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Dilek Çinar

Cultural Diversity and Dialogue

On Bhikhu Parekh: Rethinking Multiculturalism. Cultural Diversity and Political Theory

 A political theory of multicultural society


Bhikhu Parekh:
Rethinking Multiculturalism. Cultural Diversity and Political Theory.

Houndmills – London: Macmillan,
379 pages
ISBN 0-333-60882-8

Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ Pr,
432 pages
ISBN 0-674-00436-1

Macmillan Press:
external linkWebsite

Harvard University Press:
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  For more than three decades, scientists, activists, and politicians have been concerned with the effects of international migrations. Within their studies, expressions like "the Third World in Europe" or "ethnic segmentation" of the labor market, "internal colonization", and "modern slavery" became common in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, a different concept pinpointing the obvious transformations in Western immigrant societies is predominant in the field: multiculturalism. Hardly anyone doubts that this concept is helpful to describe the features of Western immigrant societies adequately. However, opinions differ about the desirability of a so-called multicultural society. Politicians, actively engaged or simply interested citizens, and numerous political theorists and philosophers take a stance for or against it for a variety of reasons.


  Offering a broad examination of these issues, Bhikhu Parekh makes a staunch case for a multicultural society, not only because this has become reality already, but also because cultural diversity supposedly represents a value in itself. This normative standpoint is not a novelty, and the attempt to ground a corresponding pluralistic self-understanding on solid philosophical foundations is hardly exceptional. But, this volume is probably the most far-reaching attempt so far to develop a political theory of multicultural society. At the same time, it draws out the practical implications from this theory with the help of concrete – yet numerously repeated – cases such as the questions of veils, polygamy, female circumcision, and the conflict about Salman Rushdie.

 Critique of Western conceptions of the Good Life


  Parekh's theory of multicultural society is based on a profound critique of historical and contemporary "Western" conceptions of and arguments for "the good life". His critique is aimed, first, at various shapes of moral monisms (situated in antiquity, Christianity, and classical liberalism) which are all based on the belief in the existence of a single form of "good life". According to Parekh, such monistic conceptions can lead to either segregation or assimilation of different – morally founded or culturally determined – forms of life, and sometimes to the legitimation of force against alternative ones (49).


  Second, Parekh engages critically with the works of early thinkers of plurality, because no current theory of multiculturalism can afford to ignore the classical critics of monism. This need arises not only because thinkers such as Vico, Montesquieu, and Herder provided the first theoretical foundations for cultural pluralism, but also because the conceptual problems of this tradition would otherwise (easily) pass unnoticed into current debates on cultural diversity (77). Indeed, Parekh's perceptive critique of those three thinkers also applies to many of the current reflections on the strengths and weaknesses of multiculturalism. This application is particularly true with respect to the vision of culture as a closed entity (whether organic or static); the ethnicization of culture through its construction as an authentic expression of a homogenous community (whether ethnic or national); assumptions of cultural determinism according to which individuals are passive carriers of their respective cultures; the blindness toward economic and political structures, that is, relationships of power in which cultures are embedded (79).

»To call contemporary western society liberal is not only to homogenize and oversimplify it but also to give liberals a moral and cultural monopoly of it and treat the rest as illegitimate and troublesome intruders.«

Bhikhu Parekh


  Finally, Parekh deals with contemporary thinkers who have worked on the questions of a good life and the diversity of moral values and cultural forms of life from within a liberal paradigm. In regard to Rawls, Raz, and Kymlicka, Parekh reproaches their "absolutization" of liberalism and the universalization of liberal values such as autonomy. These, he says, lead to a crude binary opposition between the liberal and the non-liberal forms of life, whereby the latter are regarded as illiberal. In this way, Parekh contends, the debate on multiculturalism is reduced to the question of tolerance, while the question of respect towards other cultures and the support of cultural diversity is not even posed (111).


