Superdiversity seminars: Exploring superdiversity – A critical roundtable discussion

In advance of its Superdiversity School, University College Cork held a series of short seminars introducing and exploring the concept of superdiversity. This seminar series was led by the Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21) at UCC, in conjunction with Access UCC and the university’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Unit.

Virtual Place


Start: 28.02.2022


Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21) , Access UCC , EDI Unit

The first seminar (28th February 2022) aimed to generate discussion on the concept of superdiversity, exploring what it means, its potential usefulness and limitations, as well as its implications for our practices and how we think about diversity. This seminar was chaired by Dr Claire Edwards, a Lecturer at the School of Applied Social Studies and then Director of ISS21 at UCC.

The seminar featured two keynote speakers followed by a panel discussion comprising: Dr Avril Hutch, Director of UCC’s EDI Unit, Dr Naomi Masheti, Co-ordinator of the Cork Migrant Centre and Dr Denis Linehan, a Lecturer in UCC’s Department of Geography. The following case study provides an overview of the key points raised in this seminar and panel discussion.

What is superdiversity?

The first keynote speaker, Dr Claire Dorrity, a Lecturer in Social Policy at UCC’s School of Applied Social Studies, examined the origins, complexities and challenges of superdiversity, raising the question of ‘whether it is a done deal or do we proceed with caution’. Regarding its origins, the term superdiversity was first coined by anthropologist Professor Steven Vertovec in 2005 to describe changing patterns in British migration, in particular the new social complexities and increasing ‘complexification of diversity’. As Vertovec and Meissner (2015) further elaborated, superdiversity invokes a range of disciplines and can be used in one of three ways: in descriptive terms to describe changing and increasingly diverse population configurations; methodologically to rethink patterns of inequality, prejudice and segregation; and practically from a policy perspective, highlighting the need for policymakers and other stakeholders to recognise these new characteristics raised by concurrent global migration and population change.

In terms of its usefulness as a concept, Dr Dorrity highlighted that ‘superdiversity’ signifies the speed of change and diversification of migration challenge, but also points to the changing profile of cities, including their increasing socio-cultural and socio-economic diversification. She noted how preceding discussions on multiculturalism have already underlined changes in migration patterns and have contributed to the discourse on underrepresentation, oppression and equality; however, limitations in multiculturism provide important lessons. This includes conflating the distinction between multiculturalism as a ‘lived experience’ and as a ‘political process’, as noted by Malik (2014). Regarding Malik’s description of the ‘lived experience’ of multiculturism, Dr Dorrity noted similarities with the concept of superdiversity, including the idea of promoting a vibrant, inclusive, cosmopolitan society with mixed urban neighbourhoods and new imagined communities – where dialogue and spaces for participation are promoted. Conversely, when viewing multiculturism as a political project, Malik notes that it has been driven by a set of policies which aim to ‘manage’ diversity and which are focused on closed borders and minds, even blaming minorities for social problems.

Against this background, Dr Dorrity underlined the need for caution when framing and endorsing the term ‘superdiversity’, particularly in policy and practice settings. Citing Vertovec, she warns how ‘superdiversity’ and ‘diversity’ branding risk becoming conflated and that this is problematic. Similar to the distinction between multiculturism as a lived experience and as a political project, Vertovec underlines the importance of distinguishing between diversity as a political process and superdiversity as a tool to interrogate the reproduction of social stratification in these complex, ever-changing societies. This should include examining legal status and access to services, the tools people use to navigate these and focusing on how we can embed meaningful superdiverse practice.

In this context, Dr Dorrity highlighted how viewing superdiversity as a lived experience should be defended and expanded, helping to address the effects of international migration and social mobility and acting as an analytical tool and driver for more inclusive and representative migrant integration. However, she also underlined the need for caution. Superdiversity risks, for example, becoming a catch-all phrase that fails to interrogate inequality and exclusion. Such labelling does not take into account evolving social structures and hinders discussions on participation, representation, deliberation and political inclusion.

Notwithstanding such caveats, the superdiversity concept has real potential, Dr Dorrity acknowledged. For instance, it recognises more clearly the complex diversions of nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, age, gender, skills, mobility and human capital. It gives us more complex ways of being in the world and it seeks to question and analyse how these multi-variables reproduce social stratification, as Vertovec (2022) notes. It also shifts the focus from seeing ethnic diversity as exceptional to something more fluid and connected, for example, including issues of white ethnicity in the discussion. A further positive aspect is how superdiversity focuses on multiple axes of differentiation, which as Meissner (2015) outlines results in positively or ambivalently perceived social relations, incorporating multi-dimensionality or its interactions in the analysis of social differentiation.

Regarding the question of how we can ensure that superdiverse spaces are embedded in policy and practice, Dr Dorrity underlined the importance of political agency. She noted Steinhipler’s (2018) point that despite the unprecedented salience of migration since 2015, the political agency of migrants remains largely invisible. This lived experience of migration, she noted, must be incorporated into the discussion on policy implementation around superdiversity, including by promoting understanding on ‘transnational contentious spaces’ and by seeing superdiversity as a process.

