Superdiversity and language

Authored by: Gabriele Budach , Ingrid de Saint-Georges

The Routledge Handbook of Migration and Language

Print publication date:  February  2017
Online publication date:  February  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138801981
eBook ISBN: 9781315754512
Adobe ISBN: 9781317624349

10.4324/9781315754512.ch3

 

Abstract

Since the term ‘superdiversity’ has caught the attention of researchers in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, it has enjoyed a quick and broad appeal. Scholars have adopted the ‘superdiversity lens’, considering it a useful and generative concept to approach contemporary conditions of cultural and linguistic contact. To understand the appeal of the term ‘superdiversity’, it is useful to grasp where it comes from, the conditions leading to its emergence and what it originally meant. The term ‘superdiversity’ was first introduced by the social anthropologist Steven Vertovec (2007) with the aim to understand and analytically penetrate the changes in the composition of immigrant groups in the UK that can be seen to have started emerging in the late 1980s and 1990s. From a geopolitical and communicational perspective, this period was characterized by two major changes. The first relates to the development of a globalized economy and socioeconomic changes in a post-Soviet era, forming new patterns of mobility. While prior to the 1980s migrants tended to settle in one host community and had only sporadic links with the home community, at the end of the 1990s, migrants began to experience more complex migration trajectories, moving to more places but also keeping ties with their different places of dwelling, which led to new forms of transnationalism. The second change relates to the progressive development of digital technologies (the internet, cable TV, mobile devices) affording the migrants to keep stronger links with home and to remain active on two or more national stages simultaneously, and those staying immobile to engage in more transnational relations than before. All these changes begin to upset significantly our established understanding of ‘migrant communities’ and their relation to the ‘host community’. While in the pre-1990s governments could cultivate the illusion that migrants formed rather homogeneous groups (coming from a limited number of countries, and sharing more or less similar economic, social, cultural, religious, or linguistic backgrounds), after the 1990s, this perception became increasingly problematic, challenging also the discourses and policies of ‘multiculturalism’. With the term ‘superdiversity’ thus, Vertovec (2007) meant to capture that with more individuals migrating, and with migrant trajectories developing in more complex patterns (e.g., people traversing and moving to more places), our contemporary world shows a ‘diversification of diversity’ (Hollinger 1995). It is not just society that is becoming more diverse but also the composition of the immigrant groups themselves which has become more differentiated in terms of social stratification, internal organization, legal statuses, plurality of affiliations, rights, and restrictions (Vertovec 2007: 1048). With these changing patterns and social conditions, Vertovec considers that there are important stakes in understanding and appraising the nature and extent of this diversity, if policy makers and practitioners want to provide more just structures and policies to respond to this complexity of a new scale and different quality in civil society (Vertovec 2007: 1050).

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Superdiversity and language

Introduction/definitions

Since the term ‘superdiversity’ has caught the attention of researchers in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, it has enjoyed a quick and broad appeal. Scholars have adopted the ‘superdiversity lens’, considering it a useful and generative concept to approach contemporary conditions of cultural and linguistic contact. To understand the appeal of the term ‘superdiversity’, it is useful to grasp where it comes from, the conditions leading to its emergence and what it originally meant. The term ‘superdiversity’ was first introduced by the social anthropologist Steven Vertovec (2007) with the aim to understand and analytically penetrate the changes in the composition of immigrant groups in the UK that can be seen to have started emerging in the late 1980s and 1990s. From a geopolitical and communicational perspective, this period was characterized by two major changes. The first relates to the development of a globalized economy and socioeconomic changes in a post-Soviet era, forming new patterns of mobility. While prior to the 1980s migrants tended to settle in one host community and had only sporadic links with the home community, at the end of the 1990s, migrants began to experience more complex migration trajectories, moving to more places but also keeping ties with their different places of dwelling, which led to new forms of transnationalism. The second change relates to the progressive development of digital technologies (the internet, cable TV, mobile devices) affording the migrants to keep stronger links with home and to remain active on two or more national stages simultaneously, and those staying immobile to engage in more transnational relations than before. All these changes begin to upset significantly our established understanding of ‘migrant communities’ and their relation to the ‘host community’. While in the pre-1990s governments could cultivate the illusion that migrants formed rather homogeneous groups (coming from a limited number of countries, and sharing more or less similar economic, social, cultural, religious, or linguistic backgrounds), after the 1990s, this perception became increasingly problematic, challenging also the discourses and policies of ‘multiculturalism’. With the term ‘superdiversity’ thus, Vertovec (2007) meant to capture that with more individuals migrating, and with migrant trajectories developing in more complex patterns (e.g., people traversing and moving to more places), our contemporary world shows a ‘diversification of diversity’ (Hollinger 1995). It is not just society that is becoming more diverse but also the composition of the immigrant groups themselves which has become more differentiated in terms of social stratification, internal organization, legal statuses, plurality of affiliations, rights, and restrictions (Vertovec 2007: 1048). With these changing patterns and social conditions, Vertovec considers that there are important stakes in understanding and appraising the nature and extent of this diversity, if policy makers and practitioners want to provide more just structures and policies to respond to this complexity of a new scale and different quality in civil society (Vertovec 2007: 1050).

