Sociology 318

October 30 and November 4, 2002

Link to notes on diversity

Multiculturalism and Durkheim

1. Introduction

Durkheim probably did not consider the possibility of multiculturalism and he adopted many of the commonly-held views of his time concerning the superiority of western European "civilization" over that of traditional and "primitive" societies. In addition, he adopted an evolutionary view of society, considering modern societies with a highly developed division of labour to be more advanced than traditional societies with a limited division of labour. At the same time, one of his major concerns was with issues of individuality and difference in modern society and how social order, solidarity, and cohesion developed in these societies. Since issues of diversity and difference have come to the fore in contemporary North America and Europe, it is worthwhile to consider how the classical theorists might have dealt with these issues. In particular, it may be fruitful to examine Durkheim’s writings, to see if there are any parallels between his approach and contemporary multicultural approaches. If there are such parallels, perhaps there are some useful theoretical or applied contributions that Durkheim’s analysis can make to an understanding and analysis of multiculturalism.

My own interest in this topic comes from teaching social theory and from some of the research I have conducted among newcomers to Regina and among undergraduate students at the University of Regina. In both of these cases, I have some survey data concerning views about multiculturalism – representing the experiences of immigrants to Canada who arrived as refugees, and of a cross-section of students. The views of the students may reflect a broader set of attitudes of Canadians toward issues of diversity and multiculturalism.

2. Difference and diversity

Contemporary discussions of diversity take as for granted the division of labour and the expansion and continual change in the division of labour. Instead, diversity today usually refers to differences in national origin, language, culture, ethnicity, and race. These may be broadened to include issues related to relations between males and females and their representation in various institutions and structures and to issues of sexuality although it is only the former that are the subject matter of multicultural approaches in Canada.

See notes on diversity from January 21, 1999

Link to notes on diversity

3. Multiculturalism

a. Meaning of multiculturalism

Multiculturalism concerns the recognition and respect of diverse cultures and people who form those cultures. Fleras defines multiculturalism as

a set of principles, policies, and practices for accommodating diversity as a legitimate and integral component of society. (Fleras in Charlton and Baker, p. 26).

The federal government publication, Multiculturalism ... being Canadian defines multiculturalism as "the recognition of the cultural and racial diversity of Canada and the equality of Canadians of all origins" (p. 3).

Multicultural approaches to cultural diversity are associated with maintenance of some form of cultural difference and accommodating people from various backgrounds who may be, or appear, different and yet are included in society and participate with others as equals. This contrasts with assimilation model of the U. S. (where everyone is to become the same – usually conforming to the white anglo-saxon model), although assimilation may be more myth than reality in the United States. Multiculturalism is sometimes referred to as a mosaic or ethnic pluralism and may be one distinctively Canadian contribution to the larger world around us.

Part of the difficulty of dealing with multiculturalism is that it refers to a variety of possible practices and approaches. When discussing multiculturalism, both the supporters and critics may move back and forth among some of the following.

Note that the meaning of multiculturalism may be different in other countries and times. While it is primarily concerned with immigrant and ethnic groups in Canada, in the United States it is more likely to concern issues related to racial differences and perhaps with male-female differences and sexual orientation. Also note that the ideal and intent of multiculturalism may be confused with the practice and reality of multiculturalism. Members of some minority groups complain that racism and discrimination exist in Canada and this shows that multiculturalism has been a failure. It is clear that not all the ethnic inequalities in income and political participation have been removed from Canadian society. There is unequal treatment of some by the justice system, where individuals of aboriginal or visible minority may be judged more harshly by the courts than are individuals of European ancestry. While these problems exist and these are legitimate complaints, multiculturalism is not entirely responsible for this. It could just as well be argued that there is not enough multiculturalism.

b. Principles of multiculturalism

In an October, 1996 paper, "A ‘Great’ Large Family," Chris Fries (a Sociology major from the University of Regina, now a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Calgary) and I identified several major themes that exist in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. We presented another paper on this topic last month in Edmonton – at a conference entitled "Canada: Global Model for a Multicultural State." At the conference, there was some question about whether Canada really is a model but several speakers presented a view that many other countries (in Europe and Australia and the United States) are having similar experiences to that of Canada in accommodating new forms of cultural and ethnic diversity. Many of the practices and policies being adopted in these other countries is very similar to what we have done in Canada, so that the multicultural model is being adopted in several parts of the world.