Dr Dorrity concluded by stating that the benefits of superdiversity will depend on how it is understood and from what perspective organisations embrace superdiverse practice. Trying to solve new complex issues without understanding how migration processes are experienced will not work she added, and we cannot talk about superdiversity without representation from those who are affected. As a concept, superdiversity has real value Dr Dorrity concluded, but we need to ensure that as a political practice it does not repeat the failings of multiculturism. This will require addressing unexamined assumptions, which can in turn lead to lower cohesiveness, communication problems, labelling and stereotyping, and mistrust and tension, similar to the failures of multiculturalism.

Critical role of education in understanding and engaging superdiversity

The second keynote speaker, Dr Stephen O’Brien, a Lecturer in UCC’s School of Education, examined the critical role of education in understanding and engaging the concept of superdiversity and how we can learn together about the key principles and practices across the university space. Citing Vertovec (2019), he noted that superdiversity is not a theory, which means it is open to being theorised – that is, interrogating its underlying assumptions, values and beliefs. Moreover, while a surface reading of ‘superdiversity’ implies ‘lots of diversity’, he noted that Vertovec cautions against viewing superdiversity as a contextual issue only in the background, i.e. with little or no analysis of the superdiversity concept and how it can be operationalised.

A closer reading of Vertovec’s (2019) article indicates that superdiversity seeks to move beyond simplistic integration or a ‘politics of recognition’ of culturally diverse groups to a deeper ‘politics of representation’ or ‘politics of redistribution’ from a critical theory perspective. A key insight of Vertovec’s work, Dr O’Brien highlighted, is the idea of ‘intersectionality’, whereby difference embraces a whole range of policy areas such as housing, health and education, and diversity is something beyond ethnicity, encompassing multiple subjective experiences.

Within the field of education, Dr O’Brien posited that superdiversity has particular relevance to critical theory perspectives such as critical pedagogy, to which the principles of equality, equity, diversity and inclusion in education are central. Critical pedagogy posits that it is not enough to know more, it is also about being more and holding certain values that are central to the mission of education. Key concepts within critical theory of education include global citizenship education (GCE), which raises key questions such as how do we view ‘knowledge’ (e.g. as ‘handed down’ or revisable), how do we explain exclusionary effects/affects and propose alternative solutions for the betterment of society (i.e. root causes instead of ‘quick-fix’ solutions), and how do we extend knowledge and skills to critically engage values, attitudes and actions (e.g. who and what do we stand for) – both for others and ourselves.

The importance of ‘critical’ multicultural education was also highlighted, which similar to GCE values education as a human right and is concerned with how learning, knowledge and education can enable individuals and groups to overcome disadvantage and exclusion, and challenge inequality. Dr O’Brien underlined how superdiversity connects with such wider inclusion work and has the potential to nurture good community relations and more progressive policies in the university space. In terms of key questions from critical multicultural education that can be applied to support superdiversity in higher education, these include: how do we use democratic, participatory and creative learning methods (e.g. exploring diverse viewpoints and values, inclusively assessing, engaging with ‘contentious’ knowledge); how do we reflect individually and collectively (e.g. reflecting on where are ‘we’ coming from); and how are we preparing for ‘culturally responsive teaching’ (Gay, 2002) (e.g. designing culturally relevant curricula).

To finish, Dr O’Brien asked the question ‘what is a university’, citing famous educators from the past, such as John Henry Newman (1801-1890), Paulo Freire (1921-1997) and John Dewey (1859-1952). Newman for example spoke about the process of negotiation and engagement in education and the importance of co-constructive learning. Freire highlighted the risks of ‘narration sickness’ in education but also the transformative purpose of education and the importance of critical thinking. Dewey promoted the idea of cooperative living in the university and of learning spaces that could be physically reimagined like ‘laboratories’ or sites of open experimentation. Such thinking provides rich foundations for exploring how superdiversity can be enabled. However, Dr O’Brien noted that asking what the university is not is equally important – for instance, a university education should be deemed a process not a product. As part of this process, meaningful engagement with concepts and proper critiquing of our universities should be fostered and maintained, he concluded, to ensure that we allow for authentic debate in understanding and engaging with emerging concepts such as superdiversity.


The following is an overview of points raised in the panel discussion for this seminar.

Moving from tokenistic to meaningful engagement

Panellist Dr Avril Hutch began the discussion by asking how we can move away from the approach of ‘managing’ diversity. In response, Dr Dorrity cited the work of political theorist Iris Marion Young, who states that for democratic processes to be truly meaningful, four aspects should be present: political equality, where people are treated equally in that process; political inclusion, where everyone is included on an equal footing; accountability in that process; and public reasonableness, where you create spaces for deliberation among those with different perspectives and experiences. These four aspects should be present when seeking to address diversity in a meaningful way, ensuring that there are spaces for consultation and deliberation. If we are to talk about inclusion, those who are excluded need to be engaged as meaningful rather than tokenistic participants in that process. Dr Hutch agreed on the importance of meaningful engagement, adding that how we achieve that in reality can be quite challenging and that we need to look at ways to do this better.

