Sociology of Multiculturalism Research Paper

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Theories, interpretations of reality, and concepts of polity travel from continent to continent. One expression of ‘globalization’ is an increased readiness of observation and imitation of successful institutional inventions coming up in some part of the world or in some social system and being adopted in another context, be it in the sphere of politics, economics, science, education, or the arts. John W. Meyer and colleagues (Thomas et al. 1987, Meyer et al. 1992) analyse a ‘global diffusion’ of problem-solving strategies in various fields, a phenomenon that is more probable in the modern functionally differentiated society (Luhmann 1982) which is not fenced by national borders. The world seems to move towards the predicted ‘world society’ (Stichweh 2001) in which new ideas can be communicated rapidly supported by new technologies—sometimes by unexpected recipients and, now and then, with surprising results. One of these diffused concepts is ‘multiculturalism,’ which has spread throughout the Western world and lately has moved to Eastern and Central Europe.

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1. The Term ‘Multiculturalism’

Descriptions of society depend on their reference to ‘grand theories.’ Paradigmatic changes of such descriptions emerge out of a combination of social mobilization, the spirit of the times, scientific innovation, and/or of new political interests. That was true for the concept of ‘class society’ replacing the traditional notion of ‘social stratification,’ it is true for the opposed distinction of ‘functionally differentiated society,’ and it can be attributed to fashionable terms like ‘civil society,’ ‘postmodern society,’ ‘risk society,’ ‘information and knowledge society,’ ‘event society,’ and many other labels created frequently through the cooperation of the social sciences and the mass media. Each of them introduces a new semantics of self- description of modern society meant as an answer to perceived change or as a result of changed theoretical perception.

A change of reference also occurred with the term ‘multicultural society’ coined in the 1970s. Already in the 1980s the concept could look back to a formidable career in the public discourse. With very rare exceptions, there was no idea of ethnopluralism before that time in the anthropological literature. Consequently all categorial ingredients of this concept like ‘cultural pluralism,’ ‘cultural identity,’ and ‘cultural conflict,’ but also the main issue of ‘ethnicity,’ which has replaced ‘race,’ are scientific inventions no older than 100 years (Dittrich and Radtke 1990, Sollors 1989). They are used to describe or conjure new constellations of cultural diversity in nationally framed regional parts of the world society. In these cases various local, collective, or individual actors (social scientists, political philosophers and politicians, professional educators and majority minority speakers), start to describe the relations between social groups along an emphasized distinction of ethnically coded ‘cultures.’

Again, it can be left open if the reality has changed or if its construction has promoted the predicted changes causing interest groups to perceive each other in ethnic terms. Disregarding the controversies about ‘realism’ versus ‘nominalism’ and the relation of ‘observer’ and ‘reality’ (Searle 1995) one can state: ‘about’ with the phenomenon of the multicultural society is a new semantic of ‘multiculturalism’ as a mode of public communication about the reality of modern society using the distinction of ‘culture.’ Many such redefinition attempts conceptualizing society as a composition of ethnic communities can be empirically traced with regard to chronology and locality around the world. They are an object of sociological analysis.

2. The Occurrence Of Multiculturalism In Western Democracies

Campaigning for multiculturalism has had various causes and different initials. The distinction of cultures (in plural) is primarily used in more or less culturally homogeneous nation states who claim responsibility for a certain territory and the people living there, when they are challenged by desired or undesired mass immigration. Multiculturalism, then, is initiated to counteract the threat of disturbing and destabilizing the existing social order and under certain circumstances the racial ethnic stratification and the balance of power and influence, as well. Multiculturalism is either, presented as a governmental top down strategy in the sense of a social technology to manage ethnic conflict, to maintain social integration, and guarantee social peace by means of mass communication and education. Or in reverse, and in response to official multiculturalism, the concept occurs in such immigration situations as a bottom up strategy of ethnic community building and ethnic mobilization to prevent the loss of traditional privileges or fight anticipated or real discrimination.

