Book Review: The Ashgate Research Companion to Multiculturalism

The Ashgate Research Companion to Multiculturalism

Edited by Duncan Ivison, University of Sydney, Australia

Review by Sadia Habib


IVISON JKT(250x172)PATHThe Ashgate Research Companion to Multiculturalism provides a thoroughly detailed and very contemporary analysis of the problematic and nuanced nature of the important concept and public practice of multiculturalism.  It is an accessible edited collection of modern takes on multiculturalism for those new to the great variety of arguments regarding multiculturalism who are keen to gain an understanding of the meaning of modern multiculturalism, yet at the same time it is in-depth and appealing to those who are already familiar with the ambiguities of thought on multiculturalism who are consolidating their knowledge of this “awkward term” (p1) and this “demanding and risky ideal” in practice (p11), and learning about the different types of multiculturalism in a range of contexts.  The book raises key questions about “what or who is the proper subject of multiculturalism – individuals, groups, peoples, cultures?” (p5), as well as exploring different forms of multicultural belonging.

Some chapters closely examine multicultural society in light of indigenous people belonging to that place, whilst other chapters focus on newcomers, new migrants and refugees.  A concurrent theme running through the edited collection is the need to remind ourselves that context matters and impacts upon how multiculturalism is practised.  We gain insight into how multiculturalism has impacted upon and transformed how people “think about the world, but also how they interact with others, and especially the shape and look of their public institutions” but equally importantly it affects nation, national identity and “economic and political power” (p11).  We learn about how political theory – and in particular, multicultural thinking – is sometimes neglectful of gender issues, despite being concerned with the promotion of “human freedom and equality” (p138).  Thus, from a feminist perspective, women struggle when there is a backlash against multicultural policies and practices: for instance by becoming even more restricted to the private sphere, and pushed out of the public sphere due to attitudes towards the hijab or niqab.  Eisenberg’s Chapter problematizes feminist responses towards Multiculturalism, Gender and Justice: referring to France she discusses how “many people involved in this debate seem to been blind to the irony of the state forcing girls not to wear headscarves in order to protect them from being forced by their communities to wear them” (p123).

Multiculturalism is defined as referring to “theories, attitudes, beliefs, norms, practices and policies that seek to provide public recognition of and support for accommodation of non-dominant ethnocultural groups” (p2). Any writing on multiculturalism will inevitably engage with ideas of culture, as well as “freedom, equality, democracy and justice” (p2).  Ivison, the editor, in his introduction, emphasises three ways of understanding multiculturalism: protective/communitarian multiculturalism, liberal multiculturalism and imperial multiculturalism.  Protective/communitarian multiculturalism is concerned with preservation/protection of the culture of the minority group. Liberal multiculturalism, which is universalist and the most popular multiculturalism in contemporary political thinking, refers to promoting liberal values like “equality, autonomy, toleration, or equal respect” (p3).  Thus we can ask questions like “are we seeking to promote a greater diversity of cultures, languages, and ethnic groups in order to provide a richer set of choices and experiences for individuals?” (p5).  Finally, there is imperial multiculturalism which is “a new version of the hierarchical and/or racialized modes of political order that it was supposed to have displaced” (p4).  Thus this approach to multiculturalism interrogates how minority and majority communities are defined in public discourses.

The book is beneficial to scholars from diverse backgrounds as a multidisciplinary approach to analysing multiculturalism is presented through the inclusion of distinctive perspectives from fields such as philosophy, political science, sociology and anthropology. The book brings forth an important discussion about how multiculturalism is increasingly becoming a steady feature in global discourses.  The structure of the book neatly yields significant ideas on multiculturalism through three sections: Foundations, Challenges and Alternatives.  The first part – Foundations – contains detailed definitions, advantages, limits and critiques of liberal multiculturalism, as well as socio-political developments that have impacted particularly on perceptions of Muslims and belonging; there is discussion on how some argue that multiculturalism is dead, whilst others believe it is alive and ever relevant and needed; the nature of culture, identity and power in modern multicultural society is also examined.

Part Two of the book brings to light key Challenges involved in referring to associated concepts of multiculturalism.  For example, toleration – “what toleration is, why we ought to tolerate, and what we ought to tolerate” (p75).  Part Three offers Alternative Perspectives : Ghassan  Hage considers the limits of “multicultural governmentality” in the Australian context with its heavy reliance on colonial politics and its difficulties in dealing with the “ungovernable”.  Thus, Hage recommends “intercultural relations” that move beyond the stale polarity of multiculturalism-assimilation (p253).    Rita Khaur Dhamoon discusses how multicultural discourses of securitization are concerned with powerful meaning-making about nation and belonging: the focus is “territory, identity, whiteness and economic development” in Canada’s hegemonic nation-building endeavours (p257).  She recommends that “alternative counterpractices and discourses are necessary” (p274), as are disruptions and deconstructions of power relations. Jeffrey Riegel’s fascinating chapter entitled Master Kong versus Master Mo: Two Views of Cosmopolitanism  and Multiculturalism in the Early Chinese Philosophical Tradition most definitely provides us with alternatives in explaining ways in which we can understand cultural difference through a reading of early Chinese philosophies, particularly the teachings of Confucius.



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