Multiculturalism: A resilient category in Britainon 8 April 2014
Nasar Meer & Tariq Modood
In recent years there has been a prevailing backlash against multiculturalism in a number of countries in which it was previously viewed positively (as well, indeed, in countries it was never viewed positively let alone adopted). Britain has not been immune to this. For example, Prime Minister Cameron, since his time in opposition, has characterised British multiculturalism as a ‘barrier’ dividing British society. Subsequently, in office, he has argued that ‘the doctrine of ‘state multiculturalism’ has encouraged culturally different people to live apart from one another and apart from the mainstream’. Clearly the Prime Minister, with others, has understood multiculturalism and integration in mutually exclusive terms.
To some extent this is surprising given that prior and new evidence points to a very different reading. If we take residential settlement, as a behavioral example of minority integration, then the analysis of demographic distribution using the Index of Similarity (used to measure ethnic minority concentration in a given area) suggests a broad pattern of dispersal (settlement away from family of origin). If we take an attitudinal indicator of integration, self-identification with Britain, we find ethnic minorities overwhelming self identify as British (often in a hyphenated way). Indeed, our recent study, Cosmopolitanism and integrationism: is British multiculturalism a ‘Zombie category’?, argues while the appeal of ‘multiculturalism’ as a term has clearly declined, the category in Britain that multiculturalism denotes has been deepened and expanded, while joined and challenged by other developments.
Our study however is not restricted to national politicians or critics who are hostile to diversity. We also take in advocates of cosmopolitanism such as Ulrich Beck, who characterizes multiculturalism as a ‘zombie category’. As he puts it, ‘[z]ombie categories are ‘living dead’ categories which govern our thinking but are not really able to capture the contemporary milieu’. Beck’s claim is that the multiculturalism in theory and practice essentialises different components of culture and impedes individual autonomy. This is a common charge against the argument that multiculturalism is a valuable means of remaking of public identities in order to achieve an equality of citizenship that is neither merely individualistic nor premised on assimilation. It is a charge against multiculturalism that may be joined, as we have outlined elsewhere, by others which allege that multiculturalism has prevented minority integration by one of several means.
There are at least two striking features of this discussion. One concerns how un-reconstructed ideas of ‘integration’ have gained traction; especially that integration should proceed on the grounds of established configurations which minorities should seek to emulate if not assimilate into. That is to say that where minorities insist on retaining their difference they should not complain if they are viewed as outsiders. Sometimes this position limits the comprehensiveness of assimilation to the public sphere, allowing the retention of diversity at the level of the family and some parts of civil society. Some perceive this mode of integration – comprising at least partial assimilation – as presently ascendant, perhaps buoyed as a short-term panacea (and longer term prophylactic) to the sorts of societal disunity associated with alleged ethnic minority separatism in general, and Muslim alienation, estrangement (and perhaps violent radicalism) in particular.
Such normative prescriptions for integration as comprising full or partial assimilation have not gone unchallenged, however, and indeed until relatively recently were in some instances (but certainty not uniformly in Europe) viewed as less favourable than other modes of integration. This would include approaches deemed as multicultural which recognise that social life consists of individuals and groups, and that both need to be provided for in the formal and informal distribution of powers; not just in law, but in representation in the offices of the state, public committees, consultative exercises and access to public fora. This means that while individuals have rights, mediating institutions such as trade unions, churches, neighbourhoods, immigrant associations and so on may also be encouraged to be active public players and fora for political discussion (and may even have a formal representative or administrative role to play in the state).
