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How many shared values does society need?

18 March, 2009
by has a review of Werner Schiffauers (sorry, both German links) book  Parallelgesellschaften – Parallel Societies. Do we need a common set of values?

Schiffauer, a well-known German anthropologist, who has been studying Turkish migrant communities in Germany (and other European countries) for a long time, challenges in his latest book the (in Europa and Germany) wide-spread belief that social integration depends on a shared set of values. Instead he postulates – and demonstrates with reference to a number of case-studies – that countries with highly diverse cultural beliefs can function very well – if … if there is a climate which values cultural exchange and sees „culture“ not as a monolithic entity.

An important prerequisite for successful cultural and social integration is the recognition, on the part of policy makers, the media and the education system, that people have multiple identities and life-styles, with fluid, overlapping and changing boundaries between them. In contrast are those policies of difference, often (mistakenly) appearing under the label of „multiculturalism“, which make us belief that people (migrants or mainstream) adhere to one exclusive and well-defined set of values.

Here I am reminded of Amartya Sens eloquent critique of this view, which he calls “plural monoculturalism.” Sen notes that, for example, multiculturalism in Britain has come to stand for the view that “distinct cultures must somehow remain in secluded boxes.”

If a young girl in a conservative immigrant family wants to go out on a date with an English boy, that would certainly be a multicultural initiative. In contrast, the attempt by her guardians to stop her from doing this … is hardly a multicultural move, since it seeks to keep the cultures separate. And yet it is the parents’ prohibition … that seems to garner the loudest and most vocal defense from alleged multiculturalists on the grounds of the importance of honouring traditional cultures, as if the cultural freedom of the young woman were of no relevance whatever.

The presentation of migrant communities living in some kind of „parallel societies“ – a view propagated by a number of German media – is a dangerous one, as it misrepresents the reality of most migrants in Germany by placing them in the prison of culture, thus alienating many and turning all to often into a self-fullfilling prophesy.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 April, 2009 5:04 am

    Defining ‘culture’ is a tricky thing. Most of the times, we go back to invoking ‘culture’ as if it’s something out there, justifying our choices and actions, and legitimizing the ‘righteousness’ of our beliefs. Besides, when ‘culture’ and ‘nation’ (or ‘race’ or ‘ethnicity) define each other, we run into further problems as we end up essentializing both – and providing the false appearance of material infrastructure in the national institutions (as if the locus of culture is in ‘national history’, ‘national museums’, the ‘national poet’ etc.).

    It’s hard to see how any discussions about multiculturalism or living in a diverse society can bring anything new unless they break free with nationalism or racism.

    Can you post a reference to Amartya Sens’ critique? Thx.

  2. Michaela permalink
    17 April, 2009 8:19 pm

    here is the link to the article

    Chili and Liberty
    by Amartya Sen
    The New Republic/ Issue date: 02.27.06

  3. 23 April, 2009 10:45 pm

    Glad to see that course readings are coming in handy!


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