Pandora's box or buffet of the best of all worlds?

March 17, 2006

The Times Higher asks sociologists whether multiculturalism is under threat in the UK

* "The reckless pursuit of neoliberal values under conditions of globalisation is jeopardising many forms of life associated with multi-culturalism. From corporate pressures for cultural uniformity to defensive new neo-nationalisms spawned after 9/11, it is now clear that there is a price to be paid in the UK for disengaging from the politics of the multicultural. That price is freedom - and its cost rises with every current reassertion of the universality and uniqueness of Britishness or Englishness."

Anthony Elliott Professor of sociology, Kent University

"Multiculturalism is a bit of a tepid policy - what does it really mean beyond liberal tolerance and equal opportunities? During the French riots, Brits were happy to contrast Anglo multiculturalism with French republicanism. But both have the same problem - a lot of minorities don't feel integrated. This is partly because of racism and cultural bias but primarily because many live in poor areas with poor public services and few opportunities to escape depressing, deprived lives. If it looks today as if multiculturalism is under threat, this is in part because after 7/7 the Government has become more concerned about segregation, as it should be. It has been so worried about being seen as assimilationist that it has ignored the challenges of segregation, especially in housing. There are worrying trends in higher education here, towards meeting government policies on inclusion by locating new provision in excluded postcodes rather than by encouraging students to travel short distances into more socially mixed areas."

* "Multiculturalism is not under threat in the UK. Englishness and Britishness are identities with a great deal of healthy plasticity, and they embody traditions of pragmatic flexibility. What the British/ English are intolerant of is extremist ideology, whatever its cultural or ethnic origins."

* "While I am optimistic that different cultures will continue to mix and make progressive connections, there remains the threat that certain fundamentalisms (of both a nationalist and religious bent) will undermine the great efforts that have been made to create a more tolerant and socially integrated UK. The idea of liberal multiculturalism has also come under increasing attack, not just from the racist Right but from within ethnic minority communities themselves, for failing to deliver the equal societies it once promised. I suspect the issue for sociologists is whether we can or ought to revise the multiculturalism project to make our societies equal, or whether there is another more radical way we can make the 'community of communities' idea work."

* "To some people 'multiculturalism' suggests a society that allows communities to exist in isolation: each with a distinct language, religious identity and a unique view of what constitutes acceptable behaviour. This version of multiculturalism has been criticised for creating ghettos that do not engage with the wider culture. In this sense, 'multiculturalism' is a fiction. It does not reflect the UK today.

Certainly, individuals who share a heritage or beliefs may choose to live and work near each other. But even people with much in common do not, by choice, form exclusionary enclaves. Look at the Chinese community of Manchester, the Italians in Glasgow and the gay community in Brighton.

These are distinct communities, but they survive and thrive through their engagement with others. Where communities have become more insular, it is often the result of economic and social exclusion, and fear. Humans are curious and highly social. If 'multiculturalism' means the opportunity to live in a country where it's normal to enjoy art, food and ideas from all cultures, then that's not under threat. Each of us can and does participate in a multicultural society. It's all we know."

Stephanie Eaton Senior lecturer in criminology, Kingston University

"Sanctifying culture in an absolutist fashion in the recent 'cultural turn'

has been a big mistake. Multiculturalism has opened Pandora's box, allowing the most regressive and brutal cultures to reassert themselves, evade criticism and protect themselves from the forces of change. It has also opened the door for the return of religion as a political power. Much better to return to a social democratic project based on individual rights and responsibilities, secularism, progressive change, mutual interests and economic stability."

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