Behavioural Sciences
February 28, 2020

The Bristol School of Multiculturalism

It’s an exciting moment when like-minds come together and produce insights that create a new paradigm in their subject discipline. A leading academic in Australia believes that moment of synergy has come for a group of political theorists and sociologists associated with the University of Bristol in the UK. So significant is their non-liberal approach to multiculturalism, Geoffrey Brahm Levey, Associate Dean Research of the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales, argues that the group might be identified as ‘The Bristol School of Multiculturalism’.

In the shifting sands of national politics, multiculturalism remains one of the topics most likely to excite public debate. Western democracies profess their commitment to inclusivity and diversity, but issues relating to religion, ethnicity and cultural difference frequently hit the headlines and demonstrate the gulf that still exists between political aspiration and the reality of daily life for citizens from cultural minorities.

The matter is further complicated by the fact that multiculturalism is understood and practised differently by different countries. Academics also understand and discuss multiculturalism in different ways.

New research by Dr Geoffrey Brahm Levey, Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of New South Wales in Australia, has identified a particular approach to multiculturalism which has emerged in Britain.

Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol: this is the research centre that spawned what Dr Levey calls the Bristol School of Multiculturalism.

Levey argues that the work of political theorists and sociologists associated with the University of Bristol’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship represents a “distinctive and important school of multicultural political thought” which he calls the “Bristol School of Multiculturalism” (BSM).

Levey developed his ideas while on a fellowship at the University of Bristol in 2017 and he presents his argument in a recent paper published in the journal Ethnicities.

Historical background
Governments around the world began to formulate multiculturalism in the 1970s, for different reasons and in different ways. Canada and Australia, for example, were both British-settled democracies with Indigenous peoples. However, Levey argues that the causes of disquiet were specific to their countries, and that their governments differed in their public policy response.

In Canada, multicultural policies developed as a result of pressure from the French-speaking province of Quebec, which sought to assert its distinct cultural identity. In Australia, the motivation was to ensure that immigrant and Indigenous Australians could find what Prime Minister Gough Whitlam called “an honoured place in society”.

Levey finds that there were also differences and similarities between the ways in which multiculturalism developed in the United States and Britain. In America, multiculturalism was prompted by “the assertion of black pride and group difference in response to a perceived failure of the civil rights movement of the 1960s to deliver equality”. Though there were similar demands for racial equality in Britain from immigrants from its former colonies, there were, in contrast, also calls for devolution of power to the constituent nations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which all sought to assert their distinct identities.

BSM senior figures from left: Professor Tariq Modood (U. Bristol), Professor Bhikhu Parekh (Life Peer, House of Lords), Dr Varun Uberoi (Brunel U.), Professor Nasar Meer (U. Edinburgh).

Academic interest
Levey argues that liberal defenders of multiculturalism begin from a ‘top-down’ commitment to liberal values such as individual autonomy and equality, and then ask how governments should honour these values in the way they recognise and accommodate cultural minorities.

What particularly interests Levey in the Bristol school of thought is that it takes a ‘bottom-up’ non-liberal approach to multiculturalism, one that derives legitimacy from “the situation of flesh and blood people seeking recognition and inclusion in their societies as they are and for what they are”.

The Bristol school’s starting point is the belief that cultural minorities need to pursue and assert their cultural interests.

The group of scholars that Levey identifies as the “Bristol School of Multiculturalism” is associated with Bristol University’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, founded in 1999. Levey finds significant common ground between the work of the Centre’s longstanding director Tariq Modood and scholars who may be based elsewhere, but in addition to their individual contributions to the subject, have taught, studied or collaborated with him.

They include: Bhikhu Parekh, former deputy chair of the UK’s Commission for Racial Equality and a member of the UK’s House of Lords; Nasar Meer, who is now Professor of Race Identity and Citizenship at the University of Edinburgh; and Varun Uberoi, who is a Reader in Political Theory and Public Policy at Brunel University in London.

Levey writes: “The school challenges the liberal biases of much of the corpus of multicultural political thinking and the nostrums of British and other western democracies regarding the status of the majority culture as well as of cultural minorities. It is an identity-focused and assertive multiculturalism that above all seeks inclusion and a sense of belonging in the national community.”

BSM principles
Levey argues that the Bristol school’s starting point is the belief that cultural minorities need to pursue and assert their cultural interests and that governments should develop policies that accommodate these interests. The BSM scholars acknowledge that such claims for recognition may meet with resistance, and struggle is therefore fundamental to their approach. However, they also believe that minority and majority groups can learn from one another and be mutually enriched.

