Interview: Jan Blommaert on English, multiligualism and the EU

There is no language without an ‘accent’, because what we call ‘accent-free’ is generally in fact the most prestigious accent.

Published on: http://termcoord.eu/2016/02/interview-with-jan-blommaert/

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Jan Blommaert (Dendermonde, Belgium, 1961) is known as one of the world’s most important sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists. He is a professor of Language, Culture and Globalisation, as well as the director of the Babylon Center at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. He has significantly contributed to the sociolinguistic globalisation theory, focusing his work on historical and contemporary patterns of the spread of languages and forms of literacy, and on lasting and new forms of inequality emerging from globalisation processes.

1. Let us start with a general question: having studied African history and philology, how did you end up in the more general branch of sociolinguistics?

Africa is an absolute paradise for sociolinguists. In Europe we have all grown up in a monolingual context: ‘normal’ people have just one ‘mother tongue’, which they may possibly supplement with ‘second’, ‘third’ and further languages after they have acquired that first language. Simultaneous multilingualism is regarded as a deviation from the norm, an abnormality, and Belgium is a classic example of this – a multilingual country where simultaneous multilingualism is seen as politically, socially and culturally exceptional and is actively discouraged as being undesirable. Well, if you go to Africa with that kind of ideology of language, you will not understand a thing that is going on around you, because simultaneous multilingualism is the norm there. People have several ‘mother tongues’, so they do not distinguish between languages A and B, although they do distinguish between social contexts A and B. So in fact I had to become a sociolinguist in order to understand language and society there, and my first fieldwork in Tanzania was simply a crash course in advanced sociolinguistics.

2. You clearly seem to be in the Eurosceptic camp. To give an example, let me cite one of your articles: “(…) the levels of language skills laid down by the EU (A1, A2 etc.) are abstractions which have nothing to do with the reality of communication[1]”. Why do you regard them as abstractions which have nothing to do with reality?

I am Eurocritical, but not a Eurosceptic, and I adopt that position on the basis of a strong belief in the potential of Europe. I want it to work and keep its promises, and, as a concerned European citizen, I am critical when it fails to do so. The example of the levels of language skills is typical: a bureaucratic and standardised solution is chosen for something which essentially is amenable only to ‘made to measure’ approaches and flexibility. There are various reasons why I say this. Firstly, there can be no conceivable language test that will unequivocally measure the practical language skills of the language user in real situations. A person who scores 100% in English at school will not necessarily – and not on that account – understand English as it is spoken in Leeds or Belfast, or the texts of rappers such as Snoop Dogg. That is a general fact: what language tests may perhaps indicate is competence at language learning; but they do not test the reality of communication. Secondly, and this is something which is already implicit in the first point: as a rule, people are tested for competence in using a standard variant of a language, and as we know, a standard variant is one that no one genuinely uses. There is no language without an ‘accent’, because what we call ‘accent-free’ is generally in fact the most prestigious accent. In that respect, the learned standard variant, paradoxically, is often extremely marginal in society, and it is necessary to learn the local accents and variants in order to be ‘integrated’.

Take Leeds or Belfast again, in the case of English. When you learn to communicate, after all, you do so in a real social environment, and during the learning process it is vital to absorb the ‘local colour’ as well, the language variants which really make us part of a particular social complex. Why? That is the third point: because language is the major, unmistakable social filter which serves as a basis for all manner of categorisations – both positive and negative. A ‘Moroccan’ accent which a person speaking Dutch has failed to overcome at level A1 will not be eliminated by passing the C1 test, and in that respect too, the European levels of language skills are an abstraction which has nothing to do with the reality of communication. If one has the impression that a newcomer speaks Dutch inadequately when he has passed level A2, the impression will not change when they pass level B2. In reality, language use has an emblematic impact: certain features, no matter how minimal, result in acceptance or exclusion – think of the spelling mistakes that people make in Dutch when writing the identical-sounding endings -d and -t, which, if they are applying for a job, are quite likely to result in their being rejected out of hand. To the extent that levels of language skills are associated in people’s minds with expectations of actual social and cultural ‘integration’, they are a fiction.

