Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes

Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic LandscapesIn August this year we published Jan Blommaert’s latest book Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes. Here, he tells us a little about the background to the book.

Where does a book such as Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes come from? Where does it have its roots? Such questions not only guided me while writing it – they were in actual fact the essence of the project.

Science is always partly autobiography: the curiosity we all have is not a random thing, it is directed towards issues and phenomena that confront us as living social beings. That is where curiosity becomes a pressing thing, that propels us into what we call research: we really, absolutely want – or need – to solve the riddles in front of us, just to remain socially competent within our own universes.

Jan Blommaert doing fieldwork in Statiestraat
Jan Blommaert doing fieldwork in Statiestraat

I became interested in what is now called superdiversity by being immersed in it. When I moved into my present neighborhood in inner-city Antwerp, Belgium, close to two decades ago, I adopted the shell of that neighborhood around my own, and my family’s, existence. I did not find much to worry about in my neighborhood: it was a rather typical ‘immigrant neighborhood’, not unlike others I had inhabited earlier in life elsewhere. Though marked by what is conventionally understood as ‘exotic’ or ‘foreign’ features – many neighbors were of Turkish origins, and their shops and businesses were distinctly ‘ethnic’ – the shell felt comfortable and familiar.

Jan Blommaert speaking on superdiversity, Antwerp, January 2013
Jan Blommaert speaking on superdiversity, Antwerp, January 2013

Becoming aware of its fundamental instability was, therefore, a gradual process, prompted by small issues and incidents: a familiar Turkish shop closing and being reopened shortly after by people from India; a seemingly endless sequence of different shopkeepers in the internet shops in the neighborhood; an Afghan Muslim nightshop suddenly specializing in Polish and Czech beers; an empty shop being reopened as an evangelical church run by Nigerians; a new assistant in my Moroccan barber shop who only spoke Arabic and watched Islamic channels on the TV – strange new faces and new languages around me, in a perpetual movement that never reached, so it seems, a balance and an order.

The problem, I emphasize, was never abstract or academic: it was always a real issue of change affecting me and the way in which I organized my life in the neighborhood. Every change in the neighborhood affected my routines, forced me to adjust my social and cultural radar system, so to speak. The Nigerian church, for instance, was rapidly joined by about a dozen other evangelical churches run by African and Latin-American people in my neighborhood; on Saturdays and Sundays, the influx of literally hundreds of faithful into the services of these churches caused, and causes, acute parking problems. When I use my car during weekends, consequently, I start worrying about parking space as soon as I leave my home.

Jan Blommaert talking to grassroots urban activists in Antwerp, spring 2013
Jan Blommaert talking to grassroots urban activists in Antwerp, spring 2013

Naturally, I’m not the only one affected by these changes – every small change affected and transformed the entire neighborhood. And that is where the book project emerged from: I wanted to understand this dynamic and find (one is an academic, okay?) a system in what looked like perpetual instability and unpredictability.

It is fair to say that I failed. Or at least, I failed in what I initially saw as my aim: I was trying to ‘stabilize’ the social processes in the neighborhood, so to speak. It took me several periods of frustration before I realized that the denial of instability was not going to work. I realized that I was like a painter trying to draw a model who can’t sit still – and who can’t make one drawing of ‘the’ position of that model. I realized that perpetual movement and complexity was the whole point, and that describing such dynamic complexity was the real challenge. The social system in the neighborhood never sits still, and it is pointless to pretend, analytically, that it does.

Those who read the book as a classic ‘description’ of my neighborhood must know that several of the pictures I used as illustrations no longer reflect what is there: shops have again changed hands and outlook, people have moved out and new people moved in, and the book is therefore not a Rough Guide to inner-city Antwerp. It is, I hope, a bit more than that: an analysis of a complex social system, always changing and never finished.

Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes is one of the smallest books I have ever written; it was also the book that took the longest to come into being: an entire decade was spent trying and retrying, before I finally began to understand my neighborhood – and through it, perhaps also my own social sphere of action and understanding, and ultimately myself.

Ethnographic FieldworkIf you found this interesting you might also like Jan’s book, Ethnographic Fieldwork.

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