Key works by Tariq Modood (left) and Bhikhu Parekh (right).

Levey says: “The BSM’s vision is a far cry from cultural communities leading parallel lives in splendid (or not so splendid) isolation.” He argues that the BSM follows certain principles which are implicit in its “bottom-up” political approach. These include an understanding of equality that takes background circumstances and uneven starting points into account. Far from a one-size-fits-all approach, the goal should be to provide equal treatment, while allowing for different outcomes for different groups.

Other principles supported by the BSM and identified by Levey include that multiculturalism should include religious groups and identities alongside ethnic and other cultural groups and identities. In addition, there should be “intercommunal dialogue” and “intercultural evaluation”, particularly in the case of controversial minority practices.

National belonging
Perhaps the most important BSM principle that Levey identifies is the sense of national belonging in society. He writes: “Equal liberties and opportunities matter enormously, of course, but they do not necessarily bring social acceptance.” Unlike some multiculturalists, Levey argues that the BSM scholars put great store in the capacity of an inclusive national identity to promote social acceptance and eradicate discrimination. However, he also discerns some tension in the BSM scholars’ work on this point. Sometimes national identity is advocated in “politico-institutional terms” or what every citizen should expect to share as a member of the same political community. Other times it is understood as including cultural habits and practices, whose compass should be broadened in order to achieve inclusiveness.

It is an identity-focused and assertive multiculturalism that above all seeks inclusion and a sense of belonging
in the national community.

The degree of importance that the BSM gives to national belonging, and cultural minorities being included within the national identity, distinguishes its members from other multiculturalists. Most liberal multiculturalists focus on issues of rights to accommodation and recognition or what states owe minorities. In contrast, Levey argues that the Bristol scholars focus on broadening the national story and adopt a more open-ended, non-liberal approach which is subject to struggle and negotiation, and as a result, “is never really final”.

Personal experience
Levey argues that the BSM represents a “distinctive and formidable school of multicultural political thought” that involves “high-stakes politics” which can be “challenging” to conventional thinking and the established society. He believes it is no coincidence that the group’s senior figures come from cultural minorities and that their work is grounded in personal experience. Levey writes: “The leading thinkers of the BSM know intimately what it means to be a visible minority in Britain today.”

The logo of the University of Bristol’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship.

Levey’s work on the Bristol school follows on closely from his work on multiculturalism over many years. He has published widely on the subject, including with Modood, and held fellowships at universities in Belgium, Italy, Israel, the UK and the USA, as well as in Australia, where he is currently based.

Academic response
Levey first canvassed the idea of the Bristol school at a symposium in London in 2017. In addition to his new paper, which presents his views in greater detail, he has also written an article in response to a symposium on his original paper. Commentators include Canadian philosopher Will Kymlicka, who rejects the idea that the BSM is distinctive, and British author David Goodhart, who contends that the BSM is even more radical than Levey suggests. However, Modood and Uberoi generally accept Levey’s argument that their work, along with that of Parekh and Meer, represents a distinctive and more demanding approach to multiculturalism than that of conventional liberal thinkers.

Neither Levey nor the BSM group regard its approach to multiculturalism as academically rigid or prescriptive. Levey says: “If there is a school of thought to their work, it is discernible only after its production, it is not a rulebook for its production.”

He concludes: “The BSM’s distinctive theoretical approach does not mean that it has its ears closer to the ground than do liberal multiculturalists, or that it more faithfully expresses the wishes of minorities, or that the claims of cultural minorities lie beyond the scope of liberal values. It means one thing only, that the BSM’s way of thinking about and defending multiculturalism differs from that of liberal multiculturalists.”

Personal Response

What benefits do you think/hope might arise from your identification of the work of a group of academics and political scientists as a specific school of thought on multiculturalism?

At the academic level, differentiating positions and approaches helps to summarise and organise a field of inquiry and thereby get one’s bearings in relation to it. But it is also important to understand that not all multiculturalists are arguing on the same grounds or even for the same vision. When, for example, the public hears or reads BSM accounts it might be provoked into thinking that these assertive positions define multiculturalism. In fact, many liberal multiculturalists would reject BSM positions just as the BSM rejects core features of liberal multiculturalism.

This feature article was created with the approval of the research team featured. This is a collaborative production, supported by those featured to aid free of charge, global distribution.

