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versus difference: Neo-liberalism in the minority debate
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
University of Oslo/Free University of Amsterdam
The Making and Unmaking of Difference, eds. Richard Rottenburg,
Burkhard Schnepel, Shingo Shimada, pp. 13–36. Bielefeld: Transaction
In the ongoing intellectual
and political European debates about cultural diversity in the context
of immigration and globalisation, two dimensions are often missing: First,
class tends to be drowned out thanks to a widespread eagerness to discuss
cultural differences, and yet, it remains absolutely crucial to distinguish
between horizontal and vertical forms of differentiation, or hierarchical
and egalitarian difference if one prefers, when one tries to make sense
of contemporary cultural complexities Second, the blanket term ‘cultural
difference’ can refer to a lot of different kinds of phenomenon,
from the cosmetic and aesthetic to the moral and social-structural.
What I am going to do here, consists in an examination of some of the
widespread conceptualisations of difference as they are expressed not
in academic discussions, but in public life. Now, of course multiculturalism
is not a simple term with a well-defined meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary,
tracing its earliest appearance to an article about Switzerland published
in 1957, defines it as ‘[t]he characteristics of a multicultural
society; (also) the policy or process whereby the distinctive identities
of the cultural groups within such a society are maintained or supported’.
However lucid this definition may be, it leaves important questions unanswered.
As a matter of fact, very different ‘multiculturalisms’ are
being promoted, and this is a main reason why it is so difficult to discuss
with outspoken opponents of ‘multiculturalism’ who tend to
associate ‘it’ with either an exaggerated tolerance of foreign
customs and beliefs or an uncritical support of any kind of immigration
into the country, where immigrants are accorded many rights and few duties.
In a review of the term, Stuart Hall (2000) mentions no less than six
multiculturalisms: Conservative, liberal, pluralist, commercial, corporate
and critical or ‘revolutionary’ multiculturalism. Each has
its own distinctive approach to the central problem in culturally complex
societies, namely how to reconcile diversity with social solidarity. At
the extreme ends of the spectrum are ‘assimilationism’ (everybody
who lives in the same country should have essentially the same culture)
and ‘difference multiculturalism’ (a kind not mentioned by
Hall, see Turner 1993), which demands that society should not be based
on one set of values, but should accommodate, recognize the equality of,
and indeed celebrate a great variety of cultural values. In practice,
most theories of multicultural societies and most state policies in the
Western world try to strike a balance between these extremes. On the one
hand, too great diversity makes solidarity and democratic participation
difficult to achieve. On the other hand, total cultural homogeneity is
an impossible (and, to most, undesirable) goal to achieve even in ethnically
homogeneous societies; there will always be religious sects and sexual
minorities, to mention only two of the most obvious examples, demanding
their right to be ‘equal but different’.
What is of interest in the present context are the kinds of difference
discussed in contemporary European societies, their evaluation by majorities,
and indirectly, the ways discourses about cultural difference relate to
power relations, notably class. My examples are Norwegian, but similar
examples would not be difficult to come by in other countries in Western
It is easy, common and politically uncontroversial to ‘celebrate
diversity’. An important UNESCO report on cultural rights and cultural
variation (World Commission on Culture and Development 1995) was titled
Our Creative Diversity, and it managed to combine a strong defence of
local cultures with a similarly strong engagement in favour of universal,
global values (see Eriksen 2001 for a critique). How can this be possible?
How is it possible to defend cultural variation and simultaneously insist
on a shared set of values? As if values were somehow independent of culture?
A cursory reading of the report nevertheless makes it clear that values
and diversity are held to exist in separate domains. ‘Diversity’
is, in the UNESCO report, largely associated with phenomena such as rituals,
food, folktales, arts and crafts, as well as a few traditional economic
adaptations which are either threatened by modernity or proven to be consistent
with it (and should by that token be given a chance). The social organisation
of society, including its political structure and voting rights, human
rights, its kinship structure and rules of inheritance, its gender roles
and educational system, its labour market and its health service are kept
separate from the notion of ‘creative diversity’. There is
in fact nothing in the report which suggests that its authors regard child
marriages, political despotism or religious intolerance as expressions
of creative forms of diversity.
