Multiculturalism and Social Cohesion

4 November 2019


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

Academics, policymakers and practitioners gathered at the British Academy in late October to discuss multiculturalism and social cohesion. This was the second seminar in a series organized by CSaP and the British Academy which aims to fill gaps in our understanding of social cohesion in Britain.

This month’s speaker was Professor Tariq Modood, a sociology professor at the University of Bristol, who argued that multiculturalism needs to be distinguished from human rights cosmopolitanism and divorced from rhetoric which ties discourse surrounding multiculturalism to politicians’ focus on the denial of rights and values. He instead suggested that multiculturalism should be regarded as a pro-diversity approach which can be formulated as a bridge to those in a divided society who are nationalist or diversity-sceptic.

While political economists and sociologists often conceptualize of societies as divided by citizens’ socio-economic backgrounds, the polarity between those who are pro-diversity and those who are diversity-skeptic does not cut across traditional class divides, according to Prof Modood. Nor should these divisions be viewed through the lens of whites versus non-whites, left versus right, or as the majority versus the minority. Rather, Prof Modood characterizes this divide as a polarization where some are in favour of multiculturalism, while others are unconvinced of its value.

Depolarizing society, in Prof Modood’s view, can come from understanding that people can feel anxious about their identities, and acknowledging the normative significance of identity for both majority populations, and for minorities groups including individuals who are post-immigration. He described his preferred normative variant of multiculturalism, which seeks to bring individuals from each side of a polarized issue together to create a majority consensus on diversity, as one in which equal citizenship meets difference rather than uniformity. Here, citizenship-focused identity should be national rather than only local and should offer institutional accommodation to ethno-religious needs while remaking the symbols of national identity so that all can share it.

Societies are created through large ideas that have flowed across time, and in societies where there are low levels of difference and high levels of commonality, the active construction of collective identity is less necessary because of pre-existing and underlying shared experiences which can form the shared identity base. Meanwhile, the purposeful construction of national identity is of particular importance in societies where there are high levels of diversity, and lower pre-existing levels of commonality, as is the case in modern Britain. Even here, however, construction of national identity must also leave space for groups of people who want to also assert their difference and celebrate minority heritage. Within this space, communities should seek to facilitate ongoing cross-community conversations on both non-controversial and controversial issues, such as through interfaith networks, to build the trust and relationships necessary for multicultural social cohesion.

Conversation led by Prof Modood raised questions concerning language and identity politics, secularism, and intersections between efforts to achieve different kinds of equality. Workshop attendees were particularly interested in the potential place for place-based identities in this conversation. Here, Prof Modood argued that while place-based identities have become a significant and less contentious operating space for liberals as domination of national-level narratives has shifted to those in other parts of the political spectrum, rich local identities are insufficient for addressing the issues involved in divided societies grappling with approaches to multiculturalism because many of the policy aspects of this problem are managed through laws and policies which fall under national, rather than local, governing jurisdictions.