The second striking feature is that the fate of Beckian-like cosmopolitanism has become tied to, or at least limited by, the very critique of multiculturalism it has advanced. This is because cosmopolitanists have vacated the competition over the content of national identities, allowing these to become less – not more – pluralist (either multicultural or cosmopolitan). More broadly, many of the central promises contained within ideas of post-national citizenship and post-war cosmopolitanism more broadly have not come to fruition, or at least are not obviously visible across a variety of citizenship regimes. This is particularly true of those accounts which saw as the future of citizenship in Europe a retention and administration of citizenship rights in cross-national human rights covenants, which would be materially supported by international law. Others, simultaneously, anticipated a diminution in the ‘particularistic’ content of political communities, such that the boundaries between nations, states, cultures or indeed societies, might become empirically porous and even morally irrelevant. Each of these positions has had to grapple with something of a trend in the valorisation of national identities in nation-state citizenship across Western Europe, something that may be characterised as a re-nationalisation of various citizenship regimes.
Our article challenges the treatment multiculturalism is conferred in Beck’s analysis. By this we refer to his discussion of multiculturalism as a concept that retains traction in popular and analytical discourse (whether positively or negatively), even though the lived reality to which it refers, allegedly, no longer exists. On the contrary. Multiculturalism in Britain has come to comprise an approach through which post-war migrants who arrived as Citizens of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, and subsequent British-born generations, have been recognised as ethnic and racial minorities requiring state support and differential treatment to overcome distinctive barriers in their exercise of citizenship. It includes how, under the remit of several Race Relations Acts (RRAs), the Commission for Racial Equality (later amalgamated into the Equality & Human Rights Commission) and the Equalities Act (2010), the state has sought to integrate minorities into the labour market and other key arenas of British society through a cumulative approach. Initially focused on ‘race’, under bottom-up pressure from the minorities themselves it came to extend to ethnicity and then to religion such that the legal protections against racial discrimination and incitement to hatred were made available against the religious discrimination and incitement to hatred by 2010. Moreover, in response to the emergence of Muslim identity politics the national and local governments accepted Muslim organisations as consultees and agents in governance in several policy domains, even though this at times jarred with a secularist political culture.
These are amongst the most obvious examples of British multiculturalism which, although lacking an official ‘Multicultural Act’ or ‘Charter’ in the way of Australia or Canada, which under Roy Jenkins’ leadership rejected the idea of integration based upon a drive for unity through an uncompromising cultural ‘assimilation’ over 40 years ago. Not only have developments not been reversed by any, including the present government, but they have steadily been deepened and broadened. Moreover, alongside this state-centred and national focus, there is also the role of urban protest and a tradition of what Stuart Hall characterised as ‘multicultural drift’ in which cities and parts of cities, popular culture, especially youth culture, were multi-ethnicised and civil society, including employers, churches, charities, public intellectuals and the liberal media (one thinks in particular of The Guardian and Channel 4 TV) sought to reflect the changes to British life and identities.
What we have tried to show is that the Beckian argument, no less than the prevalent anti-multiculturalism discourse, is a poor guide to empirical reality. Of course multiculturalism has been and continues to be challenged in a number of ways; our argument is not that the cluster of policies, discourses, norms and practices that might be grouped together as multiculturalism are hegemonic, but that rather that the persistence of successive announcements of the death of multiculturalism is a testimony to its continuing vitality. For a while scholars took the rhetorical failure or demise of multiculturalism at face value, but this is now being empirically rebutted by some of the latest sociological and political studies articles.
While multiculturalism may, then, be a zombie term, it is far from a zombie category. In this context, the cosmopolitan alternative envisaged by Beck faces its own political shortcomings and either way is analytically problematic. This discussion is not however restricted to Beck. It is regrettable that some contemporary defences of diversity-related politics appear to work with an understanding of multiculturalism that is defined by its critics and not sufficiently taken on its own terms with reference to multicultural scholarship or policy, and so do not, therefore, sufficiently register the resilience of multiculturalism.
Nasar Meer is a Reader and Chancellor's Fellow in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Strathclyde University. Tariq Modood is the founding Director of the University of Bristol's Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship. Their article, ‘Cosmopolitanism and integrationism: is British multiculturalism a ‘Zombie category’?’ is published in Identities, and is free to download here.
Image: Brendan Riley CC BY-SA 2.0