We need to change, but don’t know why


Jan Blommaert 

Students of the University of Amsterdam have occupied a number of university buildings, protesting against the lack of democratic transparency of their university’s decision-making practices. Inevitably, this local issue broadened into a larger issue of vision – the vision on academic training and research articulated for some years now by the Dutch government. And an even broader issue can be pasted onto that: the vision articulated by the EU regarding these matters, developed over the past decade and easily summarized in a number of key terms. Universities are suppliers of finished products for a labor market defined almost exclusively by private enterprise interests; research likewise needs to be immediately economically profitable – it needs to lead and contribute to “economic growth”, and note that “growth”, too, is defined almost exclusively in terms of private enterprise interests. As for science itself, it needs to be “value free” and “objective” as a practice, and “valorized” afterwards in terms of economic parameters – “value” becomes sales, the amount of money that can be made through a scientific product which, in itself, is not value-laden.

This definition of vision has, over the years, led to shifts in baseline funding structure for universities, to a logic of profitability at the level of university policy and management, and to so-called “hard choices” between disciplines and programs that were judged to be useful in light of this vision, and those that were useless. The latter, by and large, include the Humanities – it is not greatly pleasurable to be a professional philosopher at Dutch universities these days – and students are encouraged by means of “price setting” tactics (fee structure and student loans) to choose useful programs.

The vision is fundamentally anti-scientific, as it tends to exclude or marginalize exactly those forms of scientific activity that cause growth, if you wish, in science: explorative and speculative research, theory formation and hypothesis building. It replaces them by an ethos that stresses what is already known as the “safe” basis of academic training, rather than the limits of what is known and the principles of how to transcend them. The contemporary equivalent of Albert Einstein – a speculative and hypothesis-forming scientist not doing much useful stuff – would have a hard time finding an academic job these days. Output measuring systems, “valorization” appraisal and external funding targets, annual evaluation cycles, competitive assessment between peers – the organisational effects of this vision on academic practice – would prevent swift career mobility if he/she were appointed at all.

Critical response to these developments has been rife: the past years have seen a flurry of opinion articles in newspapers, public debates and grassroots activism combating this shift in vision both in individual universities, faculties and departments and in broader public fora. Often, such responses were quickly dismissed as reactionary – academics complaining about these changes simply opposed change in itself, it was claimed, they preferred the comfort of status quo (not questioning, of course, how comfortable the present status quo actually would be). Discussions on fundamental assumptions – the presuppositions used in debate – are thus evaded. There is hardly any substantial discussion in which the actual academic “producers” are involved; consequently there is hardly any debate on the particular nature of academic products and the specific conditions of production they demand. Generic management technique is enough, it seems.

Let us for a moment accept the vision and its assumptions. Debate on them has proven futile, as we have seen. Let us for a moment accept that academia needs to change into a better performing system of production, guided by management technique and defined by criteria of immediate economic usefulness; still one question needs to be answered.

Change defines a trajectory between two points: an anterior “inferior” stage and a posterior “improved” stage. Official documents never cease repeating this: universities need to “improve”, they need to become “more” of X and cease to be Y and Z, they need to “do better” and “score higher” on criteria set by management. Fine, but what exactly are the anterior and posterior states? Simply put: what is “wrong” and “inferior” about the present state of universities, and what would be the “ideal” and “improved” state we need to move towards? In business terms: what is the “target” of change?

To be more precise: if universities today host good numbers of “eminent” and highly performing scientists (and precisely those are often put in charge of the brainstorming for change), what is it that makes their past performance insufficient now? If their work belonged to an “inferior” culture of academic work, in which ways was it wrong? What is it in the present criteria for academic excellence that warrants redefinition? And in view of what? For this is never addressed: what is “good science” in this new vision? What are the criteria for excellence of the future world of science?

Current answers to this are recognized to be grotesquely unsatisfactory, even by those who define them. Increased numbers of articles in so-called “top” journals, and victories in battles over competitive funding (often overly narrowly defined in terms of funding sources) are offered as “objective” criteria for measuring quality – while Diederik Stapel “objectively” proved them false. So they are offered without much conviction, by lack of better stuff, even if almost everyone realizes that they have passed their sell-by date. And as for the “rankings” of individual universities in several international lists: even hard-nosed academic managers only mention them with sarcasm. Intellectually, no other criteria are offered.