3. How then could one – ideally – assess a person’s language prowess in a meaningful way?

It is not really clear to me why one should even want to assess levels of language skills. What level should be taken as the yardstick, anyway? What one needs at the hairdresser’s or the baker’s? At work (and in that case, which work)? At a parents’ evening at school in order to speak to the maths teacher? There is no such thing as ‘a’ (single and unequivocal) level of language skill. Each of us combines in himself a whole range of different levels of language skills at any given moment in our lives. I am highly articulate when discussing language matters with a fellow researcher, yet struggle to converse with an insurance agent, a car dealer, a software developer or a neurologist. So how would you define my level, and how can we assess it?

4. In the past, the EU Institutions imposed jargon and terminology on the Member States, the ‘prescriptive’ approach. Nowadays, the situation has been reversed, and specific terms are supplied to the terminology databases of the EU Institutions from the Member States – the ‘descriptive’ approach. Do you favour the prescriptive or the descriptive approach?

When it comes down to it, this is a practical question: what works best? The EU has always adopted a very inflexible (and therefore unrealistic) attitude towards language and languages, due to the sensitivities of a number of Member States. For a time therefore, imitating scientists, and in order to be ‘objective’, it was thought that a completely standardised jargon would ensure the greatest clarity, but then it came to be realised that the resultant texts alienated local target groups emotionally, and that it was therefore necessary to permit greater diversity. Languages are not interchangeable on a one-to-one basis, social and cultural systems even less so, and with the increase in the number of Member States, the volume of potential differences in meaning and misunderstandings increases objectively. Only a relaxed and realistic attitude towards language issues can provide a solution here: we need to accept that the language situation is a complex of elements which is always in flux and that the response constantly needs to be changed and adapted to new circumstances, and with one practical question in mind: what works best?

5. English is a lingua franca at the EU Institutions, for example. What do you think that this victory of English means for all the other languages in the EU?

That is only partially true: the ‘lingua franca’ is not a single language but a stratified and functionally structured multilingualism. In the jargon we call this ‘languaging’: doing language, language as a verb. People use one language or another, or mixtures of them, as dictated by the situation, the interlocutors or the subject, and they immediately switch to a different code if these factors change. The use of certain forms of English has not eliminated the other languages, nor will it in future: English has taken up a position alongside the other languages as a practical instrument for certain forms of interaction in certain settings, with certain interlocutors and on certain subjects. But a conversation in English with a counterpart from another Member State is interrupted by excursions into one’s own language with colleagues or other people from one’s own country, in between times we greet other colleagues in yet other languages, and the memoranda and minutes on discussions which were conducted in English circulate in various languages and are discussed in just as many. It would be mistaken to think that the ‘official’ language is also a language which eliminates every other. In reality, it is merely the language of the official part of the communication, the part which assumes an urbi et orbi role. But that is in reality only a small fragment of the world of communication in which we live and move and have our being. Here too, as far as I am concerned there is only one guiding principle: what works best? And a relaxed attitude is the best compass for navigating in an extremely complex multilingual environment.

6. And what does the status of English as a world lingua franca mean for the development of the English language itself?

The answer is the same as that to the previous question: English – in a wide range of forms – is becoming part of the multilingual repertoires and the ‘languaging’ practices of more and more people, and in such contexts it is used for certain forms of communication, while other languages continue to be used for others. For example, English has become the worldwide language of academic publishing. But there are two observations to be made about this. Firstly, the English in question is of a highly specific kind – academic English – and that is not the kind of English you can use if you need to explain a problem with the outflow pipe from your bath to a plumber in Chicago. Secondly, it is the language of academic writing, but not of academic speech. We still mainly teach in local or national languages, while nowadays writing in English. Our academic work has therefore, strictly speaking, not been ‘anglicised’, but it has become multilingual. That is the stratified and functionally structured multilingualism that I mentioned earlier, and in that sense we have all become English-‘languagers’.