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One thought on “The Bristol School of Multiculturalism

  1. Virtually all countries of the world have had invaders. From the Egyptians to Europeans these civilisations have conquered and also settled bringing their form of social structure to the new lands. The vast majority have resisted this imposition of culture or custom so that some have revolted. This revolution has sometimes been whole or partially successful whilst others unsuccessful. Alexander the Great sought integration as a way of curbing this imposition of statehood. Others on the other hand have used their force of arms to quell dissent like Hitler.
    In post war Britain, where the loss of life had created shortages, men were sought to replace the loss. Thus Enoch Powell as minister of works sought men of similar cultural and religious beliefs as that of the British. Hence the Windrush Generation, as they are called began a form of multiculturalism. Powell however saw difficulties ahead with two major obstacles. Economic where peoples came to the UK for better wages than their own countries thus forcing down wages. Secondly, and most importantly, cultural pluralism or as he saw it as indigenous cultural dilution. From this melting pot came social mobility in the freedom of movement. This in turn beckoned those less well of countries population moving into the industrial countries in Europe and the USA.
    Thus, many countries in the world have become culturally diverse from the pragmatism movement at the end of the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, then as political and cultural pluralism at the turn of the twentieth. However, a majority of working class people there is a distinct difference between multiculturalism and cultural pluralism which the middle class and scholar fail to appreciate.
    To illustrate this point I can give two examples. Firstly, living in the East End of London in the 1960 a group of men moved into a house which they rented. These 12 Pakistani men lived in the 3 bedroom house in Forest Gate. The local population were applaud but this but of course a single room occupied by more than one was a step up for many of these men. Within a month the neighbours sought to move as the smell along with men coming and going at all hours troubled them. So as neighbours moved more men arrived and soon the whole area was almost a ghetto. Of course with so many they pooled resources and finally bought a house. This developed over the years until whole streets were owned. Soon mosques appeared and corner shops dealing with these peoples needs. People could not accept this and the race riots occurred as local Brits felt threatened as Powell had predicted. The threat to these men brought about a change. Multi occupancy declined in non migrant areas, their children grew up and adopted more British customs and culture, and they changed their lives to more integration. Of course this created tensions within communities as siblings rebelled against parents, and we see even today this.
    Second, with the free movement of people we have a similar but totally different problem to multiculturalism. In this case we are dealing with cultural pluralism. People whose religious faith and observance or otherwise is seen as a challenge to the current order as it refuses to integrate. An example of which is in 1970 Britain Health and Safety legislation was proposed. Anyone driving a motorcycle was forced to wear a crash helmet. In 1971 when the law was made statute Sikhs were exempt on religious grounds, saying their wearing of a turban prevented them. The politicians failed to appreciate that a turban had no safety aspects at all and so the biker community felt this was either an imposition on them or what we call now political correctness. This “wedge” has been used ever since. When bank robberies were perpetrated by helmet wearing criminals the law changed so that no one wearing headgear was allowed in banks. The muslim women complained as their belief prevented uncovering their heads. The population then objected to the Burka as anyone, man or woman, could wear this to be unidentified or conceal weapons. However, the establishment seeking a liberal correctness of multiculturalism fought back claiming human rights. Since then we have had a tension where British people have rejected cultural pluralism which the establishment has redefined erroneously as multiculturalism. It should be noted also that even the label cultural pluralism does not fit with its full description. Cultural pluralism is is a term used when smaller groups within a larger society maintain their unique cultural identities, and their values and practices are accepted by the wider dominant culture provided they are consistent with the laws and values of the wider society. Unfortunately they are not consistent with the laws and values of the wider society. Look at the African culture of FGM, (female genital mutilation). Outlawed by the UN and in this case particularly the British. Britain seeks to stop the children being sent “on holiday” or to see their “cultural home” but struggles to know holiday means holiday or something else. We sight human rights but know muslim men impose in their women conditions contrary to those laws. The sending of women back “home” to be married or forced to comply with the males demands with fear of ostracisation, abuse or death in some cases.
    We have a culture of tolerance yet we see cultural differences contrary to our laws. We have law enforcement silenced through a fear of being considered racist. As an educated man I see the merits of multiculturalism and in some ways cultural pluralism. What British society would not want to accept foreign ideas? These have help mankind develop from caveman to modern man. We have as a species absorbed many peoples from other places and likewise progressed. Customs and culture have also developed over time even when opposed. However, multiculturalism and cultural pluralism have spawned a new type of nationalism. History of Hitler’s ghettos to segregate Jew from Gentile was forced from above, today we have ghettos forced from within. The difference of this non melting pot society some believe fuelled Brexit, others the rising of the far right and nationalism. At its heart is this pluralistic non-conformance of values which is the real issue not multiculturalism or cultural pluralism.

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