Economy or Justice? How Urban Actors Respond to Diversity

By Michalis Moutselos, Christian Jacobs, Julia Martínez-Ariño, Maria Schiller, Karen Schönwälder, Alexandre Tandé

In many European countries, “diversity” has become a common term in political and public life. In Germany, for instance, thousands of companies, administrations, and other civil society actors have signed a diversity charter. Recent governments have run campaigns announcing the diversity is good for German society (Schönwälder and Triadafilopoulos 2016). But what exactly is meant by “diversity”? Is this just a slogan that suits economic interests and obscures inequalities, as some critics fear? Or is “diversity” associated with more equality? And how widely do important actors in German society actually share the positive appreciation of diversity? The arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees has also been accompanied by more vocal anti-immigration mobilization.

A study at the German Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity has investigated such issues with a focus on big cities. Cities are often described as particularly pragmatic and more open to immigration and diversity than national politics. European cities have for instance secured funding from the European Union for immigrant integration projects and have developed international networks to exchange ideas and best practices. In the United States, “sanctuary cities” have challenged federal immigration policy.

The study surveyed urban actors in Germany’s twenty most populous cities. This includes major political and administrative actors, but also trade union leaders, heads of local welfare organizations and immigrant advocacy organizations. Germany is a good country to look at the intersection of urban and diversity policies, because it features an increasingly heterogeneous population and urban centers with broad policymaking powers. It is also one of the main countries of immigration in Europe. In the big cities, usually between a quarter and a third of the population are immigrants or children of immigrants.


Diversity unites! More migrants into the public service

So, is diversity perceived as relevant and as positive for the cities? And does a market-oriented of a justice-orientated view predominate? The take-away findings from a recently published article in the Urban Affairs Review are, first, that urban overwhelmingly agree population diversity in their cities has increased in the last decades. Second, urban actors see diversity as more beneficial for their cities than not. Third, they tend to see diversity as both as relevant for economic opportunities and link it with the promotion of social justice.

We specifically asked urban actors whether they thought increasing population diversity carries economic, cultural and civic benefits for their city or, rather, specific burdens. Surprisingly, there is little variation across German cities in harboring positive orientations towards diversity. In other words, there are no clear “anti-diversity” cities, pointing at the consolidation of a pro-diversity consensus among urban actors. The spread of pro-diversity campaigns in various, national and international, contexts in all likelihood contributed to the acceptance of this perspective across German cities.

We also asked our respondents whether they advocated specific city policies and practices (for instance, drawing skilled labour from abroad, securing council representation of diverse backgrounds and advocating recruitment of previously disadvantaged groups in city administration), that reflect economic or social-justice goals. The results show that urban actors defy pressures from globalization and tendencies to impose uniformly neoliberal policies.

Urban actors consider recognition of diversity and proactive town-hall policies that aim at reversing disadvantages of certain groups as pertinent and worthy of pursuit. They do not contrast sharply the economic and social justice logics in dealing with population diversity in their city. There is however, a caveat: representation of diversity in city councils is regarded as more legitimate than in recruitment for municipal administration. Norms of applying “objective”, meritocratic procedures for public employment persist in the minds of urban actors in Germany. Public administration is thus a more contested field at the intersection of diversity and urban policy than democratic representation.

Altogether, the general evaluation of diversity is clearly positive, while its consequences for political interventions seem less clear. This may be due to the fact that the positive evaluation of diversity in mainstream politics, including city politics, is relatively new. Urban actors have adopted a general view of diversity but a sustained and politicized advocacy leading to agreed and coherent orientations for action is little developed.

Second, the assumption that diversity may either be seen in economic terms, or, rather in terms of social justice may be misleading, at least for German cities. Previous studies have already shown that urban governance is less dominated by economic forces in European welfare states than it is in the United States. Both the more solid financial base and political independence of urban government as well as a long-standing consensus over social rights may support the integration of justice-oriented and market-oriented perspectives. Thus, the fear that diversity campaigns support neo-liberal programmes may be misplaced. Further, the overwhelmingly positive perception of diversity as beneficial for the twenty cities helps explain why large parts of German society welcomed the hundreds of thousands of refugees who arrived in the summer and autumn of the year 2015. In another article, we show that this positive perception of diversity in German cities is also reflected in the widespread adoption of city-level diversity-policy instruments. Altogether, these results suggests that a sound basis for continued pro-diversity policies and attitudes exists in German cities and that the recent successes of populist right forces should not be mistaken for a general shift towards nationalism.

Read the article here.

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Author Biographies

Michalis Moutselos is a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen, Germany. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Princeton University. His research looks at the dynamics of violent and non-violent protest in ethnically diverse cities and the political behaviour of persons of immigrant background in Western Europe.

Christian Jacobs is a doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity and a PhD candidate at the University of Göttingen. After studying sociology and geography, Christian received his MA in Sociology in 2013. In his dissertation, Christian investigates the influence of city planning on spatial structures of diversity, the housing opportunities and patterns as well as the cohabitation of diverse groups in German cities.

Julia Martínez-Ariño is Assistant Professor of Sociology of Religion at the University of Groningen. She was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity (Göttingen) for the CityDiv project between 2014 and 2017. Her main research interests are the governance of religious diversity in cities and public institutions, with particular attention to governance networks. She has conducted fieldwork in Spain, Canada, Germany and France.

Maria Schiller works as a Post-doctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Germany. She holds a PhD in Migration Studies from the University of Kent and an MA in Social and Cultural Anthropology from the University of Vienna. Her research investigates local responses to migration, in particular focusing on institutional change, street-level bureaucrats’ practice, and claims-making by immigrants and established residents.

Karen Schönwälder is Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity in Göttingen and Professor at Göttingen University.  Her recent research has focussed on diversity and inter-ethnic interaction in European cities, the political presence of migration and diversity, and urban responses to socio-cultural heterogeneity. She has published widely on migration and integration policies and processes, with a focus on Germany and Britain.

Alexandre Tandé received his PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Université Lille 2. After working as a post-doctoral fellow, he is now associate researcher at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. His current research, carried out in France and Belgium, explores the links between socio-cultural diversity, urban cultural policies and citizenship.

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