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Both a descriptive and a political term, migrating back and forth between politics, journalism, and academic research, multiculturalism cannot easily be defined. However, by common consent it refers simultaneously to ethnically and culturally complex societies and to policies recognizing difference with the aim to achieve equity between the constituent groups of such societies. The relationship between anthropology and multiculturalism is close, but fraught by tension and frictions, since the conceptualization of cultural identities and boundaries presupposed in multiculturalism both emanates from anthropology and has been superseded by theoretical developments in the discipline. Approaches to multiculturalism in anthropology range from studies of indigenous struggles and school curricula in North America to everyday cosmopolitanism in Malaysia and xenophobia in Europe. As an empirical phenomenon it clearly exists, although it is increasingly being challenged; as an analytical concept it is highly debatable.
- History of Multiculturalism
- Anthropology’s Impact on Multiculturalism
- Anthropological Approaches to Multiculturalism
- Postcolonial Societies
- Multiculturalism and the New World
- Migrants in Europe
- Multiculturalism and Globalization
- The Challenge of Normativity
The extent to which historical and even prehistorical societies have been ethnically and culturally complex (and thus ‘multicultural’) has often been underestimated, but is now well known (Goodenough, 1976; Grillo, 1998). However, in the present context, the term multiculturalism is reserved for contemporary societies where discourses and policies relating to group-based cultural rights are pertinent. In the history of modernity, multiculturalism represents a departure from unilineal views of development, where persistent intrasocietal cultural diversity is acknowledged as a factor worth taking into account in politics.
Nevertheless, multiculturalism is not a simple term with a well-defined meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary, tracing its earliest appearance in English to an article about Switzerland published in 1957, defines it as “[t]he characteristics of a multicultural society; (also) the policy or process whereby the distinctive identities of the cultural groups within such a society are maintained or supported.” This definition can be a useful starting point, and it notably distinguishes between descriptive and normative aspects of multiculturalism. However, as a matter of fact, very different ‘multiculturalisms’ are being promoted, which is a main reason why critiques of multiculturalism, usually misleadingly, tend to associate it with either an exaggerated relativistic tolerance of foreign customs and beliefs or an uncritical support of any kind of immigration into the country in question, where immigrants are accorded many rights and few duties. In a review of the term, Stuart Hall (2000) mentions no less than six multiculturalisms: conservative, liberal, pluralist, commercial, corporate, and critical or ‘revolutionary’ multiculturalism. Each has its approach to the central problem in culturally complex societies, namely, how to reconcile diversity with social solidarity. At the extreme ends of the spectrum are assimilationism (everybody who lives in the same country should have essentially the same culture) and difference multiculturalism (a kind not mentioned by Hall, see Turner, 1993), which demands that society should not be based on one set of values, but should accommodate, recognize the equality of, and indeed celebrate a great variety of cultural values. Vertovec (1998) also distinguishes between eight kinds of multiculturalism, while Delanty (2003) has proposed a list of nine varieties. In practice, most theories of multicultural societies and most state policies concerned with ethnic and cultural diversity try, in different ways, to strike a balance between the extremes of assimilation and segregation. On the one hand, too great a diversity makes solidarity and democratic participation difficult to achieve. On the other hand, total cultural homogeneity is an impossible (and, to most, undesirable) goal to achieve even in ethnically homogenous societies; in any complex society, there will exist religious sects and sexual minorities, to mention only two of the most obvious examples, demanding their right, if possible, to be ‘equal but different.’
Seen as a set of policy principles or a political philosophy, multiculturalism is in other words not uniform but diverse, and it is shaped by the specific political, societal, and historical contexts in which it unfolds. One should thus, strictly speaking, talk of multiculturalisms in the plural, but for practical and didactical purposes, it appears reasonable to speak of it in an indefinite or definite singular sense, as the author has chosen to do in the present context. There is a widespread tendency in the literature on multiculturalism, both from its defenders and its opponents, to conflate distinctive social and cultural contexts, and not to distinguish properly between descriptive and prescriptive discourses. Yet, the idea that multiculturalism refers to a homogenous set of ideas and attitudes, is indefensible no matter.
