A deference to difference

Pluralism and the Politics of Difference
February 19, 1999

   Cultural plurality has been a feature of almost all post-tribal societies. In this well-researched and well-argued book, Ralph Grillo discusses how different societies have found their own ways of coping with the phenomenon.

Grillo divides all societies into three types. In premodern or patrimonial societies rulers took no interest in the ethnic identity and cultural values of their subjects, concerned only with whether they paid their taxes and conducted themselves in an orderly manner. Modern industrial societies represent the opposite style of governance. Compelled by economic, political and cultural considerations, they seek to homogenise their subjects by building up a common and uniform identity among them, and establish the institution of the nation state based on ethnic or civic nationalism. Owing to the emergence of an intensely self-conscious and assertive cultural diversity brought about by factors such as regional movements and postwar migration, the three-centuries-old nation state is in crisis, and we need to find yet another way of reconciling the demands of unity and difference.

Grillo identifies three responses to this predicament. Institutional pluralism advocates recognition of ethnic diversity and favours a society made up of relatively autonomous and self-contained communities - a nation of nations. Multicultural pluralists are more moderate and prefer retention of cultural identities within a thinly or thickly shared body of common values. The third response celebrates hybridity, advocating a society in which self-determining individuals delight in differences, exploit the space left by their decentred selves and freely reconstruct their fluid identities.

Grillo skilfully criticises all three responses. Institutional pluralism involves separatism and ghettoised society. Multiculturalism forces individuals to define themselves in terms of their inherited membership of narrow groups and is subject to state manipulation of cultural identities. Cultural hybridity is an elitist preoccupation confined largely to exiles and émigrés who delight in their marginality and parasitically depend on a society they can neither create nor sustain.

Grillo is uncertain as to what direction modern societies should take, and tentatively suggests that some form of non-essentialist and egalitarian multiculturalism that integrates minorities and respects their identities might be the best hope. The concept of cultural equality is complex and not discussed, so it is not clear what Grillo means by egalitarian multiculturalism. Since cultural laissez-faire cannot ensure such a multiculturalism, the latter requires a culturally committed and interventionist state. Grillo neither examines this as a realistic prospect nor outlines the kind of theory of the state it requires. It is not clear either how such a society can develop a shared sense of belonging and common citizenship creating unity out of plurality.

Bhikhu Parekh is professor of political theory, University of Hull.


Pluralism and the Politics of Difference

Author - Ralph Grillo
ISBN - 0 19 829426 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 2

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