Charles Lemert. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

The Word ‘Multiculturalism’

‘Multiculturalism’—the term is among the most confusing and misused in the language of social theory. ‘Multiculturalism’ confuses because it makes obstinate reference to two things at once—reality and a theory of reality. The same has been said (Lemert, 1997) of another troublemaker of this sort, ‘postmodernism,’ with which ‘multiculturalism’ is often, usually incorrectly, taken as a cognate of some kind.

Though there is a close lexical kinship, the two terms are separated by an important semantic space arising upon their different conjunctions of attributes. ‘Postmodernism,’ when used naively, is thought to be ‘nothing more’ than a theoretical term. It is true, of course, that the word may be used as the name for a kind of theory. But this is properly done only when the use embraces, with delicate care, plausible statements of fact about the ‘real world.’ Just the same, any number of wise-guys (and, remarkably, a few wise-gals) go about using the word ‘postmodernism’ (or, worse yet, the appalling adjective ‘postmodernist’) in reference to what in their own minds is ‘nothing more than a theoretical fad’ of vaguely French provenance. (Near the end of the modern half-millennium, the most notable wise-guy of this sort was someone who called himself ‘Alan Sokal,’ the improbability of whose linguistic practices are discussed in Lemert, 1997: 7-11.) That some people who ought to know better speak or write this way does not excuse the irresponsibility of their misuse—hence, abuse—of the word. In this connection, it is proper, at this point, to note for future reference that the difficulty otherwise literate people have in getting these two terms in their proper semantic spaces is associated by custom with a studied confusion of other terms of notable ability to trouble—‘theory,’ ‘fact’ and ‘science’ among others (of which Abbott, (1998) among examples too depressingly many to list). Fortunately, those who abuse the language in such ways, occasionally have friends who take pains to encourage them to do better; for example, in reference at least to the last three terms mentioned, Alan Sica’s undeservedly generous ministry to Abbott (Sica, 1999; in reply to Abbott, 1998).

The trouble with ‘multiculturalism’ among all the troubling terms used in and about social theory is that its corruption requires an altogether inexcusable, even malicious, misunderstanding of the facts of the world (Fish, 1998). It is relatively easy to forgive those so alarmed by the possibility that the modern world might be drawing to a close that they would use the word ‘postmodernism’ pejoratively in the sense of ‘only a theory, and an obscure French one at that!’ One can well understand why those in social positions well respected in a given cultural arrangement such as the modern one might fear the loss of position that would follow a decline in the fortunes of the arrangement itself.

‘Multiculturalism,’ on the other hand, if it is to be used at all, can only be used to characterize, at most, a generalized attitude toward actual and unforgiving facts. Whereas ‘postmodernism,’ when properly used, refers to a factual possibility, ‘multiculturalism’ can only be well used in reference to facts so evidentally accepted as to be beyond necessity of reference; not even to works written by those who would never, normally, be thought of as ‘multiculturalists’—Samuel Huntington’s (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order or Nathan Glazer’s (1997) We Are All Multiculturalists [sic] Now. (For a discussion of the ‘apparent’ victory of ‘multiculturalism’ in the culture wars begun in 1987 by Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, see Buell, 1998: 553-61.) Still, evident or not, the term ‘multiculturalism,’ when used indefinitely as a substantive, remains controversial against a growing accord over the facts of the matter.

The most general of those facts may, however, be adequately summarized in the following: The world at large and the social worlds of most societies in it are affected by global (as distinct from nationalizing) forces that can be called ‘multicultural’ in the sense that ‘peoples of different and often incommensurable cultural affinities live in sufficiently real—or, at least televisual—proximity to each other as to be well aware of each other, and their differences—often to the point of open civil or, even, armed conflict.’ It is possible, of course, to propose a theory of such a state of affairs, but one would hardly be well advised to present himself as, say, a ‘multiculturalist’ in the sense that persons who are thought to suppose the modern world is coming to an end are referred to as ‘postmodernists.’ This may be why two of the more ambitious theories of the present, end-of-millennium world are decidedly not ‘postmodernist,’ even though both argue that with the end of the Cold War in 1990 the world itself changed decisively—either by a clearing of the decks so that the true monoculture may thrive (Fukyama, 1992), or by the end of the West’s cultural dominance (Huntington, 1996).

Hence, the dilemma attendant upon any serious consideration of the word ‘multiculturalism.’ It is a word so embedded in ‘facts’ (in, that is, warrantable presumptions about the ‘real world’) that one might have a theory in its name only when one’s feet are planted on some factual ground similar to the kind that would be required to support some other person’s ‘postmodernism.’ The two terms, and their factual subject matters, are empirically allied, which accounts for the tendency to treat them as virtual cognates, thus to ignore that their respective relations to fact are distinguishable by the kind of fact entailed—certain and available in the one case (‘multiculturalism’); possible and presently unavailable in the other (‘postmodernism’). Those who might wish to use either term are well advised to use either or both cautiously (if only because, in a multicultural world, the unglossed use of such terms exposes one to the threat of being thought of as a ‘postmodernist’).