While other researchers might identify a different set of themes, or name them differently, the following five themes identify the main features of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.

There may be other, and more important aspects of diversity but, in view of the confusion concerning the meaning of multiculturalism in Canada, these five principles constitute one standard for considering and measuring multiculturalism.

I consider these five principles to be positive ways of dealing with diversity – certainly better than the suspicion, discrimination, ostracism, conflict, or civil war that have accompanied ethnic, racial, and cultural diversity in some parts of the world – e.g. Rwanda, Palestine, or Northern Ireland. There is no doubt that diversity is an essential part of a multicultural approach and without diversity, there might be little need for a multiculturalism. Diversity can mean conflict or mere coexistence, but a multicultural approach is associated with harmonious social relationships. These may be difficult to establish and maintain without some degree of equality, at least some equality of opportunity. While no modern society has equality, and there are always barriers to equal participation, one characteristic of a multicultural approach is that there will be attempts to reduce or eliminate barriers such as discrimination, racism, favouritism, and exclusivity. Finally, the Act recognizes that diverse cultures and background constitute a resource for Canadian society and Canada’s future. Most students here today come from an immigrant ancestry and your parent and grandparents have contributed to the cultural diversity of Canada and to building and strengthening the country.

One of the major criticisms of multiculturalism is that it has not eliminated economic inequality in Canada. As Knuttila argues in your textbook, "multiculturalism might be seen as a mode of social integration that works to cover up class divisions and relations of exploitation by encouraging division and difference among subordinate classes" (Knuttila, p. 255). While this may not be the major feature of multiculturalism, so long as there are major economic and social inequalities, barriers to full participation and equality do exist and multicultural policy may do little to help reduce these barriers. In recent years though, there has been a greater focus of multicultural policy on "antiracism, removal of discriminatory barriers, and institutional accommodation" (Fleras in Charlton and Baker, p. 27). By focusing on social justice as a major theme, the renewed Multiculturalism Program places more emphasis on these issues. At the same time, the phrases "management of diversity," "management of pluralism," or "managing a diverse workplace" have become commonly used in some parts of Canada. These may be a recognition of real problems that will be dealt with in a multicultural manner or they may be thinly disguised phrases for discrimination.

c. Problems with Multiculturalism

Critics of multiculturalism have identified many problems with it, although this is sometimes due to a confusion among the various meanings and uses of the term. Some of the problems are as follows. The first four are from Fleras (in Charlton and Baker).

Divisive. In Mosaic Madness, Reginald Bibby of the University of Lethbridge argued that multiculturalism has helped preserve cultures and languages, but this has not had the effect of uniting Canadians or of bringing them together. Rather, it has helped keep people apart and has been one of the factors responsible for contributing to "cultural group solidarity at the expense of broader social participation" (Bibby from Charlton and Baker, p. 23). Macionis and Gerber note that opponents of multiculturalism believe that cultural patterns should be widely shared and emphasizing different cultures is divisive (p. 74). Further, they note that some people criticize multiculturalism for accommodating too many languages and culture, thus leading to a fractured or fragmented society (p. 73).

This set of views finds expression in two of the interviews that formed the basis for "A ‘Great’ Large Family." One newcomer to Canada that we interviewed said that "activities may help but doesn’t help integration, but can help preserve culture," and another said "I like it and hate it at the same time. We can live in our culture but we are called minority groups. Appears on job applications. You are different. Never be part of the total." Peter Lamborn Wilson makes a powerful statement concerning the divisiveness and separation fostered by multiculturalism (Wilson from Gingrich and Fries, p. 14).

Regressive. Multiculturalism may help to maintain backward cultures, hinder participation, prevent equal education and opportunity, and maintain exploitation and inequality (Fleras in Charlton and Baker, pp. 26 and 30). By limiting the emphasis on overcoming barriers, and by refusing to deal with the inherent structural inequalities in a capitalist economy, the policy ends up being irrelevant or regressive. Further, the legitimate claims of minority ethnic groups may be ignored or sidetracked by those who claim that there is equality and harmony.

