Katrin Renschler

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Assoc. PhD Student

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PhD Project

Challenges of Diversity: Practices of Conviviality in Northeast India

In recent years, violent conflicts over “ethnic homelands” have attracted the attention of policy-makers and academia in India and all around the globe. Among the principal characteristics of the increasingly fierce battle over land, resources and livelihood opportunities is the widening gap between the so-called “indigenous” populations and more or less consolidated migrant communities. The corresponding discourse firmly revolves around the conflictive (re-)construction of ethnic and cultural boundaries, revealed and asserted in the presently extremely divisive politics of identity and belonging. However, not only conflict, but also new arrangements of living together are a distinguishing feature of the increased mobility in the region and beyond.
Instead of reinforcing the prominent dichotomization between insiders and outsiders, frequently portrayed as a dispute between “sons of the soil” and unduly immigrants, the PhD-project proposes a fundamental shift of perspective: Looking beyond existing processes of ethnic boundary-making and arising social cleavages, the focus lies with the equally present capacity to live together with difference. Though hardly ever acknowledged in current research, this very notion of conviviality can be observed frequently both in the growing urban centers and the rural areas of India’s Northeast. Given the increasing diversity in these settings, where ever more people from different social, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds meet and interact with one another, the research aims at analyzing corresponding processes of inclusion and exclusion, and figuring out the ways in which boundaries are blurred.
Drawing on extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Northeast India, particularly in Meghalaya’s state capital Shillong, the project explores the modalities and conditions of coexistence in three specific fields: At the university campus, in the widely spread bazaars and in selected urban neighborhoods. Through the lens of an actor-oriented approach, representations and configurations in everyday interaction will be scrutinized: How do people constructively manage their social relations within the context of extreme diversity? What kind of strategies are developed to negotiate sameness vs. difference? Under which conditions do people cooperate resp. come into conflict with one another? Along which lines are networks of solidarity maintained or newly established? By making conviviality a key concept of investigation, the proposed approach overcomes the traditional dichotomy of clashing cultural entities and “their” territories, and rather highlights the highly dynamic social figurations in increasingly pluralistic and multi-ethnic societies. In doing so, the PhD-project seeks to provide an empirically grounded contribution for a better understanding of the structuration of society in general, and of processes of social cohesion (Vergesellschaftung) in settings of extreme diversity in particular.

Supervisor: Prof. Dr. Eva Gerharz