Therefore, a premise: Though the world today may or may not be postmodern, it is certainly multicultural. This distinction, along with the troubles involved, does not mean it is impossible to speak of such a practice as ‘multicultural theory’ (though, if one must, one should avoid at all costs the usage ‘multiculturalist theory,’ which, apart from the inelegance, is a slur of sorts). It is possible, however, to ‘have’ or ‘hold’ a ‘multicultural theory’ in the sense of sharing an empirically reliable, if not universally held, attitude with respect to the world’s current state of being whatever it is becoming. Still, even this expression requires great care. Theories of the world as it is, whether professional or practical ones, are always, at best, representations of the world. They are, thus, no better and no worse than the facts upon which they rely—and everyone knows that all facts are ever vulnerable to question, even doubt.

Therefore: here, for once, the proper and classic sense of the word ‘theory’ applies strictly. As is seldom noted, the original Greek theoros meant ‘one who travels in order to see things.’ Hence, if one wants to use the term ‘theory’ properly there is no better field of facts in respect to which it might be used than this, present and (presumably) actually, existing, multicultural world. A theory of the multicultural word would be something that could only be accomplished by traveling about in order to see the varieties of things practiced in the name of the world’s multiple cultures. This is why one who speaks of ‘multicultural theory’ is always at risk of contradiction (if not down right embarrassment). The use of the word ‘multicultural’ requires a settled opinion, based on reliable (if not incontrovertible) facts as to the state of the real world. Hence, to be a ‘multiculturalist’ [sic]- as in Glazer (1997)—is to purport to be a proper member of ‘reality.’ This is plainly absurd. What is neither absurd nor embarrassing is to believe that people, including oneself, are not wrong to have and hold theories of their world that would account for its many-cultured nature. Therefore, a theory may be ‘multicultural’ only because it is agreed that ‘multicultural’ is a proper word with which to modify the term ‘world’ (on which, more soon).

It is true that, as in many things, modern times (even postmodern ones) have lost much of what was sensible and good in olden times such as those of ancient Greece. Today, sadly, theories claim to be able to analyse and organize vast reaches of observable social realities—a practice outlandishly alien to the original practices done in the name of theory. The Greeks were never so much theorists, as they were philosophers—lovers of the wisdom of their own powerful, but local culture. ‘Theory,’ as we have come to use it today, has broken all relations with philosophy—as, indeed, if Richard Rorty (1979) is to be trusted, philosophy itself has long since broken off with its own foundational practices.

So, to speak today of ‘multicultural theory’ one must not speak any too modernishly, as if ‘theory’ only referred to a certain high discourse associated with claims to general truth about very large categories of things like justices, recognitions, welfares and the like. To attempt to speak, or write, this way, even theoretically, of the varieties of cultures inhabiting the world today, would be imprudent for reason of the certainty that the behavior will redouble one’s trouble by virtue of misusing ‘theory’ as a substantive available for modification by the adjective ‘multicultural’—hence, to err twice in one move.

To allude to the Greeks in this way is not to trifle with meanings or common sense. It may very well be that it is impossible to use the word ‘theory’ as it has descended into modern usages in reference to the subject immediately at hand. Hence, irony, once again: at the very moment when the world, being multicultural, presents itself ready for the original Greek sense of ‘theory,’ modernists (having lost their habit of studying the Greeks) no longer trust them to know what they are talking about as they did even in the earliest days when a person or persons we know as ‘Homer’ taught them a theory of what came to be their civilization by telling stories of travels he, or they, either undertook or heard reports of. Homer’s stories were, in every respect, shocking, upsetting and entertaining. We would not know these stories if the Greeks had not first loved them and incorporated them into their own surprisingly multicultural dramas (Constantinidis, 1996, who, otherwise, and prudently, objects to ‘multiculturalism’).

By contrast, against every shred of common sense, some moderns (or modernists, if you choose) consider ‘multicultural’ stories told by authors probably as multiple as those who told the Homeric fables to be of surprising, arbitrary and of recent origin—and, thus, as intrusions upon their values. This is why, as any wide awake reader of the newspapers of the last years of the second post-Hellenic millennium knew, those who used the words ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘postmodernism’ as invective meant also to attack those who think of themselves as doers of ‘theory’ in other than the official Enlightenment sense (as, that is, the general organizing truth of a category of officially sanctioned facts).