  Furthermore, current liberal theorists are inconsistent in Parekh's view when they predicate the tolerance of non-liberal cultures on the latter's subscribing to the liberal canon of values or at least to specific liberal values: »If the minimum that the liberal insists upon is essentially liberal in nature and cannot be shown to be morally binding on all, it cannot be demanded of nonliberals without violating their moral autonomy. If, on the other hand, it is universally binding, then there is nothing particularly liberal about it except the contingent historical fact that liberals happened to appreciate its importance more than others« (111). Parekh acknowledges liberalism to be a powerful political and moral doctrine, which is why a coherent political theory of multiculturalism has to take it seriously. But multicultural societies, he says, cannot by definition be theorized »from within the conceptual framework of any particular political doctrine«.

 Problems of intercultural dialogue

»The dialogue is ... bifocal, centring both on the minority practice and the society's operative public values, both on the minority's and the wider society's way of life.«

Bhikhu Parekh


  This line of argument leads to the question of how the theoretical basis of a multicultural society is supposed to be conceived, in order to avoid the traps of both cultural determinism and liberal Eurocentrism (and Afrocentrism, Sinocentrism etc.). Parekh contends that such a basis, adequate for the pluralistic character of a multicultural society, can only be worked out from within the framework of an institutionalized intercultural dialogue. Within this dialogue, all parties have to recognize each other as equal participants, while a successful outcome is also dependent on them having similar amounts of self-confidence and economic and political power (337).


  But here, Parekh becomes entangled in contradictory arguments, because he claims that all cultures are valuable in themselves and deserve a minimum of respect – but not all cultures are equally valuable, and thus they do not all deserve the same respect (177). Furthermore, Parekh assumes an egalitarian distribution of political and economic power among all cultures for his idea of an institutionalized dialogue within which the participants may agree on a list of universal values. However, the prospects for satisfying this condition, which Parekh posits as fundamental for such a dialogue, are not addressed. Finally, it is unclear who should ultimately participate in the envisaged dialogue.


  This fact is directly linked to Parekh's abstract definition of culture: »Culture is a historically created system of meaning and significance or ... a system of beliefs and practices in terms of which a group of human beings understand, regulate and structure their individual and collective lives. It is a way of both understanding and organizing human life« (143). This definition covers religious communities as well as national majorities, ethnic minorities and various groups of immigrants, qualifying them to be participants of Parekh's institutionalized dialogue, which itself would have to take place on at least three levels (globally, nationally, locally). In regard to each of these levels, the question has to be raised which culture is represented by whom during the dialogue. Furthermore Parekh insists that cultures have no essential substance but are internally differentiated: »Every culture is internally varied, speaks in several voices, and its range of interpretive possibility is often indeterminate« (145). Which of the several (collective?) voices that interpret the same situations from within common cultural beliefs but draw divergent conclusions may or should act as participants in the institutionalized multicultural dialogue? And, according to which criteria and by whom will the selection of representatives for this dialogue be performed? Parekh does not provide an answer to any of these questions.

 Conceptual pitfalls

Dilek Çinar
is Research Affiliate at the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research in Vienna.


  Parekh's sketch of a theory of multicultural society claims to avoid the conceptual pitfalls of historical and contemporary forms of cultural determinism. But this claim is hardly supported by his highly abstract definition of culture. Ultimately, positing the assumption of internal differentiations of cultures and their dynamic character, as exemplified by the critical capacities of individuals directed against their own cultures, is not enough. Cultural determinism does not hinge on a wrong definition of culture that may simply be corrected. Rather, it rests above all (as Parekh himself points out in his critique of early pluralists) on excluding considerations of socio-economic structures and political power relationships from the realm of social and political theory. This is, unfortunately, a feature that applies to Parekh's book as well.


  Despite these shortcomings, Parekh's critique of classical and contemporary liberal theorists, who persistently declare particular moral understandings as universal measures, remains brilliantly conceived. For this achievement alone, Parekh's sketch of a political theory of cultural diversity represents an extraordinarily refreshing contribution to the already repetitive debates on the pros and cons of multiculturalism.

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