávez and Guido-DiBrito, 1999, 39).

"We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race." – Kofi Annan

However, this construct has been used interchangeably with the concept of racial identity, which is used in biological terms, but can also be viewed as a social construct regarding a sense of group belongingness amongst people from a particular racial group (ibid). An explication of the interchangeable use of this concept has been illustrated in a paper by Phillimore et al. (2010). In their work, they analyse a superdiverse situation in a Birmingham neighbourhood where they state: “At this time the largest ethnic group was white (37%) followed by Indian (19%), Black (15%) and Pakistani (14%)” (ibid, p. 8). A question of the definition of ethnicity, racial identity and nationality and of generalization arises here. Can we really say that all 'white' people share traditions and beliefs? 'White' people from all parts of the globe, differ in language, traditions, behaviour and culture, to say the least. The same question can be asked about 'black' people within the aforementioned categories. Furthermore, how can the categories of ‘white’ and ‘black’ be parts of the same classification with categories ‘Indian’ and ‘Pakistani’, which refer to countries rather than to mere skin colour?


Challenges of identification within a group

These problematic questions point out the complexity of the contemporary world and show the rigidness and inadequacy of usage of the traditional categories characterizing identity. At present, migration patterns include more countries of origin, as well as more countries of destination. At the same time, motives and patterns of residence vary to great extent (Blommaert and Rampton, 2011, p. 1). A mixture of these factors result in effects on the cultural organisation of societies, where the ‘features’ and ‘characteristics’ of migrants are unpredictable (ibid). If we are to explore superdiversity--its implications and reality--there emerges the need to rethink and redescribe the obsolete categories and characteristics, and furthermore, focus on fluidity of the varied phenomena.

Hammack (2008) explains why the identification within a group may be challenging, especially in the economic sphere of globalization, and what difficulties it can bring: 

individuals can no longer look to their local communities for assurance of security because local economies are linked to one another in the larger global economy. With exposure to globalization comes the greater possibility of identity conflicts both between and within individual… (ibid, p. 225)

Self-categorization in the realm of social identity is based on shared similarities with other people belonging to particular social categories as opposed to other social categories (Turner et al., 1994, p. 454). However, this categorization is not strictly fixed, but rather, exhibits “relative, varying, context-dependent properties” (ibid, p. 456). It can be argued that instead of looking at cultural groups as boxes, we can see them as permeable entities. The reason is that social identities of many of the post-1991 migrants cannot be contained into those boxes, and should be considered as depending on context.

Take, for instance, a simple example of a child, born in the Netherlands, who is a daughter of Turkish-born immigrants living in the Netherlands. She has Dutch citizenship, but she may identify herself as a Turkish while in the Netherlands, based on her blood ties, language spoken at home, or some degree of stigmatization from the majority society. On the other hand, on arrival in Turkey, she may not feel as a part of the group, due to for example, an accent while speaking Turkish, and therefore starts feel more like a Dutch person. Which group does she belong to then? There is no clear answer and the social identity of this child cannot be seen as fixed, but rather as dependent on situation.


Omnipresence of superdiversity

Although Vertovec “sought closer attention to the human, cultural and social intricacies of globalisation, focusing on very specific migrant trajectories, identities, profiles, networking, status, training and capacities” (Rampton et al., 2015, p. 4), when defining superdiversity, this term can be understood in a wider context of globalization, which is “the increasing interaction among and integration of diverse human societies in all important dimensions of their activities--economic, social, political, cultural, and religious” (Aninat, 2001). This interaction enables creation of flows and trajectories not only of migrating people, but also of markets, products and ideas in an extremely complex way. Superdiversity is, accordingly, “a term for the vastly increased range of resources, linguistic, religious, ethnic, cultural in the widest sense, that characterize late modern societies” (Jørgensen and Juffermans, 2011). Even Slovakia, which had the lowest number of immigrants per 1,000 inhabitants in the European Union (Eurostat, 2015), is touched by superdiversity. Lives of those people are entwined, intentionally or not, with the rest of the world, whether through the internet, products used, food eaten, business, travelling and uncountable other activities.


Identity as a context-dependent category

In the future research of this phenomenon, it will be necessary to take into account the immense impact of superdiversity not only on the lives of the people who migrate and societies they live in, but also on the understanding of the concepts of social identity and its subcategories (such as cultural or ethnic identity). These should be reconceptualized as variable, fluid and context-dependent, rather than hard-line and definite, as this understanding is insufficient in the contemporary fast-changing world of instability and transformation.




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