Hence, one can hardly speak of ‘theory’ in relation to the ‘multicultural’ without examining the thing, the multiplicities of which make for the shockingly aggressive adjective ‘culture,’ which forms the basis for ‘multicultural theory.’ Even the Greeks, and certainly the Romans, understood very well that their manners of worship were opposed by those of alien social and political groups. I use here the word ‘worship,’ because that indeed was the earliest, now obsolete, sense of our word ‘culture.’ It was only very late in the nineteenth century that the idea of ‘culture’ as a sustained order of common intellectual habit came into use. Only a truly modernist cast of mind could pervert so lively a word as ‘culture’ to such administrative purposes. Today’s idea of’culture’ (which came into its own about the same century as did today’s idea of ‘theory’) was taken, it seems, at close range in the late nineteenth century from the biologist’s idea of a ‘culture’ as a medium in which one can grow microbes and other sometimes dangerous organisms. The current meaning in use among social theorists, including various social scientists, fell out of the sky after a long semantic journey from the cultivation of crops to the cultivation of the minds of human individuals. What can be learned from this passing glance at the word’s history in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition) is that ‘culture’ refers to very local stuff—as in, those idols worshipped in a given temple, the crops grown in a specific field, the mind (or at best class of minds) educable in a given pedagogic practice, or the stuff that grows in this or that petri dish. To speak of’culture’ in a global sense is to speak nonsense—particularly so when the culture in question is the purported totality of global cultures.

The problem here, of course, is with the term ‘world,’ which finally I get to after having, at the outset, said that a multicultural theory, if any, must be grounded upon the facts of the ‘real world.’ Is it by accident that this word derives from the Teutonic world (for which, just as curiously, there is no Gothic equivalent) that came into something like its current usage only after Charlemagne established the Holy Roman Empire? Then, and for most of its history through Old English, ‘world’ meant something like ‘this life’ as opposed to the ‘other’—or, in the OED meaning: ‘the earthly state of human existence.’ In other words, the very idea of ‘world’—whether multicultural or not—assumes some limiting condition in time, and perhaps space as well, on the human order. To speak of a ‘world’ is to speak of limits, or finitude. Worlds recognize their borders with other worlds. In the beginning of semantic time, the recognition was of transcending worlds (as in the distinction most social theorists learn from Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism between ‘this worldly’ and ‘other worldly’ ascetic practices). Today, when some still want to argue about the meaning of the word ‘multicultural’ as affixed to ‘world’ (hence to suggest something real in itself), the distinctions implied are ironic. Since the high modern era, just before the word ‘culture’ became necessary in the sociological sense in the nineteenth century, ‘world’ took a perverse turn into its present confused state of meaning. As the colonial regimes of Europe and America sought to organize the many ‘cultures’ of the earth over which they were extending the arm of Enlightenment policing, the word ‘world’ came to designate the idea that all things human were naturally subsumable under a term that (again Weber) referred not to the other world but to the varieties of this worldly ethical conduct. In the nineteenth century ‘world’ came to carry a secularized sense of the ‘profane’ or ‘mundane’—as in: ‘The guests were often this-worldly, often profane’ (Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi [1883]).

About the same time, which was also when ‘culture’ and ‘theory’ came into their ‘modern’ meanings, ‘world’ took on the absurd meaning the modernizers meant it to have, something like: ‘the unifying state of all human cultures.’ At first, such a meaning was limited enough to allow that those colonized were different in some measurable degree from the colonizers. The main idea was that the missionaries, slave traders and early anthropologists among others who traded for profit beyond the seas were offering a unifying ‘culture’ in exchange for the goods and services extracted from the regions they overran with their marvelous horses and superior firepower. Hence, the modern, quasi-secularized idea of ‘the world’ is at best a ruse covering the unholy motives of the colonial system—which are currently disguised in such forms as the vestigial modernization theory that continues to influence the lending policies of the World Bank.

To speak of ‘a world,’ then, is to speak of some or another distinction or set of distinctions organizing the volume of presumed social spaces that might be said to be ‘real’ in some sense. Here, more trouble, still. If social theorists are honest with themselves, they will admit that they don’t really know what they are talking about when they use the word ‘reality.’ Today, not even the philosophers can help very much on this score. But even if they could, social theorists who aim to satisfy an empirical impulse would ignore them. This is why, in the hollowed hallways and lecture rooms, sometimes even in books, one encounters the expression ‘real world.’ This is actually a very hip expression—one that serves simultaneously to let the auditors of professorial wisdom know that the professor means to ‘speak to them,’ even as he nods in the direction of whichever colleague may be within hearing, thus to suggest that the speaker holds himself to the high standard of certifiable truth-giving—that is, ‘reality’ (Locke, [1690]).

The problem here is that, though there may well be a reality out there beyond the apperceptive competencies in which normal human beings trust, there is no ‘world’ in the sense the term is used. The world that is still to be distinguished as ‘this world’ from ‘the other world’ can only be considered a Unity in relation to a possibly transcendent one. To use the word ‘world’ as we so blithely do to imply some coherence in the sphere of social and other things that transpire around the earth is, as I said, to speak nonsense. This nonsense, however, has been a very powerful one. It is the nonsense of the modern which, until recently, operated without too much resistance under the illusion that its truth was Truth itself, from which there were but a few steps to the quasiscientific idea that what grows in European or American petri dishes will and should grow in all petri dishes.