Notwithstanding the many fine distinctions that can be made here, I propose
a simple contrast between diversity and difference in
order to highlight two fundamentally distinctive ways of dealing with,
and identifying, cultural variation. Bluntly put, there is considerable
support for diversity in the public sphere, while difference is increasingly
seen as a main cause of social problems associated with immigrants and
their descendants. In the present context, then, diversity should be taken
to mean largely aesthetic, politically and morally neutral expressions
of cultural difference. Difference, by contrast, refers to morally objectionable
or at least questionable notions and practices in a minority group or
category, that is to say notions and practices which are held to (i) create
conflicts through direct contact with majorities who hold other notions,
(ii) weaken social solidarity in the country and thereby the legitimacy
of the political and welfare systems (Goodhart 2004), and (iii) lead to
unacceptable violations of human rights within the minority groups.
Interestingly, politicians and other public figures often praise the immigrants
for ‘enriching’ the national culture. At the same time, they
may worry about arranged marriages or Islam as impediments to national
cohesion. This seeming contradiction indicates that cultural difference
is not just one thing. Broadly speaking, we may state that diversity is
seen as a good thing, while difference is not. A non-technical but potentially
useful distinction could be made between ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’
cultural differences. In a typical endorsement of diversity, Robin Cook,
the then English foreign minister, said in 2001 that ‘Chicken Tikka
Massala is now a true British national dish’ (quoted from Christiansen
and Hedetoft 2004: 8). At the same time, concerns about gender roles,
political loyalties, democratic values and religious rigidity have turned
‘the question of integration’ into a political issue of the
first order. The same people who endorse diversity tend to reject difference.
The question, which the examples below may serve to illuminate even if
they may not answer it conclusively, is where the boundary between diversity
and difference is located. However, it is also necessary to explore whether
it could be the case that this kind of boundary, usually seen as one between
‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ cultural differences,
is a token one, concealing conflicts of another order, to do with politics
The murder of Benjamin Hermansen
In the evening of 26 January 2001, a fifteen-year old Norwegian boy of
partly African origin, Benjamin Hermansen, was on his way home in the
Oslo suburb of Holmlia. Intercepted by some youths in a car, he was stabbed
to death. The murderers were soon caught and were revealed to be members
of a small right-wing, possibly neo-Nazi group called ‘Boot boys’.
The media reactions to Benjamin Hermansen’s murder were unanimous,
using terms like ‘shameful’, ‘shocking’ and ‘outrageous’
in describing it. Soon afterwards, an anti-racist demonstration was organised
as a testimonial to the boy. In spite of the unusually cold weather –
it was almost twenty degrees below zero – more than ten thousand
individuals, the vast majority of them white Norwegians, participated
in the event, which took place in central Oslo. Leading clergymen, politicians
and media celebrities made appeals condemning the murder and praying that
a similar atrocity would not happen again.
There can be no doubt that a huge majority of Norwegians sympathised with
these views. Having grown up with his white Norwegian mother, Benjamin
was culturally Norwegian and part of a multiethnic social environment
in the Holmlia suburb (an area where nearly a hundred languages are said
to be spoken). His only fault, seen from the perspective of his right-wing
killers, consisted in having the wrong colour. The virtually unanimous
expression of disgust and outrage in the aftermath of Benjamin’s
death may suggest that blackness is not, in contemporary Norway, a marker
of undesirable difference. In a strict sense, it may not even be a marker
of diversity, since many black Norwegians are culturally one hundred per
cent Norwegian, meaning that they do not deviate from mainstream culture
concerning language, religion, food habits and other everyday practices.
Many years ago, during a 1980s television broadcast of highlights at the
nationwide Constitution Day celebrations, a major public ritual in the
country characterised by ubiquituous flags and folk dresses, the commentator
remarked that in a not-so-distant future, many of the children in the
procession might be brown. He did not intend this comment as a warning,
but as a matter-of-fact prediction. Significantly, this programme, almost
sacred in character, never deviates from mainstream Norwegian nationalist
sentiment. The commentator Knut Bjørnsen, a household name from
innumerable sport broadcasts, knew what he was doing and was to my knowledge
never reproached for it.
