The End of Multiculturalism?

Intervention de Michel Wieviorka lors du Congrès ISA World Congress of Sociology à Yokohama en juillet 2014.

Mausolée de Galla Placidia - Ravenne, par Omega (flickr)Multiculturalism, if we wish to give a precise meaning to this word, is not synonymous with multicultural society – today almost all societies are to some extent multicultural. The word ‘multiculturalism’ refers to a set of institutional, political and legal arrangements which ensure the recognition and fair treatment of certain cultural identities within democracies. These arrangements vary from one culture to another and I myself have emphasised in particular that two sets should be distinguished:

  • those which in line with a general movement, ensure the processing of the cultural identities and social difficulties of their members at the same time; I call this ‘integrated multi-culturalism’.
  • those which, on the contrary, completely separate the two registers – cultural and social – which I suggested should be called ‘fragmented multiculturalism’1.

Historically, multi-culturalism is a North-American invention which fits in quite well with what is known in French as ‘Anglo-Saxon’ political culture – by which is meant what one sees in the United Kingdom, or the Netherlands in Europe, or in Australia or New Zealand. It began to develop as an element in public discussion in the 1970s at the same time as the themes of cultural difference and its recognition in the public sphere emerged. It spread from Canada or the United States, both as an institutional practice and as an issue in the political and social sciences to other societies, in particular to Europe. It apparently began to show signs of weakening in the 1990s and 2000 for various reasons to which I will return later.

But from the outset one important point which is rarely evoked should be noted. It concerns the discussion in the social sciences and the humanities: multiculturalism seems to be the monopoly of the west, i.e. North America, Australia, and Western European countries which are English-speaking or extremely open to this language like the Netherlands or Scandinavia. In the main, the academic discussion has been constructed without India although it is a major English-speaking country. The same goes for Latin America where the question is however central and where in Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, etc. there are intense discussions while at the same time the actual practice of multiculturalism is very much alive2. This part of the world which obviously is not English-speaking is notably absent from most of the books and articles devoted to the theme as if only the thoughts of authors who only speak English and live in the West, were meaningful. This is a methodological ethno-centrism which should not be found in the social sciences and which, in any case, is gradually being undermined as the scientific and intellectual hegemony of the West is coming to an end. I had the opportunity to write this in reply to an article by Nasar Meer and Tariq Modood3 which moreover I found extremely interesting,

The discussion on multi-culturalism began to wear thin in Western social science at the same time as it was under severe criticism in the public sphere or in political life. But it is much more lively and in favour of multiculturalism in the social sciences in other parts of the world, in Latin America in particular. This is why here, in this meeting, ethnocentrism is not only an ideological mistake – it is also the source of a manifest error of assessment.

The decline in the Western social sciences is, in the first instance, the decline of arguments which have not been updated on either side. Indeed, since the 1980s, both the ‘liberals’ on one side and the ‘communitarians’ on the other, always run through much the same arguments. Régis Debray has referred to ‘republicans’ and ‘democrats’: the proponents of multiculturalism demand the recognition of cultural differences, without which individuals are denied or excluded from what constitutes their social or family roots, their origin, language, specific traditions, etc. Their opponents wish to focus uniquely on universal values, which are the same for all individual persons, who must all receive the same treatment in the public sphere and have the same personal rights.

But if the debate is less intense in Western societies, which I must emphasize is not the case elsewhere in the world, it is also because these societies have changed and the most critical issues are no longer the same, including those of politics of recognition.

Here, I shall refer only to Europe and, to begin with, briefly the United States.

In this country the question of race has acquired new vigour, in any case in relation to the classical debates on culture and ethnicity. This is contrary to what in turn the movement for civil rights and almost half a century later, the election of Barack Obama, and with him, the hope for a post-racial society might have led us to expect. A first wave of white backlash in the mid-1960s was in fact the white racist reaction to the progress achieved by the civil rights movement. At the time of President Reagan a second wave attacked Black Americans on a basis of cultural perception, accusing them of supposedly refusing to adhere to the American Credo based on work, family and the desire for individual social mobility. In this period researchers spoke of ‘symbolic racism’. A third wave, represented by the Tea Party, was the strong movement in response to Barack Obama’s coming into power4. In this context, race seems to be, broadly speaking, an alternative to ethnicity and culture, at least as far as the Whites are concerned on one hand; on the other for Blacks, multiculturalism leaves space for calls for human rights and anti-racist action. The United States has now become, in the words of Stephen Steinberg, a ‘dual melting pot, one for people of African descent, the other for everybody else’5. The cultural differences within each entity become blurred, which in part corresponds to the well-known analyses of Herbert Gans6, who considers multiculturalism does not correspond to the major problems of American society.

In Europe, multiculturalism began to be put forward in a context in which three types of population seemed to potentially be involved. On one hand, long-standing identities, in particular regional ones, began to be reconstructed as from the end of the 1960s, giving the image of a ‘revival’ calling for a political approach. Some of the protagonists called for independence and secession, sometimes violently; but, frequently, thinking focussed on the idea that it would appear to be possible to establish other types of relations between the state and the regions. This is compatible with some multiculturalist approaches. On the other hand, the presence in Europe of migrants has afforded the opportunity of demanding their recognition as more than what in Germany was referred to as ‘Gastarbeiter’ (Guest workers) or in France ‘travailleurs immigrés’ (immigrant workers). Finally, cultural change gave new meaning to women’s protest movements and led to the emergence of homosexual movements which touched on a third set of cultural themes likely to find their place in the image of multiculturalism.

Thirty years later the outlook has changed. Regional or simili-nationalist movements have either declined or else play a political role which has led them far beyond demands for cultural recognition, as we can see today in Catalonia or Scotland. Multiculturalism cannot be their aim.