Following up on the pioneering work from Vertovec, the term ‘superdiversity’ has subsequently been picked up in disciplines as varied as sociology, business, studies, anthropology, education, social work, geography, law, management, media studies, and linguistics (Vertovec 2013). This appeal has surged, on the one hand, from the fact that the term touches something of the zeitgeist. In a globalized world, there is hardly any domain or geographical area not concerned by diversity as it results from migratory movements. On the other hand, the term also manages to crystallize incredibly complex phenomena under a very simple term that has caught on across disciplines. This deceiving simplicity, Vertovec notes, has led to the term being used with a variety of meanings, not all intended initially by him (Vertovec 2013). Thus, ‘superdiversity’ as a research term sometimes means ‘very much diversity’; in other contexts it means ‘more ethnicity’ or, to move beyond ethnicity as a category of analysis. Yet, in other contexts, it is used to refer to more scattered geographical distribution of migrants, variegated forms of networking and mixed cultural identities.

Some researchers have also heralded superdiversity as a new paradigm. They talk about a ‘superdiversity turn’ in their disciplines and how it generates the need for new methodological approaches. The notion also has its detractors who question ‘what it really means and who profits from the term’ (Westermann 2014). In any case, the concept has become so transversal that it seems difficult to ignore or dismiss without closer examination. The purpose of this chapter is therefore to provide such an examination, looking more critically at how the idea of ‘superdiversity’ has caught up in the field of language studies, particularly sociolinguistics and applied linguistics, and what it brings, does, reveals – or obscures – in this context.

Overview

That the agenda developed by Vertovec in social anthropology appeals to applied and socio-linguists may not come as a surprise. After all, particularly sociolinguistics have had a long term interest in ‘analyzing and interpreting (linguistic) diversity’ (Parkin and Arnaut 2014). Issues linked to migration, mobility, or language contact have moreover been at the core of the sociolinguistic project since its early endeavors (Gumperz and Hymes 1972). In fact, the notion of ‘superdiversity’ as Arnaut and Spotti (2014: 1) argue, fits with a certain naturalness with post-structuralist views on diversity and identity adopted by many linguistic anthropologists or sociolinguists – a perspective that considers for example that identities and speech communities, far from being static and immutable, are to the contrary complex, hybrid, unstable and changing; much as the ‘ethnic communities’ considered by Vertovec.

In sociolinguistics, the term first appears in a paper by Creese and Blackledge (2010) titled ‘Towards a Sociolinguistics of Superdiversity’. In this text, the authors suggest that studies in superdiversity would benefit from including a gaze on the linguistic (p. 549). They propose to investigate language practices where they become a ‘site of negotiations over linguistic resources’ (p. 549) as this could offer a lens into the kind of social complexity brought about by superdiversity. What becomes interesting in the study of such complex language practice is thus to investigate how people articulate belonging to different social worlds and communities simultaneously. Creese and Blackledge invite scholars to look at situations where multilingual speakers cross over from one language to another, borrowing from more than one repertoire and transforming these repertoires as they use them, and to consider the ‘histories, geographies, and indexical orders’ which shape those crossing practices (2010: 570). To investigate them, the authors make use of two existing concepts in sociolinguistics. One is the concept of ‘translanguaging’ (García 2009: 140; García and Li Wei 2014). Engaging critically with the notion of separate ‘national’, ‘autonomous’ languages, they recommend to examine the different linguistic features and semiotic resources that speakers borrow from and to see how they mix and play with them in order to enhance their communicative potential as they see fit. The second concept is (second order) ‘indexicality’ (Silverstein 2003), which refers to social meanings, evoked by language users, that lie beyond the referential meaning of language (or first order indexicality). For example, beyond the content of what they say, the features speakers use (e.g., intonation, accent, tempo, idiomatic expressions) might be revealing of their age, gender, social class, ethnicity, religion, race, sexual orientation, and so forth. For Creese and Blackledge (2010), thus, the study of translanguaging and indexicality is suggested as a means to locate and disentangle more complex patterns and social configurations, akin to the ‘superdiverse’ social fabric that Vertovec describes.

Blommaert and Rampton (2011) broaden this research program in a text on ‘Language and Superdiversity’, now widely cited among superdiversity researchers. The text is an articulation of different layers of ideas.

Epistemologically, the article proposes that the superdiversity lens allows tying together a number of previously disparate threads in sociolinguistics. It functions a bit like a ‘meta-term’, and under its roof different strands of research can be housed that have contributed over the years to de-reifying traditional notions such as language, community, or communication. For example, there is a strong focus on language in urban spaces, considered as laboratories for the study of complexity and heterogeneity in social organization that has contributed to the final demise of a view of language as a stable, bounded entity. Urban sociolinguists have introduced terms such as ‘polylanguaging’ (Jørgensen 2008), ‘crossing’ (Rampton 1995), or translanguaging’ (García 2009) to take issue with the naturalness of (imagined) boundaries of language, community, and communication. Others have repurposed the concept of heteroglossia (Blackledge and Creese 2012, drawing on Bakhtin 1981) that points to the inherent diversity existing in each act of communication, always assembled out of multiple layers of internally differentiated voices, genres, styles, discourses, and social norms. Related to communication, social semioticians and their multimodal approaches to discourse have probably made the greatest dent on viewing communication as predominantly ‘language-centered’. They propose instead to reconnect to the idea that language is only one of the multiple modes people can co-opt to make meaning, act, and communicate (Kress, Jewitt, Ogborn, and Tsatsarelis 2001), thus placing again here too diversity and multiplicity of semiotic practices at the heart of communication. As for community, Blommaert and Rampton (2011) echo Vertovec’s critique to the term ‘ethnic communities’ and project it onto ‘speech community’ or ‘ethnolinguistic group’ as key concepts in sociolinguistic studies. They contend that these concepts are too static and bounded to be useful and invite instead to consider the myriad ways in which

‘people take on different linguistic forms as they align and disaffiliate with different groups at different moments and stages’ and to ‘investigate how (people) (try to) opt in and opt out, how they perform or play with linguistic signs of group belonging, and how they develop particular trajectories of group identification throughout their lives’.