This kind of comment would not have been seen as equally innocent twenty
years later. The reason is not that Norwegians have, as a rule, become
more racist in the most restricted sense of the word, but that the semantic
centre of blackness has moved from mere colour to strong cultural connotations.
Apart from Somali and Eritreans, there are comparatively few sub-Saharan
Africans in Norway. Dark skins are thus associated primarily with South
Asia and the Middle East, and a comment to the effect that in the future,
half the kids in the 17 May processions will be brown, may be interpreted
not as meaning that Norwegians are going to intermarry with non-Europeans,
but that half of the children will be Muslims.
Colour, culture and religion are not easily disentangled as markers of
difference. Only a few days ago, I came across a newspaper story about
a Pakistani-Norwegian who owned a flashy BMW car and who had been asked
ten times by the traffic police to show his credentials since he bought
it. The newspaper had found seven ethnic Norwegians who owned almost identical
cars, and not entirely surprisingly, only one of them had been stopped
by the police, and that had just happened once. The Pakistani-Norwegian
BMW owner, by profession a successful shopkeeper, might have been one
hundred per cent integrated into Norwegian society at the level of culture
– he may not even have been a Muslim believer for all I know –
but at the level of ascribed identity, he remained as ‘entropy-resistant’,
to use Gellner’s (1983) term, as black Americans under Jefferson.
The question is: Which kinds of difference, that go beyond mere diversity,
are subconsciously drawn on by the police in treating non-whites differently?
In all likelihood, class is the main strand of association here. Since
non-white immigrants largely belong to the working class, the policemen
may reason, if one of them has a flashy car it cannot have been acquired
by honest means. In other words, although the police’s behaviour
cannot be put down to ‘old racism’, it has an inescapable
racial dimension in that it results in a systematic discrimination of
non-white citizens with nice cars.
There is a website devoted to the memory of young Benjamin. Viewers are
invited to post their messages, and nearly five years after his death,
people (judging from the style, most are teenagers) still send their condolences
and expressions of concern to the site. His death has come to signify
the evil of racist violence. At the same time, it has been well documented
that non-white residents in Norway with exotic names have difficulties
in getting high-level jobs. Documented examples include a man with a higher
degree in engineering, who had not been shortlisted for a job once in
several years – he had applied for around two hundred – and
who eventually changed his name to a Norwegian-sounding one. He was immediately
hired by a large company.
In other words, racist violence is generally frowned upon. Skin colour
as such, with no further cultural or religious connotations, does not
seem to function as an important marker of difference, in spite of the
fact that the term neger, negro, is still in common usage in the country
(Gullestad 2002 dissects the debate over the term). Yet at the same time,
having the wrong skin colour, or a kind of name which suggests the wrong
skin colour, does mean that one must be prepared for systematic discrimination.
Although it is not related to skin colour as such, this does little to
help those who become victims of a cultural semantics which connects colour
to other traits deemed undesirable, that is to say difference as opposed
Like every West European country, Norway, too, has had its share of hijab
controversies. The hijab or Muslim headscarf was rarely seen in the country
before the 1990s, but it has quickly caught on among many Muslim girls
and women of South Asian, Somali or Middle Eastern origin. The debate,
which was very visible on most of Western Europe and elsewhere in the
first years of the new century, had interesting national variations. Some
claimed that the Muslim headscarf was incompatible with secular values
(in France), others claimed that it was oppressive to women (in Scandinavia)
or at odds with ‘common values’ (in the Netherlands). Some
Muslims who had been indifferent to headscarves before, now began to take
an intense interest in it. Some of their leaders said that it is the duty
of a Muslim woman to cover herself up, including her hair. To many Muslim
girls and women, the result is a catch-22 – a double-bind situation.
If they cover themselves up, they retain the respect and recognition of
other Muslims, but are denounced as unwilling to integrate by the majority.
