Last year Sally Hines (Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at Leeds University) and Yvette Taylor (Head of the Weeks Centre for Social and Policy Research, at London South Bank) emailed to ask me if I would contribute to an ESRC-funded seminar series on ‘Critical diversities’. My immediate response was to reply that ‘I don’t “do” diversity’. On reflection this probably seemed to them like quite a strange response from somebody who works on social inequalities and marginalisation and whose email signature identifies them as co-director of the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies at Lancaster University. Non-plussed by my strange response, Sally replied that this was a seminar series on critical diversities and they were interested in why I thought I didn’t ‘do’ diversity in my work.
Let me be clear, my work is precisely about diversity in several senses. It is ‘diverse’ in its scope, for example. My current book, Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain is, I hope, notably “intersectional” in its examination of a range of populations subject to what I term ‘social abjection’ (practices, policies and processes of stigma and exclusion). My research is concerned with finding ways of thinking critically about difference, such as differences of ethnicity, social class, gender, citizenship status. It is politically motivated research, concerned with exposing and challenging inequalities of myriad kinds as they are variously lived and resisted ‘on the ground’. I am particularly interested in processes and practices of classification and what I term, following the work of Raymond Williams and Jacques Rancière, ‘declassificatory politics’. Why not ‘diversity’ then? This was the question that I reflected upon when I received Sally and Yvette’s invitation. In particular, this invitation opened up for me a series of questions about the rhetoric of diversity, about what work diversity does as a governmental, institutional or corporate performative (see Ahmed and Swan 2006 and Ahmed 2006). As Sara Ahmed has argued pertinently, we need to think historically about what diversity marked a turn away from when it became a central framing device for thinking about inequality in the 1990s.
Thanks to Sally and Yvette, I had a chance to develop this line of thinking and research in my paper. In particular, I explored the ways in which large global corporations have come to co-opt and rebrand through ‘diversity’. I focused on two examples or events characterised by what I term ‘diversity capitalism’: 1) the branding of the Paralympics in 2011 (and the political struggles around this event and in particular its funding by ATOS– see the afterword to Revolting Subjects) and 2) ‘Diversity Summit: The Value of Inclusion’ a ‘conference for business leaders’ hosted by The Economist in London in 2012.
The slogan of the ‘Diversity Summit’ was ‘Building a global culture of diversity & inclusion helps deliver to the bottom line’, which summed up my concerns with how diversity agendas (motivated by the politics of equality) had been co-opted by big business (motivated by the economics of profit). Lets consider a few headlines from this conference
Corporate commitment to D&I may be risky but consistency is critical to success.
Diversity is counting the numbers; inclusion is making the numbers count.
Building a global culture of diversity & inclusion helps deliver to the bottom line.
You might think there is nothing wrong with global corporations wanting to be more “diverse” in this regard, or even mind them recognising the multiple values of diversity if there is some ‘pay-off’ in terms, for example, of a more ‘diverse friendly’ workforce or labour policies, but once we begin to look more closely, to see who the corporate actors of diversity are on this global stage (major oil companies, securities companies, Coke and Walmart) you begin to get a feel for the disingenuousness of the diversity rhetoric. You begin to see how slippery diversity has become as a term as it is detached from longer histories of (class) struggle and incrementally emptied of any relation to humans/workers.
Diversity here is only about markets. There is an interest in the ‘diversity’ of things like ‘human capital’ and ‘branding’ only as a means to ‘diversify market share’. Today, at least in the worlds of institutions and businesses, diversity represents profit.
So, if diversity is capital, and if the term belongs to a vocabulary that has been thoroughly capitalised by big business, is it a redundant category in terms of: 1) political and critical thought, and 2) policy and equality practices? Is diversity a conceptual tool or category which those concerned with the politics of equality might still ‘do’ something with? In other words, does diversity have anything to left to offer those seeking greater democracy, justice or redress for inequalities? Or do we need to develop a new grammar of resistance to neoliberal economic and social policies and the vertiginous inequalities which they are effecting? I am now further exploring these questions in new work on ‘Diversity Capitalism’ and I am grateful to Sally, Yvette and the seminar series, for a much needed push in this critical direction.
The ESRC Seminar Series on Critical Diversities@ the Intersection: Policies, Practices, Perspectives is ongoing with a further seminar in Leeds this autumn and a final conference at the Weeks Centre, South Bank University London, in June 2014.