What consequences does this then have for English itself? There is a sociolinguistic rule which states that a language which grows very large disintegrates into innumerable new variants, and that is precisely what we are witnessing in the case of English around the world. ‘English’ now stands for an extremely motley and rapidly changing continuum of variants, ranging from varieties which merely resemble English to others which actually are English, and in the latter category we observe an enormous innovatory dynamic which to a large extent is operating within a new globalised popular culture and through social media. This is incidentally the first time that a great deal of change in language usage has started to originate not in the spoken variants but in the written forms. Consider, for example, the new ways of writing that we use in text messages and chats, such as “CU” “w8” or “thx”.

7. Many cities in Europe are increasingly becoming places of superdiversity, such as Brussels, London, Luxembourg, etc. Is language a divisive element or is it on the contrary what binds people together in cities with superdiversity?

Not surprisingly, that is a complex issue, because there are various levels to be examined here, and we must be sure to bear in mind the previous observations. Firstly, there is a political and ideological level, and at that level, superdiversity is regarded as a problem and an obstacle. An emphasis on uniformity and homogeneity is the classic response of modernity to growing diversity. Secondly, there is an objective potential for growing communication problems which are simply due to demolinguistic change in our society, where a hundred or more languages are sometimes represented within a very small area. That is not only a source of potential, it is also an operational problem which expresses itself in so-called ‘frontline sectors’: education, the police and judicial system, health care and officialdom. There we encounter an escalating translation problem which is virtually insoluble. Let us take a simple example: refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are nearly all classified as ‘Arabic’-speakers. However, official court interpreters – many of whom come from Moroccan backgrounds – often have great difficulty in understanding their varieties of Arabic, which creates both practical and political/legal problems.

But there is, thirdly, the factor which we discussed previously: ‘languaging’. In superdiverse environments, it is rare to find a confusion of tongues such as we associate with the Tower of Babel: rather, what one finds is an extremely flexible and tolerant attitude towards multilingualism, in which seriously deficient forms of Dutch often form the backbone. So people find their own way in the situation of extreme multilingualism which we can observe emerging in practically every city, and in that sense we see, contrary to the first two points, that it is in fact perfectly possible to have social cohesion, social interaction and a sense of community in superdiverse environments. The language problems that occur need not be underestimated, but we should not overestimate them either. We certainly need a more effective multilingual infrastructure in our cities, that much is clear – even if politicians do not agree. But we should also be aware that our society will not collapse if it becomes superdiverse. Indeed: in the past 15 to 20 years, our society has in fact become superdiverse in a way which has hardly been noticed. In lectures on the subject, we present statistics on the increase in the foreign nationalities represented in Ostend in the past 20 years. That increase is quite remarkable, and people tend to be very surprised when their attention is drawn to it, because it has never actually struck them before. That seems to me to be good news.

[1] https://jmeblommaert.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/voor-de-onderzoeker-hoe-vlaanderen-in-2013-argumenteert/

About the interviewer

CorineKlipCorine Klip, study visitor at TermCoord. Born in the Netherlands in 1973 (Amsterdam), she moved to Luxembourg in 1984 and attended the European School as a child of a EU-official. After graduating from the European School, she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Sciences in Ghent and worked for nearly 18 years in the financial industry in Luxembourg. Being always fascinated by language and multilingualism in all its forms, she decided to take a double sabbatical break from the financial industry in order to continue studying multilingualism and multiculturalism. She is currently doing a Master Degree in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg.

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Sociolinguistic superdiversity under construction: A response to Stephen May.

ScreenHunter_736 Feb. 10 12.00

Jan Blommaert

I have read with great interest the summary of a talk given by Stephen May at the MOSAIC Centre in Birmingham, entitled “Linguistic Superdiversity as a ‘new’ theoretical framework in applied linguistics: Panacea or Nostrum?”

https://tlangblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/05/linguistic-superdiversity-panacea-or-nostrum/

Stephen is critical of sociolinguistic superdiversity work because it overlooks several issues, many of which revolve around the position of indigenous (and endangered) languages, neglected, it seems, by an overly urban and metropolitan (ethnocentric) set of preferences in research – “metronormativity”.

I would say the following in response to this summary (not having access to Stephen’s own words).