So, please, let us have this intellectual debate and talk about academic relevance in terms of contents; let us stop hiding behind the curtains of so-called “measurable” quality and discuss the science that society really needs in the future. I say “society”, because private enterprise is just one of the stakeholders in this development – universities in the EU are currently overwhelmingly funded by society at large, not by private enterprise, so ownership entitlements are an issue here as well. Let us talk about what this society needs as “surplus value” generated by science. In doing this, we may rediscover that science has a value different from the sales figures it might yield, a value lodged in the work of science itself, not in its managerial and marketing handling and packaging.

What exactly are we currently doing wrong? And what exactly should we do better, in which specific ways? These are justified questions which even neoliberal policymakers and academic managers cannot dodge, lest they alienate the people who have to actually perform the change in their daily practices. Any decent manager will agree that a workforce lacking ownership of transforming processes will also lack the necessary motivation and direction for effective change. And that such directionless change is a recipe, not for improvement but for disaster.


“Culture” and superdiversity


Jan Blommaert 

(Commentary, Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 2015)

“Difference in Diversity” presents us with an engaging reflection on the contemporary state of “culture” and its discourses; it offers stimulating ways out – the recognition of difference within diversity itself is a case in point – while also illustrating some of the perennial problems of such reflections. The key problem is the presumed stability of the notion of “culture” itself, its reification both as a discursive identifier (a widely used word, simply put) and as an empirical analytical category enabling subcategories such as those prefixed with “multi”, “inter” or “trans”. In my commentary, I will focus on this problem and review some aspects of it.

An aspect of this problem touches my own position as a scholar and a commentator here. Assuming “culture” as a classifier is also part of a discourse regime, giving voice to, or taking it away from, people speaking out on the topic. I find much argumentation on postcolonial views highly problematic when it presumes, without much substantive proof, that certain academic discourses are “clearly” locked into one or another culture – that of the Euro-American global Northwest, that of the South, or more specifically that of an Anglosaxon “tradition”, an “Indian” one or a “Latin American” one. It is problematic because it includes an implicit judgment of the legitimacy of voice: a scholar from the global Northwest is not well placed to speak about globalization, for instance, since his/her own location in the process of globalization is supposed to prevent fundamental understanding of those equally locked into other positions in that process.

People holding such views must have missed some quite central features of globalization itself: the emergence, over centuries, of intense patterns of interaction and profound mutual influencing across local and regional boundaries, creating diverse cultural and social features sharing a number of fundamental assumptions and characteristics. Thus, in spite of severe differences and inequalities within the system (which I myself have attempted to document quite extensively: Blommaert 2008, 2010; also Velghe 2014), the world has become literate over the preceding century or so, and digitally literate over the past two decades. “Cultures” (to continue the register for the time being) have now all adopted scripts and forms of literate transmission as part of their fabric; the ways in which such scripts are deployed and distributed within actual societies can differ substantially; the fact that such scripts – invariably – create communicative and therefore sociopolitical and cultural scale-levels previously inaccessible to members remains and demands adjustments in our thinking about (a) the autonomy of such “cultures”, because scripts cause scale-jumps, i.e. “transcultural” interactions and influencing; and (b) the historicity of their present structure in view of the effects of literacy – many “cultures” currently employed as labels, notably national-cultural labels such as “Indian” or “American”, could only become what they are because of state-enforced literacy regimes and the scale-sensitive patterns of cultural influencing that come with them.

The fact is that as soon as one places “cultures” under the microscope of critical analysis, we begin to see phenomena far removed from the standard imaginations of “culture”. We notice, for instance, that contemporary intellectual communities (such as the ones involved in this very discussion) are characterized by another “culture” than, for instance, nation-state bureaucrats, trade unions or local football teams. Their culture is global, porous, highly volatile and dynamic, and intensely reflexive – postcolonialism, feminism, queerism and so forth would never have been possible without such features. I have, as an Africanist scholar, naturally exercised myself in postcolonial self-critique; the outcome is that I am far more optimistic about “transcultural” dialogue and openness than many others, and that this optimism cannot be fed back to my own, presumed comfortable position in the global Northwest. Any degree of epistemological and methodological reflection should teach us that even simple dialogue should be impossible without at least a degree of sharedness in assumptions, codes for meaningful communication, awareness of common purpose and objectives, and so forth – “culture”, in short.