(Blommaert and Rampton 2011: 5) On a first level, thus, the text aims to articulate a contribution to superdiversity scholarship from sociolinguistics. The authors argue that notions such language, community, and communication cannot be usefully understood as homogenous and predictably patterned entities, even less so in times of increased physical mobility, virtual connectedness and social semiotic complexity. While, in essence, such a critique is not new and has been voiced since the 1970s and 1980s in linguistic anthropology and postcolonial studies, the ‘superdiversity’ lens is said to bring these conceptual developments into focus even more sharply. As Arnaut and Spotti (2014: 3) put it:

To some extent, this ‘new kind of sociolinguistics’ is heir to a ‘linguistics of contact’ (Pratt 1987) which has been steadily moving away from the idea of languages and speakers as discernable units towards that of sociolinguistic resources and repertoires. Overall, this implies a double shift (a) away from unitary, localized and quantifiable speech communities to transnational ones, both ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ (Rampton 2000; Pennycook 2012; Leppänen 2012a), and (b) away from presupposed fully-fluent native speakers’ competence to a sociolinguistics that looks at the individual whose competences consist rather of a plurality of ‘registers’ (Agha 2004), ‘styles’ (Rampton 2011b) and genres (Blommaert and Rampton 2011: 6) that constitute ‘super-diverse repertoires’ (Blommaert and Backus 2013).

From a conceptual standpoint, the text (and the scholarship that later builds on it) moreover seem to suggest that research on ‘superdiversity’ in sociolinguistics can best be understood as crystallizing around four intertwined notions: mobility, complexity, unpredictability, and governmentality.

The focus on the first notion – mobility – leads researchers to highlight that if we take into account the trajectory of real people across time, space, and borders, then simplistic, stationary, static and predictable perspectives about human lives and interactions are no longer possible. Examining interactions thus cannot be limited to looking at what happens in the here-and-now between interactants but must include taking into account their histories, geographies, the discourse formations that influence their contributions, and the dissipative nature of the organization of all these dimensions. Mobility does not only affect individuals’ trajectories; it also reorganizes the social fabric. Under conditions of social diversity, ‘older diversities superimpose upon newer diversity,’ leading to ‘their mutual re-articulation in the process’ (Parkin and Arnaut 2014: 2):

Everywhere around the world, the interaction of ‘the’ autochthonous population with different generations and groups of migrants, engenders the cultural differentiation of the former. In South Africa the collapse of the racial boundaries has in itself given rise to new configurations which Nuttall (2009: 20) calls ‘entanglements’.

These entanglements and re-articulations, Parkin and Arnaut argue (2014: 2), redefine drastically the very possibility for population to ‘self-recognize’ themselves as simple, unitary wholes. They thus require ways to analytically unpack complexities that do not lay open to superficial gaze. This leads Arnaut and Spotti (2014: 3) to propose simultaneity as an analytical lens to do justice to these new complexities:

the metaphor of simultaneity combines the idea of (a) superimposition, nesting, and palimpsest – of earlier and later ‘generations’ of migrants in particular neighbourhoods, […] with the idea of (b) intersection and entanglement – for instance the combination of different codes or idioms carrying different national class-based or ethnic indexicalities into one ‘urban vernacular’ (Rampton 2011a).

What makes the new situation complex surges thus from three sources for them: (1) the multiple embeddness of migrants, who engage in a variety of differentiated social fields and networks of relations; (2) intersectionality, or the idea that in any historically specific contexts, a complex nexus of economic, political, cultural, psychic, subjective, and experiential axes come together; and (3) scalarity, or the fact that each social level presents its own forms of coherence but which have sometimes contradictory dynamics (Arnaut and Spotti 2014: 3).

When we combine mobility and complexity, another term emerges: ‘unpredictability’. Unpredictability arises from (1) the complex trajectories of people that, emerging from unscripted configurations of experience, produce unexpected meanings; and (2) unprecedented forms of social organization, unconventional alliances among people with different backgrounds who would not easily fit the definition of a ‘speech community’. This leads to (3) the perception of a misfit of existing descriptive categories and vocabulary which seem unsuitable to capture the kinds of complexities to be discovered in ‘superdiversity’.