Cork Migrant Centre’s Dr Naomi Masheti responded by noting the importance of examining power dynamics and inequalities in such processes – for example, what knowledge is valued, who is represented. She argued that we cannot talk about representation if people are not on an equal footing. Referring to her own work with migrants, Dr Masheti underlined the heterogeneity within the migrant community, which encompasses people with diverse experiences and circumstances. She highlighted the importance of working with migrant groups to understand their lived experience and to avoid tokenistic participation; moreover, finding ways to empower migrants who may lack a sense of identity and confidence owing to their experiences and sense of displacement is critical. Dr Dorrity echoed her comments, highlighting how underrepresented migrant groups need to be empowered to become actors in their own agency. She also cited positive examples of social activism, noting for instance the transformative work of youth groups within the Centre and how we need to look to such groups to help inform change in our policies and practices.

Diversity in the university

In response to the panel discussion, Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire, a Senior Lecturer in UCC's School of Applied Social Studien, raised the question of how a managerial university can engage with diverse populations in terms of its students and staff. She noted how the previous comments point to a need to view diverse populations almost as political partners in the process of governing a university, rather than as clients or a resource group for feeding information. Building a type of partnership or governance process that will enable such participation is key, she argued. Dr O’Brien added that we need to see such groups as teachers in their own right and underlined the importance of keeping grounded perspectives alive. He noted how in seeking to understand diverse groups’ lived experiences, this can help to shape how we engage with others.

Dr Naomi Masheti underlined the importance of critical engagement, of examining assumptions and almost ‘deconstructing’ the knowledges that we value and privilege. She referred to the many ‘silenced stories’ that we have yet to hear and how the university can create a safe space for those stories or narratives to be heard. There are opportunities, for example, within the parameters of individual courses to create spaces for such discussions and silent voices to be heard, she stated.

Reflecting on the earlier presentations, Dr Denis Linehan noted how there is still much work to be done across the university to take on board a ‘superdiverse’ perspective and to incorporate it into our practices. He outlined how the physical walls around the university, for him, signify a disconnect between the university and its surrounding community, the city and new migrant populations coming into the city – as well as a disconnect between migrant populations and the political process. However, he also conceded that change is possible, particularly in turbulent times, and that there are mechanisms we can focus on – for example, reflecting on which types of knowledge we prioritise over others and how knowledge can be reconfigured, as Dr Masheti outlined. Focusing on aspects such as actual teaching rooms, syllabuses, assessments, day-to-day interactions with students in our universities, and encouraging them to access new kinds of knowledge, are areas where we can enact change. Dr Linehan also noted the importance of recognising the multiple insights and huge array of knowledge that diverse groups can bring to the university and of finding mechanisms to facilitate participation of such groups in governing structures such as university boards.

Recognising the skills and strengths of migrants was noted as a key point by Dr Masheti. For example, the lack of language interpreters is an ongoing problem for services, and the diversity and expertise in languages among migrant groups, such as those in Direct Provision, could help to address this challenge. Mobilising resources within the university to help such processes is important: for example, establishing programmes in the School of Languages to help develop interpreter skillsets among migrants. Referring to best practices in other countries could also help to inform such programmes going forward.

Challenges and possibilities

While panellists recognised the challenges of addressing diversity and inclusion in the university and beyond, the importance of maintaining hope was also acknowledged. Dr Hutch highlighted, for instance, how the gates of the university represent for her entry points and access to the university. She also noted how initiatives such as UNIC provide an important opportunity to hear the perspectives of others, including experiences of living in Ireland as a migrant. Such conversations can help to inform areas such as policy change, data analysis and the university curriculum.

Dr Caitríona Ní Laoire noted the challenges of conceptualising superdiversity but also the benefits of such discussions in emphasising the importance of how we understand superdiversity and avoiding seeing it as a label or a simplistic description. A more helpful conceptualisation is to view superdiversity as a process or tool for approaching these issues in a more critical way.

The need for stories about the reality but also about possibilities was highlighted by Dr O’Brien, who noted the two works of Paulo Freire – Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Pedagogy of Hope. He pointed to the many positive initiatives underway in universities in the areas of access and equality, diversity and inclusion. These positive stories, narratives and exemplar case studies need to be captured, validated and even honoured at the power table, he stated, helping us to find new ways to reimagine things.

Dr Piaras MacEinri, a Lecturer in UCC's Department of Geography, pointed to the challenge of gatekeepers in every walk of life – in our universities, the NGO sector and even among migrant communities. He underlined the need to create structures that can enable a more meaningful involvement by everyone with an interest in diversity and inclusion. Noting the huge changes that are afoot, including the marked increase in students from diverse backgrounds that is likely to occur in the coming years, he emphasised the need to start building opportunities and structures now to facilitate such diversity so that all stakeholders feel empowered and included.

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