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Social Issues With Multiculturalism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2530 words Published: 4th Oct 2017

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What are the main sociological issues raised by the idea of a multi-cultural society?

‘Multiculturalism is not about difference and identity per se but about those that are embedded in and sustained by culture’ (Parekh, 2000:2). Despite the fact that most countries today are culturally diverse, it would be impossible to discuss the main sociological issues raised by the idea of a multicultural society without explaining first, what is the meaning of culture itself? The most common definition of culture refers to a complex entity which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, customs and habits acquired by members of a society. Claire Alexander sees culture as a set of traditions and beliefs linked to ethnicity and common origins which led to the realisation that culture is not a fixed set of beliefs, but it is made and unmade in daily life. (1996)

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The query of multiculturalism is not a recent topic for debate since it has been present in the political life of European countries since 1945, year that does not only mark the Second World War but also the beginning of an era of concerns and changes. The main issues raised by this matter refer to immigration, delegation of power and growing numbers of political refugees and asylum seekers. Yet, further problems emerge concerning collective and political rights, liberal ideas, identity, and individual freedom. (Rex, 2003)

Furthermore, Kymlicka suggests that the diversity of cultures we are experiencing today has led to a conflict between majorities and minorities over matters such as language, autonomy, political representation, and national identity (1996). He also argues that this, mainly affects democracies:

‘attempts to create liberal democratic institutions are being undermined by violent nationalist conflicts; volatile disputes over the rights of immigrants, indigenous peoples, and other cultural minorities are throwing into question many of the assumptions which have governed political life for decades’ (1996: 2)

Until recently, multiculturalism was seen by politicians and monarchs as a positive trait of modern and nation-states. However, this perception changed due to ethnic conflicts within nations such as the ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia or the riots in the United Kingdom between Asians and native British citizens. In the past few years, many philosophers and social scientists have taken an interest into the idea of cultural diversity and tried to define the image of a liberal society, answer the question whether individual rights should be expanded to groups and solve the problem of recognition which appeared it implied the denial of individual rights in the first place. (Rex, 2003)

On this matter, Charles Taylor argues that in fact, recognition is an essential component of the concept of rights and individuals could be recognised as part of a group (1994). In order to expand his argument, he goes as far back as the collapse of social hierarchies and the ancient regime and states the common element that constitutes both a hierarchy and a democratic society. He claims that the ancient hierarchies were based on the notion of “honour” which even though it was a matter of choice, it defined the individuals of the society; the term we use today is “dignity”. On the other hand, Taylor states that recognition has acquired a different meaning with the new understanding of individual identity that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century. This new idea focused on the inner voice of the individual and on the concept of authenticity: ‘on the original view, the inner voice was important because it tells us what the right thing to do is; being in touch with our moral feelings matter here, as a means to the end of acting rightly’ (1994:28) He also argues that identity is necessarily collective and that cultural rights cannot be enjoyed by individuals alone because they are collective by nature. However, Taylor’s position collides with the liberal tradition which is based on the idea of individual freedom and the neutrality.

According to Henri Giordan, the pillar of the modern society is fighting for individual freedom rather than the traditional structures of societies. Thus, the progress of civilizations was reflected in the freedom of speech and press, liberty to gather political parties and vote, concepts which defined human rights that in Pareks` view: ‘represent a great historical achievement’ (2006: 17) Furthermore, he explains that:

‘for the first time in history (human rights) provide a universally accessible moral and political language in which to articulate our shared concerns and differences. In so doing it builds moral bonds between human beings in different parts of the world and helps create an awareness of our shared humanity.’ (2006:17)

Nonetheless, Parekh suggests that human rights should follow three conditions:

‘firstly, they should be integrally related to and indispensable for a life of dignity; secondly, they should be universal or rather universalizable in the dual sense that all human beings are entitled to claim them and that this claim extends to all societies; thirdly, human rights should be widely accepted as such by a cross-cultural consensus.’ (2006:25)

In order to sustain this point of view, Kymlicka states that minority rights are inseparable from human rights and mentions UNESCO:

‘the defence of cultural diversity is an ethical imperative inseparable from respect for human dignity. It implies a commitment to human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular the rights belonging to minorities and those of indigenous peoples. Cultural rights are an integral part of human rights, which are universal, indivisible and interdependent.’ (UNESCO, Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, 2001)

However, the rise of democracy was brutally interrupted by the First and Second World War. National identity became a threat for ideologies such as fascism and Nazism which led to a tragic outcome (Kym1icka, 1992). Some minorities were exterminated, either by expulsion or by genocide while other minorities were assimilated and force to adopt the language, customs and religion of the majority group and were denied political rights. It became evident at the end of the Second World War that a different approach to minorities’ rights was necessary and attempts were made to redistribute collective rights to individuals rather than granting special rights to members of a group. (Kymlicka, 1996)

Starting with the 1980s, a new dimension was given to minorities rights and Kymlicka suggests that ‘these changes have followed two tracks: there is one track for the specific case of “indigenous peoples”, and another track for “minorities” in general’ (2007:31) He goes on explaining that the rights that were exclusively given to indigenous peoples (the Indians and Inuit in Canada, Aboriginal in Australia, Indian tribes in the United States, the Maori of new Zealand) included land claims, language rights, customary law and representation in the central government:

‘this is a perception that is sometimes promoted by indigenous peoples themselves and their advocates, who assert that the status of indigenous peoples has nothing in common with the claims of “minorities”, and that the ideology of “indigenism” has no connection with more general theories of multiculturalism’ (2007: 34)