Symbol. (Gerber and Macionis, p. 73). The policy may be symbolic in expressing good ideas, but in practice is very limited and has no substance. Resources devoted to multiculturalism may be largely devoted to symbolic aspects of culture, such as ethnic lifestyle, while ignoring the real problems of racism, discrimination, and inequality faced by people in minority cultures. The five themes expressed in the Act may be little more than symbols of what Canadians feel, but with little real meaning. Bibby makes a somewhat different argument when he says that this emphasis on diversity means that there is limited group identity, no group vision, no national goals or dreams, nothing in the value system that marks it as Canadian (Bibby, p. 103). Others have said that with the emphasis on multiculturalism and bilingualism, there is no Canadian identity, and people do not know what it means to be a Canadian.

Impractical. From the left, the argument is often that social class is the central feature of our society, and multicultural policy or practice cannot deal with the inequalities that result from a capitalist social structure. In fact, these policies could become policies of containing or limiting the demands of minority groups, rather than expressing their rights. This appears related to the argument made by Knuttila.

Top-down. Peter Lamborn Wilson argues that multiculturalism should proceed from individuals and groups, not from the top down. (See "Against Multiculturalism: Let n flowers bloom," Instead of government sponsored multiculturalism, Wilson calls for local action and "a non-hierarchic, de-centred web of cultures, each one singular, but not alienated from other cultures." He calls this cross-culturalism but argues that "‘multiculturalism’ must be destroyed."

4. European background

Europe had relatively limited immigration and much emigration in the nineteenth century, and the political agenda in many European regions was often preoccupied with building and strengthening new nation states like France, Germany, and Italy, making them into relatively uniform national units (Tucker, pp. 24-27). Much of the social science analysis that emerged in Europe in the nineteenth century reflected this approach – assuming that there was or would be a nation state with a uniform language and a relatively homogeneous population in terms of ethnicity, race, and culture. In contrast, the North American experience was one of immigration, displacement of aboriginal people, and creation of a new society. While the social sciences were not well developed in North America, among the issues that came to the fore here were ethnicity, ethnic settlement, conditions of life of different ethnic groups, and urban ethnic life. Out of this emerged various applied and theoretical sociological approaches that reflected people's experiences in different parts of North America.

The classical sociological perspectives emerged from the modernist view that developed in the Enlightenment. European social theorists of all political persuasions generally considered earlier societies to be simple or primitive, considered industrialization as progress, and thought of the newly industrializing European societies as "advanced." (Seidman, p. 3). Where there were divisions between national or ethnic groups, these were often viewed "as a product of irrational prejudice or cultural traditions based on custom and myth." (Seidman, p. 6) Further note that

Modern social theory was formed as part of the formation of nation-states, the shift from absolutism to the modern bureaucratic state, the emergence of a world capitalist system, and as part of the age of Western colonialism and imperialism ... Few modern social theorists, not Marx, not Durkheim and not Weber, doubted that Western modernity pointed to the future of all humanity and that the globalization of the West was the necessary and desirable vehicle for driving humanity forward toward its desired endpoint – one world prefigured in the universalistic aspects of contemporary Western nations. (Seidman, pp. 3-4).

While modernist approaches were universalistic and emancipating, they "often had the effect of sacrificing or suppressing individuality or social difference." (Seidman, p. 4). Note that these comments apply not only to the liberal tradition, but also to the radical, revolutionary, socialist, and conflict traditions. The modernist legacy is thus mixed – providing an excellent set of tools and methods for analysing societies with limited cultural difference, but at the same time ignoring, downgrading, and marginalizing those forms of analyses that have emerged to explain social action and interaction in societies with greater cultural diversity.

Kymlicka argues that much of nineteenth century liberal political thought assumed a common national identity (Kymlicka, p. 53), with great nations viewed as carriers of civilization and progress, and small national groups looked on as backward. Writers such as Mill thought that "there should only be one official culture." (Kymlicka, p. 54). While some writers defended the multination state, the dominant view of nineteeth century liberal theorists was that the single culture was advantageous and superior, and should be exported to the colonies. While I have not seen a discussion of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim from this perspective, they tended to write as if there was a nation-state with a single ethnicity and culture and may have implicitly adopted this approach.