  1. There appears to be some stereotyping here of the “superdiversity tradition”, which is seriously premature, in my view, since no bibles of it have been published and the field is moving continually and very rapidly; and which consequently also misses some crucial recent work. I’m thinking in particular of the special issue of Language and Communication (2015), which, to some extent, represents the “American” take on superdiversity; and of the recently published volume “Language and Superdiversity” (Arnaut et al, 2016). See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/02715309/44 and https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138844582
  2. In both sources, an earlier made point (but often overlooked in commentaries) is given even more weight: the fact that, for us working on sociolinguistic superdiversity, the internet is a key to understanding the paradigmatic ramifications of superdiversity. See for instance, in the L&C issue, the paper by Paja Faudree in which Mexican traditions are given a new lease of life, in a constantly transforming shape, in the diaspora through online re-modulation; and several papers in the Arnaut et al volume. For concise statements on this issue, see also https://www.academia.edu/10371446/Commentary_Superdiversity_old_and_new and https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/ba515695-257b-4dd0-b030-b52a158c7a42_TPCS_160_Blommaert.pdf
  3. Note that this particular emphasis on “virtual” space represents an important departure from most of traditional sociological and anthropological thought, but also from the phenomenology used in what could be called the “Vertovec tradition” of superdiversity research, which concentrates on migration flows in “offline” space. This fundamental difference is usually and remarkably overlooked, and work such as that of Rampton, Blackledge/Creese and myself is wrongly placed in a direct lineage with Vertovec’s classic definitions of superdiversity. The introduction of the Arnaut et al volume is nonetheless clear in this respect:  https://www.academia.edu/11260611/Superdiversity_and_Sociolinguistics  and this alternative emphasis has been there right from the very first formulations of our approach. See for the earliest formulation  http://www.mmg.mpg.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Subsites/Diversities/Journals_2011/2011_13-02_art1.pdf
  4. The focus on the online space is of tremendous theoretical and methodological relevance; the frequency with which it is overlooked as a crucial feature of our approach is amazing, especially since it is exactly this online-offline nexus which is entirely new (no such thing existed in sociocultural, political and historical phenomenology until the final decades of the 20th century – this, I hope, shall not be disputed) and offers a formidable potential for empirical and theoretical reformulation. It questions and at least qualifies, for instance, widely used conceptualizations of social space, including, prominently, traditional distinctions between “centers” and “peripheries” (and thus also ideas of “metropolitan” versus “indigenous” languages, and between “urban” and “rural”). See for a statement on the increasingly problematic notion of the “urban”,  https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2015/05/20/marxism-and-urban-culture-a-review/
  5. It also qualifies and amends widespread notions of “culture”, “identity” and “social groups”. Ben Rampton’s work, as well as that of Blackledge & Creese and others, has been influential in this. For my own views on this, see the following papers: https://www.academia.edu/10789675/Commentary_Culture_in_superdiversity and https://www.academia.edu/15620712/Conviviality_and_collectives_on_social_media_Virality_memes_and_new_social_structures and the collection of essays in https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/5c7b6e63-e661-4147-a1e9-ca881ca41664_TPCS_139_Blommaert-Varis.pdf
  6. As for the fact that the “margins” are no longer immune to “metropolitan” developments, again there are emphatically clear statements on this. See for instance, https://www.academia.edu/6772025/Globalization_in_the_margins_Toward_a_re-evaluation_of_language_and_mobility._Wang_et_al._2014_
  7. In view of the ways in which this paradigm dislodges the established spatial imagination in social research, pace the previous points, I wonder what the claim of “metronormativity” would be about. I’m afraid it can only be held by those who stick to pre-virtual spatial ontologies and conveniently choose to overlook what the presence of the e-space (the largest social space on earth) has done to contemporary societies: “Eurocentrism” is no longer a stable term in the era of Facebook and Google. In case the response would be that precisely the focus on the internet constitutes metronormativity, I’d like to remind those who take this view of something established by Braudel and Wallerstein in consecutive versions of World-Systems Analysis: that the presence of a new infrastructure in parts of the world system affects the entire system: those who lack access to it are pushed deeper into the periphery, for instance. The Wang et al paper mentioned in point 6 above develops this point at length.
