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Cultural Reification in Multicultural Society and its Relationship with Minority Rights

Eugenie Lonmene Ngnintedem / 790514 T 144 IMER Research Field, block 1 Migration, Community Life and Culture 04/10/2010

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As an international student in Europe for many years now, multiculturalism had appeared to me to be one of the most interesting concepts that, established, will give the possibility for immigrants, like me, to feel accepted and respected with her culture as someone participating to the beautiful diversity of a particular society instead of being looked like an invader. I had the feeling that as an individual belonging to the minority, multiculturalism promotes the respect of my rights to have my culture in a host country. However, a deep look into this concept of multiculturalism made me to realize that through multiculturalism, my ethnicity tends to be reified in a way I did not want it to be reified. I started then to develop more critical thinking about others reification of my ethnicity and about my reification of my culture and its impact in a host country. This paper is a critical discussion about cultural reification in a multicultural society and its relationship with minority rights. In order to develop this discussion, I will first of all try to bring clarification of the concept of multiculturalism according to Inglis; explain, with the use of Benhabibs and Baumans writing, how and in which context cultures are more likely to be reified in multicultural societies. By doing so, I will introduce, primordialism, the theory that supports this reification of culture and I will show the weakness of this theory according to Benhabib, Eller & Coughlan. Finally I will show the desirable impact of this reification of culture on minority rights as Bauman sees it, as well as its weakness as Benhabib perceives it. Multiculturalism is one of the concepts that are really difficult to define among scholars. In order to clarify this concept, Inglis presents three distinctive use of multiculturalism in the public debate that are,
1. Demographic-descriptive: This usage occurs where 'multicultural' is used to refer to

the existence of ethnically or racially diverse segments in the population of a society or State.1
2. Programmatic-political: It refers to specific types of programs and policy initiatives

designed to respond to and manage ethnic diversity2 and


3. Ideological-normative: For which multiculturalism emphasises that acknowledging

the existence of ethnic diversity and ensuring the rights of individuals to retain their culture should go hand in hand with enjoying full access to, participation in, and
1

Christine Inglis, Multiculturalism: New Policy Responses to Diversity, retrieved 4 october 2010, < http://www.unesco.org/most/pp4.htm#clarification>. 2 Ibid.

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adherence to, constitutional principles and commonly shared values prevailing in the society3 Examples on the programmatic-political clarification of multiculturalism according to Inglis can be found in the way conservatives and progressives, according to Benhabib, look at the preservation and propagation of culture differences. Benhabib notes, conservatives argue that cultures should be preserved in order to keep groups separate, because cultural hybridity generates conflicts and instability. progressives, by contrast, claim that cultures should be preserved in order to rectify patterns of domination and symbolic injury involving the misrecognition and oppression of some cultures by others. 4 These arguments on the preservation and propagation of cultural difference from conservatives and progressives are seen, by Benhabib, as a way to clearly delineate cultures and human groups and identify them as entities that coexist; in other words, it is what she called mosaic multiculturalism5. Bauman also reports Rothschilds description of ethnopolitics view of culture which is according to him a process of mobilizing ethnicity in order to alter or reinforce systems of structured inequality between and among ethnic categories.6 By doing so, ethnopolitics reify cultural heritage or ethnicity and see them as a thing that someone possess. Indeed, Bauman quotes Kapferer who sees this process as the reification of culture, the production of culture as an object in itself7 This perception of ethnicity is linked to the primordial attachments, according to Geertz, - that stems from the givens of social existence: givenness that stems from being born into a particular religious community, speaking a particular language, or even a dialect or a language, and following particular social practices.8 In my experience as immigrants, I came to realize that this reification of cultures is commonly practiced in a society either by the majority group - when they talk about themselves and when they talk about the culture of the minority groups- or by the minority groups - when they refer to their culture in their community and when they refer to the culture of the dominant group in the society-. For example, some weeks ago,
3 4

Ibid. Benhabib, Sayla, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, p4. 5 Ibid, p8. 6 Bauman, Gerd Contesting Cultures. Discourses of Identity in Multi-Ethnic London. Cambridge university Press, 1996, p11. 7 Ibid, p12. 8 Clifford Geertz, quoted in Ethnicity, Oxford University Press, 1996, p 41-42.

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during a dinner with Swedish friends, a female friend called my attention to look in the street through the window a woman that was dressed with a burka. In what she said, she was trying to call my attention to look at this Muslim woman, who is in Sweden, but is still obliged to live according to her religious culture. She added that the Muslim men who live in Sweden do not understand that they are living in a country where womens oppression is wrong. This call for attention of my friend shows that she sees burka as a thing belonging to the Islam and as a symbol of women oppression in the Islam culture. At the same time, she sees Sweden, her country, as a place where people have the culture of women emancipation. On the other hand, I remember that some months ago, I was watching a film program on a TV channel, that I no longer remember the name, where an Atheist female lecturer used to mock in class a female student wearing hijab, who according to her was belonging to a religion that promotes womens oppression and did not want to see that she was oppressed because she was imposed to wear hijab instead of being free like the American Atheist lady she was. Tired of the mockery of her lecturer, the female student wearing hijab went into her office and made her lecturer understand that it is from her free will that she is Muslim and is wearing hijab; no one forced her to do so. She also mentioned that she should be free to believe in a deity and added that American women are not as free as they try to pretend because they are living in another form of bondage like anorexia and bulimia something that does not exist in her culture. Again in this example, we can see that the Atheist American lecturer perceives hijab the same way my Swedish friend perceived burka; and the answer of her female student wearing hijab shows that she sees bulimia and anorexia as a bondage that belongs to the American society, or exist among American women and does not belong to her culture. In other words, I understood that the female student was trying to say, we do not have bulimia or anorexia in our community, but you have it in your culture. Benhabibs quotation and Turners reveal to me that these reifications of culture either by the Swedish female friend, or the female Atheist American lecturer, or the female Muslim student wearing hijab overemphasize the internal homogeneity of cultures by treating cultures as badges of group identity, it tends to fetishize them in ways that put them beyond the reach of critical analysis.9 Eller & Coughlan confirm that when they
9

Benhabib, Sayla, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, p4.