This is why, when all is said and done, one cannot even speak of a ‘multicultural theory’ in the sense of a theory apt to a practical world in which all things therein are ‘multicultural.’ If the ‘world’ is multicultural, then, strictly speaking, it is no longer a ‘world,’ in the current common sense of the term.

But, in current, turn-of-millennium usage, one could speak of the ‘multicultural’ in relation to ‘the globe,’ which surprisingly early in the sixteenth century came into currency out of the prior and proper sense of ‘a globe,’ that is: ‘a body having (accurately or approximately) the form of a sphere’—for which the O ED lists the first occurrence as 1551, two years before its first recorded use with the definite article:‘the globe.’ It would be, however, some centuries yet, at the height of Enlightenment faith, before the explorations of the sixteenth century on a physical ‘globe’ would come to produce ‘the globe’ as a surface upon which ‘culture’ ought be spread. Hence, in 1752, even so skeptical a party to enlightenment as David Hume would say: ‘The same set of manners will follow a nation over the whole globe’ (OED, 2nd edition; emphasis added). It was, thus, during the eighteenth century that ‘world’ and ‘globe’ came to be united, as they are today, by sly first appearances of what, a century after, came to be known as ‘culture.’ The foundational principle of Enlightenment doctrine was, simply but honestly enough, that everything in the ‘world’ is governed by intelligible laws the knowledge of which is, thus, the basis for reason, hence civilization.

In Isaiah Berlin’s succinct words (1999: 119), the ‘essence’ of Enlightenment, indeed of the whole of Western rationality that came clear in the eighteenth century, ‘is that there is a body of facts to which we must submit. Science is submission, science is being guided by the nature of things, scrupulous regard for what there is, non-deviation from the facts, understanding, knowledge, adaptation.’ Thus it became possible to speak confidently of ‘the globe’ only when the political economy of the colonial system drew up over its brutish shoulders the mannered cloak of a one, and true, ‘culture’ which was thought to be the scientific essence of the ‘real’ world. Or, as Ralph Waldo Emerson would put it in Nature in 1836: ‘All science has but one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature.’ This entailed, of course, the beginning of the end of ‘worship’ as the desideratum of necessity for ‘culture,’ allowing ‘culture’ to become the more rigorous term for the ‘manners’ that would follow ‘a’ nation across the globe, in Hume’s word. Emerson, thus, had left the religious ministry eventually to become the acknowledged founder of the uniquely American ‘culture’ he announced in The American Scholar, presented at Harvard the year following his remark on nature, which at the time referred to ‘nature’ as we know it, but also to ‘life’ as such.

The word ‘multiculturalism,’ therefore, leads the social theorist in many directions at once. Its connotative risks owe, curiously, to its denotative necessity. It may well be that those few who would prefer that the world were not ‘multicultural’ win the day even as they are losing it. The word would not appear in conversation as it does were it not controversial in ‘fact.’ Part of that controversy is, of course, over the ‘facts’ of the world.

Theoretical Troubles Caused by Multiculturalism

Trouble associated with the history of the term is real trouble as much because of what ‘multiculturalism’ entails about the facts of the world as for what the word means. To be sure, some—for example, Glazer (1997)—are famously upset by the way the word is sometimes used as a political weapon. Arthur Schlesinger, for another example, writes of the prevailing multiculturalism of ethnic groups that were freshly in evidence in America in the 1980s: ‘The ethnic revolt against the melting pot has reached the point, in rhetoric at least, though not I think in reality, of a denial of the idea of a common culture and a single society’ (1991: 76; emphasis added). Schlesinger bemoans the threats to his society’s national identity by the rise of group loyalties to ethnic identities among African, Asian, Native, Caribbean and other Latin Americans, among numerous others. (But, for the other side see, among many examples, JanMohamed and Lloyd, 1990; Lowe, 1996.)

By extension, and in actual political practice, the sense of threat to national identity can be associated with others who swear an allegiance to some or several social groups not necessarily ethnic or racial, but also evidently not nationalist—notably, the varieties of what are sometimes called queer identities (especially gay and lesbian), feminisms of various kinds and what may roughly be called ‘identities owing to a sense of post-colonial experience.’ For an admirably respectful objection to these kinds of identity movements, see Jean Bethke Elshtain’s Democracy on Trial (1995).

Obviously, what is particularly unnerving to strong monoculturalists like Schlesinger and gentler ones like Elshtain is that multiculturalism as it applies to groups of individuals in a society is never simple. It is entirely possible that individuals may identify themselves with a considerable number of social and ethnic groups long before they come to think of themselves as ‘American’ or, for that matter, Dutch or British, Russian or Congolese. An individual born and bred within the territories of the United States may—for example, Anzaldua (1987)—think of herself as Chicana, lesbian, mestiza and tejana, among other possibilities, without ever supposing that she is significantly ‘American.’ The unnerving wrought by strong identity politics like Anzaldua’s arises upon the impression that identity choices are simply ‘choices’ and, thus, are ‘merely personal’ or even psychological—thus all the more a decline along the slippery slope away from the monocultural ideal thought to hold a nation together. Anyone who reads Anzalda, or any of those in the border-culture tradition, understand very well that, though she writes personally, she is writing of the politics of social exclusions.