  8. Observe also (and this is now widely acknowledged) that the paradigmatic potential of sociolinguistic superdiversity compels us to focus on registers rather than languages. We arrive at a far more specific and nuanced view of the objects of sociolinguistic processes – their ontology – and this shift does not in any way preclude work on “marginal” languages, sites or communities. A prime example of this is Fie Velghe’s dissertation on mobile phone texting as a tool for literacy instruction in a marginalized township near Cape Town. See, for a sample, https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/cdcdd501-1a7b-4af2-803d-dd51dd6623cd_tpcs%20paper6.pdf
  9. There is, then, the issue of “dehistorization”. This critique, I believe, is justified when applied to some of the “Vertovecian” work, in which we do see snapshot ethnography coupled with a kind of ”diversity euphoria” which I shall comment on below. It is also justified when applied to some superficial Linguistic Landscape Studies. Our own work, however, has been absolutely clear and explicit on the fact that superdiversity, precisely, forces us towards historicizing ethnographic work on the present. See, for instance, http://www.multilingual-matters.com/display.asp?K=9781783090402 and https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2016/01/05/the-conservative-turn-in-linguistic-landscape-studies/
  10. Finally, there is the often heard allegation that sociolinguistic superdiversity would turn a blind eye to issues of power and inequality, contemporary as well as historical – the “diversity euphoria” mentioned above. Again, the introductory chapter of Arnaut et al. can serve as a reminder that it is precisely the institutional response to superdiversity – increasing surveillance, negation and erasure of difference – that should occupy researchers presently. In the Arnaut et al. volume, the entire final section is devoted to “policing complexity”. In the L&C volume, one can turn to the contributions of Marco Jacquemet (on asylum applications) and Rob Moore (on EU language policy) for illustrations. The fate of “minority” languages is elaborately addressed there. See also Rampton’s pretty outspoken position on issues of power and inequality in sociolinguistic superdiversity: https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs/item-paper-117-tpcs.htm
  11. Just as an illustration of the analytical potential of inquiry informed by this perspective, the following example. Few would consider Mandarin Chinese a “minority” language, let alone an “endangered” one. In a diaspora situation, however, it may become a minority language both in official-administrative status (nonexistent) and in sociolinguistic position within the space of the nation-state (marginal). We know that globalization, in that sense, creates and reshuffles language hierarchies. And this means that there is nothing static or absolute to the status of a language as “minority” language – any language can be “minorized” by being moved from point A to point B. But that is not the end of it. In a diasporic situation – take The Netherlands as an example – Mandarin Chinese can be a minority language but simultaneously (here comes the scalar fractality which is so often central to our analysis) a majority language vis-à-vis the Cantonese of the previously dominant “Chinese” diaspora community, who see themselves forced to learn and use Mandarin in the “offline” public space, while (here comes a third scalar-fractal level) maintaining it in online spaces. Similar processes affect other migrant “minorities” whose (very large) heritage language is subject to similar patterns of fractal restratification – think, e.g., of the Gujarati and Bengali communities investigated by Creese and Blackledge. Such complex processes of scalar-fractal restratifications illuminate the predicament of “minorities” in important (if not always welcome) ways and teach us that functional stratification across different scale levels may be the direction to look at in studies on language endangerment. See for examples  https://www.academia.edu/8482298/Dutch-Chinese_repertoires_and_language_ausbau_in_superdiversity_A_view_from_digital_media._Juffermans_Blommaert_Kroon_and_Li_2014_ and  https://www.academia.edu/18066964/Towards_a_sociolinguistics_of_superdiversity

