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  • In Search of Genuine Equality:The Problem with Multiculturalism
  • Alistair Fox (bio)

multiculturalism, humanism, equality, justice

What Was Multiculturalism?: A Critical Retrospective. Vijay Mishra. MUP Academic Monographs. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2012.

It hardly needs stating that as diasporic groups move between countries in search of economic advantage, the increasing proliferation of multiple cultural and ethnic minorities in most modern societies has posed a major challenge to the idea of a homogeneous nation-state. In part, this is the result of greater mobility made possible by technological change in a world that has embraced a globalized economy. It also represents, however, the legacy not only of the period of European imperialism, but also of the trauma arising from the failure of nation-states to achieve a coherence grounded in homogeneity. One thinks, for example, of the horrific consequences of attempts to impose homogeneity in Nazi Germany, or of the breakup and re-Balkanization of Yugoslavia, with the attendant atrocities that ensued from it. "Multiculturalism" as a political policy based on principles of recognition, tolerance, and accommodation is the response that many nations have adopted as a means of addressing the pressing challenges posed by these emergent circumstances.

Unsurprisingly, the question of whether "multiculturalism" as a sociopolitical theory is an adequate response to the reality of multiculturalism as a sociological phenomenon has stimulated intense and ongoing debate, reflected in the publication of a proliferating number of books on the subject since the mid-1990s, in a trend that shows no signs of abating, with more than twenty monographs on the topic having been published in English since the beginning of 2011 alone. What [End Page 423] emerges from these debates is the fact that the theory of multiculturalism is highly problematical, to the extent that a number of scholars have pronounced the theory fatally flawed, or even pernicious, in terms of the ways in which it has been conceptualized and implemented as a political program to date (see, in particular, Barry 2002).

The importance of Vijay Mishra's new book, What Was Multiculturalism?: A Critical Retrospective, is that it sets out systematically to survey the various positions that have been argued, in order to subject them to a penetrating critique. At first sight, it might appear that the book is simply what its title proclaims: a critical bibliography of the most important articulations of multiculturalism as a sociopolitical theory, viewed in this instance as a phenomenon whose time has already passed owing to inherent flaws in the theory. In actuality, Mishra's analysis is far more than that, not only providing the most penetrating analysis yet published of the array of different approaches to the "multicultural riddle," but also proposing implicitly along the way, and explicitly in its conclusion, a radically reconceived, alternative form of multiculturalism as the desirable way forward for societies aiming to achieve justice for all citizens in terms that allow none of them to feel marginalized or alienated.

The potency of Mishra's critical retrospective, one suspects, is that it arises out of, and is deeply informed by, his personal experience. Now a distinguished senior academic in Australia, Mishra is a Fijian-Indian who, after receiving his tertiary education in New Zealand, has spent most of his career as an academic in Australia. He thus knows what it is like to be a diasporic individual living away from his culture of origins, having had the opportunity to observe the dynamics of multiculturalism at first hand in at least three different countries with vastly different polities. Several other recent books published within the last two years cover similar ground, but one of them, Ali Rattansi's (2011) Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction, is hampered by its brevity, while the other, Michael Murphy's (2012) Multiculturalism: A Critical Introduction, is relatively more general and descriptive, as befits its avowed purpose. Other recent studies tend to be more narrowly focused on issues relating to specific countries (e.g., Kim 2011; Levey 2012; Obourn 2011), or on particular dimensions of experience relating to multiculturalism (e.g., education, religion, or the spread of Islam: Farrar et al. 2012; Dutton 2012; Cuyjet, Howard-Hamilton, and Cooper 2011). Comparatively, the strength of...


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