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Essays on Society: Multicultural Encounters Revisited

In this essay, I argue that while shifting our attention to ‘everyday multiculturalism’ offers the possibility of nuance and opens up fertile grounds for transformation, it subscribes to a number of unqualified assumptions, overlooks the fragile and multilayered nature of the everyday, underestimates the power of discursive and historical forces and runs the risk of settling for a superficial form of sociality. First, I frame the subject of difference, bringing the relevant terminology and critical issues into focus and laying the foundation for the rest of my discussion. Second, I discuss the arguments for considering multiculturalism ‘as it is lived’ in a British context and the possibilities such a shift in focus offers. Third, I formulate a critique of this approach and offer some ideas for innovation.


I depart from the position that diversity is inherent to human reality. Subject to ongoing change, however, are a) the markers of difference, which acquire salience through particular transformative processes (e.g. conversion, immigration), shifts in consciousness and accompanying discourses; and b) the experiences of and responses to difference (see Valentine 2013). I take these experiences and responses also to be intimately linked to those same discourses which not only aim to articulate but also affect these aspects through a subscription to certain normative conceptions of human nature and society (Foucault 1972). In this sense, I assume the discursive and formal to be in constant interaction with the embodied and informal (Weedon 1997:108). As will become apparent in the course of this essay, this has implications for how we evaluate the ‘everyday’. It compels us to be attentive to the historical developments, power relations and the values which undergird our societal structures and provide the vocabulary and conceptual framework through which difference is approached.

With regard to this framework, it is important to acknowledge that the specific terminology that is currently invoked when considering difference reflects a mode of thinking that has developed over the course of several centuries, tracing through the Enlightenment, colonisation, a series of wars and revolutions, decolonisation and globalisation –each of which has had a profound migratory dimension (see Nagel & Hopkins 2010:3-5). More specific, as social hierarchies built around ‘honour’ crumbled and humanist thought expanded and solidified, concepts such as ‘authenticity’, ‘self-realisation’, ‘dignity’ and concomitant demands for ‘recognition’ and ‘equality’ have come to proliferate (Taylor 1994). Coinciding with the emergence of this politics of recognition, following WWII there has also been an increased demand for the eradication of structural inequalities, whether through redistribution (Rawls 1971) or a radical re-ordering of societal structures (Young 1990).

Moving beyond class-inequality and essentialist categories such as race, particularly in connection with recognition, the notion of ‘culture’ emerged as one of the dominant markers of difference. This broad term, under which markers such as ethnicity, language, race and religion can arguably be subsumed (Song 2008), seems to allow for more fluidity (Ortner 2006:12-13; Barth 1998). However, it should be borne in mind that it is not entirely free from essentialism (Bessone 2012; Vertovec 1996). Nor can the supposedly ‘universal language’ that aims to manage difference, deploying such terms as ´autonomy´ and ´rights´, be taken as value-free. Its particular taxonomies, categories, notions of what it means to be human and consequent hierarchies, are not neutral. They are complicated by power-relations and ought to be scrutinised (Asad 2003:127-158; Parekh 2000; Benhabib 2002).

It is in the context of these societal concerns and discursive adaptations that multiculturalism has come to the fore. Sociologically, and taking temporality into account, I would describe multiculturalism as a drawn-out demographic moment in which a particular set of markers, experiences and responses to difference pervade at both discursive and corporeal levels. Politically, it can be defined as an ideology that, in response to cultural diversity, promotes a spectrum of attitudes and policies. Beyond mere toleration, these may range from the granting of exemptions, public support and political representation to limited self-government rights. Such policies (seemingly) carry the express intention to facilitate self-realisation through a progressive and negotiated recognition of diverse cultural views, practices, needs and aspirations, and thus strive to secure equality with respect to difference (Kymlicka 1995; Taylor 1994; Song 2014).