History of Multiculturalism
Although multicultural societies are ancient, and cultural differences have been taken into account by rulers and political élites in many societies, multiculturalism as a coherent ideology is recent. As a tool of political governance, it was initially developed chiefly in Canada in the 1970s as a pragmatic response, influenced by both liberal and communitarian ideas, to rights claims from First Nations and burgeoning separatism among French-Canadians/Québecois, but it was soon applied to contexts involving immigrants as well. Other countries that began to experiment with multiculturalist policies at an early stage were the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. As a rule, countries with considerable ethnic and cultural diversities have more easily adopted multiculturalist policies than others (Banting et al., 2006), since pluralism is part of their political architecture. The strengthening of multiculturalist ideology in many countries, particularly in the 1980s, must also be understood in the context of the rejection of dogmatic versions of Marxism on the political left, which entailed a widespread rejection of class as the main category for analysis as well as political action. A central element in this rejection was the refutation of the view that every form of oppression could be understood on the background of class, and that it would automatically cease to exist in the classless society envisioned by Marxists as the end of history. The new left, which developed from the 1970s, was concerned with a variety of forms of oppression, mobilizing on the basis of different kinds of ‘politics of identity’ linked to demands of equity and right claims among, for example, indigenous people, regional and immigrant ethnic minorities, women, and homosexuals. With the adoption of multiculturalism, the political left made what could be characterized as a ‘cultural turn,’ which has contributed strongly to the ‘culturalization of politics,’ which, according to the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, has marked the last decades (Zizek, 2008). As a consequence, Zizek argues, culture, including religion, has become an increasingly important framework for the understanding of contemporary political and societal development, at the expense of class. Kenan Malik, for his part, describes British multiculturalism as a process that emerged from, and was rooted in, the political and bureaucratic elites (Malik, 2009: p. 41), and Joppke and Lukes (1999: p. 2) claim that only in exceptional cases have oppressed minority persons themselves been the central actors – although one may probably object that the relationship between multiculturalism ‘from above’ and ‘from below’ has been shifting and complex in most countries. Canadian philosophers such as Will Kymlicka (1995) and Charles Taylor (1994 ), who proposed intermediate positions or compromises between communitarian and liberal thought, were highly influential theorists in the refining of multiculturalist thought in the 1980s and 1990s.
By the early twenty-first century, departing from a situation where multiculturalism had a central, and in some cases decisive, part in the development of politics and law in the 1990s (Oomen, 2005: pp. 4–13), many countries reached a stage where multiculturalism increasingly was being placed under political pressure and subjected to criticism from various quarters, for contributing to the creation of ‘parallel societies’ and weakening the collective commitment to shared values and practices (Vertovec and Wessendorf, 2010). Joppke (2004) describes the situation as a total ‘retreat’ for multiculturalism as theory and policy in liberal states during the last decade. Banting et al. (2006: p. 5) also note that, the critique of and resistance toward multiculturalism formerly appeared to be the domain of the political and intellectual right, whereas it now increasingly appears on the political left, where there are deep concerns as to the effects of multiculturalist policies for socioeconomic equality, social cohesion, women’s rights, and the welfare state in contemporary liberal and secular states.
Anthropology’s Impact on Multiculturalism
‘Multicultural’ refers to the coexistence of ‘several cultures’ within a single society. The concept of culture presupposed in the composite term is the one developed in early to midtwentieth century cultural anthropology, but with roots in German Romantic thinking, according to which cultures were seen as ‘equal but different.’ Nintetenth-century anthropology had drawn upon an evolutionist concept of culture, enabling the ranking of cultures according to their achievements and level of development, whereas social and cultural anthropologists in the next century relied on cultural relativism as a methodological tool. According to this perspective, cultures cannot be ranked on an objective scale, since culturally neutral criteria for such an endeavor do not exist.
At the same time, the evolutionist and relativist perspectives on culture share the premise that human beings are fundamentally shaped by their cultures and that cultures are relatively uniform and bounded. Transposed onto a political canvas, such a conceptualization of culture may underpin nationalism (which it did in nineteenth-century Europe) or multiculturalism. In a context of group-based hierarchical domination, the same concept of culture may form the ideological justification for an ideology like apartheid, and as a matter of fact, anthropologists, notably Werner Eiselen at Stellenbosch University, were among the main intellectual architects of apartheid in South Africa.
The historical connection between the anthropological concept of culture and that of multiculturalist thinkers and policy makers has caused some friction, particularly during the period, since around 1980, when multiculturalism began to grow in significance as an ideological tendency in Western societies. At about the same time as it was being brought into widespread use in policy and politics, the classic concept of culture was increasingly being questioned and criticized within the discipline that made it, namely, anthropology. The criticism concerned the tendency of this concept to create the illusion of ‘a global archipelago of cultures’ – fixed, timeless, internally coherent – where there was in fact more ambiguity, process, fuzzy boundaries, and change. As a result, a refurbished, some would say poststructuralist, concept of culture (Clifford and Marcus, 1986 is the standard text) could now increasingly be used to criticize the simplifications and unwarranted reifications inherent in multiculturalist conceptualizations (Turner, 1993; Prato, 2009).
