“It’s Alive!” Reports of multiculturalism’s death much exaggerated

Tariq Modood, Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy

Tariq Modood, Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy

In recent years there has been a backlash against multiculturalism in countries in which it was previously viewed positively.  For example, Prime Minister Cameron has stated 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.

Dr Nasar Meer, Reader in Social Sciences, Northumbria University

Dr Nasar Meer, Reader in Social Sciences, Northumbria University

This is surprising since 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 (to measure ethnic minority concentration in a given area) suggests a pattern of dispersal (away from family of origin). If we take an attitudinal indicator of integration, self-identification with Britain, we find ethnic minorities overwhelmingly 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, even while joined and challenged by other developments.

ZombieOur 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’. This is a ‘living dead’ category that is no longer ‘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.

There are at least two striking features of this discussion. One is that 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.

The second 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).

Our article challenges the treatment multiculturalism has received, exploring instead how post-war Commonwealth migrants, and subsequent British-born generations, have been recognised as requiring support to overcome distinctive barriers in their exercise of citizenship. 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.

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, rejected the idea of integration based upon a drive for unity through an uncompromising cultural ‘assimilation’. Not only have developments not been reversed by any, including the present government, but they have steadily been deepened and broadened.

It is regrettable that some contemporary defenses of diversity-related politics appear to work with an understanding of multiculturalism that is defined by its critics, or not sufficiently taken on its own terms, and so failing to sufficiently register the resilience of multiculturalism.   While multiculturalism may, then, be a zombie term, it is far from a zombie category.

‘Cosmopolitanism and integrationism: is British multiculturalism a ‘Zombie category’?’ is published in Identities. You can read a more developed version of this argument on the PSA blog.