I do fully understand the concerns voiced by Stephen May and others, but I also insist on a fair and informed reading of the work they propose to put under critical scrutiny. Because, often, I encounter “absences” that are in actual fact richly developed presences, and “blind spots” that are in actual fact explicitly stated foci of attention – an attack on work that one would wish to see lacking of these foci, it thus appears. We are quite impatient with those (not including Stephen, though) who, on the basis of such incomplete readings, consider our views refuted and recommend staying within the safe perimeter of a Durkheimian-Parsonian (methodologically nationalist and empirically anachronistic) sociolinguistics in which nothing needs to be changed.

I do not wish to argue here that sociolinguistic superdiversity work, in its present state, has provided all the answers to all the questions. Far from that. Sociolinguistic superdiversity, in my view, is neither a panacea nor a nostrum. It’s just a potentially fertile idea which people such as I have chosen to explore and develop, if for nothing else just to see what its limits are. It’s very much under construction, and I often have to react to criticism premised on an imagined “codex” of work which upon closer inspection is all but absent. There is a growing body of explorative, inquisitive and bold research which has yielded several results that have acquired a degree of currency – think of translanguaging, the focus on registers rather than languages, and the redefinition of “speakers” of languages. Furthermore, the impact of such work on higher-level theorizing about language and society is becoming clear as well and awaits a first synthesis. Some of the references given above could serve as pointers towards such a synthesis. For it would be wrong to qualify the work on sociolinguistic superdiversity as “micro” in nature: it is a nano-science of very big things.

Thus the fact that not everything has been done does not mean that nothing has been done. I take Stephen May’s critical comments therefore as an exhortation to do more and better, and to take on topics until now rarely addressed from the paradigmatic angle of sociolinguistic superdiversity.

by-nc

Linguistic superdiversity: panacea or nostrum?

tlang blog

By Caroline Tagg, Open University 

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Clearly jet-lagged and yet still impressively articulate, Professor Stephen May of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, delivered a thought-provoking talk on on 3rd February 2016 at the University of Birmingham. The talk was organised by University’s MOSAIC Centre for Research on Multilingualism, and was titled: ‘Linguistic superdiversity as a “new” theoretical framework in applied linguistics: panacea or nostrum?’ It was a useful reminder not to stop critically reflecting on the paradigms and theoretical concepts with which we align ourselves.

Stephen was keen to stress his support for a superdiversity lens and for reconceptualisations of language that are now often associated with superdiversity: translanguaging, flexible bilingualism, metrolingualism, and so on. However, he raised questions about the role that a superdiversity approach could play when it came to language rights and revitalisation, and minority language education. These questions were underpinned by oft-cited criticisms of superdiversity: namely…

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New forms of diaspora, new forms of integration

Migrants smartphones

Jan Blommaert 

“Integration” continues to be used as a keyword to describe the processes by means of which outsiders – immigrants, to be more precise – need to “become part” of their “host culture”. I have put quotation marks around three crucial terms here, and the reasons why will become clear shortly. “Integration” in this specific sense, of course, has been a central sociological concept in the Durkheim-Parsons tradition. A “society” is a conglomerate of “social groups” held together by “integration”: the sharing of (a single set of) central values which define the character, the identity (singular) of that particular society (singular). And it is this specific sense of the term that motivates complaints – a long tradition of them – in which immigrants are blamed for not being “fully integrated”, or more specifically, “remaining stuck in their own culture” and “refusing” to integrate in their host society.

Half a century ago, in a trenchant critique of Parsons, C. Wright Mills (1959: 47) observed that historical changes in societies must inevitably involve shifts in the modes of integration. Several scholars documented such fundamental shifts – think of Bauman, Castells, Beck and Lash – but mainstream discourses, academic and lay, still continue to follow the monolithic and static Parsonian imagination. I what follows I want to make an empirical point in this regard, observing that new modes of diaspora result in new modes of integration.

In a splendid MA dissertation, Jelke Brandehof (2014) investigated the ways in which a group of Cameroonese doctoral students at Ghent University (Belgium) used communication technologies in their interactions with others. She investigated the technologies proper – mobile phone and online applications – as well as the language resources used in specific patterns of communication with specific people. Here is a graphic representation of the results for one male respondent (Brandehof 2014: 38).

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This figure, I would argue, represents the empirical side of “integration” – real forms of integration in contemporary diaspora situations. Let me elaborate this.