By further extension, the logic of fear associated with multicultural reality is that the world as a whole is as subject to these new allegiances as is even so radically multicultural a society as the United States (Habermas, 1994). When the idea of a world culture of any kind is subjected to scrutiny, it becomes an uncertain possibility—at least relative to the world system to which it would presumably apply (Appadurai, 1996; Wallerstein, 1991). Still, the prospect of an unqualifiedly multicultural world calls into question the supposed unity of humankind, just as in a given society like the American it threatens, in Schlesinger’s words, ‘the idea of common culture’—which is to say: ‘the idea that what grows in one’s national petri dish is good once and for all, and probably good for all humankind.’

‘Common culture’ is, thus, the social ethical foundation of Western culture since, at least, the eighteenth century. It is, in short, that by which the goodness of a society, or of the society of all humans, is determined. But, ideals are always subject to argument, even among those who profess to share them. Those arguments may be said to be the principal topic of the gossip—or, in the word used at the end of the millennium, the ‘discourse’—of civil society. Those who enter the argument in their local coffee shops, cocktail parties, or taverns do so from the points of view of their actual concrete lives. As a result, local talk of the good society always turns toward other, more arguable, subjects: general principles, applicable values and specific social policies.

Western culture in modern times has considered it important that there be universal principles on the basis of which the good society may be established. The literature on this subject is too vast, and in some respects too familiar, to permit, or require, elaboration (still, for a succinct summary of the issues in relation to multiculturalism, see Charles Taylor, 1994). Without going into the long history of this discussion, going back at least to Hobbes and Augustine, not to mention Aristotle and Plato, it is sufficient to say that, at the turn of the twentieth century, the wider argument about the multicultural turned on two general kinds of universal principles.

The one concerned the universality of rights; the other, universal principles of justice. Evidently, as much as some have tried, the two are inseparable. They are two sides of any argument over the principles at stake in the ethics of organized society, as in the familiar argument that good rights policies yield good justice outcomes (Rawls, 1971). Still, the two principles invite legitimate disagreement over emphasis, even when they are not used in mutual exclusion.

Those who emphasize rights tend to think of the political and economic individual as the moral force behind (hence as the effective, if not the original, source of) whatever may be good in the good society. Their politics tend toward the protection of the rights of the individual. ‘Rights’ people are, therefore, typically associated with political opinions Americans think of as ‘conservative’ and Europeans think of as ‘liberal,’ in the classic, nineteenth century sense. (On the historic convergence of conservative, liberal, and socialist principles, see Wallerstein, 1995, and esp. 1998: 15-33.)

By contrast, those who emphasize justice generally believe that when many individuals are left to pursue their well-protected rights they will sort themselves into stronger and weaker groups; hence into a social arrangement wherein the stronger will deprive the latter of their rights. Justice-people, therefore, are inclined to trust some larger social entity (in modern times, usually the well-managed state, whether socialist or social democratic, even liberal) as the guarantor of individual rights or, more robustly, of social outcomes in respect to many, if not all, of the goods thought to be necessary or desirable in the good society. An emphasis on justice, therefore, is typically associated with politics that Americans think of as ‘left-liberal’ and Europeans think of as just plain ‘left’ or ‘social democratic,’ occasionally still ‘socialist.’

One of the not very well thought through consequences of the necessary, if variable, relationship of rights to justices is that, when the discussion attends to the specific goods, or social and economic outcomes, assured by the general principles, distinctions are very much more clear, to the point of incommensurability. Hence, those who speak earnestly of rights almost always consider the primary good in any society to be freedoms. Freedom may seem to be an abstraction, but in practice it demands very specific policies with respect to privacy, speech, property, mobility. When freedoms are entertained in public, the freedom (for example) of a pregnant woman to pursue her right to bodily privacy can come up against rival claims on behalf of the right to life of her fetus (a freedom that becomes public because of the proven wisdom of seeking an abortion at the hands of a qualified physician).

Whereas rights-people usually (though not exclusively) think of freedoms, those who speak of justice as the ultimate principle in a good society tend to think of equality as the more applicable value. Justice-people would think of the good society as one that guarantees basic equalities with respect to outcomes, ranging from civil rights and certain social opportunities (such as education in the United States) to more comprehensive social and economic outcomes (as in certain Scandinavian societies). Obviously, though distinguishable, arguments emphasizing equalities can be used against strong freedoms arguments. One of the stronger arguments in support of a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy is framed against the specific history of unequal access to information, health care and social supports available to women, especially poor women, most especially poor women of color, that may render them less able to protect the long-term right to life of a child (including the child’s rights or alleged rights to health, education, safety and other social goods). Injustices demand a correction in the unequal availability of social goods, including certain goods deemed to be actual or virtual rights.

