Multiculturalism: facilitating unity, not division

Elise Rietveld

Extreme irregularities only divert our attention away from the strengths of multiculturalism, which has helped us a lot  over the decades

Extreme irregularities only divert our attention away from the strengths of multiculturalism, which has helped us a lot over the decades

Leading figures in academia, politics and the media, including British Prime-Minister David Cameron, have accused multiculturalism of being divisive. But closer inspection shows that actually, it offers the most coherent way of reconciling unity, equality and diversity in multicultural societies.

When people talk about issues such as segregation, alienation and even radicalisation, they often point to multiculturalism, a set of ideas and principles that suggest a particular policy approach to diversity in society. They claim that recognising the diverse identities, practices and beliefs of different groups in society would discourage interaction between people from different groups. And it then becomes difficult to see what holds these different groups together in one big group, the population of a country that together decides on how it is ruled. In other words, multiculturalism appears to threaten the unity of the polity. But what exactly is that unity, and how should we think about it when devising policies to foster it? This remains somewhat unclear in the arguments against multiculturalism, but also in the work of those who support it. I will try to clear up some of this confusion in this blog, based on my doctoral research. I will argue that contrary to what was suggested above, multiculturalism actually presents the most defensible and plausible account of unity available to us.

Both political theorists and political elites involved in shaping policy responses to unity approach the issue in different ways. They highlight different problems, causes and solutions and value different goals. But any conception of unity must involve some notion of what the whole that is united is, of who belongs to that united whole, of how these different parts are united, and of how such unity can be impeded and fostered. With the help of these questions, we can roughly identify three different ways of thinking about unity advocated by contemporary political theorists and the British and Dutch political elites my research focused on. Let’s call them ‘political’, ‘national’, and ‘multicultural’.

In the ‘political’ conception of unity, which we can recognise in the work of thinkers such as John Rawls (1993), individual citizens belong to a state, a governing structure rather than a community. They do so through rationally held shared political beliefs and values that all can agree on despite their differences; if these were not shared, unity would be impeded. The difficulty with this conception of unity is that in modern multicultural societies, we cannot simply assume that such beliefs are widely shared. This is because we cannot neatly separate the values that govern our private lives from the political principles that inform the public sphere. In reality, the political values that underpin democratic institutions tend to be shaped by their historical and cultural context and that is why they make sense to people. States cannot avoid making judgments that are closer to the (private) values of some than others when they decide on, for example, which days are public holidays, official languages, and how things like marriage and divorce are regulated. For example, humane slaughter legislation may reflect the beliefs of a majority in most European countries, but not those of religious minorities. That means that far from including everyone on a basis of equality by being neutral, the principles that underpin politics sit more easily with the values of some, usually the majority, than others, usually minorities: they may unite part of the polity, but not all of it.

If this sounds more like division than unity, the same goes for the ‘national’ conception of unity that we can identify in the work of thinkers such as David Miller (1995). Again, a segment of the equal citizens that are supposedly united into a self-governing nation is left out of the equation. Here, the national identity that explains how these citizens belong to the nation is usually conceptualised as grounded in a shared history. But minorities who arrived in the last century or so do not always share this history, or its interpretation. For example, Pakistanis in the UK may not share an identification with the Tudor dynasty or the glory of Empire – and in fact, they may well see the latter as deplorable. A national identity based on such contentious and contextual historical experiences fails to unite all citizens. And demands that minorities simply adapt their identities to overcome such impeded unity are not only slightly unrealistic, as differences always remain, but also challenge the democratic ideal of equal citizenship as it would raise the norms and identities of some over those of others who were supposed to be equals.

Short of sacrificing the ideal of equal citizenship to foster unity in our multicultural societies, the ‘multicultural’ conception of unity that we may find in the work of thinkers such as Bikhu Parekh (2000) and Tariq Modood (2007) offers an elegant way out of our dilemma. It recognises how citizens are always part of groups that shape their identities and life chances, and also how they belong to the polity. This united whole is based on diversity and equality: all citizens, with their identities and beliefs, are equal members of the polity. That means they share equal rights and have their values reflected in regulations where appropriate (even if that means that some groups receive exemptions from general rules), but also that they face no obstacles to taking part in different practices in society (such as employment, education and civil society) and see themselves reflected in the symbols and narratives of the polity. Recognising how citizens have different beliefs, values and backgrounds, then, is central to equality, as failing to do so would likely favour a majority group. But it is also crucial to unity, which is enabled precisely by equal membership. After all, minority citizens are more likely to take part in and feel part of the polity if they are seen and treated as such by others.

Even if the ‘multicultural’ conception of unity proves most convincing, however, some might say that it is implausible in countries like the UK and the Netherlands, where multiculturalism has been widely questioned in the media and beyond. But my research found that actually, this conception of unity is compatible with the ideas expressed by political elites there. They generally agreed on the importance of equal citizenship and the freedom and diversity it implies, which are central to the ‘multicultural’ conception of unity. Sure, they often thought that unity requires a shared national identity or shared political values, but the ‘multicultural’ conception of unity is open to such different ways of belonging to or affiliating with the polity. Citizens can be part of the whole in different ways, as long as they are equal. They do not all have to have certain interpretations of political principles, as in the ‘political’ conception of unity, or all have to identify with a national identity built on a shared history, as in the ‘national’ one. By avoiding such uniformity, then, the ‘multicultural’ conception of unity is not only more defensible, as we saw above, but also more plausible than its alternatives.

So far from inciting division, multiculturalism actually furthers unity. And now that we understand a little more clearly how to think about unity, we can begin the task of finding the best ways to foster it.

Elise Rietveld is a PhD student at Cardiff University where she researches multiculturalism and national identity. She holds a joint MA in European Studies from the University of Bath, Science Po Paris and the University of Washington, Seattle. Her interests are in politics, international relations and social justice.


Miller, D. (1995) On Nationality. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Modood, T. (2007) Multiculturalism: a civic idea. Cambridge: Polity.

Rawls, J. (1993) Political Liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.

Parekh, B. (2000) Rethinking Multiculturalism: cultural diversity and political theory. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.