If one begins to acknowledge the full ‘breadth of ‘differences’ that constitute ‘diversity’ (Arnaut 2012: 6), then new challenges are also posed to ‘governmentality’. First, old ways of thinking about ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘diversity management’ appear more and more inadequate as the nation-states find themselves in a position where they cannot easily hide or tame the diversification of diversity. Here the question becomes how does the nation-state deal with – and regiment – diversity, complexity, and unpredictability in this new world order when easy simplification does not work anymore; second, the very idea of ‘the nation/state/society [as] the natural social and political form of the modern world’ (Wimmer and Glick Schiller 2002: 302) is also put into question. Authors in the superdiversity paradigm are prompt to observe that, with new technologies in particular, we have entered a ‘post-panopticon state’ (Arnaut 2012: 6). The idea of the state as the all-seeing and all-controlling ‘panoptical state’ (Foucault 1975) is progressively being challenged by new forms of governmentalities from below. As Arnaut (2012: 8–9) argues, these are to be found particularly in cities and cyberspaces, and can take the form of ‘auto-governing’ groups or ‘counter-governmentality’ (Appadurai in Arnaut 2012). They arise when the wider public appropriates the internet – a panoptical technology originally developed for the US military – and transforms it into an ever-differentiating structure for communication, learning, and socialization. In the post-panopticon society, it is said that ‘the machinery of surveil-lance is now always potentially in the service of the crowd as much as the executive’ (Boyne 2000: 301, in Arnaut 2012: 9).

Finally, from a methodological standpoint, Blommaert and Rampton’s (2011) research program emphasizes the need for researchers interested in superdiversity to move away from the study of larger (community) patterns, shifting to a focus on individual practice and repertoires. To unravel complexities linked to superdiversity, the authors recommend ethnography that enables to observe instances in which the re-integration of multiple variables (such as age, gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or being a gamer or a vegan) becomes palpable. Such instances can be discovered more accurately in the varying practices of individuals and in their engagement with multiple communities across time and space, rather than by seeking out broader generalizations about the behavior of presumably homogenous groups. Consequently, the program proposes to investigate ‘the linguistic signs of group belonging’ as a key unit of analysis and to focus on the trajectory of individual across national, linguistic, and cultural borders. The focus on trajectories moreover includes a need for long-term, multisited research that investigates connection and connectivity between contexts.

Issues and ongoing debates

Beyond the research agenda unraveled by Blommaert and Rampton (2011), there is an increasing number of case studies which take up their ideas on superdiversity and seek to illustrate or tease out some of the points we just developed. In this section, we would like to discuss a selection of them, focusing more specifically on how they address two important questions in our view:

  • What is being learned about social complexity by studying the complex language/semi-otic practice that these studies investigate?
  • How and for whom does “unpredictability” emerge as an issue/analytical or interpretational challenge in these studies?
Our focus will be on a number of sites, social spheres, activities, and players, including (1) practices controlled by the state (e.g., language citizenship testing, interviews with asylum seekers), (2) civil society (schools and neighborhoods), (3) virtual spaces on the internet (e.g., webpages, blogs and YouTube). We conclude the section by discussing some debates relating to the term.

Practices controlled by the state

A first area which has been extensively covered by the literature on superdiversity is the domain of language and citizenship testing – an increasingly fortified arena of state control in European nation-states, and a domain in which the reign of the all-seeing eye of the state remains uncontested, despite ongoing social complexification. Citizenship testing is one of the ways nation-states have developed to ‘regiment’ diversity: that is to control, monitor and, ultimately, reduce incoming migration and social complexity. The literature shows that in a number of countries (Extra, Spotti, and Van Avermaet 2009), systems of deterritorialized language practices are put into place – language tests have to be taken by the applicants over the phone in their country of origin. Through this apparatus, the homogenizing ideology of the nation-state with respect to language and culture becomes reinforced. Unpredictability of the encountered ‘other’ is deliberately ignored. Those who do not fit the required standard simply will not pass the test. On the other hand, as Spotti (2011) states, the selection that is achieved retains a certain element of predictability (which may or may not have been intended by those who designed the test) as the test usually plays out in favor of people with higher literacy skills and better access to the test sites.

Another topic investigated from a ‘superdiversity’ angle are interviews between government officials and asylum seekers to determine their status. Jacquemet (2015) explains how in these interviews unpredictability arises when the asylum seekers’ migrational trajectories and interactional moves are at odds with what is expected from the government officials and the legal system of the host country. For example, while the officer might have the ‘referential meaning’ that a migrant from Algeria should speak Arabic, but not Berber or Tamazight, the history of migration of the asylum seeker might well mean that he has incorporated these repertoires. Conflict over meaning also arises from culturally different interpretation of kinship relations (such as who counts as a cousin or a brother in different cultures). These differences can lead to an interpretation that disqualifies the narrative of the claimant as incoherent and the claimant himself as not trustworthy, a judgment on which his request for asylum may then be denied. However, the research also shows that, occasionally, interpreters act as cultural mediators and that they are able to clarify the ambiguity and mend the conflict. Here, a focus on ‘what is unpredictable’ and how to go about ‘expected unpredictability’ is indeed, an interesting and important perspective to explore.

Diversity in schools and neighborhoods

A second area in which state control retains a tangible influence is (state) schools. It is a truism that school curricula tend to ignore or, at least, streamline the diversity in classrooms (Duarte and Gogolin 2013), and there is little will or serious engagement of most ‘self-declared-monolingual’ nation-states to change this orientation in the near future. Evaluation, in most cases, remains based on the standard of the ‘monolingual competent speaker’, and recalling the inappropriateness of such principles does not seem to induce much change. The study by Kapia (2013) is a laudable exception which actually attempts to challenge this logic in concrete, empirical ways. She suggests that when assessing the narrative competence of speakers in ‘superdiverse’ environments, monolingual norms should be used only to assess macro structural elements which are acquired at the same rate by first and second language learners (and which can be transferred by the learners across languages, such as the knowledge about literacy or textual genres), but that schools should refrain from evaluating micro structure elements (such as morpho-syntactic structures or forms of verbal morphology) that second language learners take longer to acquire.