From the outset multiculturalism has been subject to criticism on various philosophical grounds (Okin 1999; Kukathas 1995). In recent years, however, there has been a more pronounced shift, in popular, political and academic circles, from a celebratory account of multiculturalism to a narrative that nostalgically yearns for cohesion. Failing to fulfil its promise, multiculturalism is charged with leading to segregation and isolationism (Ahmed 2008:132; Phillips 2006). Consequently, in the rising demand for integration born of this fear-laden narrative, some perceive a marked ‘retreat of multiculturalism’ (Joppke 2004). Yet, as Neal et al (2013:309) point out, alongside this account that decries a state of crisis, a number of scholars are developing a more optimistic approach which draws attention to the everyday and competent aspects of multiculture. In the following section, I describe this everyday approach in more depth and critically discuss the arguments in favour of this approach in the British context.


That Britain has become increasingly culturally diverse cannot be dissociated from policy formations. However, lest we render the political overly deterministic, in terms of causality and socio-spatial formations, as Watson and Saha (2013) argue, British multiculture is primarily an outgrowth of an ever-evolving ‘unplanned, incremental process’ (p.2019). In some urban spaces this has resulted in so-called ‘superdiversity’, which denotes an unprecedented level of cultural complexity that is intensely dynamic (Vertovec 2010:87). While this is not a general feature of British society as a whole, multiculture has certainly drifted beyond the classical domain of the inner city into the suburbs and is now experientially present in most British cities (Kesten et al 2011:135; Watson & Saha 2013; Dwyer et al 2013).

In light of these developments, concurring with Neal et al (2013:312), it is indeed peculiar that ‘segregation’ is the concept invoked in assessments of British multiculture. Rather than some malignant intent, this peculiarity can be attributed to the normative terms employed when gauging diversity. Romanticised notions of ‘cohesion’, in the sense of a cross-cultural communal whole, shot through with a melancholic longing for a lost (and mythical) past and central to contemporary citizenship policies, cannot but limit both subject and researcher to read multiculture in terms of disconnect, divergence and occasional unification. Instead of settling for ‘set piece conflicts’ and ‘set piece encounters’ to plot the narrative in which segregation and unity succeed each other dialectically, Kesten et al (2011:136) argue that focusing on the everyday can assist us in moving beyond the limiting grammar of ‘community cohesion’ and illuminate the micro-geographical: the actual practice of relationship-building or the ‘local micro-publics of prosaic interaction’ as Amin (2002) terms it.

In my understanding, this approach constitutes a qualitative zooming in while being sensitive to the possibility that the multicultural, in terms of markers, experiences, attitudes and expectations, is manifested differently across time and space. This is underscored by Clayton’s (2009:494) argument that without being attentive to the everyday one may easily fail to observe how ‘conviviality’ can emerge at particular moments in places where different individuals have to work together as equals, towards a shared goal. A similar micro-geographically sensitive observation is made by Wessendorf (2013:408-409), who describes how among the residents of Hackney, which exemplifies the ‘superdiverse’, a certain ‘ethos of mixing’ has developed. This ethos stipulates that individuals from different groups ought to interact and engage with one another in commonplace public spaces (parks, shops, markets, schools, libraries), but that their relative disengagement is acceptable in the private sphere.

It seems thus that instead of departing from a demand for cross-cultural cohesiveness, the lack of which evokes notions of segregation or conflict, the everyday approach explores the various ways in which difference is negotiated, reproduced and altered at the micro-level (Neal et al 2013:316). It does not conceive of conviviality as a type of intermediary stage in an evolutionary process towards unity, denoting a state of Other-less familiarity grounded in a commonly held set of values and norms. Instead, it places disorderliness at the heart of multiculture, allowing for a variety of ‘operational logics’ in terms of tactics and strategies to emerge (see Clayton 2009:483-484; de Certeau 1984), and accepts the inevitably and perhaps desirability of difference. It is thus not in search of finding ways to overcome difference, but to understand how the experiences of and responses to difference may become liberated from the shackles of prejudice and resentment. This comes out clearly in Amin’s (2002) study, which aims ‘to explore what it takes to combat racism and to live with difference in a multicultural and multiethnic society’ (p.960). Focusing on the everyday emphasises the spatialised dimensions of those moments of isolation and encounter, in which the encounter is assumed to hold the possibility of interrupting certain prejudicial habits of mind, dislodging stereotypical projections of the Other and thus offering the opportunity for transformation (Leitner 2012:830).