5. Durkheim

Durkheim paid little explicit attention to issues of ethnic and cultural diversity in modern societies, perhaps because he was writing in France, a country with a single nationality, although also having different regional "peoples." He was concerned about the decline of tradition and religion, and the loss of moral values that resulted from the growth of individualism and the "disintegration of the roots of stability and authority" as individuals were dislocated from traditional associations and communities (Driedger, 1989, p. 18). He argued that in traditional societies, social solidarity was achieved through similarity of condition, creating similar values and holding society together through what he termed mechanical solidarity.

As societies developed, Durkheim noted that people become different, but it is the interdependence and interaction among people that creates a new social order. Individuals in any society depend on each other, and require the services and products created by the labour of others. Recognition of difference as a normal feature of society creates a new set of common values. Durkheim was generally optimistic that these would hold the new industrial society together through what he termed organic solidarity. Since we need the products of each other’s labour, and are tolerant of differences resulting from the different occupations and ways of life of others, the social recognition and acceptance of these differences help to create this new organic form of social solidarity.

While strong tendencies toward organic solidarity existed in industrial society, Durkheim recognized that the loss of norms and values resulting from a decline in religion might disconnect the individual from society. He termed this condition anomie, a condition of normlessness or rootlessness. Durkheim does not consider ethnicity or ethnic identity as one of the factors that might help to connect the individual to society.

Durkheim cannot be considered to be a theorist of ethnicity, but his emphasis on difference, recognition of difference, and organic solidarity might be used to argue for cultural pluralism or multiculturalism. In the latter, the connection between the individual and society is cultural, rather than based on occupation. Leo Driedger notes that in Canada, ethnicity might be "one focal point of values, norms, authority, and solidarity" (Driedger, 1989, p. 19) that connect the individual and society.

When discussing rights and culture, Kymlicka makes a similar point, noting how important culture is for individuals, providing a sense of belonging, dignity, and self-respect, and providing options – the boundaries of the imaginable (Kymlicka, p. 89). It can be argued that ethnocultural institutions and practices promote "a sense of belonging and relationships of mutual recognition and mutual responsibility" (Kymlicka, p. 90, quoting Tamir).

Further, while multiculturalism emphasizes cultural difference, the ideals of multiculturalism (equality, opportunity, respect, understanding) may themselves become a common set of values that will create social cohesion in a society with considerable cultural diversity.

Finally, religion and family are often strongly connected with ethnicity and ethnic identity, and to the extent that these are integrating forms of solidarity (in Durkheim’s sense), then ethnic identity may be more integrative than divisive.

6. Multiculturalism and Durkheim – parallels and issues

a. Difference and diversity

b. Causes of increased ethnic and cultural diversity

c. What is there to learn from Durkheim about multicultural society?

i. Unity in diversity is a possibility. Durkheim showed how this could happen in the case of the division of labour. Contemporary sociology might demonstrate that similar forms of social solidarity and cohesion can emerge through ethnic diversity. This might be related to citizenship, common sharing, and participation in a democratic society (Tucker, p. 142). Tucker argues that "participation creates a common culture and allows the different spheres to be consciously integrated with one another" (Tucker, p. 142) Another aspect of this is discussion and debate among people in a public sphere as opposed to merely "simple bargaining among organized interests" (Tucker, p. 144). That is, interaction among individuals and groups in work, educational institutions, community associations, the media, and other groups and forums may be an aspect of multiculturalism that creates a new form of social solidarity.

ii. Evolutionary development. Durkheim argued that differences will work themselves out positively, so different individuals recognize their mutual needs and dependencies. Durkheim expected that if the division of labour was allowed to develop, there would be a mutual adjustment and recognition that created social cohesion. A multicultural approach may be similar in that there can be mutual adjustment through contact along with understanding and recognition of mutual needs/roles/contributions.

iii. Intermediary between individual and society. Durkheim was concerned about excessive and rampant individualism. In parts of Division, and in the second preface, he argued that the division of labour might be insufficient by itself to produce social solidarity and that there might need to be some intermediate groups between the individual and society. Durkheim called for the development and strengthening of occupational groups. The state could not be expected to play the integrative role that might be needed, because it was too remote. As a solution, Durkheim thought that occupational or professional groups could provide the means of integration required. These would be formed by people in an industry, representing all the people in this sector. Their role would be somewhat different from Weber's parties, in that they would not be concerned with exercising power, and achieving their own ends. Instead, they would "foster the general interest of society at a level that most citizens can understand and accept." (Grabb, p. 88).