Anthropological Approaches to Multiculturalism
Anthropologists working in complex societies have increasingly been compelled to deal with questions pertaining to cultural rights and the politicization of diversity. Research on phenomena such as ethnic resource competition and civil war, cultural property rights, and general processes of exclusion and inclusion in complex societies, although pertaining to cultural diversity, are not considered here, since they are not directly relevant for multiculturalism narrowly defined as a kind of identity politics and/or ideology of governance aiming to achieve equity between culturally different groups without annihilating all cultural differences. This section, therefore, considers the main areas of concern to anthropologists working on multiculturalist issues.
Research on multiculturalism has an obvious precursor in the conceptualization and study of plural societies. Originally coined by the geographer Furnivall (1948), the typical plural society was ruled by a colonial empire and peopled by diverse groups, some indigenous, some migrants. The quintessential plural society in the writings of Furnivall, Kuper, and Smith was a plantation society under colonial rule, or at least founded under colonial circumstances, such as could be found in British Burma, Malaya, Natal, Jamaica, or Mauritius (Kuper and Smith, 1969, see also Smith, 1965).
Societal cohesion in the plural society was contingent on external force (the colonial power); the constituent groups had few political rights, and the colonial rulers saw few benefits (for them) in encouraging the growth of a shared national culture. Encounters across ethnic boundaries were limited and largely took place in the market.
Criticized for reifying ethnic boundaries and underestimating the extent of contact across boundaries, the plural society approach nevertheless had its obvious merits in describing a particular kind of colonial society. With decolonization and new demands for broad political participation and citizenship, the coercive colonial ideology was often replaced with democratic slogans and political systems depending on a shared national identity. Attempts to reconcile the existing ethnic pluralism and the vestiges of the colonial, ethnic division of labor, on the one hand, with shared public culture and nationalism on the other, were carried out in many of the erstwhile plural societies, and have been analyzed by anthropologists (see, for example, Nagata, 1979; Eriksen, 1998). The degree to which former plural societies satisfy the criteria of multiculturalism nevertheless varies. To begin with, some are less plural than others; Jamaica is divided by class and color, but to a much lesser extent by ethnicity; Indonesia and Malaysia, although plural in character and multicultural in name, are numerically and politically dominated by one group (the Javanese and the Malay, respectively); Fiji is divided between an indigenous group and an immigrant one (Indians); and so on. However, it has been argued that the original plural colonial societies were precocious experiments in multiculturalism well ahead of the civil rights movements and postwar identity politics of the West. In Mauritius, for example, the French planters were granted cultural rights (to retain their language and religion) by their British conquerors as early as 1810.
Multiculturalism and the New World
There has been considerable anthropological interest in the multiculturalisms of New World countries such as the United States, Canada, and Australia, where questions pertaining to national and cultural identities have long been contested and ambiguous due to the immigration histories of these countries. As pointed out by Hutchinson (1994), major national celebrations of independence anniversaries in Canada (1968), the United States (1976), and Australia (1988) were derailed and subsequently redefined due to massive protests against the Eurocentric and simplistic representations of the national identity first proposed. The growth of cultural rights demands in these societies, dominated by white settlers for centuries, eventually led to calls, sometimes successful, for affirmative action, protective measures to safeguard indigenous cultures, and restructuring of school and university curricula along multiculturalist lines.
In these societies, anthropologists have engaged with the turn toward multiculturalism in interesting and sometimes innovative ways. Notably, for many, working on multiculturalism has represented a rare opportunity to practice engaged anthropology at home. Typically, anthropologists have found themselves in advocacy roles when working with indigenous groups/First Nations or ethnic minorities, but have often taken a more critical stance toward multiculturalist trends in the educational system. Although generally supportive of efforts to make curricula less Eurocentric (and androcentric), anthropologists have often taken exception to tendencies toward essentialization.