This brings me to another aspect: “culture” itself. I have just defined it in communicative terms, much in the way the symbolic interactionists taught us (e.g. Becker 1963; Goffman 1963): culture is that which creates meaning in social contacts. As soon as people achieve a level of understanding, they share something – even for a very brief moment, as when we ask directions in a foreign place by means of heavily articulated body language and facial expressions. And this means that, during that brief moment, a “culture” has emerged enabling its “members” to engage in social interaction of some sort. This culture, no less, organizes the mutual roles, positions and identities of the participants – it involves a particular social order that needs to be followed in order to render individual interactions at least potentially successful. There is, thus, no reason to dismiss such temporary and apparently superficial forms of “culture” as irrelevant for the discussion: it is precisely such ephemeral phenomena that might demonstrate what culture is in its most elementary form – the capacity to enter into an ordered play of social conduct seen as jointly meaningful by those involved in it.

Much of my own current work addresses what is called “superdiversity”: the extraordinary complexity of contemporary social configurations due to post-Cold War migration patterns and the digital revolution (Vertovec 2007; see Blommaert & Rampton 2011; Blommaert 2013, 2014). This recognition of – precisely – “difference in diversity” pushes us towards a far more modest stance on defining what is “culture” and what is not, since everything is “multi-“, “inter-“ and “transcultural”, if you wish. The minimalist symbolic-interactional definition I gave above is what works empirically: rather than solid and robust “groupness” – the stuff of our traditional imagination of “culture” – we see minimal conviviality and temporary cohesiveness (Varis & Blommaert 2014). Remember that Erving Goffman defined “encounters” as focused activities that involve a degree of sociality which Goffman did not accept as a feature of social “groups” (Goffman 1961). While I hate to disagree with someone such as Goffman, what we now see is a world of “encounters” – focused social activities as described earlier – which do generate “groups”, but groups that no longer fit the Durkheimian-Parsonsian image of groups that has dominated sociology and anthropology for a century and that underlies our traditional view of “culture”. Contemporary “cultures” are best seen as characteristics of social “niches”, arenas we pass through on an everyday basis, and in which we have to deploy specific cultural resources in order to be “normal”, “integrated” and so forth (cf. Agha 2007). Any living individual would be expected to have access to a terrific multitude of such “niches”, and would therefore be tremendously “multicultural” (or, if you insist, “superdiverse”). Naturally, in such a condition the classical notion of “cultural” becomes meaningless.

If, as scholars engaged in a global dialogue on the character of globalization, we wish to do our work well, I suggest we look for those avenues of thought that enable us to create a maximum of meaning, and a maximum of “voice” – the capacity to make ourselves and our interlocutors understood on their own terms. Traditional concepts of “culture”, I fear, have passed their sell-by date in that respect; perhaps a radically empirical stance offers superior possibilities for at least agreeing on the ontology of what we are observing: humans in their actual social environments. I encourage my readers never to give up the search for such avenues.


Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Becker, Howard (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: Free Press

Blommaert, Jan (2008) Grassroots Literacy: Writing, Identity and Voice in central Africa. London: Routledge

Blommaert, Jan (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2013) Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Blommaert, Jan (2014) Lingua franca onset in a superdiverse neighborhood: Oecumenical Dutch in Antwerp. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 112.

Blommaert, Jan & Ben Rampton (2011) Language and superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 1-22.

Goffman, Erving (1961) Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Goffman, Erving (1963) Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. New York: Free Press

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2014) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 108.

Velghe, Fie (2014) ‘This is Almost like Writing’: Mobile Phones, Learning and Literacy in a South African Township. PhD dissertation, Tilburg: Tilburg University.

Vertovec, Steven (2007) Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30/6: 1024-1054.

Citizenship, language and superdiversity: towards complexity


Jan Blommaert 

(Journal of Language, Identity and Education, Forum on ‘citizenship’ (Vaidehi Ramanathan, ed.) 2013.)

