Challenging Multiculturalism: European Models of Diversity

By Raymond Taras | Go to book overview

Chapter Fifteen
Multiculturalism: Symptom, Cause or Solution?

Ulf Hedetoft


The conceptual paradox

‘Multiculturalism’ is a paradoxical notion, while ‘multicultural’ is not. The -ism part of the concept may connote ideology, policy or discourse, but in all cases it stands for an approach to a culturally diverse social reality informed by a normative objective to frame, control and steer developments in a particular direction. While ‘multicultural’ simply describes a state of affairs – a society composed of people representing different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and attachments – ‘multiculturalism’ more often than not is prescriptive or, when used by analysts, is meant to designate either a state committed to a social model viewing multiculturalism as in some way desirable or, more negatively, a state following worthwhile if objectionable motives.

This notion of multiculturalism is paradoxical (and hence difficult to handle in real terms), because it runs counter to the generic model and intellectual template on which nationalism is grounded. Empires are based on ideas and practices of diversity regimes and political models for managing geographically expansive units. Even post-imperial states in early-European modernity (following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) were routinely ‘multicultural’, ‘composite’ or ‘heterogeneous’ in one way or another; examples include Denmark, Italy, Germany, France and Britain. But the nation state was from its inception, as notably Ernest Gellner (1983) has memorably described it, based on the (political) ideal of congruity between culture, territory, ethnicity and politics, between state and nation, and between citizenship, identity, language and belonging. In other words, the nation state from earliest times rested on cultural homogeneity – monoculturalism – in spite of the indisputable fact that reality, then as well as now, is frequently typified by cultural diversity, majority-minority tensions, linguistic hierarchies, regional disparities and religious conflict.

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