Implementing multiculturalism as well as the chance of ethnic mobilization presupposes indispensable and established political pluralism with the formal guarantee of equal rights and equality of chances to all members of the state. Additionally there is a third motive, confronted with their own history of slavery and their suppression of the indigenous ‘first nation’ people, the former colonist societies, who are now constitutionally bound to human rights and the promise of social justice, pick up the strategy of managing diversity and fighting discrimination. With multiculturalism they seek to redeem their self-obligations by rounding off the political pluralism, which forms the basis of their constitutional self-image, with a cultural pluralism. The aim is to recognize the existence of previously neglected primordial ethnic bonds that, despite all prophecies, do not seem to be losing their power and thus have remained a permanent challenge to the national state and its policies.

Examples for these different versions of multiculturalism within democratic nation states can be drawn from North America, Australia, and Western Europe. After probably first being launched in 1971 in Canada as an explicit political program by the government, it then was imitated in Australia where the Australian Council on Population and Ethnic Affairs passed a document on ‘Multiculturalism for all Australians’ in 1982. In the USA, this phenomenon had a ant la letter already taken the form of an ‘ethnic revival’ movement during the early 1970s.

In Canada the origins of multiculturalism are strictly related to the Quebec question with the periodically renewed secession threat. To water down the Anglo-French confrontation and integrate the bilingual federation, a policy was passed declaring the conservation of cultural variety of all Canadians to be a duty of the state (see Breton 1986). The policy of recognition of cultural identity was then extended to all groups of immigrants as well to the marginalized indigenous peoples who suffer from racism and social exclusion.

In Australia multiculturalism was part of a governmental effort to restrain the traditional widespread and deep-rooted racism in the white majority population. In order to come to a settlement with the aborigine people and above all to facilitate economically inevitable non-white immigration from the surrounding Asian neighbor states, this program also raised ethnic variety to be a perpetual, legitimate characteristic of Australian society that should be protected and promoted by political means (see Castles 1996).

In the case of the USA, which is quite different from the other examples, multiculturalism started as the answer of white immigrants from southeast Europe to the equal rights movement of the black population until then excluded by racial apartheid and segregation. It was a ‘multiculturalism from below’ that was initially staged as a social mobilization by the ‘PIGS’ (Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Slovaks). The switch from a ‘black’ policy of equal legal rights to an originally ‘white’ campaign of multiculturalism was later also taken up by blacks and other minority groups as a mode of identity policy. Afterwards it became a battlefield in education and a new medium in the struggle for distribution equality (‘affirmative action’) covering, as well as ethnicity, also race, gender, and sexual orientation as distinction markers.

In all these cases the emerging positive perception of ethnic difference was accompanied and reinforced by the insight within the social sciences that the ‘melting pot’ was no longer an adequate description of the reality of the migration society (Glazer and Moynihan, 1963; Novak, 1972) and should be replaced by the notion of the ‘salad bowl’ focussing on the importance of primordial ethnic bonds and the evidence of ethnic community for social life and individual wellbeing. The recognition of ethnic identity became an issue in the public fields of education, health, and the media. This shift of self-description was received with open arms in northwestern Europe, too. It was first adopted in Great Britain which had become, during the transition process from Empire to Commonwealth of Nations, the goal of huge immigration flows from the Indian subcontinent, Africa, and the Caribbean. The claim for recognition of ethnic diversity and the acceptance of ethnic mobilization was welcomed as a new mode of dealing with social conflicts and unequality (Rex 1996). For some time multiculturalism had a particularly decisive influence on the discussions in the field of education. Here, ‘multicultural education’ could be interpreted as an attempt by the moral part of society to process the undeniable fact of racist discrimination and violence against immigrants.

The idea of multiculturalism simultaneously was embraced in the Netherlands (which traditionally describes itself as a ‘pillar society’ of different groups) as well as in some Scandinavian countries. In the context of highly developed welfare states multiculturalism is a new means to present oneself as an addressee of special aid whether in the field of labor, health, or education and also a new field for state activity to promote social equality and justice (Entzinger 1998, Ring 1998).

In West Germany (FRG), multiculturalism in the 1980s served as a field of symbolic policy. The government had tried stubbornly to deny that Germany has, ever since it existed, been an immigration country and refused to allow citizenship to more than seven million immigrants from southern Europe (‘guest worker’), to talk about a ‘multicultural reality’ that needed to be perceived and accepted as such was a benevolent attempt to initiate a change of policy towards political, social and cultural interpretation. In the end, multiculturalism turned out to be a compromise between the necessity of mobility immigration and the desire for ethnic homogeneity which ended up in ‘intercultural education’ for all with a revision of school curricula and textbooks (Radtke 1994).

