From multiculturalism to diversity: some critical remarks

Work in progress, not for citing.

As a concept, diversity is one of the most ideal-loaded and obscure terms of contemporary politics and one that attracts more and more theory. Diversity politics takes the existence of human differences of any kind as a starting point both empirically (as a necessary fact) and prescriptively (as a value worth promoting). It does not refer to any specific type of being different, although ethnicity, religion, culture and sexual preference are its common objects. Western states, non-governmental and international organizations, among others, claim to embrace diversity. In addition, there is a rise of diversity talk at all levels of government and administration in the EU – ‘unity in diversity’ is being recurrently celebrated in the EU’s official political discourse. It maintains that diversity is not only possible, but advantageous for the community and its members. (Kraus 2012.) Promoting the process of diversification requires that various alleged flaws of biased statism and nationalism are balanced and corrected.

Thus, diversity politics refers to recognizing and organizing ‘differences’ at the level of liberal state and society according to a specific idea of the normative goodness of diversity/differences as such (Modood 2007; Parekh 2000; Rex 2000). Diversity politics is the second round of idealization: starting from ‘difference’, the first round of transforming liberal and statist presumptions into more ’inclusive’ ones, it continues to the level where it takes differences for granted and reflects instead what to ‘do’ with the whole bunch of them.

The scholarly side of diversity politics is a burgeoning area of literature extending from fairly rationally formulated ideas to radical moral critique.1 According to Cooper (2004: 5), diversity politics is intellectually situated “at the confluence of several currents that include liberalism, communitarianism, poststructuralism, post-Marxism, feminism, postcolonialism and queer.” In relation to immigration, the discourse of diversity acts as a moral remedy against homogeneity, nationalism, racism and violence. According to Lentin and Titley (2008: 11):

As a form of benevolent teleology, [diversity politics] promises a tentative yet perhaps final recognition of the inescapability of difference, and a corrective to the pronounced historical tendency of European nation-states to deny heterogeneity through the insistent production of imagined homogeneity.

Diversity is at the center of both actual politics and political theory and “there are good reasons for assuming that it will remain there for quite a while” (Kraus 2012: 6; see also Meer and Modood 2012.) Or, as Vertovec (2012: 309) has put it, “[diversity] has been institutionalized, internationalized and internalized – and is here to stay in one form or another.” The success of diversity is sustained by various formulations deriving from a cursory but fundamentally powerful idea that “differences express themselves freely” (Hardt and Negri 2005: 101). Apparently, the assertion is incorrect, taken the remarkable efforts that are needed to propagate the idea of diversity in the first place.

On the other hand, the concept of diversity could not be that forceful if it was only constituted in the way left-liberal ideologies and academic sects traditionally constituted the concept of difference (Freeden 1998: 512-513). In practices of states, diversity has been subsumed into centre-rightist and market-orientated discourse and bureaucratic practice, although its scholarly connotations still refer almost exclusively to leftist critical and feminist domains.

Ashes of liberal multiculturalism

At a more practical level, diversity politics encompasses various immigration, minority and integration discourses and policies, as well as more general ideas of constructing and reconstructing communities. It concerns both expressing values and designing and implementing policies. As celebrating pluralism and diversity, promoting tolerance, respect and equality and resisting discrimination, it is basically parallel to many principles of multiculturalism (Kelly 2007). However, we can find a few explanations why diversity has much replaced multiculturalism both in theory and politics.

First, as an ideological stance and a descriptive fact of contemporary societies, multiculturalism is so eclectic and disputed that it has to be defined over and over again when used either theoretically or politically, or the both at the same time (Solomos and Schuster 2003). Primarily, this is not a problem of the concept of multiculturalism itself or any other concept whatsoever, but of the wider research community, which exploits and abuses concepts which once may have been of analytical (and political) relevance and coins new ones. Politics, for its part, exacerbates this, as it has a natural tendency to eviscerate concepts in order to use them easily but seductively enough. Conceptual quarrels are efficient in dimming the meaningful focus of studies, especially when concepts and their use (discourses) are regarded as the most substantive area of scholarship in the first place.

Second, multiculturalism is originally based on organizing, literally, different cultures and thus ignores, at least theoretically if not practically, other bases of difference (cf. Song 2007: 4-8). While the category of culture is undoubtedly relevant in immigration more generally, it is neither sufficient nor the most important one. As Vertovec (2010) argues, multiculturalism does not take into account the country of origin of immigrants, channels of migration, their transnational engagement or loyalties. More importantly, it does not take into account the socio-economic class of arriving migrants. Furthermore, at the realm of state policy the dividing line between legal and illegal immigrants is getting more important, both in relation to immigration in general and immigrants as human beings in particular (Triandafyllidou 2010). This crucial split is out of the focus of multiculturalism, which is more preoccupied to reflect how the society should be organized once ‘differences’ are already in. Eventually, multiculturalism is simply not multi enough, taken the growing domain of diversities and subsequent rights claims beyond the terrain of culture.

Third, multiculturalism as an official policy has provoked hostility in many European countries and is nowadays often replaced with other integration and accommodation policies, designed, for example, to improve societal cohesion and solve problems of isolation and personal vulnerability (Modood 2007; Vertovec and Wessendorf 2010). The objection has occurred through two interrelated paths, public debate and official policies. Public discourses and opinions vary from country to country and reflect views on immigration and minorities in general (Coenders, Lubbers and Scheepers 2013), but the broad sentiment is turning more negative, officially subscribed or not (McLaren 2012; Vertovec and Wessendorf 2010). Distancing from the inflammable ‘M-word’ has become common among vocal political actors (Vertovec and Wessendorf 2010). The backlash in the official policies of the UK, for instance, has become even more pronounced, as “borders need to be reclaimed” to ensure “hard-headed selection of genuinely talented individuals based on our national interest” (Cameron 2011). Instead the ‘D-word’, it seems, is conceptually, politically and normatively much more resilient to unfavorable real-world influences – but preserves the dominant normative idea.

For states, there are two different paths away from ’old-fashioned’ multiculturalism. The first option is to make immigration more difficult in general by increasing and strengthening controlling and regulating mechanisms. This has happened recently in many European countries (Joppke 2004, 2012). The second way, pursued often in tandem with the former, is to direct immigration and immigrant policies away from multiculturalist to other integration types. This has occurred both in classical multicultural states, such as Britain, and in inclusive welfare states, such as Sweden (Joppke 2004; Schierup and Ålund 2011). The change in concepts and general guidelines serves as a political response either to alleged failures of multiculturalism or to frightening election results, in which anti-immigrant and populist parties have gained strength. Then, the official relevance of multiculturalism has diminished at the same time as challenges of the globalizing world and its diverse societies have proliferated and intensified. Of course, no immigration model can succeed or fail as a mere concept, but the substance of policies and their context is more at issue (Lenard 2012). Nevertheless, the flexibility of concepts is politically highly advantageous.

Theoretically, traditional multiculturalism has transformed into more human-centered, emphasizing individualistic, identity-based and fluid determinants of belonging, in contrast to communitarian, group-based and more fixed perceptions of past years. Multiculturalism was accused of holding an essentialist image of human identity, for instance because it assumes the context of communities (and states) to be crucial (Mason 2007). Its top-down focus has shifted into a fundamental and ‘critical’ understanding of the significance of bottom-up-approaches, micro-practices, visibilities and the supremacy of ‘everyday’ as meaningful instances of proper diversity. Multiculturalism is thus far too large, coercive and state-centered as compared to more autonomous diversity.

Diversity politics is often based on an overall critique of liberalism and its restricted notion of subject and community. Academic discussion, once strongly adhered to Anglo-American and specifically Canadian-Australian multiculturalism, is nowadays more continental and abstract, concentrating on multiple spaces of difference and diversity, contexts of power shifts and symbolic agency.

In general, diversity politics blends cosmopolitanism and humanitarianism with multiculturalism. Morally universal and empirically diverse agents, detached from states, are derived from cosmopolitanism envisioning unbounded diversity. Cosmopolitanism asserts the value of free and facile movement between actual existing communities, both as an essential right in itself and as a means to obtain higher equality and justice. (Caney 2006.) Humanitarianism is applied for articulations of a rights-based humanized subject and a progressive duty-based role for states and international and global institutions in recognizing, organizing and safeguarding the value of diversity. Finally, multiculturalism contributes the celebration of diversity and values of tolerance, non-discrimination and ‘dialogue’. What still has an impact on the specific substance of intellectual diversity politics, is its reflection with liberalism: some perspectives are merely echoing mainstream liberal trajectories while others, increasingly, are abandoning these altogether and instead build on critical and poststructural positions. (See, for example, Cooper 2004; Horton 2003; Kelly 2007; Lentin and Titley 2008; Mason 2007; Modood 2007; Parekh 2000; Phillips 2007; Vertovec 2010; Vincent 2003.)

As official state policies, also theory is replete with new concepts ranging from ‘critical multiculturalism’ via ‘interculturalism’ to ‘diversity’. While theorists are often strongly committed to one particular concept over another, there are definitely more similarities than any significant differences between the versions. They are updated or revised versions of some forms of ideas traditionally called as ‘multiculturalism’. Some perspectives reflect the critique targeted against multiculturalism and subsequently claim to ‘learn’ from its failures (Meer and Modood 2011). Others contend that their new concept is not “a disguised — form of multiculturalism” (Bouchard 2011: 438), but nonetheless identify its key features generally in an identical manner. Differences are merely semantic. While correcting unworkable hypotheses and redefining theories is of course not forbidden but recommended, this remark should be read as a critique as well.

First, it is a critique against the idea that a choice of concepts could carry theories or (meaningful) policies. It does not make any difference what concept is used if our ‘results’ derive from a predetermined set of normative ideas and thoughts of what should be. Conceptual creations are not bringing forth any valid portrayal of reality or its actual transformation, but merely intervene into self-made discursive territories. As there are no systematic means to assess the value of subjective machineries of meta-discourses, such as diversity, the interpretation is endless. The bibliometric ballooning of diversity tells more about research fields themselves than improves our understanding of the outside reality, no matter how cautiously defined. Conceptual fine-tuning should follow analytical thought, not foreground and drive entire perspectives, which just affirm and ‘perform’ their predetermined and privileged beliefs.

Second, it is also a critique toward the incessant construction of ‘essentialist traps’ believed to threaten us practically everywhere we see ‘difference’ (Benhabib 2004; Kraus 2012; Mason 2007; Modood 2007; Phillips 2007). The trap warns that only by inventing more inclusive, sensitive and critical concepts and frameworks we are able to eschew it. As this is eventually impossible, the more tangible result is that we end up studying merely non-generalizable ‘accidents’ or echoing a priori political and righteous arguments as academic, or often, both. In the meantime, many relevant issues remain secondary – or are totally absent within the academic discussion.

The legitimation of indeterminacy

The ‘fact’ of present-day diversity contains, presupposes and depends upon elements which are non-empirical, normative, even intellectual products (Lentin and Titley 2008). The differences between its philosophical, ideological and political forms are obscure and intentionally made irrelevant, at the same time as individual and societal ‘emotions’ are blended. Its normative and political quiddity obfuscates both its analytical thrust and administrative and policy prospects. Despite it has evolved into a “diffuse, indeed maddeningly spongy and imprecise, discursive field” (Hall 2001, cited in Vertovec 2010), its use and applications are proliferating.

Ideas of humanitarianism and diversity have greatly converged and the confluence of theory and politics is noteworthy in both. This indeterminacy of essence and ethico-political relevancy have been legitimated as a necessary response to the transformation of the world into more complex and uncertain. The process is reciprocal, as the ‘diverse world’ appears such particularly when there is no ordering between various claims, judgments and domains, no strategies to put preferences for aspirations in order, but when political and normative issues are treated in an equal fashion as if they deserve the same commitment – in other words, when there is no clear and binding human choice (Chandler 2013). The idea is detached from politics as a realm of undertaking action and decisions. Political decisions, traditionally, are the ones that are supposed to curtail the detriments caused by various ‘complexities’, not be ruled out by them. Furthermore, because there is no ‘truth’ in the complexity, various presentations of the society – in and by politics, media, research and other powerful communication – become more significant and pronounced. The more complex the issue is, the less people can access it directly, but instead have to lean on different presentations and interpretations. This is likely to increase the power of righteous politics, whose ultimate significance rests more on pathos than logos in an Aristotelian sense. The authority of conveyors of the discourse derives always more from transcendental than epistemic sources.

Diversity politics takes distance from traditional multiculturalism and is ‘post-multicultural’ in the sense that it combines diversity with more conformity and ‘fuses’ conflicting agendas (Vertovec 2010). It can reconcile with recent restrictions on immigration and ‘intolerant’ election results and retain its legitimacy (for example, Scheffer 2011). It is capable of transcending the previous collisions between liberalism and multiculturalism both in theory and politics – either through abstraction or by sliding into a technical conception of politics. Therefore, it seems, not only theory but also politics is about discourses, adjusting concepts and phrases, only occasionally obtruding into any deeper level of implementing.

