On October 4, 2015, a panel on “Ethnography and the Study of Diversity in Germany” held in Washington, D.C., questioned paradigms of research on transnational migration and diversity, focusing on the impossibility of containing these categories within nation-based frameworks of analysis.
As part of a series of five panels on “Ethnography and German Studies,” organized by Alina Dana Weber (Florida State University) and Amanda Randall (St. Olaf College) at the 39th Annual Conference of the German Studies Association, the panel assembled scholars who have worked on migration and cultural change for decades and have engaged in collaborations on various occasions in the past. The panel comprised Uli Linke (Rochester Institute for Technology), Levent Soysal (Kadir Has Üniversitesi), Regina Römhild (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), Barbara Wolbert (Europa Universität Viadrina Frankfurt/Oder), and, as commentator, Deniz Göktürk (University of California, Berkeley).
In her paper on “Speaking in Tongues: The Politics of Language and Cultural Imaginaries of Belonging in Germany,” Uli Linke argued that, reforms in citizenship legislation notwithstanding, the model of membership based on descent and blood ties still persists in public discourse and policy in Germany. According to her analysis, the privileged status of native-born Germans has remained unquestioned, and the medium of language now serves as the dividing line between the native and the foreign. A new linguistic nationalism has come to the forefront, for example in the insistence on language proficiency tests for immigrants and in the efforts on behalf of the Verein Deutsche Sprache (German Language Society) to fight against the “corruption” and “foreign subversion” of the German language. Linke’s argument emphasizes the resistance to linguistic diversity, or the “postmonolingual condition” proposed by Yasemin Yıldız in her study Beyond the Mother Tongue (2012). Evidence from other E.U. countries shows a similar trajectory toward proficiency in a nation’s language as both a condition and external indicator of affective citizenship.
Barbara Wolbert presented a retrospective analysis of her ethnographic practice in “Diversity Politics and Art Exhibitions: An Epistemological Review of Ethnographic Case Studies in Post-Wall Germany.” Her work has focused on avoiding the trap of categorizing European art as a separate entity from the art of “the Others.” In covering landmark exhibitions such as Negerküsse – Menschenfresser (1991), Encountering the Others, the parallel-show to the dOCUMENTA 9 in 1992, acclaimed as “the Third World dOCUMENTA,” The Rise and Fall of the Modern in Weimar (1999), The Short Century (2002), Projekt Migration (2005), and dOCUMENTA 13 (2012) as “ethnographic moments” (Britta Ohm), Wolbert highlighted shifts in the temporalities assigned to and assumed by so-called non-Western art. In her own practice she described a shift in field work, ranging from the exhibition site to websites, which has led to a new understanding of the 1980’s concept of “anthropology at home.” This new stage of participant observation and implication serves as a reminder not to segregate migrant media and tribalize artists as “Others,” while turning a blind eye to the staging of diversity in mainstream spectacles.
Regina Römhild argued in “Mainstreaming the Margins: Towards New Ethnographic Views on Postmigrant Germany” that we need to demigratize migration research in response to its persistence on a sedentary counterpart. Taking her cues from her research on “super-diversity” (Steve Vertovec) in Frankfurt/Main, a city where the majority of the population can trace their origins back to immigrants without being foreign-born themselves, Römhild points out that society is always already constituted by migration, hence “post-migrant”; being native-born can no longer be upheld as the norm, although public discourse still uncritically relies on this binary, as epitomized in Angela Merkel’s famous claim on the current refugee crisis, “Wir schaffen das!”, including only the German-born population in this collectivizing “we.” Römhild picks up on Shermin Langhoff’s promotion of the term “post-migrant” (along the lines of post-colonial), without losing sight of the plight of refugees who are denied the right to settle. She thus takes a stance against a tendency in critical migration research to emphasize the struggles of refugees currently at E.U. borders over issues of access to education, work, and representation in post-migrant societies. Instead, she proposed that the enabling and interdependent relations between these two constitutive dimensions of European realities deserve closer attention. Methodologically, her emphasis is on the study of border regimes, crisscrossing categories in urban ethnography, and on collaborations that engage actors and organizations of diverse backgrounds.
Levent Soysal mapped a shift in ethnographic approaches and terminologies over the past decades in the incorporation of migrants. In his talk “Workers, Turks, Muslims: Ethnographies of Migration to Germany Revisited,” he argued that the “guest workers” of the 1970s came to be ethnicized as “Turks” in the 1980s and, in line with the global resurgence of religion in the new millennium, subsequently labeled “categorical Muslims.” Soysal reminded us that while the EU is debating the distribution of 120,000 refugees across its member states, there are about 2.5 million refugees residing in Turkey and another 2.5 in Lebanon. He proposed that the current scale of perpetual mobility is no longer captured by the vocabulary and tool kit of research on migration when conceptualized as departure from one country and subsequent arrival in another, followed by integration into nationally contained social systems, which are based on the shared values of the collective. Today, students, tourists and migrants shuttle back and forth, all the while connected by social media, the Third World is present within the First World and vice versa. In fact, Soysal argued, we might be witnessing “the end of migration.”
The panel provided an opportunity to address methodological questions, as commentator Deniz Göktürk highlighted. What we have learned from ethnography is the importance of scrutinizing our own positions as observer and writer vis-à-vis our subjects and objects. Meanwhile, the predicament of the ethnographic mode arises when we collect, classify, and interpret particular details as symptomatic for the essence of a particular culture as a bounded, closed system, posited in terms of a national collective, minority group, or religious community. Critiques of “thick description” (Clifford Geertz) have called for more open-ended models of interpretation in need of constant reframing with an eye toward diachronic developments. A key question remains: how can ethno-graphy, the writing of the cultural particularities of one people or group, avoid producing and reinstating categories of collective identification that in turn become exclusive and restrictive? How do our research questions and designs respond to shifting frames and the dissolution of disciplinary boundaries between ethnography and media studies, between field work and screen work?
The discussion reminded us that even if we refrain from speaking about migration and integration to avoid the deployment of nation-state containers, we cannot conceptualize mobility without taking into account barriers. As both the E.U. and nation-states are once again implementing policies to enforce borders and differentiate between “real” refugees and economic migrants, it is all the more important to keep rethinking identifications in terms of diversity.