The issue

There is a dramatic need to unthink and rethink some of the most basic concepts in social science – notions such as community, identity, and indeed citizenship. The reason for this is that since the early 1990s, some fundamental changes have taken place in the ways in which all of these notions take shape in real life. Vertovec (2007, 2010) has described these changes as a transition from ‘diversity’ to ‘superdiversity’, a diversification of diversity due to changes in the migration patterns worldwide. People from more places now migrate to more places, causing unprecedented forms of social and cultural diversity especially in the large urban centers of the world (for an early appraisal, see Cohen 1995, 507ff). Adding to this complexity, the emergence and global spread of the Internet and other forms of mobile communication technologies – synchronous with the new forms of migration – have created a ‘network society’ (Castells 1996) in which people live and act in relation to long-distance, ‘virtual’ peers in sometimes enormous online communities. Taken together, these two forces have re-shaped social life around the world, and the most sensitive index of these transformations is the emergence and development of new forms of human communication – the social transformations go hand in hand with sociolinguistic transformations yielding degrees of complexity hard to imagine previously, and prompting an escalation of new terminology to describe them: languaging, polylanguaging, transidiomatic practices, metrolingualism, supervernacularization and so forth (for a survey see Blommaert & Rampton 2011).

The problem is one of imagination: how do we imagine these new forms of complexity? Static, horizontal-distributional and synchronic images and metaphors fail to do justice to the phenomena we encounter, because dynamic and historical processes are observed, most often featuring ‘vertical’ patterns of stratification and restratification. Linguistic resources enter a specific environment, acquire an indexical value relative to existing norms within that environment, thus shape new norms, and so acquire a potential to perpetually reshuffle the linguistic-symbolic hierarchies. Social lives are thus organized not in relation to one single complex of norms but in relation to many competing and/or complementary ones – a feature of sociolinguistic superdiversity we call polycentricity (Blommaert 2010: 39ff); individual repertoires bear the traces of such perpetual reshufflings of norms in a polycentric environment (Blommaert & Backus 2012), and complex forms of identity work can draw on the resources that orient towards the multiple sets of norms present in someone’s ‘communicative competence’ (cf. Rampton 2006; Jorgensen et al 2011). The latter notion must now be understood as the capacity to acquire multiple normative orientations and shift from one set of norms (those of the classroom, for instance) into another (say, those of Facebook) and back (the classroom), then forth to yet another one (age and gender group norms, say) and back again. The resources deployed in these moves are each time specific and specialized: we call them ‘registers’ (Agha 2007). We select from our repertoires the registers that are functionally adequate within the specific niches in which we intend to deploy them. This is why I speak in a different way to my mother than to my wife or to my colleagues, and this explains why these various modes of communication are not interchangeable. If I would speak to my mother the way I would speak to my colleagues, or vice versa, chances are that I will be perceived as socially awkward by all.

The key terms in what I just said define the lines of inquiry into such processes: resources, norms in relation to other norms, identities anchored into such sets of norms, and rapid shifts to-and-fro between normative orientations within a polycentric environment. Understood throughout this is the fact that such complex communicative and identity work comes with entitlements and constraints – people, thus, perform such complex work because it comes with a price and this price is different for each of the social niches between which people move.

Citizenship and dis-citizenship

If we imagine a social world in the terms sketched above, several well-established notions invite revision. To start with, a notion such as ‘integration’ used in relation to immigrants can be redirected from its usual monofocal bias – integration in the ‘majority’ social system, integration into ‘our’ culture and values, and so forth – into a more nuanced, plural and surely more accurate direction. ‘Being integrated’, we can see, means being capable of making oneself understood in a wide variety of social environments.

These environments include not just the ‘dominant’ culture but also various ‘sub’-cultures. Immigrants need to ‘integrate’ in the many niches that compose their actual social environment, and they have to acquire the resources to do so – they have to ‘enregister’ the resources adequate for the various specific niches (Agha 2007; Moller & Jorgensen 2012). These niches are of course not just those of their ‘host societies’, but also those of émigré communities in a diaspora, of their ‘home’ cultures, of gender, age, social class, profession, workplace, religion, consumption, hobby, media etc. niches. It is not sufficient to be ‘well integrated’ in the administrative culture of the ‘host society’, for instance, because this kind of integration does not necessarily appear useful when the results of one’s child need to be discussed with a school teacher, or even when performing mundane tasks such as shopping. One set of resources – always specific and specialized – does never suffice for the totality of social life; no single set of resources has the generative potential to cover all aspects of social life in which ‘integration’ is mandatory, desired or useful.