The purpose of this short retrospective sketch of the origins and variations of multiculturalism, which could also cover the specific reasons for its non- reception in southern Europe and France, is merely to demonstrate how the concept fundamentally changes its meaning within each historically and politically shaped national context. There is no unified concept of multiculturalism which has developed a set of approved and coherent principles for the management of ethnic conflicts but there are different local adaptations and instrumentalizations which react to local needs.

3. The Short Cult Of Multiculturalism And Its Linkage With ‘Postmodernism’ In The USA

Multiculturalism, which had so far mostly been restricted to the discussion of ethnic traditionalism, ethnic community building, curriculum revisions, lessons in native languages, head-start courses, or cookery and dance groups, during the 1990s allied itself surreptitiously with the fashionable discourse on postmodernism (Giroux 1993). According to Ihab Hassan, postmodernism at that time influenced the public discussion like a ‘mysterious, if ubiquitous ingredient—like raspberry vinegar, which instantly turns any recipe into nou elle cuisine’ (Hassan 1986, p. 508). This is exactly what happened to multiculturalism when it was presented with a postmodern ‘dressing’ as the proposed pattern for the society of the new century.

The collapse in the ideologies of the new left, following the fall of the socialist idea as a real utopia after the end of the cold war in 1989, was pushing leftist intellectuals into the arms of the liberalism and pluralism that they had previously criticized so strongly. They seem to have found these palatable in the fashionable form of postmodern relativism. Impressed by the experience of the leveling out and homogenization of both life and thought, the postmodern discourse for a short period has said goodbye to all forms of universalism, totalization, and unity, and welcomed with a somewhat heavy heart particularity, fragmentation, and variety. Postmodernists admired the increasing plurality in the world with the accompanying autonomy of language games and communities with shared interpretations or meanings with cultural traditions of equal value.

The shift toward postmodernism was motivated by the theoretical vacuum that arose with the disintegration of socialism. However, left-wing thought is moralistic, whereas postmodernism offers only an aesthetic criticism. The gap for a few moments was closed by multiculturalism, for it is there that the idea of (cultural) variety can be linked to the highly moral aspiration to protect (ethnic) minorities and their right to self-expression. The element of solidarity that can be rescued by transferring it into a multicultural rhetoric makes it attractive for moralists even when they have to realize that they are aligning themselves with neo-conservative ideologies emerging with the concept of ‘communitarism.’

4. Theoretical And Political Controversies On Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism in its theoretically most advanced version was elaborated in disintegrating Canada. Based on ethics and the normative ideas of human rights and the right of self-determination of the individual, political philosophers like Taylor (1992) and Kymlicka (1989, 1995) try to deduce collective cultural rights from the individual right of recognition and identity which is said to be realized only with respect to one’s own culture. Both Taylor and Kymlicka, trying to reconcile liberalism and communitarism, link their sense of ethnic embeddedness of the individual in ‘rich cultural structures’ with the idea of political pluralism and a regime of tolerance and acceptance (Walzer 1997). The ongoing controversy again follows the mentioned lines of constructivism versus realism.

Critics of Taylor and Kymlicka (collected in Gutman 1992), among them Habermas and Walzer, have argued that even though liberal multiculturalism with its postmodern overtones joins political pluralism in opposing any form of totalitarianism, now identified as ethnocentrism, it cannot avoid the reification and essentialization of culture and identity. Liberal multi culturalism, too, translates the concept of a plurality of interests into a plurality of cultural and ethnic origins. For the empty space between the state and the individual, it does not offer an autonomous group organized to lobby for limited (economic, political, social) interests, but proposes that this function be taken by the posited community of those who consider that they share some fixed values and at the same time common characteristics such as religion, language, history, or origins. These primordial features are highly attractive and have enormous suggestive and deterministic power. This is especially true in the modern functionally differentiated society where the individual has no secure and firm position but is involved only temporarily with parts of the person in several social systems simultaneously. But ethic distinctions make the resolution of regular social conflict rather unlikely. Once one has identified with one’s own culture, one cannot compromise or simply walk away from it in the same way that one can resign from a trade union or an action group organized to oppose the construction of a highway.