Since such claims and the search for more equitable treatment and evaluation of multilingual students are not new (Menken 2008), ‘superdiversity’ does not seem to offer much of a new perspective on the diversity in schools. However, the term has been adopted by some scholars whose work on inclusive pedagogy stood out, even before the advent of superdiversity. Such an example is multilingual bookmaking (Busch 2012), which offers children with complex backgrounds a space to explore and express ‘the unknown and unpredictable’ in their trajectories, and to lay it open to themselves, to their teachers, to fellow students, parents, and researchers.

Other researchers have focused on a more specific domain in education: complementary schools that are run and supported by migrant communities. Creese and Blackledge (2010) have investigated the diaspora of Bangladeshi community in Birmingham, UK, and followed individuals from the first and second generation from school to home. Their study highlights that the language practices of the learners in complementary schools reveal complex and intersecting indexical orders. In their data for example the learners resorted sometimes to Bangla (the national language of Bangladesh representing heritage and prestige in school and community) or to Sulheti (a spoken, informal language, representing poverty and a low level of education) in their speech. But they also noticed that these meanings were not consistent across space, time, and interactional frames, but varied. New meanings emerged, for instance as stylization of Sulheti is used by UK-born second-generation girls to exclude newcomers from Bangladesh. Thereby stylization indexes a social boundary even among people who have a shared repertoire. In the work of Creese and Blackledge, ‘indexicality’ and stylization are used as an analytical tool to show how meanings can be intersecting and how the same linguistic form – emphasized in a differently nuanced tone – can mean either social inclusion or exclusion. This example points to the inner differentiation of the local Bangladeshi community articulated along the lines of generational belonging and migrant status (newcomer or UK-born), rather than to multiple belongings of the same individual.

Beyond school, investigations have also focused on ‘superdiversity’ in neighborhoods – an area of reduced state control compared to some of the previous scenarios. To capture new forms of demographic and social complexity in mixed neighborhoods, the term ‘conviviality’ is often employed. For Padilla, Azevedo, and Olmos-Alcaraz (2015), the term provides a framework to understand how interculturality is lived and experienced at the local level. The notion focuses on how (new) relational patterns among groups are emerging and how interactions between residents of different origins and backgrounds unfold, in which notions such as race, ethnicity, and gender are being renegotiated. Conviviality thereby requires studies of interaction around a thematic focus that touches on issues of social peace and solidarity, hinting to alternative policies that can usefully replace ‘multiculturalism’.

In sociolinguistics, the notion of conviviality has been adopted by Blommaert (2014a). Focusing on multilingual signs in a multiethnic neighborhood in Ghent, Belgium, Blommaert reconstructs the increasing heterogeneity of the local Chinese-speaking community for which he finds evidence in the complexification of the linguistic repertoire of local Chinese speakers. These Chinese speakers adapt to the changes arising from new waves of immigrants by learning varieties of the Chinese newcomers, namely Mandarin and simplified characters, in addition to their already existing repertoire of Cantonese and traditional ideography. With a linguistic landscaping approach, Blommaert’s analysis concentrates on written artifacts, such as shop signs or billboards, which are contextualized with socio-economic and demographic data. Yet, the absence of any ethnographic data accounting for interactions of and with the producers of this data leaves the task of interpretation solely to the researcher who, on the basis of singular instances makes assumptions about a trajectory of learning and factors presumably significant in the structuration of an individual’s linguistic repertoire. Furthermore, the reliance on concepts such as ‘orthographic norm’ and ‘error’ which are used to describe the written artifact leaves the reader pondering: whose normativity is at stake?

Digital practices

The third area in which researchers have used the ‘superdiversity gaze’ is the domain of new technologies of communication Androutsopoulos, J. and Juffermans, K. (2014). New technologies allow for the complexification of participation patterns, and the diversification of language/semiotic practices, with more or less short-or long-term socially structuring effects.

One set of studies focusing on ‘superdiversity’ in this domain relates to the global diaspora (Heyd 2014 for Nigeria; McLaughlin 2014 for Senegal; Sharma 2014 for Nepal). These studies observe communities where people share an interest in political and sociocultural events in the home country but where the participants are spread globally – often across various continents. While one could expect that such global communities make room for showing the diversification of individual linguistic repertoires, acquired in the context of migration, one observes that, on the contrary, a homogenization of language used in the platforms appears to be taking place. The repertoire in use often echoes the languages and language varieties common in the home country. While linguistic homogenization seems to reflect a normative stance of the sociolinguistic situation ‘back home’, we note that geographic diversification tends to be rather downplayed or hidden. This may not be surprising if the goal of such an endeavor is to build a globally interconnected diaspora. A similar case of linguistic homogenization, but related to immigration into one country (Luxembourg), is reported by Belling and De Bres (2014), who describe the linguistic homogenization of a consumer platform where participants converge towards the Luxemburgish language (instead of the other official languages of the country – German or French, English as a lingua franca, or languages of migration such as Portuguese, Italian or others, who would also be possible in that context) due to pressures of the local sociolinguistic economy.

Studies by Dong (2012) and Staehr (2014) provide examples for how affinity circles are formed around a particular interest in lifestyle (e.g., in Saab cars [Dong 2012]) or globally circulating semiotic resources of youth culture (e.g., the illuminati [Staehr 2014]) that shape new communities of practice in on-and offline encounters.