The latter track that Kymlicka explains refers to the distinction between “historic minorities” (that were traditionally settled in the country and included groups that were considered “indigenous peoples” and long-standing “national minorities”: the Scots and Welsh of Britain, the Catalans and Basques in Spain, Puerto Rico in United States) and the “migrants” (2007). In what immigration is concerned, it appears that the countries with a high density of migrants (Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States) have approached the problem of immigration through a process of assimilation with the hope that they will blend in with the native-born citizens. Solid evidence for the progress of minority rights was given by the European Union when they declared that the promotion of minority rights was the “ascension criteria” for the countries that wanted to join the Union (Kymlicka 2007)

Another topic that Kymlicka approaches in his theory refers to the distinction and the connection between “collective rights” and “individual rights”. He begins by explaining that there are two meanings of “collective rights”:

‘collective rights could refer to the right of a group to limit the liberty of its own individual members in the name of group solidarity or cultural purity (“internal restrictions”); or it could refer to the right of a group to limit the economic or political power exercised by the larger society over the group, to ensure that the resources and institutions on which the minority depends are not vulnerable to majority decisions (“external protections”)’ (1996: 36)

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The internal restrictions imply intra-group relations- the group may use the state power to limit the liberty of its own members which raised the question of individual oppression. As an example, Kymlicka refers to culture where women are oppressed or cultures were the religious orthodoxy is enforced. Moreover, he argues that some minorities would limit even further the rights of their members:

‘it is one thing to require people to do jury duty or to vote, and quite another to compel people to attend a particular church or to follow traditional gender roles. The former are intended to uphold liberal rights and democratic institutions, the latter restrict these rights in the name of cultural tradition or religious orthodoxy.’ (1996:36)

External protections imply inter-group relations- the ethnic/ national group seeks to preserve its distinction and identity by limiting the effect of the decisions taken by the majority group. Doing so, this also raises yet another issue: not of individual oppression but of inequality between groups.

However, Kymlicka makes it clear that ‘collective rights’ are indeed opposed to individual rights:

‘On one natural interpretation, ‘collective rights’ refer to the rights accorded to and exercised by collectivities, where these rights are distinct from, and perhaps conflicting with, the rights accorded to the individuals who compose the collectivity. This is not the only possible definition of collective rights—indeed there are hundreds of definitions in the literature—but almost everyone agrees that collective rights are, by definition, not individual rights.’ (1996: 45)

This matter led to a conflict of ideas between individualists and collectivists on the priority of individuals within a community or the community itself. It appears that individualists argue that the individuals are essential for a community seeing that a community only matters if it contributes to the well-being of its constituent members. On the other hand, collectivists deny the idea of a community that`s meant to attend to its individuals. (1996)

‘Collectivists and individualists disagree about whether communities can have rights or interests independently of their individual members (…). Most such rights are not about the primacy of communities over individuals. Rather, they are based upon the idea that justice between groups requires that the members of different groups be accorded different rights.’ (1996: 48)

Despite the fact that multiculturalism and immigration have always been present in our lives and are essential components of the modern world, it is still impossible to find the answers to the always-present sociological issues that a multicultural society rises. What triggers the majority of problems is immigration: with it, emerge matters concerning minority rights, individual freedom and identity, oppression, riots, protests for human rights, violence and racism. Economical and political issues, religion and race concerns, language and culture barriers are also consequences of this cultural diversity that we are experiencing today.

The topic looks as if it appealed to theoreticians and social scientists and it still remains an ever-present subject of discussion. It also led to conflicts of ideas between theoreticians such as Charles Taylor and Will Kymlicka, both Canadians but with opposing views. It is quite obvious that multiculturalism is now seen as a persistent problem, taking into account the changes that took place in the structures of societies. However, there is no doubt that immigration improved our knowledge of different cultures, languages, traditions and food; it had also thought communities to be tolerant and accept diversity even embrace it. Economy and trade between countries has developed and societies became “cosmopolitan”. Even thought, migrants have always been put in a bad light, they are not in fact, trying to deter natives. They have good working skills and are willing to work for low-paid jobs and extra hours. Usually, they do the jobs that the natives would not do and it appears that there are more immigrants than natives that have a permanent job. It seems unfair to argue that migrants do not help the economy of the country they live in seeing that they still pay taxes and have less claimed benefits than the unemployed natives. Moreover, due to the fact they have a low wage they can always be found in the rough area of big cities, living in modest and dangerous conditions. On the other hand, language it is definitely a cause of having low-paid jobs since most migrants do not speak the language, thus making it more difficult to find employment.

Another factor of immigration is religious discrimination. Considering the recent events in the United States, Arabs and Islamists in particular are discriminated and put in a bad light. Romanians and Bulgarians also have a bad reputation around Europe and a false image which may lead to cultural conflicts between migrants and natives. Somehow, it appears that the society makes it harder for migrants to obtain necessary documents in order to reside and work legally in the country. Until recently, Romanians and Bulgarians were bound to apply for a work permit in order to work legally in the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, attempts are being made to improve and solve these problems and it is quite obvious that many advantages have been gained from this. Moreover, it is evident that multiculturalism is the way forward and while modern societies need to become more tolerant of migrants and their values, the migrants have to accept the majority`s way of life and integrate in their community and nation. Unfortunately, these changes might not occur in the near future considering that minorities have more and more claims for rights and benefits and natives are becoming more and more reluctant to the controversial idea of multiculturalism, which seems to lead their lives.


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