Superdiversity

The concept of superdiversity concerns the movements and flows of people in the past twenty years. First coined by sociologist Steven Vertovec (2007), it describes the “diversification of diversity” evident in the increasingly globalised world. Compared with the patterns of earlier movements of people, contemporary migration is considered to be less predictable. Vertovec points out that new migrants are diverse across a wide range of variables – ethnicity, regional and local identity, migration channel, immigration status, labour market experiences, and forms of geographical distribution. Superdiversity is then used to account for the speed, scale, and complexity in population changes that have exceeded anything previously experienced.

Let us take the case of Britain as an example: The “old” post-colonial migrations of the 1950s to 1980s brought large numbers of relatively predictable groups to a small number of places with which they had already some kind of connection, in particular those from the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean. But over the last 10-20 years people from over 150 countries have moved to the UK. The heterogeneity as well as pace of new migration one witnesses now far exceed that of the early post-Commonwealth arrivals. Now one sees relatively small numbers of people from countries across the world arriving to places with which they have little or even no historical connection. Urban centres in particular, such as London and Birmingham, have become superdiverse.

Peckham Rye Lane, London

London is a quintessential example of a superdiverse city. For instance, while it might be an intuitive understanding to see the “Somalis” as one bounded community in London, a good number of Somalis in the UK now have originally come from the Netherlands, Denmark or other Scandinavian countries, have convoluted migratory trajectories, and possess multiple citizenships. On top of English and Somali, many also speak languages such as Dutch and Swedish fluently. Similarly, the Chinese diaspora in Britain used to be clearly dominated by migrants from Hong Kong and other Cantonese-speaking regions of South China, but a walk in Chinatown now will reveal that there is a more eclectic mix of Mandarin, Cantonese and Fuzhounese speakers who now work for the businesses there. While there are important new communities being established in London, the city also exhibits fragmentation – another important attribute of superdiversity. Rather than being part of an established ethnic or community agglomeration, many are now scattered over a range of London boroughs.

Meanwhile, in addition to being a recognition of the new conditions of migrant transnationality, some social researchers see superdiversity as a useful, new perspective in talking about diversity (Arnaut & Spotti, 2015). It is a perspective that attempts to go beyond the limitations of classic understandings of multiculturalism, which implies different social groups living “parallel” lives in a certain space. In this post-multiculturalism outlook, big divisions of cultural, social and linguistic “groups” are discarded, and the older binary constructions of national culture versus minority cultures are cast aside, in emphasising the simultaneity and conviviality of local livelihoods.

Yet, on a policy level, the opportunities and challenges associated with Britain’s rapidly changing and diverse population have not yet been fully realised. There is still ample space for researchers, policymakers and practitioners to work together to make organisations more alert and receptive to the complexity and intricacies in contemporary diversities. Local education authorities often tend to function by assumptions based on previous experiences with migrants. But a strongly research-informed policy could be more in tune with the multilingual realities in contemporary classrooms, by going beyond the monolingual ideals of language learning.

Posted by Hong Yee Kelvin Lui, King's College London

References:

Arnaut, K., & Spotti, M. (2015). Superdiversity Discourse. In The International Encyclopedia of Language and Social Interaction. John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Vertovec, S. (2007). Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 30(6), 1024–1054.