Shifting the focus to the everyday, however, does not merely entail the appropriation of different concepts for thinking about multiculture and bringing to light these temporal-space dependent variations. Incorporating the specificities of the micro-geographical is also taken to allow for more nuanced and flexible policy formations (Neal et al 2013:317). As more attention is given to concrete encounters with difference, insight can be gained into how the degree to which beliefs and norms bear upon processes of decision-making varies in different situations. This may assist governments in becoming more sensitive in their policy designs to the contextual aspects that shape human subjectivities (Wilson 2013:81). Such a movement towards more context-specific and spatially adaptive policy formations would by implication entail a decrease in energy spent on comparison, the distillation of ‘best practices’ and the attempt to seek out some formulaic solution, even though it may still be beneficial to continue identifying certain general principles which are central to enhancing communication and constructive collaborations (Amin 2002:976).

From this examination of some of the arguments in favour of the everyday approach, we can gather that in its ability to highlight the organic and fluid aspects of living with difference and relieving research from certain teleological concepts, this approach can serve as a powerful tool to counter, or at least nuance, contemporary assessments of multiculturalism. It is furthermore useful in identifying sites and moments of encounter in which the capacity for transformation is latent and the manners in which such transformations may come about. However, in the next section I put forward a number of problems in relation to this approach that delineate its limitations and argue that there are deeper issues at stake that demand contemplation.


Proponents of the everyday approach have themselves identified a number of limitations. There are nevertheless unmentioned limitations to the approach that emerge from questions unasked, the void behind which, in my view, constitutes a space for innovation. With this in mind, my critique of the everyday approach should not be read as a rejection. Beyond a mere summation of ‘pros’ and ‘cons’, my principal aim in pointing out some of the limitations to the everyday approach is to carve out new possibilities and locate sites that beckon excavation.

A useful starting point is Bhabha’s (2006) distinction between ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘cultural difference’. The former paradigm, which echoes through critical assessments of multiculturalism, retains cultural essences, invites categorisation and comparison and is caught in a facile choice between ‘cultural exchange’ and ‘separation’. The latter paradigm corresponds to the everyday approach. In rejecting the pre-existence of cultural Others, it focuses on those moments and spaces where difference is enunciated. In my understanding, these spatial-moments, which Bhabha (1994) terms ‘Third Space’ (also see Soja 1996), equate to the notion of the multicultural encounter. Both are conceived of as emergent, impermanent sites of deconstruction and transformation.

Yet, just as the enunciations that occur in Third Space can be impeded by stereotypes vested in fixity, so the encounter –and by and large the everyday– cannot be assumed to be free from the forces of history, materiality and power (Neal et al 2013:318). This explains why Valentine (2013:6) takes issue with the romantic assumption that encounters automatically lead to respect and meaningful interaction. While encounters may be momentary spaces of latent possibility, they are simultaneously embedded in larger discourses, informed by the legacy of previous encounters and shaped by tenacious stigmatic codes inscribed into place (Leitner 2012:832). What should be stressed is that the mere association of the everyday with normality, the mundane or banality, does not warrant an equation with the benign, innocent and unrestrained. As famously argued by Arendt (1963), banality can even facilitate evil schemes. Just as it may foster transcendence, it may also reproduce, re-inscribe and solidify inequality and oppression through bodily practices, habits and (un)conscious invocations of hegemonic terminologies (Haldrup et al 2006:175). Put otherwise, although Bhabha depicted two distinct paradigms, it is not uncommon for the divisive logic of ‘cultural diversity’ to stifle creative enunciations as it “...finds its way into the language and practices of public servants, professionals and into the everyday commonsense discourses of ordinary people” (Alund & Schierup 1991:10, quoted in Vertovec 1996:56).

