The challenge of diversity

19 Feb 2021

LMU social anthropologist Eveline Dürr discusses cultural diversity, its conceptual construction and connotations, and the conflicting emotions it evokes.

Example of cultural diversity: Ceremonial storehouse in Papua-New Guinea. Museum Fünf Kontinente, Munich. | © Philipp Thalhammer / LMU

Diversity has become a much used, much disputed and multivalent concept in everyday discourse. In your own field – social anthropology – the term is clearly defined. What exactly does it mean to an anthropologist?

Eveline Dürr: In anthropology, the term ‘diversity’ refers explicitly to cultural diversity in all its forms. It applies to all spheres of life, ranging from conceptual knowledge to practical, everyday matters, from belief systems to classifications of degrees of kinship, to subsistence techniques that provide for one’s own needs, and to all aspects of the organization of daily life. Anthropologists wish to understand how people make sense of their lives and how they relate to the world around them – and the empirical information they collect is used to theorize cultural practices.

Can you outline the origins of the definition of cultural diversity in anthropology?

Dürr: One of the important debates on this topic took place during the second half of the 19th century. In the context of what was then known as evolutionism, the question of the origins of cultural diversity had become acute. The answer that emerged was unequivocal: The social evolution of humanity is characterized by a progressive increase in complexity, and cultures differ from one another with respect to the stage of ‘development’ they have attained. As a result, cultures were ranked within a temporal scheme – and they were viewed as being engaged in a struggle for existence, in which only the strongest survive. Based on this model, cultures that were regarded as particularly primitive, such as hunter and gatherers for instance, were perceived as ‘laboratories of human civilization’. They were thought to reflect the early stage of human development. Cultural anthropologists postulated that humanity passed through three, increasingly advanced stages – from a ‘primitive’ or ‘wild’ state via a period of ‘barbarism’ to ‘civilization’. Each of these stages could be identified on the basis of specific indicators. – And civilization, as the highest stage, always reflected the society that was most familiar to the theorist concerned.

During this period, a different school of thought idealized societies that were held to be primitive.

Dürr: For its protagonists, what were called primitive peoples – more specifically the inhabitants of the islands in the South Pacific – represented the most ‘natural’ form of human existence. These writers also contended that adoption of the ‘primitive’ way of life could cure the ills that inevitably accompanied civilization. This was of course a romantic fantasy of the return to an idealized state of paradise.

What were the repercussions of this rather crude three-stage model?

Dürr: It made existing cultural and physical differences ideologically plausible, and it served as a license for racism and notions of superiority. Even today, elements of this model of human development continue to make themselves felt – whenever cultures are referred to as ‘backward’ or ‘underdeveloped’ ’, for example. However, by the end of the 19th century, anthropologists had begun to propose alternative models, which dispensed with the idea of a single developmental trajectory and adopted a much more dynamic concept of cultural evolution.

Turning now to modern understanding of anthropology, where would you locate the transition that led to the conceptual foundations of the field as we now know it?

Dürr: Anthropologists avoid viewing cultures other than their own exclusively from the outside. Instead, they make every effort to understand cultures from within, by considering them in the context of their historical trajectories and contemporary conditions. Diversity or cultural difference is perceived as the outcome of multifaceted social processes. Emphasis is now placed on teasing out connotations of ‘diversity’, who decides that something should be classified as ‘different’ or ‘other’, and on what grounds. This requires conscious reflection on one’s own perspective, as there is no such thing as an entirely neutral standpoint. In the past, anthropology not only deconstructed cultural diversity, but it also actively contributed to the construction of diversity. For a long time, the discipline focused on the documentation, description and theoretical interpretation of differences – and in so doing, anthropology also served to create differences.

Instances of the use of cultural diversity as a differential criterion that justifies discrimination and exclusion can still be found beyond the confines of academic specialization.

Dürr: There are many distinct ways in which diversity can be perceived and exploited. One prominent example at the moment is the “Black Lives Matter” movement, which is explicitly directed against racial profiling and discrimination. Here, the very concept of diversity provides a rationale for a power structure that justifies the classification and separation of individuals on the basis of their skin color. Another example concerns the divide between East and West in our own society. At least once a year, on German Unity Day, we are told how important it is to close this gap. At the same time, and irrespective of the existing differences in socio-economic conditions, this message itself postulates the existence of a fundamental difference between the ‘Ossi’ and the ‘Wessi’ – which however is viewed as a deficit, and not as a positive potential. Conversely, representatives of indigenous communities in many parts of the world consciously emphasize their ‘otherness’ in order to underline their claims for cultural rights. In this context, diversity and ‘otherness’ become politically charged terms in their struggle for recognition and equality.

What makes the term ‘diversity’ so vulnerable to ideological distortion and misuse?

Dürr: In turning my gaze on others, I cannot avoid simultaneously directing my attention inwards. The way in which I describe the ‘other’ is always bound up with my perception of my own identity and my place in the world. One automatically places oneself in relation to the other. And, very often, the relationship between self and other is conceived in hegemonic terms. But the way I describe otherness is also about understanding the world and creating order, including defining one’s own position in the world, which may be challenged by the perceived contrast with the ‘other’. In recognizing that there are ways of life and forms of being in the world that are very different from those I am familiar with – in other words, recognizing diversity – I am challenged not to take the meaning of my own existence for granted. And in a certain sense, I am forced to justify my own, perhaps privileged, position in the world.

Prof. Dr. Eveline Dürr is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at LMU.

More on the topic:

At the panel discussion "Diversity - Fashion Term or Scientific Concept" at the Center for Advanced Studies (CAS) at LMU, Prof. Dr Eveline Dürr, Prof. Dr Nicolas Gompel and Prof. Dr Kärin Nickelsen talk about the history, future and areas of application of the concept of diversity.

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