Yet others examine multiply authored, multimodal performances (e.g., buffalaxing; Leppänen and Häkkinen 2014) and investigate experimental semiotic practices in which authors alter existing material (mostly music videos) by recombining semiotic modes in unconventional ways, challenging to conventional interpretations. For instance, sounds related to one language (e.g., Hindi) are mapped on and written down in English words which create distorting effects readable as a critique of the visual content presented or, to a certain extent, a self-mockery of the ‘second’ authors. Here, the unconventional assemblage and play with rules of semiotic composition for sound, writing, and visual image (e.g., traditional dance performance) clearly stretches conventional stereotypical depictions of gender, race, and ethnicity.

Careful examination of these cases shows that the engagement with linguistic/semiotic practice in these studies contribute to understand particular aspects of communicative practice in on-and offline environments. Yet, we learn relatively little about the ‘diversification of diversity’ and how the complexification of social patterns is reflected in concrete linguistic practice. What emerges rather clearly, however, are the homogenizing tendencies and a presumably self-selected reduction of linguistic variety to communicative patterns that are shared, predictably, by a specific community of practice, be it local or translocal. In addition, it seems that, rather than revealing the ‘unpredictable or unknown’, multiple linguistic resources are drawn on by the interlocutors (and interpreted by the analyst) in ways that we would call predictable. Maybe it is this kind of disjuncture between the claimed object of inquiry and the empirical facts that has led to much debates and discussion to be prompted by superdiversity research in sociolinguistics and applied language studies. We review some of them in the next section.

Debates and controversies

For many researchers, including the ones who have imported the notion of ‘superdiversity’ as part of the analytical toolkit of researchers of linguistic and semiotic practices, ‘superdiversity’ is still seen ‘as a zone of academic development with an explorative, tentative and unfinished character’ (Blommaert 2014b: 15). Further conceptual and empirical consolidation is to be expected with the forthcoming publication of several monographs on this topic (Rampton, Blommaert, Arnaut, and Spotti 2015; Arnaut, Blommaert, Rampton, and Spotti forthcoming; Arnaut, Karrebaek, and Spotti forthcoming; Meissner and Vertovec forthcoming). These will aim to consolidate the institutionalization of ‘superdiversity’ research and, most likely engage with the criticisms raised so far by the detractors of the term. Some of these critiques relate to the term ‘superdiversity’ and its scope and meaning. Others engage with the project of developing a new – more fine-grained – language of description in view of capturing complex phenomena more adequately and serving as an analytical toolkit that can enable a ‘new way of seeing’. Yet others relate to the kind of purchase the term ‘superdiversity’ has for the political agenda of engaging policy makers in a new thinking for diversity management.

With regards to the term ‘superdiversity’, ambiguity has been detected on several levels. Makoni (2012) notes that ‘super’ in ‘superdiversity’ can be understood as referring to both ‘hyper’ (as in highly layered and socially stratified local neighborhoods) and ‘trans’ (where it pinpoints to translocal practices such as in internet communication across contexts and territories). If the term covers both dimensions, we could ask to what extent it provides an increased analytical purchase, and whether the relationship between ‘locally complex’ and ‘translocal’ would need to be clarified more explicitly.

Some scholars have raised concerns about ‘superdiversity’ as a Eurocentric perspective – seen as hardly meaningful in postcolonial contexts and settler societies that have been composed of highly diverse, socially complex populations for generations, if not centuries. Makoni (2012) notes that the term ‘superdiversity’ is a white European invention, similar to the terms ‘migration’ and ‘nomadism’ which are used selectively to refer to specific phenomena of mobility in specific (pre-and postcolonial) time periods. ‘Superdiversity’ therefore resonates with the position of a privileged elite of white researchers, guilty of a certain ‘social romanticism’ risking to obscure the social conditions enforcing mobility, at least on the African continent, and covering up issues of great social division and injustice. It also has been criticised as aligned with a neoliberal rhetoric praising the ‘supersize’ and ‘big’ society (Reyes 2014).

Yet other researchers have critiqued ‘superdiversity’ and refuted the notion because of its limited focus and lack of historicity. Building on antecedents in sociolinguistic research that we described earlier, superdiversity research puts strong emphasis on the ‘urban’, viewed as the birthplace of new forms of ‘superdiverse’ linguistic practice. It also adopts a critical position towards the nation-state and its ideologies which mostly emerged in Europe and where exported globally through colonialism. Given this epistemological anchoring, superdiversity turns a blind eye to (1) multilingual mixed language practices in historical periods preceding colonialism and the existence of nation-states in the modern understanding, notably in parts of the world outside of Europe; (2) the contact of the colonizers with indigenous populations and the mixed language practices arising from this encounter; and (3) up to this date, the specific situation of indigenous languages in postcolonial contexts (for example, language revitalization efforts of indigenous languages). Concerning multilingual practices in precolonial times, scholarship from South East India (Khubchandani in Canagarajah 2013) notes that mixing languages was the norm and not an exception throughout that period. Languages tended to be associated with territories rather than ethnic groups or nations and people were expected to be mobile and to use multilingual repertoires that they mobilized according to situational needs. Negotiating meaning between interlocutors through the purposeful assembling of diverse individual repertoires was the order of the day – a situation very different from more contemporary expectations that everyone should be able to converse fully competently in the language of the nation-state. Another set of mixed language practices emerged from the encounter of colonizer and colonized. It is in so-called auto-ethnographic texts (Pratt 1991) such as the 1, 200-page manuscript written in Quechua and ungrammatical expressive Spanish by the indigenous Andean scribe Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala (1613) that the use of mixed language embodied both the appropriation and subversion of the voice of the oppressor – a mockery quite different from the one described by Rampton (1995) for inner London youth – but surely not less powerful or rebellious. While rebellion in both cases has different addressees and happen in different socio-historical contexts, it could be fruitful to contrast the cases to uncover, for each of them, what appropriation is about.