This is even further complicated by the multilayered nature of everyday interactions. As Goffman (1959) argued, the ‘presentation of self’ in everyday life is ultimately a performance before the gaze of an Other (p.22). Recognising the everyday encounter as such brings to light a number of limitations. Firstly, it renders it liable to distortion. As Wessendorf (2013) points out, public displays of courtesy and superficial exchanges of pleasantries, may mask privately held resentments. This hinders the everyday in its production of genuine recognition and respect (p.397-410). Secondly, depending on the density of such performances, it may render scholarly assessments of everyday encounters somewhat unreliable. This brings us to the final critical point that I want to make, in which I intend to locate possibility beyond unmentioned limitations that arise from questions unasked.

As becomes clear from Wessendorf’s (2013:408) ‘ethos of mixing’, everyday interactions run a risk of remaining superficial, lacking deeper levels of mutual interest. Leitner’s (2012:842-843) suggestion that local initiatives should not avoid discussions about race, privilege, discrimination and economic grievances, may be beneficial in this regard. It may imbue encounters with emotional depth and empathy and serve processes of humanisation. In addition, I agree with Amin (2002:976-979) that there is a need for an open discussion in the political domain about what constitutes national belonging, with the express intention to dislodge it from particular ethnicities and begin to imagine a more inclusive national identity. This may assist in rendering experiences of difference less volatile and exclusionary. However, I am not convinced that these suggestions go deep enough to render everyday encounters more productive of sustainable transformation. Although important and valuable, such discussions are likely to remain locked in particular taxonomies and conceptual frameworks.

At the start of my essay I posited that there are certain normative assumptions about human nature and society that run through our societal structures and give rise to particular terminologies and practices and influence the manners in which difference plays out. For everyday encounters to become more productive, I believe there is a need for meaningful interactions in which these assumptions are addressed and ‘empty terms’ are explored to arrive at new meanings. Such interactions would have to be embedded in a collective learning process, in which explorative conversations, actions and reflections follow one another in cyclical manner towards self-identified goals. It is a process in which citizens, policy-makers, educators and researchers ought to participate on equal terms. They should openly explore what actually is privilege? How do we experience consumerism, materialism, individualism and competition in our daily lives and what would life in our neighbourhoods or society at large be like if it were otherwise? How can we accompany each other in our social, economic and intellectual endeavours (accompaniment exemplifying an ‘empty term’)? What does it mean to live a generous life, does it require wealth?

I believe that such questions which do not revolve around cultural issues, if acted and reflected upon, could create new possibilities. They may tease out novel terminologies. If given time to grow and solidify, such practice-based discursive interactions might culminate in alternative discourses that may work to enhance capacities for transformation in Third Space and beyond. It is an approach that simultaneously recognises the pervasive power of discourse and perceives potency in the everyday as a site of discursive innovation. The underlying set of questions that may open up new possibilities are then: What exactly are the underlying assumptions that run through our social structures and render difference problematic? How can we empower individuals, communities and institutions in such a way that they are able to draw from their creative capacities and erect novel conceptual frameworks? And lastly, how can we render political spaces receptive to the articulations that emerge from such everyday interactions?


I have argued that the everyday approach poses a significant challenge to contemporary assessments of multiculturalism, which charge it with leading to segregation and isolation. By moving beyond demands for cohesion and being attentive to the micro-geographical, the everyday approach is able to consider encounters with difference and articulate a narrative that stresses impermanence, fluidity and latent transformation. Its limitations, however, come to light when we consider the manners in which prevalent discourses, insistent histories, encoded materialities and power relations, impinge upon the everyday and rob the encounter of its transformational potency. Far from rejecting the everyday approach, I have argued that in light of these limitations, and in recognition of the power of discourse, the encounter –or Third Space– may hold a potent capacity for sustainable transformation if we consciously utilise these sites for a systematic process of learning and practice-based discursive innovation. Questions that need to be raised here should move beyond cultural issues and critically consider the values, assumptions and beliefs about human nature and society.


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