Still, the argument gets even more harsh, when the principles that issue in applicable values come to entail local social policies. Though people may share a principled appreciation for rights and justices, and may sing the virtues of freedoms and equalities, they will seldom agree on specific policies governing the local administration of the social goods glorified in principles or hinted at in values. In practice—that is, in real arguments in coffee shops in Des Moines or bars in Palaiseau—it is seldom the case that a strong justice argument will trump a strong rights argument; or vice-versa. Opponents move to the barricades, or the picket lines, even the bricks or bullets, with frightful ease.

As a result, any theoretical argument over multiculturalism, if it is to stop short of violence, must be moved with dispatch to concrete cases. Ultimately, when people are ready to fight over the facts of the multicultural world they live in, they are in actual practice ready to fight over specific (even if imagined) assaults upon their freedoms, or specific (even if imagined) deprivations in their equal access to social goods (including freedoms). Arguments turn to fights when real or allegedly real freedoms and equalities are at stake. As a result, a clear-headed understanding of the specific social policies by which social goods are distributed in a multicultural society is doubly difficult. In an uncontestedly modern culture there is a presumption of agreement over the principles, values and policies in question. In a multicultural society the modernist ideal of a stabilizing common culture is held in doubt. One might even say that a multicultural society (whether global or national; whether modern or postmodern) is one in which there is no presumption of prior accord over such questions as these: what are the social goods? who should get which ones?—and in what proportions? As a result, multiculturalism makes less sense as a theory of societies (including purportedly global ones) than as a study of the applicable values governing specific social policies by which the goods of a good society are distributed.

Here is where the argument turns dirty. Struggles over freedoms and equalities, in addition to being struggles over social goods or necessities, are always also struggles over social life itself. Individuals never enter society clean and clear of enquiries into their right to belong. The right to belong may be distinguished from rights to the social goods normally associated with belonging. Membership (sometimes called ‘citizenship’) is the first condition for rights-eligibility. Or, put cynically, the first recourse of those in a position of power sufficient to protect their freedoms and unequal advantages is to deny membership to evident or potential rivals for the goods they consider theirs—by right or otherwise. Liberals, in the broad and inclusive sense of the word, have done this by using citizenship as much to exclude as to include (Wallerstein, 1995, 1998: 21-5). Hence, the first question put to all, whether implicitly or explicitly, is the question of one’s right to identify oneself as a claimant on fair shares of the goods available in the social entities to which one petitions for inclusion.

Here is where the debate turns dirty because here is where it turns from principles of rights or justices, even from the specific value of freedoms against equalities, even from this or that policy, to the down-right ugly question of identities—as in ‘identity politics’ (of which the first known use is Goffman, 1963: 123-5). Far from being, as so many think, a matter of personal self-understanding, identity is always political because declarations of identity, when made, are always and necessarily made on the verge of demanding membership. The demand is freedom itself; the membership is always the demand for an equal share of whatever may be the social goods of value in this or that locale.

When all is said and done, the important questions associated with political discussions of ‘identity’ are, first: ‘How does the human individual understand herself in relation to which social things?,’ and secondly: ‘What rights and claims are associated with her identity claims?’ In the real world of scarcities, declarations and investigations of identities are always, immediately or ultimately, claims on goods that disturb prevailing social policies and practices. Questions of identity are of intense, often vicious, public interest because it is widely recognized (though seldom discussed) that when members of established human groups require certifications from petitioners for inclusion by enquiries on the theme ‘who they think they are,’ this requirement extends well beyond its superficial spiritual values into the realm of real or potential demands for material, as well as social (and spiritual), inclusion. When, for an example, those previously excluded from, say, a fair share of competent education demand an equal share of the goods associated with a so-called ‘educational opportunity,’ they are simultaneously saying: ‘I belong; therefore I am a rightful claimant, on my own terms.’ This is the point all too often overlooked by those like Schlesinger and Glazer (not to mention Gitlin, 1995) when they complain about the identity demands of those previously dealt unequal access to social and economic goods for which a proper ‘education’ is expected.

This is where those who object to identity politics as overly personal go wrong. Those who hate (or fear, or doubt) multiculturalism tend most of all to object to identity politics as a trivializing of real politics by a petulant insistence upon personal recognition. Elshtain (1995: 58), referring to queer identity politics, says, disapprovingly: ‘If politics is reducible to the “eruption of radical feelings”, something as seemingly “ordinary” as protest against an unjust war lacks radical panache. Personal authenticity becomes the test of political credibility.’ It is true that identity politics involve radical feelings and questions of personal authenticity, but it is not true that they involve ‘nothing more’ than a preoccupation with the personal. The problem arises in most cases by a misunderstanding of the essentially social and political nature of the identity question.