As for the issue of indigenous languages in postcolonial contexts, Moore et al. (2013) stress that displacement – today often associated with the trajectories of migrants – has been afflicted on indigenous people without them necessarily having to move at all. Reporting on language revitalization efforts in Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon, where pre-colonial community multilingualism included the languages of Sahaptins, Wascos, and Paiutes, these researchers highlight how language courses are offered today on just one language, which reduces and homogenizes the initial multilingualism. However, on closer examination, it becomes clear that what matters most to the indigenous teachers and learners is neither the learning of a monolingual norm, nor the ideal of the fully competent speakers that underlies many Western language teaching practices, but rather the transmission of indigenous ritual knowledge and appropriate ways of performing it.

Learning about indigenous contexts adds an important dimension to existing superdiversity research. It helps refocus the role of the individual (and individual repertoires) – somewhat overemphasized in current sociolinguistic superdiversity scholarship – and the collective (and collective interests and rights) that some see disregarded and banalized by readings that interpret languages as primarily individual attributes or fashion statements (e.g., Maher 2005, on metroethnicity).

Beyond those critiques, another area of indeterminacy requires clarification. While in some contexts ‘superdiversity’ scholars identify specific ‘superdiverse’ phenomena (e.g., globalized youth culture or forms of internet communication, Varis and Wang 2011; Blommaert 2013), in others they highlight ‘superdiversity’ rather as a theoretical perspective – an emerging discourse (Arnaut 2012), or even a new ontology (Parkin 2012) – which has no specific objects, but rather depicts a researcher’s stance that pays heightened attention to issues of complexity (Blommaert and Rampton 2011) and the growing awareness of such complexity among researchers and laypersons (Blommaert and Varis 2011). This leads us to another ongoing discussion among ‘superdiversity’ scholars, which is about developing a more fine-grained language for describing complexity. While there have been attempts to suggest such new vocabulary (e.g., ‘supervernacular’ see Blommaert 2011), the conceptual work is still ongoing and the vocabulary to make explicit the changes observed in ‘superdi-verse’ language and semiotic practice does not yet exist (van der Aa and Blommaert 2015).

The question thus remains how meaningful a theory or ontology can be if it is not coupled with methodological strategies that can be operationalized in concrete research, particularly in an empirical science which is said to derive important meaning from generating observational, qualitative data. This is by no means to say that the existing tools would be adequate. However, if one considered them insufficient, the question remains what new tools could or should look like.

Implications

To recap, what surges from the review conducted in the previous sections is that ‘superdiversity’ as a lens has the merit of allowing sociolinguists to pursue the long tradition of asking questions such as: what are sites of engagements (Scollon 1997) where migrants and host community members meet? How can we conceptualize migrant/non-migrant social spaces and their strategies of negotiating meaning in different languages and across different social settings? What vocabulary is best suited to talk about language use and social relationships in these sites? How can we capture and comprehend interactions in these sites of engagement through suitable methodologies? In addition, we could add: What are the consequences of participation for individuals? And what are consequences for society when contact zones multiply? The research review makes clear that it is complex frames of understanding we are in need of, rather than overly simplifying ones, frames that are able to show resolvable tensions and contradictions as well as irresolvable paradoxes of sharing lives together.

In terms of implication for research, the analyses we have reviewed leave us however with a number of conceptual and methodological questions: For example, are multilingual language practice and social complexification intrinsically linked, and where and how can we actually observe social complexity through forms of linguistic/semiotic practice? Heyd (2014) combines methodologies such as mapping (by locating participants across the globe), corpus analysis, and qualitative analysis of life trajectory narratives. This seems a promising avenue to pursue for the future. However, at the moment, studies we examined leave singular instances of practice and larger patterns of social complexity rather unrelated. An exception is the study by Juffermans, Blommaert, Kroon, and Li (2014), which looks at Facebook discussions among young people of Chinese descent in the Netherlands and their views on language policy decisions in mainland China. The analysis is interesting as it reveals lived and imagined trajectories of language learning of these young people, including different varieties of Chinese. Here, the notion of trajectory, recommended as a research focus (Blommaert and Rampton 2011) is taken more seriously, shedding light also on hopes, fears, and the predicted worth of linguistic resources for their lives and in different scenarios.

While well-established analytical concepts such as ‘language ideologies’ and ‘indexicality’ are used very fruitfully in the aforementioned studies, the perspective of ‘simultaneity’ (see Arnaut and Spotti 2014) seems still largely underexplored. Here is certainly scope and potential for development to make an analytical purchase of ‘superdiversity’ research more visible. A further research agenda therefore would be to go beyond paying mere lip service to this question of the ‘diversification of diversity’ and delve even deeper into understanding both superimposition and nesting of earlier and later ‘generations’ of migrants as well as the ‘entanglement’ and cross-sectional transaction between migrants and host community members and the cultural frictions, tensions, or new convivialities resulting from them. How to go about studying those dimensions empirically still remains to be imagined, however.

