How to live with difference?

28 April 2016


By Robin Cohen

Robin Cohen is a Senior Research Fellow and Professor Emeritus of Development Studies at the University of Oxford. In this post, Robin writes about his latest research, examining how people from different backgrounds manage to get along with each other. You can read more in Robin’s latest book, Encountering Difference (published by Polity Press, April 2016).

How do humans of different backgrounds manage to get along with each other? This was the question Olivia Sheringham and I addressed in our new book, Encountering Difference.

As we surveyed our research environment, it was difficult to find good portents. News bulletins were replete with militant demands for ethnic exclusivity, minority-language education, religious orthodoxy and territorial separatism. We read of conflicts between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, Alawi, other Shias and Sunni in Syria or Russians and Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine. Topping these stories were countless laments about how impossible it was to integrate orthodox Muslims into Western secular societies.

Instead of focusing on the widespread examples of conflict, we decided to look at when, where and how people of diverse heritages could meet and converge, and why understanding this more positive outcome might be important for the future of humankind.

Language as analogy

Historical contacts between disparate peoples showed how cultural boundaries were imagined and constructed, usually in racial language, but also transgressed through the human capacity for mimicry, curiosity, sexual desire and empathy. A crucial insight derived from considering creole languages. There are 84 of them, linguists tell us, and they differ crucially from pidgins. Pidgins are “vertical” languages with a limited vocabulary, used when a powerful group requires communication with a dominated group but has little interest in reducing the social distance between them. By contrast, creoles are “horizontal” languages that become mother tongues, languages of intimacy. Creole-speakers are able to construct full vocabularies and complex abstractions. Prior languages fade, though rarely disappear entirely.


Could cultural differences be overcome, or at least eroded, in a manner analogous to creole languages? Could, in short, the idea of “creolization” be used to understand a wide range of merging and shared social interactions from religion to music, dance, food, carnival, theatre, art, storytelling and body-marking? Our canvas was worldwide, but we conducted detailed ethnographic research in Mauritius, Martinique, Cape Verde and Louisiana, all places where people of diverse backgrounds had settled through choice or force. We found strong evidence of our positive story in these and other places, though in a piecemeal fashion.

Small islands and plantations were important historical sites for the emergence of fused social identities, while, during the industrial period many port cities acquired an enhanced role as cultural entrepôts. Today, global cities are the main places where trade, industrial capital and new financial interests intersect with multifaceted patterns of immigration. In these global cities the predominant pattern of social relations combined what Steven Vertovec calls “super-diversity” with what we dubbed “islanded identities”. The result is a pervasive, though often ignored, process, “creolization from below”.

We saw this process of “thick” encounter as qualitatively different from superficial forms of co-habitation between people of different origins and cultural heritages. Minor economic transactions, polite greetings and tentative smiles are, of course, a whole lot better than outright hostility or hate crimes. However, in these prosaic everyday forms of encounter the bubbles barely meet. In deeper forms of creolization interactions the bubbles overlap significantly and a “creolized space” emerges which is clearly and visibly different from the parent cultures.

To clarify: We are not talking here of one-way assimilation or integration into a dominant culture. Nor are we talking about a wholly harmonious or equal blending of identities and cultures. In creolizing settings, old and new, plantation owners, powerful merchant groups or well-organized classes may be dominant but they are rarely able to destroy resistant languages, religions and social practices. Characteristically, dominated groups revisit a remembered, dismembered and invented past, a “diasporic trace”, one that reenergizes their social identity and cultural power.

Creativity and subversion

The trick of managing difference is for groups both to look backwards to their diasporic histories and to look forwards to a creolizing future shared with other migrant groups and with long-established populations. Both hegemonic and imported cultures go through a fundamental process of transmutation as they interact. New social identities and practices arise that supersede the old ones in strength and sometimes also in esteem. Creolized cultural forms and identities embed themselves in many social practices in a variety of shared spaces.

In addition to being incomplete, shared spaces and intercultural exchanges are normally asymmetrical and hierarchical. Yet, using creolization as a framework allows us to see how, while born out of unequal encounters, they do not merely reproduce inequalities. Instead creolization shows how encounters may be creative, productive and often subversive of the dominant order. Beneath the appearance of impenetrability between ethnicities are the music we listen to (jazz, reggae, rock), the moves we make (samba, salsa), the invention of syncretic religions (Candomble, Shango), the food we eat (not just fusion food but the deployment of new ingredients) and many other creolized practices, from dub poetry, to capoeira and the mocking of politicians at carnivals.

Because creolization is diffused and hidden from the headlines we often miss that shared social and cultural practices can subvert power structures and relations. Creativity from below subtly but pervasively undermines the supposedly impermeable boundaries of race, culture and identity. This gives us hope that humanity can evolve a shared future.

Robin Cohen is Professor Emeritus of Development Studies and Senior Research Fellow at Kellogg College, University of Oxford. Before joinning Oxford in 2007 he was Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick for over two decades. He worked also in Nigeria and Trinidad, and was Dean of Humanities at the University of Cape Town (2001–3). He has published widely. His 31 authored or edited books include: The new helots: migrants in the international division of labour (1987, 1993, 2003), Frontiers of identity: the British and the others (1994), Global diasporas: an introduction (1997, rev. 2008), Global sociology (co-author, 2000, rev. 2007, rev. 2013), Migration and its enemies (2006) as well as Encountering difference (co-author, 2016).