Although usually sympathetic toward multiculturalist ideology to the extent that it confirms the antiethnocentric bias inherent in anthropology, anthropologists have rarely defended radical multiculturalist projects involving, for example, polygyny. At least in the North American/Australian context, anthropologists have tended to side with ‘critical multiculturalism’ aiming to achieve equality for all groups in a multiethnic state, but more rarely with ‘difference multiculturalism’ (Turner’s, 1993, concepts) where the ultimate goal is social, cultural, and moral separatism. It may be noted here that anthropologists in Brazil, a country with a comparable but in important respects different history, have moved in a different direction. Following the lead of Viveiros de Castro (1992) and others, contemporary Brazilian anthropology of cultural difference ‘at home’ tends to emphasize the continued existence of radical difference and speaks more of land rights than of reading lists.
Migrants in Europe
Owing to important historical differences, the anthropology of multiculturalism in Europe tends to have a different focus from that in the New World. Moreover, as correctly pointed out by Kymlicka (1995), the politics of identity among indigenous peoples is not simply replicated in immigrant groups, many of which represent very different interests from the indigenous movement. Demands for territorial and cultural autonomy have been crucial for most indigenous groups, whereas immigrants typically demand equal treatment and nondiscrimination. Within this ideological discourse, differential treatment (e.g., in the health service or educational system) should ultimately aim. However, especially since around 1990, many immigrant groups in the West, especially those of Muslim religion, have demanded recognition for their cultural specificities as well, and in some countries, issues to do with the language of instruction in schools are vigorously debated.
While it is generally acknowledged in the New World that those societies are historically immigrant societies, and that continued immigration – although it may be stemmed and limited – will take place, European societies are deeply divided over issues to do with immigration and the integration of immigrants. In fact, much of the current anthropological research on multiculturalism in Europe has racism, discrimination, and xenophobia as its main focus (e.g., Holmes, 2000; Bowen, 2007), and in addition, the ‘failed multiculturalism’ of Yugoslavia and the subsequent horrors of ‘ethnic cleansing’ has its own, somber literature (Bringa, 1995; Bowman, 2004). Indeed, the emerging polarization in European societies around migration and ethnic diversity, punctuated by a scattering of terrorist attacks from both militant Islamists and right-wing xenophobes in the 2000s, has led several political leaders to denounce the term multiculturalism. This denunciation has itself spawned an academic literature, notably Lentin and Titley (2011) and Vertovec and Wessendorf (2010), which asks about the causes and effects of the ‘crisis of multiculturalism.’ While Lentin and Titley focus mainly on the rise of antiimmigrant sentiment, Vertovec and Wessendorf explore the semantics of multiculturalism and the relationship between political rhetoric and media talk on the one hand, and practices on the other. They conclude that most multiculturalist policies continue in spite of the pessimistic turn, but increasingly under the epithet ‘diversity’ rather than the largely discredited term ‘multiculturalism.’
Multiculturalism and Globalization
A different approach to multiculturalism is offered by the literature on globalization. As pointed out repeatedly by anthropologists working in the field (Hannerz, 1996; Appadurai, 1996), globalization does not lead to uniformity, but to a reconfiguration of difference. The phenomenal growth in collective assertions of identity and claims to difference, which has been a worldwide trend since the latter decades of the twentieth century, must nevertheless be understood on the background of perceived challenges to cultural uniqueness and selfhood.
Assertions of cultural uniqueness as responses to encroaching homogenization may find expression in nationalism or collective withdrawal, but may also be expressed as celebrations of diversity and of ‘rainbow societies’ of various kinds. The latter kind of multiculturalism, with its focus on esthetic and commercial aspects rather than political ones, moreover has a ready market in the global tourism industry, where the demand for a sanitized and harmless ‘cultural otherness’ is on the rise (cf Comaroff and Comaroff, 2009).
As with the other forms of multiculturalism considered, the culture concept utilized here is reifying, limited, and selective. It presupposes an archipelago metaphor for the world of cultures – bounded, homogenous, and mostly unchanging – where a processual conceptualization emphasizing overlaps, change, and impurities would have been more descriptively appropriate. However, the standard anthropological response to this would not be to castigate multiculturalists of all kinds for using a dated and inadequate concept of culture, but to study how this static and reified culture concept is put to use – and how it gives existential meaning to people, is drawn into political struggles and converted into a marketable commodity.