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write, Primordialism has tended to treat the identification or primordial attachments as the successful and inevitable end of analysis.10 Indeed, Bauman presents ethnographers perception of culture as not being a thing, but an abstract and purely analytical notion that does not cause behavior, but summarizes an abstraction from it. Culture thus exists only insofar as it is performed.11 In other words, it is a social construction; idea defended by Benhabib who sees social constructivism as a comprehensive explanation of cultural differences.12 Nevertheless, even if primordialism or cultural reification does not allow critical analysis of social practices, it seems to allow ethnopoliticals to manage ethnic diversities in a society by fighting for, or giving to each minority group or community the right to have his culture and to defend it in a case of a discrimination or contestation. Bauman stresses this point by mentioning that even if it makes no sense to use cultural reification for analytical purpose, such a reification of culture must appear necessary if the word is to serve in the contestation of a new kind of rights. 13 Furthermore, in the conclusion of his book, he makes understand that ethnopolitical movements mainly embrace the reification of their cultures in order to have their rights as communities, rights that are different from the traditionally individualist civil rights. These new community rights were to make up for the effects of past discrimination. 14 What if this minority right goes against the right of justice of an individual belonging to the same community or belonging to the majority group, or simply what if this minority right goes against Human Rights or the civil rights? It seems like in this case this primordialist way of looking at culture and giving rights to members of a community to have their culture will not allow to have a critical analysis that give the possibility to critically analyze the cultural defense a member of the minority group might bring to justify his action that may go against Human Rights or the civil rights. It gives the impression that all members belonging to a defendants community have the culture to infringe civil rights or Human Rights and do not have the possibility to integrate in the
10 11

Eller & Coughlan quoted in Ethnicity, Oxford University Press, 1996, p 47.

Bauman, Gerd Contesting Cultures. Discourses of Identity in Multi-Ethnic London. Cambridge university Press, 1996, p11. 12 Benhabib, Sayla, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, p4. 13 Bauman, Gerd Contesting Cultures. Discourses of Identity in Multi-Ethnic London. Cambridge university Press, 1996, p13. 14 Ibid, p198.

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host society or the majority group in order to learn to know, to respect and to practice the customs and laws of the majority group. It seems that only the majority group has to respect the right of the minority group and not the other way around. Benhabib discusses about this issue in Multicultural Defense and Criminal Law when she list cases where cultural defense was used as a strategy. Among them, there is the case of a Japanese American woman who because of her husbands unfaithfulness drowns her children and attempts to drown herself, but is stopped. In court she uses her culture that has parentchild suicide as a custom and is acquitted. Benhabib also uses the case of a Hmong Immigrant who rapes a Laotian American and defends himself in court by explaining that in his tribe this behavior is accepted as a customary way to choose a bride. Finally his sentence is so light and does not correspond to a sentence given in a case of rape. Benhabib makes what I will call a painful but true comment when she mentions that in doing justice to the defendant [who has the right to have his culture], injustice is done to the victims of this very same culture. In the last case, Benhabib adds that the court disregarded the U.S. citizenship [of the Laotian American woman] and judged her according to a cruel primordialist logic through her membership in the Hmong community although she had gained U.S. citizenship. According to Benhabib, cultural defense that is based on primordialist logic gives no room to cultural interpretations and psychological motivation and she asks for a space to give the possibility to challenge the assumptions that all individuals socialized in a culture must act in similar ways and must be intensely motivated by similar values and concerns.15 Reification of cultures seems to be something that one cannot avoid in multicultural societies. People tend to reify their culture and others culture because they are human and have emotion that leads them to perceive their culture and others culture on the basis of their emotion; that is attachement to their culture, or discrimination to other cultures based on a primordialist logic. Because of the emotion involved in individuals perception of their culture, it is impossible to make a critical analysis that allows to understand and to analyze cultural differences and cultural performance. However, this reification looks to be one of the pillar upon which ethnopolitics base their demand for minority rights, different to the civil rights, that gives them the possibility to have their culture as a community. Unfortunately, because these rights are based on a primordialist logic that
15

Benhabib, Sayla, The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002, p86-89.

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allows the mobilization of a group, they fail to give the possibility to critically analyze its impact on an individual level among members of a community living in a society that may have laws and customs different from the laws and customs of the majority group.

Bibliography: Bauman, Gerd (2008) Contesting Culture. Discources of identity in multhi-ethnic London. New York: Cambridge University Press. Benhabib, Seyla (2002) The Claims of culture. Equality and diversity in the Global Era. Princeton University Press. Hutchinson, John & Smith, Anthony D. (ed) (1996) Ethnicity. Oxford Redars. Oxford University Press. Inglis, Christine (1995) Multiculturalism: New Policy Responses to Diversity., retrieved the 4 October 2010, <http://www.unesco.org/most/pp4.htm>.