This results in two systematic difficulties for any amalgamation of political pluralism with cultural pluralism: ethnic communities cannot function as pouvoirs intermediares in the sense of Montesquieu. They are not able to guarantee the minimal democratic consensus that is indispensable in pluralistically constituted societies in order to safeguard the procedural rules used in the process of balancing interests. The organizational principle of such communities is exclusiveness. As far as issues of cultural identity, religious norms, or even ethnic origins are concerned, there are no compromises. Differences become irreconcilable.

Even if there is a strong individual need for community building and social integration, multiculturalism is a regressive proposal for dealing with the problems of modern society. It is regressive in the psychoanalytical sense of going back to an earlier stage of psychogenetic development that recreates the basic triad of native child of a country, fatherland, and mothertongue. And it is regressive in the historical sense in that it maintains a political pattern of differentiation that first arose during the making of the nation state in the nineteenth century, which is, in a functionally differentiated and globalized society paradoxically up to and out of date simultaneously.

Schlesinger (1991) has pointed to the costs of multiculturalism for liberal democracies. In those states in which the program of multiculturalism has been raised to official policy, there have been few notable positive effects but very clear side effects. Controversial debates on alarming trends are reported from the USA in the 1990s. At universities and colleges, where the citizen’s rights movements once arose, an ethnic and racial separatism could be observed that covered not only student life on campus, but was also increasingly expanding into teaching. One pursued ‘ethnic studies,’ returns to seating arrangements according to ‘ethnics’ or ‘race,’ and so forth—not just in the dining hall, but also in seminars and in the library. Whereas the efforts toward ‘multiculturalism’ were expected to lead to ethnic harmony, one actually finds a disuniting (self-imposed) segregation and a growing, malignant racism advanced with the pathos of self-determination, identity, and emancipation (see Aufderheide 1992).

This trend is the consequence of the ambivalence of particularism and universalism written into multiculturalism. In particular, multiculturalism tries to legitimize the role of ethnic borders as a form of exercising rights of cultural self-determination. Through this, it revitalizes patterns of differentiation that have to fill the gap in the functionally differentiated society. They therefore have not lost their subjective attractiveness. By dressing them with science, upgrading them to analytical categories, and making them politically acceptable, politicians and social scientists construct a ‘multicultural society’ that establishes itself as a social reality to the extent that the participants in the social process direct their practices toward this orientation.

5. Export Of Multiculturalism To Eastern And Central Europe

Albeit the ‘ethnic’ and ‘race’ relations in none of the Western liberal democracies are in an exemplary status, the concept of multiculturalism is attentively observed in so-called transforming societies in Eastern and Central Europe, and is also offered as a model of problem solving by international organizations (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, United Nations, UN, Kosovo Force, KFOR) and Western foundations sponsoring conferences and publications. Whenever ethnically defined nation building by previously oppressed national minorities takes place, this is the hour of birth of new ethnic minorities along language or religion lines. The status of these new groups may rapidly become critical. Multiculturalism is introduced to the successor nations of the former Soviet Union (especially the Baltic States and in the Caucasus) and in former Yugoslavia (especially Bosnia and Kosovo) with the aim to contribute to the pacification of ethnic conflicts arising in the aftermath of the eroding Empires or Unions being replaced by new ethnic nation states. Even if the intention is not to propose the trans- plantation of institutions and policies from West to East (Kymlicka 2000), multiculturalism in fact is meant and received as an ideological instrument to implement the founding principles of Western political pluralism: moderate coercion to promote national identity, which is reduced to few principles of political culture laid down in the constitution; strict division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ spheres; freedom of ethnic mobilization and community building; full citizenship for all ethnic groups with a low threshold of access; intercultural openness; commitment to the recognition of differences of all kind. These principles represent the program of Western pluralism only but not the reality of interethnic relations or even the state of conflict management in these countries. In addition, the probability is rather low that they will work in a climate just after a long-lasting period of totalitarian suppression or civil war. Nevertheless, they seem to be without any alternative as long as ethnically defined nation states freed ethnic minorities.


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