Women’s movements, or those of homosexuals have brought about considerable changes in thinking, so much so that even particularly archaic sectors of political life seem to have accepted these developments – let us not forget Pim Fortuyn, this leader of the Dutch extreme right, openly homosexual and assassinated in 2002. Debate has therefore moved to major questions which are not part of multiculturalism: homosexual marriage, medically assisted procreation, and above all, adoption. The theme of human rights, or of cultural rights has now to a large extent replaced the institutional vision which corresponded to multiculturalism.

Finally, and most important, the question of migrants has been completely renewed. Here I would like to focus on three points.

The first, related to the ethnicization and racialisation of European societies, is the rise of racist phenomena which refute the over-rapid statements of the 1980s and 1990s, when numerous specialists could only speak of new racism, or cultural or differential racism. Biological racism and in any event physical attributes have not disappeared; they are even present in the speeches of actors who mobilise by explicitly referring to the colour of their own skin. Here we can speak of self-racialisation. Therefore the fight against racism can no longer be based on multicultural projects, since it is not a question of recognition of cultural but of racial differences. Culture is masked by nature and multiculturalism is not the answer. It is true that in the discourse of the social sciences, racism can be dealt with as a social construction, which allows us to get rid of the accusation of racism. The acceptation of the idea that race belongs to the domain of social representations, does not mean accepting the idea of race as such, to be sure; the idea is to make of it an element of the culture and the society of the group in question. But this does not give us the right to say that race has become cultural.

In addition, a religious reality has become a crucial issue in Europe, namely Islam. This religion, to which numerous migrants and their descendants belong, along with some converts, requires an institutional framework which can no longer be that provided by multiculturalism. It is true that these are not always completely separate and they do often overlap in practice and in the everyday life of individuals. But religion, belief and the possibilities of practising these are not the same thing as culture. On one hand, Islam is not primarily a culture; and on the other, its extension into radical forms has been attributed to possibly – of course this is an exaggeration – the existence of policies of multicultural type.

Thus a critical turning point was reached in the United Kingdom when the country, appalled, discovered that the protagonists of the terrorist attacks in July 2005 were born and lived in England, that they did not come from somewhere else, like in the 9-11 attacks in the United States. In the wake of a trend to the rejection of multiculturalism, which had already started ‘Londonistan’ was called into question and, with it, policies in favour of communities including and especially Muslims. In fact, all over Europe, Islam has been largely experienced as an attack on the cultural integrity of the nation, a threat – furthermore, violent – which was apparently promoted by multicultural policies. Even in countries which were at the outset in favour of these, like the Netherlands or the United Kingdom, these policies were criticized by those in power. In short, within weeks of one another, in 2011 three Heads of State, David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, in almost identical terms, stated that multiculturalism was a failure. In each instance, Islam was the focus of their concerns. The fear of Islam may be the source of a general hostility to any recognition of differences and, from there, to multiculturalism. But even where Islam is not a source of fear and rejection although a source of discussion, multiculturalism is not an appropriate answer since it is a matter of knowing how a religion can, or cannot, find the conditions of its practice and not a question of recognition or not of a cultural specificity. I would like to add that if we eliminate Islam from the discussion on multiculturalism, this discussion is likely to become rather dull and uninteresting.

Finally, multiculturalism has been weakened in so far as the major problems to be dealt with under this policy are located in spaces which do not necessarily coincide with the classical sphere of public action constituted by the nation-state. The differences recognized by multiculturalism may function at another level; this can be seen, for example, with the issue of the Roma gypsies in Europe.

The advantage of multiculturalism, despite what its critics may say, is that it provides a legal and institutional foundation for recognition, in opposition to the much vaguer concept of ‘inter-culturalism’ or ‘pluri-culturalism’. Its limitations have long been known and in particular the risk of communitarianism which it conveys; these are not sufficient to rule it out entirely.

But are there other perspectives which would enable us to face these cultural differences by recognising them without taking the form of multiculturalism? One approach here relates to the theme of cultural rights with the idea that these must be conferred on individuals and not on groups, far less on the leaders who represent them. In this context/point of view, everyone is free to make their own choices, to adhere to the cultural identity which suits them, it is a right, to which other rights can be added concerning access to education, diet, health, etc. The fact remains that even though in Europe and North America multiculturalism is declining in public discussion, elsewhere, as I have already mentioned, it is growing, in particular in Latin America which means that it continues to deserve further examination. Whether it be a question of the Indians, or the Afro-descendants, in particular in the Caribbean, the question of differences has become a central issue in public life, in places where it was generally of minor significance and is now associated with very heated discussions on social justice, access for example to studying or with other issues concerning memory and the history of suffering of numerous groups.


  1. Michel Wieviorka, Neuf leçons de sociologie, Paris, éd. Robert Laffont, 2008 []
  2. cf. Christian Gros et David Dumoulin Kervran (dir.), Le multiculturalisme «au concret». Un modèle latino-américain?,Paris, Presses de la Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2011, 462 pp. []
  3. cf. my article Michel Wieviorka, « Multiculturalism: A Concept to be Redefined and Certainly Not Replaced by the Extremely Vague Term of Interculturalism », in reply to Nasar Meer&Tariq Modood, « How does Interculturalism Contrast with Multiculturalism? », in The Journal of InterculturalStudies, 2012 []
  4. cf. Matthiew W. Hughey, «White backlash in the ‘post-racial’ United States», Ethnic and Racial Studies, 2014, vol. 37, n°5, pp.721-730 []
  5. Stephen Steinberg, « The long view of the melting pot», Ethnic and Racial Studies, id., p.790 []
  6. cf. Herbert Gans, « Symbolic Ethnicity », Ethnic and Racial Studies, 1979, vol. 2, pp. 1-20 []

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