The Challenge of Normativity
Much of the extant literature on multiculturalism, academic and nonacademic, has a clear normative slant. It is engaged in the sense of trying to make a political difference. Although this is also true of some of the anthropological contributions, explicit normativity is problematic from the perspective of methodological cultural relativism, where the noncommitted, neutral, comparative, and analytical gaze is privileged and seen as virtuous. As Turner points out in his seminal article about anthropology and multiculturalism:
Multiculturalism, unlike anthropology, is primarily a movement for change. To the extent that it has developed a theoretical analysis, it is primarily a conceptual framework for challenging the cultural hegemony of the dominant ethnic group (or the dominant class constituted almost exclusively by that ethnic group) Ö by calling for equal recognition of the cultural expressions of nonhegemonic groups within the educational system. (Turner, 1993: p. 412)
Writing about the implementation of multicultural curricula at Florida State University in the early 1990s, the anthropologists Paredes and Pohl (1995) describe their experience of the university politics involved. While their narrative confirms Turner’s general description, they add a dimension that is often missing from the literature on recognition and multiculturalism, namely, class and power. First of all, they point out that multiculturalism, as a political project, is not really about the pursuit of intercultural knowledge, but ‘about the political empowerment of historically subordinate segments of our own society or, more precisely, their admission into the ranks of the elite’ (Paredes and Pohl, 1995: p. 199, see also Gutmann, 1999). They later conclude that multiculturalism, as it is dealt with in the American academy, is an aspect of high culture, and has nothing to do with the totality of culture, and as such, it differs not only descriptively but also normatively from the project of anthropology, which entails taking all aspects of culture equally seriously to the extent that they are meaningful and important to the people in question.
While this delineation of multiculturalism is narrowly limited to certain discourses in North America, the general points about class and normativity have a broader relevance. And, as has been made clear, because of the misleading conceptualization of culture, many anthropologists who do have a normative commitment still have mixed feelings about the multiculturalist project. It has been described, with reference to multiculturalist state policies in Mauritius, as ‘apartheid with a friendly face’ (Eriksen, 1997) since a paradox of a multiculturalist ideology aiming to recognize all groups under the heading ‘unity in diversity,’ is the fact that persons who do not define themselves primarily as members of ethnic groups, have no legitimate place in society. Baumann (1999) addresses this and other ‘riddles’ of multiculturalism in a book that advocates, on the basis of long-term fieldwork in an ethnically complex suburb of London, a pragmatic solution whereby both nationalists, ethnicists and religious devotees can be recognized as equals. Baumann also addresses the question of the ‘cultural hybrids’ who do not fit easily into an ethnic or national category.
Especially in North America, but also elsewhere, the classic concept of culture has been used for what it was worth in domestic identity politics, leading in some cases to controversial policies of multiculturalism, where individuals were endowed with particular rights according to their ethnic membership. Critics point out that multiculturalism in some of its versions resemble apartheid and also that by positing a simple one-to-one relationship between ethnic identity and culture, it not only encourages a ‘disuniting of America’ (Schlesinger, 1998), but also contributes to reifying misleading notions of culture seen as homogeneity, like so many nationalisms writ small. It may seem that multiculturalism has grave shortcomings in two respects: it is descriptively inadequate and misleading; and normatively, it may be a recipe for divisive identity politics through its emphasis on group membership as the basis of identification.
In practice, the potential separatism and groupness implied in multiculturalism tends to be counterbalanced by individualism and overarching practices and ideas. Still, the conceptual and descriptive problems with multiculturalism have prompted anthropologists to refine their conceptual toolbox when describing ethnically complex societies.
One alternative concept, which is gaining currency in local administration and politics in some societies, is interculturalism (cf Asgarally, 2005 with reference to Mauritius). Instead of stressing boundaries, as multiculturalism does, this concept emphasizes connectedness and relatedness.
Another term is superdiversity. Noting that many cities across the world had become, in the early twenty-first century, diverse in new ways, Vertovec (2006) coined this term. His point was that mobility had made the ethnic maps of contemporary cities more unstable and volatile than previously; that temporary workers, students, tourists, asylum seekers, and various intermediate groups, plus the internal mobility within the cities, created a relatively unpatterned urban space that was less stable and regular than terms like ‘pluralism’ or ‘multiculturalism’ might imply.
Various conceptualizations of cultural hybridity and ambiguous identities are also posited against the implied essentialism of multiculturalism (Prato, 2009; Hesse, 2000), where impurities, mixing, and even individual idiosyncrasies are emphasized as opposed to the boundedness of the ‘many cultures’ of multiculturalism.
Finally, there may be sound arguments for replacing ‘multiculturalism’ with ‘diversity.’ The latter term is, of course, less specific than the former, but it may turn out to be both more adequate as a descriptive term and more versatile in political contexts, since it does not a priori assume that the social world consists primarily of named cultural groups, but avoids fixation and leaves the options open, to paraphrase Bauman (1996).
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