I spent last Thursday at a workshop on ‘hybridity’ run by Rosa Freedman and Nicholas Lemay-Hebert at the Institute of Advanced Studies in the University of Birmingham. Along with a wide range of scholars from across the humanities and social sciences, I spent the day wondering about the meaning and utility of the concept. We started with a set of panels exploring the concept across a number of different contexts: migration, political science, law, literature and plenty of classics (Here are the slides from my presentation: FdLHYBRIDITY-1). Before going I was somewhat skeptical about hybridity. I must admit I retain a good deal of that skepticism, but I do think there are two potentially useful ways of thinking about hybridity that I explore below.
What is Hybridity?
A large part of the day was taken up with thinking about what hybridity is. A concept borrowed from the natural sciences (where it has a quite specific meaning in biological sciences), in a very broad sense the social sciences and humanities seem to think about hybridity as (i) the process of bringing together multiple things to make something new, and (ii) the product of that process. Underlying these two elements is the fundamental role of power in the context of hybridity: these processes seem to be concerned with and mechanisms of challenging power, and the product(s) may represent a new form(s) of power.
What is new about Hybridity?
I must admit that I emerged from the day still not very clear about this. Challenging power is as old as can be—indeed, as the perspectives from colleagues in the classics suggested—and involving multiple actors (who we sometimes call ‘stakeholders’) in processes of disaggregating and restructuring power is also not especially new either in theory or in practice. One need only thing of regulatory governance for a prescient example, although queer theory, feminism and transitional justice all provide plenty of intellectual content for the proposition that such processes are valuable and worth exploring. Neither is involving multiple stakeholders in processes of either research, social movement, or so-called ‘state building’ a new phenomenon; socio-legal scholars would tell you that they have been doing this for decades. And so, I continue to struggle with the novelty or ‘added value’ of hybridity from either an intellectual or methodological perspective.
Does this mean hybridity has nothing to offer?
I do not want to be overly pessimistic about hybridity after the day. I can see two ways, in particular, in which hybridity might have something to offer. The first is as a lens: it was clear from the day that for at least some scholars hybridity offers a way of ‘seeing’ and understanding social, political and legal processes and structures in a different way. The second is as a political pragmatic tool: to try to present arguments in a different way, a way that might develop more political purchase than has otherwise been achieved. A further potential benefit of a hybridity lens or approach is that it accepts the ‘messiness’ of political, social and legal phenomena and interactions in a way that some theories and disciplines struggle to do. Again, however, regulatory governance also offers this and does so in a way that seems somewhat more rigorous, but perhaps this is just because it is what I know?