The ‘Who am I?’ question is, of course, subject to abuses of all kinds. Still it must be answered because one cannot get round it. Were it the case that individuals were utterly and unqualifiedly self-sufficient, then there would be no question of their identity. Curiously, in the whole of Western literature only one being was ever considered utterly self-sufficient—and he is one whose precise status in being is open to doubt (in large part because of his claim to self-sufficiency). When Moses enquired (Exodus 3:14) as to the identity of the being by whom he was being addressed through the mediation of a burning bush, God answered, ‘I am who I am.’ Except in comedies of various kinds, no ordinary human would think to respond in this fashion because all humans recognize the need to ‘identify’ themselves, especially upon presentation in foreign crowds where rights of membership are open to inspection (Goffman, 1963). It might, therefore, be said that the ability to recognize responsibility for answering this question—if only by providing a name, even an alias—is what makes us human. One might even say that a ‘human being’ is ‘that creature sufficiently conscious of its individual limitations as to be capable of representing himself as a proper member of associations of other creatures of like kind—with all the duties and privileges appertaining thereto.’

‘Identity,’ therefore, is one of the more abstract names humans may use in recognition that they are wittingly ‘who they are’ by consequence of the choices they make (among those available, when they are made available) to associate with other humans (Taylor, 1989, 1994). The types of choices vary over time (in respect to which, a recent succinct summary is Walzer, 1997). In ancient Greece, among other traditional social orders, it was common to identify with one’s kin group (or family) and one’s polis (or societal community). In modern times, it was expected that one would identify with one’s ‘nation-state.’ In multicultural (whether modern or postmodern) times, it is said that people are inclined to identify with their ethnic, sexual-orientational, racial, religious, immigrant or engendered social groups. The list of possibilities is, in principle, indefinitely long. For an individual to declare him- or herself an Athenian, an American, a follower of Christ, a Lakota, a bisexual, a Jew, a feminist and so on (and not to mention, several at once), is to acknowledge membership or memberships by which those interested are meant to derive an answer to the question ‘Who are you?’ The ‘Who am I?’ question, thus, bears with it an ever ready (even if provisional) answer, poised in anticipation of the inevitable enquiry from another, ‘Who are you?’ To be human is to have an answer at the ready.

Ultimately, identity politics are the politics that more sternly test principles, values and policies. An individual’s freedoms and equalities are made known in the first instance by entry into foreign company: Who possesses the right to inspect the candidate? How does she reply? And with what answer or answers? And, is she accredited (or not) to answer as she does? Is the answer acceptable? These are the proper, first questions for a sociological investigation of just how freedoms and equalities are distributed in a society. They are often precisely the questions asked in the study of what academic sociologists call social stratification, for which the first empirical line is always the basic demographics: Name? Address? Class? Race? Ethnicity?—and so forth and so on!

If, then, the identity question is so essential (possibly the only completely essential human question), why then does ‘identity’—or more precisely, ‘identity politics’—drive some people nuts when they are confronted with the reality of a multicultural world? At first blush, the answer would seem to be simple, and may well be. The inspection of the identity cards of the newly immigrant, or the recently assertive, is only a troubling political questions when those groups are either palpably ignorant of (by virtue of immigrant status) or morally resistant to (by virtue of their assertiveness) the prevailing rules of social order. In principle this is a problem for any social group of any size, but at the end of the millennium it became an especially troubling problem for those with vested interests in the nation-state as the principal unit of social membership (hence, of privilege and its attendant duties).

‘Multicultural,’ to repeat (and to amplify), is a proper adjective in reference to any world in which there is widespread dissensus with respect to membership rules, which is to say: principles, values, policies—and, above all, proper identity confessions. That the United States, a good number of European nation-states and perhaps the cultures of the world taken as a global whole might be called ‘multicultural’ is tribute to the indisputably social and political (as opposed to ‘personal’) value of identity. There are no identity politics (at least not in visible public) in social arrangements (including nation-states) when members of subordinate groups are sufficiently deprived of equal access to the social goods as to be unfree to claim their memberships as they see them.

Hence, the irony of identity politics at the end of the twentieth century. This was a time when, for a number reasons, confidence in universal principles of humankind fell into grave doubt. The nation-state regimes of the modern world system had proven themselves since the long sixteenth century, perfectly capable of atrocities equal to the worst of the premodern systems. Yet, they prided themselves in somehow being morally better than the others, which pride extended to the presumption that their principles were truly universal; hence of considered value to all humankind. These were, in effect, values of the sort that claimed to have reduced the identity question to its thinnest possible value. The expectation was that, in the liberal modern regime, all humans would gladly reply that they were, of course, ‘simply human.’ Since the expectation and, where given with a straight face, the reply are on the face absurd, it is remarkable that until recently so few groups laughed out loud. They did not, of course, because the politically weaker among them were vulnerable to the protections and regulations of the nation-state and its various economic, military and judicial instrumentalities.