Thus, learning ‘a language’ is never enough. Immigrants are increasingly subjected to pressures to acquire the standard varieties of the national languages of their host societies, and this pressure is driven by a monofocal and generative view of ‘standard’ as the unique instrument for integration. However, acquiring that standard language in practice means acquiring one specific and specialized register, suggested to be universally deployable in all and any social environment.

This, then, is the current institutionalized sociolinguistic face of citizenship in a growing number of countries; evidently it is inadequate (see e.g. Spotti 2011). Superdiverse social environments are intensely polycentric and, thus, put high demands on register development for those who live and act in them. The traditional notion of ‘citizenship’ (always related to institutionalized trajectories of ‘integration’) suggests that integration into one aspect of social life – the administrative and public culture of the nation-state acting as ‘host’ to the immigrant – is sufficient for the immigrant to lead a successful life.

This is sociolinguistically ludicrous, and it also runs counter to what is in actual fact expected and/or demanded from immigrants. We expect them not just to pass the mandatory language test administered by the administration in charge of immigration; we also expect them to be fluent in the register of education, of labor, of gender, age and so forth – we expect them to be ‘fully’ integrated in every niche we detect in society. Failing that, immigrants will perpetually be regarded as ‘dis-citizens’, even sometimes anti-citizens as in the case of more radical Muslims in various countries of the West. In placing such demands, we usually overlook the complexities specific to immigrant social life – the fact that apart from ‘our’ culture and values, immigrants also have to orient towards niches of ‘their own’ culture present in diaspora contexts. Forms of Muslim identity articulation – take the hijab as an intensely debated example – can simultaneously be understood as ‘not integrated’ into the ‘dominant values’ of the host society and as ‘fully integrated’ into the religious culture of the diaspora, or even into a global aesthetics of femininity among a particular female peer community (see Blommaert & Varis 2012). The simultaneity of contrasting interpretations here is an effect of the polycentric environment in which (in this case) young Muslim women in the West currently live; their practices, consequently point towards very different orders of indexicality at the same time. The conflicts, thus, are intrinsic to the increasing complexity of contemporary social systems.

If we understand citizenship as a particular degree of ‘integration’, thus, we must realize that superdiversity has created unprecedented levels of polycentricity in social systems, causing the kinds of contrasting and conflicting understandings described above. Some signs, consequently, will inevitably be seen as signs of citizenship as well as dis-citizenship, and it is likely that the political dynamics of citizenship in superdiverse societies will hinge on the degrees to which people – experts, legislators, opinion makers – are capable of imagining the levels of complexity that characterize the real social environments in which people ‘integrate’. The capacity to replace the simple imagery of structuralism by an imagery of complexity and change will decide the debates on citizenship in the future.


Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan & Ad Backus (2012) Superdiverse repertoires and the individual. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 24.

Blommaert, Jan & Ben Rampton (2011) Language and superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 1-22.

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2012) How to how to: The prescriptive micropolitics of Hijabista. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 30.

Blommaert, Jan, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti (eds.) (2011) Language and Superdiversity. Special issue, Diversities 13/2: 1-83

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

Cohen, Robin (ed.) (1995) The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jorgensen, Normann, Martha Karrebaek, Lian Madsen & Janus Moller (2011) Polylanguaging in superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 22-37

Moller, Janus & Jens Normann Jorgensen (2012) Enregisterment among adolescents in superdiverse Copenhagen. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 28.

Rampton, Ben (2006) Language in late Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Spotti, Massimiliano (2011) Ideologies of success for superdiverse citizens: The Dutch testing regime for integration and the online private sector. Diversities 13/2: 38-52.

Vertovec, Steven 2007. Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30/6: 1024-1054.

Vertovec, Steven 2010. Towards post-multiculturalism? Changing communities, contexts and conditions of diversity. International Social Science Journal 199: 83-95.

Seminar on Howard Becker’s “Outsiders”.


Jan Blommaert

Howard Becker’s classic study “Outsiders” (1963) demonstrated that there is, in actual fact, no “mainstream” – just sets of separate and connected “niches” with their own knowledge and normative system, in power relationships with others. In this seminar I discuss the symbolic-interactional background of Becker’s work, review its main theses, and point towards contemporaries such as E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Michel Foucault and others who contributed to the “de-mainstream-ization” of social thought in the 1960-1970s.

Listen to the seminar on this topic (10 February 2015, Tilburg University):

A free pdf of the book “Outsiders” can be downloaded from: