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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society


  VOLUME 8 (2001)

Global Multiculturalism: Comparative Perspectives on Ethnicity, Race, and Nation, edited by Grant H. Cornwell and Eve Walsh Stoddard, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (2000), 368 pp..


Reviewed by Frank J. Lechner, Department of Sociology, Emory University.


For all the faddish talk of "multiculturalism" in the 1990s, there are few serious academic studies of the subject. Yet it offers scholars a great opportunity: here is an idea that spread across the globe and changed, at least among many elites, common ways of thinking about the diversity of nation-states. It would go too far to echo the title of one American essay on the subject by saying that "we" are all multiculturalists now, for "we" are not. But more and more of "us" are, and even those who aren’t must now contend with a new global discourse. How, and to what extent, did multiculturalism become a global model for dealing with internal divisions? How did integration-via-assimilation lose its luster? What does multiculturalism mean for different groups? How did it play out in particular contexts?

Reporting the results of an eight-year project on "Cultural Encounters" at St. Lawrence University, Cornwell and Stoddard shed some light on such questions. They initially equate multiculturalism with the mere fact of diversity in states made up of more than one culture or ethnic group. From this diversity stem certain tensions, notably between "cementing a national identity" and "recognizing . . . identities that can cross national boundaries" (pp. 14-5). This multiculturalism, which I would call descriptive, provides the theme for most of the case studies that make up this volume. But multiculturalism is now more than just a descriptive category. As the "glue binding the major Western nation-states is weakening" (p. 6), divisions are now to be negotiated, differences to be dealt with as such. Multiculturalism becomes a deliberate approach to diversity, a type of normative discourse. In some countries, it has been adopted as official policy. This multiculturalism, which I would call reflexive, more closely relates to the global questions posed above. At least some of the essays in this book go beyond description of diversity to address this deeper dimension of the subject.

Organized into three parts, the volume examines diverse approaches to diversity as nation-states wrestle with the unsettling impact of three potential fault lines: ethnicity, race, and inequality. All the essays are informative to some degree, but they vary in the extent to which they address the problem of multiculturalism. Some, such as essays on the Chinese in Thailand or on postcolonial Kenya, mostly shed light on the form of diversity in those countries. A chapter on race and land reform in Zimbabwe efficiently reviews the history of struggle over land ownership in that country, but does not systematically pursue its consequences for Zimbabwe’s current version of national identity--difficult to define though it may be. Other contributors, for example in chapters on France and Brazil, probe more deeply into the implications of the presence of "others" for previously universalistic notions of national identity. An essay on the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas shows, in useful historical detail, how the struggle between indigenous groups and the state has helped to open up the Mexican political system, but does not pursue the consequences of assertive "indigenismo" for the redefinition of Mexican national identity. From my point of view, the most successful chapters are those that address the multicultural theme head on, because they deal with cases in which multiculturalism has become a fairly explicit part of official discourse and policy. For example, Stoddard and Cornwell contribute a chapter on Trinidad and Tobago, under the telling title "Miscegenation as a Metaphor for Nation-Building," and Dupont and Lemarchand analyze Canada’s official multiculturalism, showing how its virtuous rhetoric has provoked various critical political responses.

Partly because the book offers few explicit comparisons, it is difficult to draw general lessons from the long series of cases. The Canada chapter provides some: "the facticity of diversity does not induce, in itself, multiculturalism," the authors argue; the latter is "a solution to specific problems" but also "a construction, and . . . debatable as such" (p. 311). Multiculturalism can come in different guises, they add: as diktat, as myth, or (ironically) as assimilation device. And even where it becomes state policy it may leave the structural organization of power unchanged (p. 329). Multiculturalism as a form of containing and celebrating difference may therefore fail--for example, because it can be used as a power tool, because it can degenerate into mere division for division’s sake, or because it can fail to make a dent in actual monocultural forms of domination.

As the editors recognize, "[t]he parceling of chapters and states into unitary containers masks transnational identities that spring from indigenous locations, diasporas, and globalization of the workforce" (p. 16). Some essays in the book do touch on such transnational links, but few analyze them thoroughly. For example, the Brazil chapter only tantalizingly mentions the role of international conventions and the international music industry in supporting a movement of racial solidarity. The Mexico chapter focuses on indigeneity as it plays out in that country, without situating the Zapatistas as part of a global movement. Apart from the editors, few contributors address an issue raised by the title of the book, namely how multiculturalism "went global." To be sure, charting the flow of initially nebulous, sometimes esoteric ideas is hard. But with the historical evidence at its disposal, this group of scholars could have said more about that flow. Only occasionally do we get a glimpse of the globalization of multiculturalism as a model, for example when the chapter on Canada briefly shows how the meaning of multiculturalism there changed under the influence of a discourse flowing back from the United States. By examining multiculturalism primarily within the confines of particular nation-states, this book takes on a postmodern problem in surprisingly modernist fashion.

In its selection of evidence, the book does convey a postmodern sensibility. Some chapters, such as those on Zimbabwe and Bosnia, examine the "hard" realities of racial or ethnic politics; a chapter on China examines actual minority policy. But most contributions rely on interpretation of some symbolic display of identity--the controversy about racial mixing in Trinidad, representations of race in the Brazilian mass media, various cultural performances in Guatemala, arguments about what it means to be French articulated in hearings of a commission on nationality, artistic renderings of African-American double consciousness in the U.S., and so on. Of course, such analyses are indispensable in understanding the meaning of meanings. But in nation-states, identities crystallize in rules and relations, institutions and policies. Understanding multiculturalism in practice, therefore, requires more institutional analysis than this volume provides. For example, a reader of the French chapter would want to know how educational practices changed after the work nationality commission, taking into account the distinctive position of Muslim minorities, had made the traditional French understanding of integration more problematic. Similarly, closer analysis of the "structural organization of power" would have provided stronger empirical backing for the skepticism about the reality of multiculturalism that some chapters understandably express.

Linking the symbolic politics of identity to actual policy formation and power struggles, on a global scale no less, is a tall order. It is no fault of this book that it does not constitute an exemplar for how to carry out such multidimensional, distinctly global analysis. Had it been more successful in realizing its ambition, it might indeed have offered the "new paradigm for a critical and transdisciplinary approach to global studies" (p. ix) promised by the editors.