Or, to put the matter from the point of view of those in the weaker positions in such an arrangement, members of many social groups—ethnic, racial, gender, sexual, economic and others—were in effect deprived of the right to answer the identity question freely. It is entirely reasonable to assume that they might have, in principle, honestly replied by affirming their identification with the democratic values of this or that nation-state had anything in their experience caused them to believe that the universal principles of either rights or justices of those states merited their loyalty. In fact, little in the actual experience, over many years of most immigrant groups, most minority ethnic groups, most minority racial groups, all gays and lesbians, most women (so on and so forth) would truly have inspired confidence in the democratic principles of any of the major democratic societies of the European Diaspora. On the contrary, the actual, practical experience of those whose migrations and assertions have created the multicultural world is one of injury—and most especially the injury of exclusion which, in effect, is the injury of non-recognition.

Hence, the situation as it stood at the turn of the last millennium: ‘multicultural,’ insofar as it then referred to a theoretical claim, referred in effect to an argument among loyalists to the centrist liberal state, which had already entered into its decline. The grounds for argument were complicated by the evidence since the revolutions of 1968 of the precarious promise and unpredictability of liberal democracy (Elshtain, 1995; also Wallerstein, 1995, 1998). Those who complain about the culture of complaint (Hughes, 1993) or the loss of a common vision miss the fundamental fact of the world as it is. Even the most injured by injustice, even the most deprived of their rights, affirm the ideals of the democratic order—and do so with a courage that puts the lie to those who claim that, somehow, the principles of that order are in effect long-proven, well-established and true in practice.

A Multicultural Social Theory?

Insofar as the multicultural world affects social theory, it does so by transposing social ethical questions of rights and justices into questions of the nature of social and political membership and participation. In so doing a multicultural social theory reveals the necessarily left-leaning nature of social theory itself. Though the expression ‘social theory’ is sometimes used duplicitously by conservatives to claim membership in a conversational circle to which they have no natural affinity, conservative politics and ‘social theory’ mix poorly. ‘Social theory’ may be distinguished from any specific instance of theory in a social ‘science’ (as in ‘sociological theory’) by virtue of its willingness to abandon the favors of a strict scientific presentation for an analysis of social reality that permits, even welcomes, a frankly political and normative commitment.

This is why what passes for multicultural social theory is always entirely an argument between and among proponents of various left, or as some would say ‘progressive’ (for example, Unger and West, 1998: 25) or ‘radical’ (for example, Giddens, 1994: 11-21), social theorists. Social theory, thus, as it had come to be understood at the end of the twentieth century, devolved in some more or less direct fashion from the ‘personal politics’ ideal of the revolutions of 1968. Why that social moment in particular led to such a dramatic transformation of the social and political debates of the previous two centuries is hard to say. The answer may lie in the exhaustion of the traditional categories of liberal culture (Wallerstein, 1995)—of, that is, attempts to resolve questions of rights and justices by formal references to the preferences for individuals or societies as the rival causal sources for the origins of social life (not to mention of the long-standing tensions between Enlightenment and Romanticism, Berlin, 1999). Though the rivalries and tensions remain, the only truly informative social theoretical instances of multicultural theory take the form of arguments over the relative merits of a politics of recognition (or identity politics) and the politics of redistribution (or postsocialist socialism).

On the surface, this would appear to be ‘nothing more’ than a rehash of the rights or justice debate. But, it is more. Proponents of the politics of recognition assert that identity politics entail a real political struggle to overcome the effects of injuries inflicted by well-structured social (as opposed to interpersonal) insults (Taylor, 1994: 25-44, 63). Though the injury is experienced qua individual and usually entails a deprivation of rights, it is understood to be a consequence of membership in a social group (such as African guest workers in France) subjected to injustices at the hand of the host society. On the other side, those who are fixed on a postsocialist politics of redistribution are justice people who recognize, however awkwardly, that the politics of recognition must be taken into any viable account of redistributive justice (for examples, Fraser, 1997; Young, 1990).

Though, as the millennium ended, there was far from perfect resolution of the debates among multicultural social theorists—or about multiculturalism and the multicultural world—it did seem that within the proper domain of social theory there was an important, if incomplete, transformation in the way social things, and their ethical and political consequences, were thought. One (but only one) sign of that change was recognition of real human differences that appeared in the wake of a lessening of hard commitments to categorical differences—those between rights and justices, between freedoms and equalities, and those between the individual and his or her societal world.

However high the moral principle, however true the theoretical concept, the plain fact is that there are mothers whose babies cry for milk. And cry they do because those charged with feeding the hungry refuse to recognize the essential membership, even of the babies, in the community of humans. The mothers do not give a damn about principles, values, or concepts. They care about life, which in this world is never so much supported by animal instincts as by social memberships. The growing recognition of the multicultural world accompanies a declining commitment to categories of all kinds.

In the new times, it remains to be seen if the multiculturalism debate at the end of the old millennium truly led to more milk for all babies.