What we especially see in the occupational group is a moral power capable of containing individual egos, of maintaining a spirited sentiment of common solidarity in the consciousness of all the workers, of preventing the law of the strongest from being brutally applied to industrial and commercial relations. (p. 10). Ritzer notes that these associations could "recognize ... common interests as well as common need for an integrative moral system. That moral system ... would serve to counteract the tendency toward atomization in modern society as well as help stop the decline in significance of collective morality." (pp. 98-99).

Ethnic and other cultural groups might perform a similar function in a multicultural society. These could provide a link between the individual and society as a whole. It appears that newcomers to Canada rely extensively on groups and associations of this sort and on networks of contacts and interaction with other newcomers and more established Canadians. Community associations, civic organizations, political parties, and other institutions connect individuals of all types with the community around them and the larger society. Those who argue that all individuals in society need are guarantees of equality and freedom ignore these intermediate groupings that appear to be important parts of social organization.

Another solution for regulation that Durkheim discusses is the state. In some senses, Durkheim was a socialist, although not of the same type as Marx. Ritzer notes that for Durkheim, socialism "simply represented a system in which moral principles discovered by scientific sociology could be applied." (Ritzer, p. 73). While the principles of morality had to be present in society, the state could embody these in structures, fulfilling functions such as justice, education, health, etc., and managing a wide range of sectors of society (Grabb, p. 87).

The state "should also be the key structure for ensuring that these rules are moral and just. The appropriate values of individualism, responsibility, fair play, and mutual obligation can be affirmed through the policies instituted by the state in all these fields." (Grabb, p. 87).

The multicultural leadership on the part of governments may be one means that the state can legitimately intervene to assist in creating social solidarity. Just as laws and the justice system express the common consciousness with respect to regulation of many other aspects of society, so multicultural principles and programs may express common views concerning proper relationships among different cultural and ethnic groups in society.

iv. Common consciousness – development of federal multicultural policy demonstrates existence of common views on these issues. common views are not specific but general, of same type as regulation of restorative laws and contracts. govern relationships but do not specify specific nature of relationship – see Act. see data on attitudes

v. Participation – must provide means for opportunities and equitable participation

Tucker – pp. 142-3

d. Problems with a Durkheimian approach to multiculturalism

i. Mutual need in culture may not be as soundly based as mutual need in division of labour

ii. Conflict and separation may make mutual adjustment difficult to achieve

iii. Intermediary role may not develop or may not be responsive to needs and views of members of groups or citizens

iv. Common understanding may not develop – but some of ideas appear strongly embedded in consciousness of students.

v. Economic inequalities are not easily addressed by multicultural policies.

7. Conclusion



Burnet, Jean R. with Howard Palmer, "Coming Canadians" An Introduction to a History of Canada's Peoples, Toronto, McClelland and Stewart and Ottawa, Department of the Secretary of State, 1989.

Canada, Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, Multiculturalism … being Canadian. Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services Canada, 1987.

Driedger, Leo, Ethnic Canada: Identities and Inequalities, Toronto, Copp Clark Pitman, 1987.

Driedger, Leo, The Ethnic Factor: Identity in Diversity, Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1989.

Grabb, Edward G., Theories of Social Inequality: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives, second edition, Toronto, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990. HT609 G72

Knuttila, Kenneth Murray, Introducing Sociology: A Critical Perspective, Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1996.

Kymlicka, Will, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995.

Macionis, John J., Juanne Nancarrow Clarke and Linda M. Gerber, Sociology Scarborough, Ontario, Prentice Hall Canada, 1999.

Seidman, Steven, Difference Troubles: Queering Social Theory and Sexual Politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Tucker, Kenneth H. Jr., Classical Social Theory: A Contemporary Approach. Oxford, Blackwell, 2002


Note on Driedger: There are two books by Driedger: Leo Driedger, The Ethnic Factor: Identity in Diversity (Toronto, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1989) and Multi-Ethnic Canada: Identities and Inequalities (Toronto, Oxford University Press, 1996). Note that many chapters in these two books are practically identical, although they have different titles, publication dates, and publishers.

Last edited November 8, 2002

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