Diversity Day: "Racism is not the same everywhere and at all times".

2022-05-31 Prof. Dr. Serhat Karakayalı would like to contribute to moving away from a rigid concept of racism. That would be good for the socio-political debate. The professor for Migration and Mobility at the Faculty of Cultural Studies in an interview.

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"Racism is not the same everywhere and at all times, but emerges from social power relations and these are not rigid structures", Prof. Karakayalı said.
Your research interests include migration and mobility research, racism research, racism theory, solidarity and diversity. What was your path to these research topics?
During my studies, I was actually more concerned with topics such as regulation theory or "insurance as social technology". I then came to migration research via the study of social compromises. Since the end of the 19th century, there has been this connection according to which social cohesion in Europe is thought to be inversely proportional to immigration. But this does not lead to complete isolation, because migrants are needed. This compromise cannot or will not be extended to the whole world of work. What is special about this situation is that now those who do the lowest paid jobs are increasingly people whose marginal position can be justified in a completely different way, for example by interpreting these differences as cultural. The issue of solidarity came into play when it became clear to me that such arrangements are crisis-prone. But the decisive factor for the outcome of such crises is whether those who have been disadvantaged succeed in making their struggle the cause of other groups as well.
Is this also the subject of your latest research project on diversity in organisations?
In a way, yes. We compare large civil society organisations on how they deal with migration-related diversity. These organisations have emerged from social movements and their organisational identity is shaped by a fundamental claim to equality. What particularly interested me was: How do migrant actors argue when they appeal to the solidarity of others? Under what conditions do they succeed in gaining support for their demands for equal representation? Unfortunately, there is no clear answer to this question. But what is noticeable is that accusations of racism are taken seriously more often today, which probably has to do with the fact that the concept of racism now has a certain resonance in the public.
Does this also have consequences for the academic debate on racism in Germany? 
There had been colleagues who had worked with the concept of racism for some time and had brought the international debate to Germany. But in the mainstream of research, the term didn't stand a chance - unless it was about South Africa or the USA. This narrow focus basically prevented us from empirically saturating the concept of racism - instead, concepts from the USA and Great Britain were seamlessly transferred to Germany. Racism is not the same everywhere and at all times, but emerges from social power relations and these are not rigid structures.
What is your approach to researching racism?
A lot of research on racism goes like this: you take a common definition and then you investigate people - alone or in groups - but also texts, images and other artefacts to see whether and to what extent they are "racist". That is certainly necessary, but from my point of view, it is much more exciting to confront the epistemic fuzziness of the term. That "races" or their counterparts, "cultures", are socially constructed is too often brought up as a solution and answer, but this is where it starts to get exciting, because almost everything is socially constructed, but not in the same way, but with very different modalities. Some social facts appear as second nature, while others are transparent to all as conventions. Conventional definitions of racism are usually interested in a section of this continuum (or claim that everything is the same), but I am interested in the transitions between these different aggregate states. What processes lead to changes or metamorphoses? This seems to me to be an essential prerequisite for understanding why there are temporal and geographical differences in the first place. Why does one group become the object of processes of racialisation in one country and a completely different group in another? What complicates the whole thing even more is that people resist such racialisations and their consequences. These resistances dynamise processes of racialisation and in turn contribute to the fact that racism is always changing. So, I want to contribute to moving away from a rigid concept of racism towards a dynamic one in which racism is permeated by conflicts. That would also be good for the socio-political debate. 
Thank you very much for the interview!

On 31st May 2022 at 5 p.m., the lecture "The metamorphoses of the concept of racism - and related challenges of a research field" will take place in C40.606 as part of this year's Diversity Day. The concept of racism has been reinterpreted and reworked several times. The lecture by Prof. Dr. Serhat Karakayalı will take such conflicts of interpretation about the scope and basic theoretical assumption of the concept of racism as a starting point for an analysis of social negotiation processes. One of the questions to be addressed is why the term was so resisted in the sciences, especially in Germany, where racism was state doctrine during the National Socialist regime, or how the term came to rise internationally from the 1960s onwards. Against the background of such historical reconstructions, current controversies surrounding the term are classified.


  • Prof. Dr. Serhat Karakayali