The figure, no doubt, looks extraordinarily complex; yet there is a tremendous amount of order and nonrandomness to it. We see that the Cameroonian man deploys a wide range of technologies and platforms for communication: his mobile phone provider (with heavily discounted rates for overseas calls) for calls and text messages, skype, Facebook, Beep, Yahoo Messenger, different VOIP systems, Whatsapp and so forth. He also uses several different languages: Standard English, Cameroonian Pidgin, local languages (called “dialects” in the figure), and Fulbe (other respondents also reported Dutch as one of their languages). And he maintains contacts in at least three different sites: his own physical and social environment in Ghent, his “home environment” in Cameroon, and the virtual environment of the “labor market” in Cameroon. In terms of activities, he maintains contacts revolving around his studies, maintaining a social and professional network in Ghent, job hunting on the internet, and an intricate set of family and business activities back in Cameroon. Each of these activities – here is the order and nonrandomness – involves a conscious choice of medium, language variety and addressee. Interaction with his brother in Cameroon is done through smartphone applications and in a local language, while interactions with other people in the same location, on religious topics, are done in Fulbe, a language marked as a medium among Muslims.

Our subject is “integrated”, through the organized use of these communication instruments, in several “cultures” if you wish. He is integrated in his professional and social environment in Ghent, in the local labor market, in the Cameroonian labor market, and in his home community. Note that I use a positive term here: he is “integrated” in all of these “zones” that make up his life – he is not “not integrated”, I insist – because his life develops in real synchronized time in these different zones, and all of these zones play a vital part in this subject’s life. He remains integrated as a family member, a friend, a Muslim and a business partner in Cameroon, while he also remains integrated in his more directly tangible environment in Ghent – socially, professionally and economically. This level of simultaneous integration across “cultures” (if you wish) is necessary: our subject intends to complete his doctoral degree work in Ghent and return as a highly qualified knowledge worker to Cameroon. Rupturing the Cameroonese networks might jeopardize his chances of reinsertion in a lucrative labor market (and business ventures) upon his return there. While he is in Ghent, part of his life is spent there while another part continues to be spent in Cameroon, for very good reasons.

I emphasized that our subject has to remain integrated across these different zones. And the technologies for cheap and intensive long-distance communication enable him to do so. This might be the fundamental shift in “modes of integration” we see since the turn of the century: “diaspora” no longer entails a total rupture with the places and communities of “origin”; neither, logically, does it entail a “complete integration” in the host community, because there are instruments that enable one to lead a far more gratifying life, parts of which are spent in the host society while other parts are spent elsewhere. Castells” “network society” (1996), in short. We see that diasporic subjects keep one foot in the “thick” community of family, neighborhood and local friends, while they keep another foot – on more instrumental terms – in the host society and yet another one in “light” communities such as internet-based groups and the labor market. Together, they make up a late-modern “diasporic life”.

There is nothing exceptional or surprising to this: the jet-setting European professional business class does precisely the same when they go on business trips: smartphones and the internet enable them to make calls home and to chat with their daughters before bedtime, and to inform their social network of their whereabouts by means of social media updates. In that sense, the distance between Bauman’s famous “traveler and vagabond” is narrowing: various types of migrants are presently using technologies previously reserved for elite travelers. And just as the affordances of these technologies are seen as an improvement of an itinerant lifestyle by elite travelers, it is seen as a positive thing by these other migrants, facilitating a more rewarding and harmonious lifestyle that does not involve painful ruptures of existing social bonds, social roles, activity patterns and identities.

What looks like a problem from within a Parsonian theory of “complete integration”, therefore, is in actual fact a solution for the people performing the “problematic” behavior. The problem is theoretical, and rests upon the kind of monolithic and static sociological imagination criticized by C. Wright Mills and others, and the distance between this theory and the empirical facts of contemporary diasporic life. Demands for “complete integration” (and complaints about the failure to do so) can best be seen as nostalgic and, when uttered in political debates, as ideological false consciousness. Or more bluntly, as surrealism.

References

Brandehof, Jelke (2014) Superdiversity in a Cameroonian Diaspora Community in Ghent: The Social Structure of Superdiverse Networks. MA dissertation, Tilburg University (unpublished).

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. London: Blackwell.

Mills, C. Wright (1959 [1967]) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.