Discourses then get institutionalized in every-day practices, political strategies, plans of action and rhetorical guidelines of policies. They strengthen one another and constitute further ‘ideas’, gradually forming an evolving foundation of ‘diversity’. The previous formal level of multiculturalist policies has shifted into a more informal and social level of diversity, which is far more difficult to ’access’ and thus to evaluate. Most importantly, diversity politics engulfs any real-world adversities and dissents without collapsing itself; it cannot fail in a way multiculturalism has (perhaps) failed. Because there are no expressed goals or targets beyond its ambition as a whole, there are no unintended consequences either.

The discourse of diversity is overly stretchy and arbitrary. The structure itself seems to be the main impetus for its development. Words and ideas carry the whole fabric, as the connection with the ‘real’ is secondary. They derive from and lean against a variety of other concepts and discourses, which are used to strengthen the ideal core both descriptively and normatively, in different cases and contexts (see Freeden 1998). It is difficult, if not impossible, to get out of the discourse – it determines theoretical, methodological, normative and empirical insights. Most importantly, there is no clear boundary between the essence of theoretical discussion and political programs on diversity.

To be effective in the political realm of the state practice, the normative principles resonating in the abstracted and indeterminate concepts need to be rationalized. Multiple adjacent concepts and related interpretations can be used to justify and dilute the normative overload of the fundamental principle. Diversity has become mainstreamed both in market language and in economic discourses of efficiency and discipline by the state.2 Western labor markets are in need of either high-skilled or low-paid ‘diversities’ (Joppke 2012). The widened scope of ideal discourses is self-serving in the sense that disagreeing, even ultimately contrasting, sides can be merged, seemingly but sufficiently, inside the same normative enterprise. “Its melange of multiculturalist assumptions, management philosophies and individualist diagnoses and solutions” (Lentin and Titley 2008: 21) is indeed diversity’s most significant, yet absurd, strength – and this has more to do with the external world than the internal (ir-)rationalities of the idea itself.

Hence, flexible discourses may occupy any position endorsed by ethico-political or rationalized outlooks. Diversity politics and neoliberal rationalities of economy, for instance, are interdependent in their shared content of detachment and free identity. The former derives many of its identity claims from the broken connection between citizens and states, while the latter uses the same reserve to emphasize the utility of freely accumulating capital and global arbitrage. Both explicitly or implicitly allude to universal features of humans (consumers) and their free-flowing rights (to buy). Statist assumptions are an anathema to both.


Diversity is approached and criticized here as a theoretical and political idea, which carries much more discursive than tangible relevance. However, this should not be interpreted as if it is only hot air or jargon. First of all, as discussed, it is in a notably prominent position within the intellectual and academic sphere. Furthermore, within politics, the discursive terrain also defines and constitutes limits and bounds of the liberal state in its ‘making of morality’. It is necessary to understand that the causal properties of even ‘false’ beliefs may be significant, even if we did not regard these spongy ideas as ideologies. If beautiful words, they are, in all likelihood, powerful political words. Those controlling the doxa of political thought in some context undeniably exert notable influence on action; although unlikely that kind of influence the thought itself is prescribing.

The descriptive and explanatory role of diversity could be properly discovered only through self-critical research taking the extra-discursive realm into account – that is, by marginalizing its reading as ‘ethics’ and instead forcing it to become the object of more conventional analysis. If we are to critically examine and understand politics, actors who exploit these discourses have to be taken into a close scrutiny. It is relevant to ask what determines the outward capacity, aspiration and power of these ideas – because, as demonstrated, it cannot be their intrinsic functionality, neither as motivational nor instrumental conceptions. Finally, it is much safer to take any idea of moral progress with a grain, both generally and in analytical terms: we need to be skeptical about politics in the first place. If our scholarly (or political) motivation is more realist and critical than transformative and utopian, this seems as the basic starting level of making any further assumptions.


Work in progress, not for citing.


1 Theoretically somewhat related terms are ‘politics of difference’ (Young 1990), ‘politics of recognition’ (Taylor 1994) and even ‘identity politics’ in some of its outlooks (for example, Eisenberg and Kymlicka 2011). Also ‘politics of belonging’ (Yuval-Davis 2011) share many similar characteristics with diversity politics.

2 Recently, the increasing popularity of ‘resilience’ points to the same direction, see Chandler 2013. The relationship between diversity and resilience is mutually validating, as with greater diversity, it appears, there comes an increased ability to survive and flourish, that is better resilience.


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