Multiculturalism, Group Rights, and the Adoption Conundrum

By Hearst, Alice | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

Multiculturalism, Group Rights, and the Adoption Conundrum


Hearst, Alice, Law & Society Review


Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular.- Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 240 pages. $65.00 cloth; $18.95 paper.

Bikhu Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory. New York: Palgrave, 2000. xii + 344 pages. $45.00 cloth; $19.95 paper.

I.

In a volume focused on adoption it may seem odd to be reviewing books that make no explicit mention of children, much less adoption. The books discussed here, Will Kymlicka's (2001) Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship, and Bikhu Parekh's (2000) Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory, are recent additions to the debate over multiculturalism. Growing out of both communitarian and post-colonial critiques of liberalism over the past 30 years, this debate has developed a number of distinct strands. For purposes here, however, it may be characterized as a discussion around the broad issue of whether and to what extent cultural groups may demand legal recognition, protection, and accommodation for what might be loosely termed "cultural rights." The debate has gained prominence in the past two decades as aboriginal groups and a number of disadvantaged cultural minorities have worked to secure recognition and respect for cultural identities and cultural practices in both domestic and international human rights arenas.

Every contemporary nation-state is grappling with the problem of creating stability in plural societies. Each must come to terms with the need to create conditions under which diverse groups can participate and flourish while ensuring that the whole has sufficient unity and commonality to endure as a social and political unit. With this end in mind, both Kymlicka and Parekh seek to develop a political theory of multiculturalism that envisions a politics attentive to the fact of cultural difference. Both are centrally concerned with the capacity of modern nationstates to move from assimilationist to more genuinely plural and inclusive practices.

Kynlicka approaches the issue as a liberal; his book is chiefly concerned with convincing his (largely liberal) critics that recognizing group rights and group identities is not only consistent with, but furthers, such primary liberal values as individual autonomy, and that this liberal multicultural framework enhances democratic practices in general. Parekh, on the other hand, worries that an expressly liberal theory cannot be genuinely multicultural because it will always devalue nonliberal cultures. His effort, therefore, is to introduce a dialogic model of multiculturalism that will protect the integrity and existence of both liberal and nonliberal cultural groups within a given national community. Both books, in essence, argue for reconstructing nation-states along looser, less culturally homogeneous axes.

Focused as the books are on the meta-questions of nationbuilding, this debate may appear to have little bearing on issues arising out of regulating the family, particularly adoption. However, in the multiculturalism debate writ large, children, although rarely acknowledged, figure prominently. Many of the rights sought are critically tied to children, to whom distinct ways of seeing, speaking, and belonging must be passed if a cultural group is to maintain its integrity and cohesion. For many disadvantaged groups, the task is not only to protect a set of existing cultural understandings but also to revive cultural understandings that have been displaced or obliterated by dominant cultures. In addition, for groups whose members have been scattered and (more or less) assimilated into a dominant culture, there may be a strong imperative to gather the diaspora of a community.

The questions surrounding the recognition of cultural identity and securing that identity with legally cognizable rights are thus grounded in more fundamental questions about how the boundaries of individual and communal belonging are imagined in theory and effected in law and public policy. …

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