In addition, most studies keep a focus on the ‘linguistic sign of group belonging’ – continuing to prioritize language over other modes of representation (such as images, music, or dance) which poses certain limits to exploring semiotic practice as a vector for understanding social complexity.

Finally, despite all critical efforts to reframe ‘community’ conceptually, either as a ‘community of practice’ (Lave and Wenger 1991) or a social (physical or virtual) network of people, it needs to be noted that ‘community’ remains a key concept to which individuals adhere. Therefore, it seems important to investigate what new forms and meanings ‘community’ takes on, how people live and talk about them, and what these understandings of community mean for us as researchers whose work remains committed to people and community institutions as social players and research partners (Li Wei 2014).

As for policy and pedagogy, while the majority of case studies investigate multiple language practices as an illustration of social complexification in various areas of civil society, only few of them go as far as formulating recommendations that could be relevant for policy makers and practitioners. Since a social agenda is not explicitly proposed in most of the studies, it still needs to be spelled out how a linguistic focus on ‘superdiversity’ can inform policy in meaningful ways.

Future directions

In a discussion of superdiversity and ‘civil integration’, Vertovec asked what ‘meaningful [communicative] interchanges look like, how they are formed, maintained or broken, and how the state or other agencies might promote them’ (2007: 27). Surely, sociolinguistics and applied language research have an important contribution to make to this agenda. At present, however, we recognize that we ultimately lack the temporal perspective to assess whether the ‘superdiverse’ approach is the best way to do that. We also do not know whether this term will make a dent in the history of the field or serve as just another temporary stepping stone in the history of conceptualizing ‘linguistics of contact’ (Pratt 1991), especially given that some of the most engaged researchers of ‘superdiversity’ themselves acknowledge some of the past ‘shadows of superdiversity’ (Rampton et al. 2015), and propose to view the term as a temporary placeholder ready to be replaced whenever more relevant categories come to light.

With or without the term ‘superdiversity’, the phenomena that it seeks to address seem real and deserving our attention, and we do believe that language sciences can contribute to the more global agenda of imagining ‘more just structures and policies’ to respond to the ‘diversification of diversity’ of the new migration flows for which Vertovec first imagined the term (Vertovec 2007: 1050). From a research perspective, we believe that contributing to this agenda will require opening up to interdisciplinary dialogue, engaging for example with social policy studies, social geography, moral philosophy, education, or gender and race studies. These have started to examine topics such as the ‘ethics of living together’ (Jensen 2011) and the ‘art of living in parallel’ (Chimienti and Van Liempt 2011) or the question of ‘white privilege’ (McIntosh 1989) or multilingual pedagogies (García 2009). We believe language and discourse accompany these different dimensions and we find important to investigate what role language plays at these different levels to sustain or undermine practices of conviviality and to draw barriers of inclusion/exclusion. We also find that if we pursue these lines of research, we will need to interrogate even more than ever the very positions from which we write and speak, and the contact zones which exist in our own academic institutions and academic lives which at present do not seem to show the same diversification of diversity as do other pockets of social life.

Summary

Since the term ‘superdiversity’ first caught the attention of researchers in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology, it has enjoyed a quick and broad appeal. The chapter reviews where the term comes from and what it originally meant. It also examines more critically some of the conceptual, methodological, and political challenges raised by the use of this term for language studies and for conceptualizing the complexity of what happens in the ‘contact zones’ between migrants and host communities.

Related topics

  • Translanguaging in mobility
  • National and ethnic minorities
  • Multisited ethnography and language in the study of migration
  • Citizenship, immigration laws, and language

Further reading

Arnaut, K. and Spotti, M. (2014). Superdiversity discourse, Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies, Paper 122, 1–11.

The article presents a dense and well-developed synthesis of superdiversity research and its epistemological underpinnings. It situates superdiversity as an academic discourse and links it with previous research on language in society. It is thought-provoking in outlining an agenda for future research and analytical perspectives on issues of complexity.

Blommaert, J. and Rampton, B. (2011). Diversities, 13 (3). Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/shs/diversities/vol13/issue2/art1

This collection of papers makes an important early contribution to studies on superdiversity from a perspective of language in society. Widely cited among superdiversity researchers, it is a good starting point to identify important lines of inquiry embedded in a sociolinguistic, ethnographic tradition.

Duarte, J. and Gogolin, I. , eds. (2013). Linguistic Superdiversity in Urban Areas: Research Approaches. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Papers in this edited volume engage with the concept of superdiversity from a range of disciplinary and methodological perspectives exploring linguistic diversity and the challenges it poses for policies and practices of managing diversity in place.

Makoni, S. (2012). A critique of language, languaging and supervernacular. Uma crítica à noção de língua, linguagem e supervernáculo. Muitas Vozes, Ponta Grossa, 1 (2), 189–199.

The texts engages with superdiversity from a critical perspective. The author interrogates central terms used in superdiversity research (e.g., supervernacular), scrutinizing their implications with respect to historicity, geographical reach, and epistemological foundation.

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

This text marks the beginning of research on superdiversity in social anthropology. Cited by scholars across disciplines, it identifies and explains the phenomenon of ‘superdiversity’ for the first time linking it to policies, social practices and discourses in the UK.

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