Splitting the difference

The Rights of Minority Cultures - The Politics of Presence - Multicultural Citizenship
May 10, 1996

Political theorists have traditionally had little to say about such issues as multiculturalism and the rights of minorities to cultural autonomy and political representation. Yet it is no exaggeration to say that in recent years political theorists of various hues have become preoccupied by the need to develop a better understanding of such issues. Whether it be culture, race, ethnicity, gender or language that is seen as the basis of claims to difference we have seen a growing number of texts from political theorists who in one way or another address the question of the challenge that notions such as "rights of minorities and multiculturalism" pose to liberal democratic institutions. Indeed in societies such as the United States and Canada these issues are some of the most hotly contested topics both in public and academic discussion. This has led to an opening up of debate about the role of specific constructions of difference in placing certain claims to political and social empowerment on the agenda and in challenging traditional liberal conceptions of democracy.

One of the main voices in all these debates has been the Canadian political theorist Will Kymlicka. He has concerned himself over the years with various aspects of how contemporary liberal theory tackles such issues as the rights of indigenous groups and minorities, language rights and the balance between individual and collective rights. While many of his arguments have become widely debated in political theory his views remain relatively unexplored within the broader social science literature on minorities and on cultural difference. Multicultural Citizenship is a sustained attempt by Kymlicka to go beyond what he sees as the neglect of multiculturalism within contemporary liberal theory. His key argument is that it is perfectly reasonable for liberals to endorse certain group-differentiated rights for ethnic groups and racial minorities. This endorsement is highly qualified and it is not that difficult to see that Kymlicka is convinced that liberal tolerance cannot accommodate the cultural and political demands made by some groups. He is particularly worried, for example, that the claims to "difference" made by some ethnic or cultural groupings can provide a basis for attempts to suppress differences within communities.

What is particularly interesting about Kymlicka's account of these issues, however, is that he does not shy away from the problems at the heart of both liberal critiques and liberal endorsements of multiculturalism. There is an engaging honesty in his attempts to discuss the possibilities of developing a politics that allows for cultural pluralism and diversity and the contradictions of a commitment to common citizenship. It is this very honesty that makes his attempts to grapple with these issues of more substantive interest than those accounts of multiculturalism that rely on a celebration of difference without analysing its limitations.

The Rights of Minority Cultures can best be seen as an attempt by Kymlicka to bring together some well known and some more obscure texts that have helped to shape discussion about some of the issues that preoccupy him in Multicultural Citizenship. It contains a selection of previously published texts dealing with such questions as cultural pluralism, individual and groups rights and minority cultures. Many of the authors in the collection, such as Michael Walzer, Iris Marion Young and Bhikhu Parekh, have made their own substantive contributions to the debate about the rights of minorities and their work is relatively well known. There is very little that is new here, and most of the authors represented are covering familiar territory. There are nevertheless some interesting pieces in the collection and it serves the useful function of bringing under one cover texts that have been published in a diverse range of journals.

Anne Phillips's The Politics of Presence is concerned with a more specific issue, namely the question of whether the fair representation of disadvantaged groups requires their presence in elected assemblies. It is engagement, in a theoretical and a political sense, with the political controversies that have flared up over the past few decades under the general label of the"politics of identity". Phillips uses these debates as a basis for reflecting on three specific controversies: the issue of quotas for women, race and voting rights in the US and the debate about inclusion and exclusion in Canadian society. All three are discussed in detail and serve to highlight what Phillips sees as the potential advantages and the problems of allowing a central role for the "politics of presence" in political life.

Phillips's stance is to support the inclusion of excluded groups into political life but she also argues strongly against fixed and essentialised notions of representation. In holding to this position she is generally in favour of notions of group representation that are not that distant from the position taken by Kymlicka. But there are certain aspects of her position that are more clear-cut than others. For example, she takes for granted the need for gender quotas such as those introduced by the Labour party, but questions the need for ethnic quotas because ethnic difference "is far more intrinsically contested". While this is clearly the dominant orthodoxy in Labour circles, it is a pity Phillips does not look in any detail at studies that have explored the changing politics of race and presentation in national and local political cultures and the tensions that have emerged precisely on this issue. This is perhaps a result of the rather analytical framework around which this study is organised.

These studies do not by any means exhaust the range of problems that have to be addressed if we are to come up with a better understanding of how to "live with difference" in our liberal democratic societies. They do, however, raise important questions. It is a pity therefore that both authors seem unwilling to tread outside of the boundaries of political science in their search for a more rounded understanding of these issues. The arguments of both Kymlicka and Phillips would have been enriched if they had engaged far more seriously than they do with the rich vein of scholarship on minorities and difference that has been produced outside of the rather narrow confines of political science, by sociologists, anthropologists and other scholars from a variety of disciplines. Of course it is also the case that many sociologists tend to be ignorant of what is going on in other disciplines. But there is surely little chance of reaching any resolution of the questions raised by these books unless we broaden our vision and look at the insights of researchers in a variety of academic environments to understand the processes that concern both Kymlicka and Phillips.

John Solomos is professor of sociology and social policy, University of Southampton.

The Rights of Minority Cultures

Editor - Will Kymlicka
ISBN - 0 19 878100 8
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £19.99
Pages - 387

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