If they choose not to cover their hair, they retain the respect and recognition
of the majority, but lose their honour in the Muslim community.
One of the most publicized incidents involving headscarves was the attempt
to dismiss a young woman working as a cashier in a large furniture store
because she had taken to wearing the hijab at work. In stark contrast
to the simple Benjamin Hermansen case, the politicians and public commentators
were divided on this issue. While most of the latter felt, on principle,
that the woman should be allowed to keep her job and wear a hijab, there
was perceptible discomfort around the hijab as such. Like in France, there
were suggestions in the Norwegian public sphere to the effect that it
should be banned in schools. Many, both women and men who had formerly
taken no interest in feminist issues, claimed that the headscarf was per
se a symbol of male oppression and should therefore be condemned. Interestingly,
those academics and intellectuals (including myself) who defended the
right of Muslim women to cover their hair in any kind of situation, never
once invoked a cultural relativist argument defending the other cultures’
right to be different in any way they liked. Instead, it was pointed out
that the hijab might signify many different things, including a deliberately
chosen freedom from the outside pressure to assimilate. Another argument,
from the liberal tradition, stressed the individual’s freedom to
make his or her own private decisions, even if one might oneself dislike
them. The debate thus narrowed down, the questions that remained to be
answered were (i) whether hijab use was something chosen by individual
Muslim girls or women, or whether it was enforced on them; and (ii) whether
it could be said that the hijab necessarily signified female subordination.
In the Norwegian public sphere, there seemed to be no disagreement over
the desirability of gender equality and individual choice regarding dress.
Simultaneously with the hijab controversy, there was a more low-key debate
in some local newspapers about dress codes in schools, where adolescent
girls increasingly were wearing sexually tantalising clothes, revealing
their often pierced navels and so on. Many felt that these kinds of dress
should be banned in schools, which ought to conform to certain moral standards.
Although the hijab debate was more wide-ranging than this, understandably
so since it was directly connected with the increasingly strained relationship
between non-Muslims and Muslims in the post-9/11 world, the two issues
were not dissimilar from one another. The questions concerned, in the
first case, the hijab’s inherent meaning (if any), the freedom of
the individual to choose and the issue of male oppression; in the second
case, the main question was whether or not young girls were subjected
to a harmful pressure to act out their sexuality prematurely. No unanimous
conclusion about Islamophobia can be reached from this discussion.
Another Norwegian incident involved a group generally considered vulnerable
and subaltern, namely Somali woman refugees, an anthropologist specialising
in East Africa and, last but not least, the media. Following a controversial
television documentary about female circumcision, which documented that
the practice existed among certain Somali immigrants to Norway, a journalist
with the largest Norwegian newspaper, VG, decided to write an
opinion piece on the issue. She duly contacted Aud Talle, who had done
fieldwork in Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and among Somali women in London.
Talle faxed her an article describing the social and cultural embeddedness
of the practice, as well as explaining the practice on the phone. Soon
after, VG published an article on female circumcision illustrated
by an image of a veiled, chained woman trotting behind a brisk and confident
female anthropologist. The story objected against the ‘cultural
relativism’ of the anthropologists, who preferred to study circumcision
as an exotic rite rather than trying to combat it.
At first, Talle was uncertain as to how she should react. Eventually she
decided not to write a response in the newspaper itself. The fast media,
she reckoned, were simply unable to accommodate the kind of detail necessary
in an account which had to take all the relevant factors into consideration.
So she wrote a book instead, Om kvinneleg omskjering (‘On
female circumcision’, Talle 2003). The book was published a year
after the newspaper commentary, and it is written in a popular style.
It ends with a few policy recommendations, where Talle makes an interesting
comparison between North-East African female circumcision and Chinese
footbinding, suggesting that the successful campaign against the latter
practice a hundred years ago might inspire similar strategies today. Her
main arguments are the ones to be expected from a social anthropologist,
but which are, incidentally, rare in general public debate: Circumcision
has to be understood as an individual experience, but also in the contexts
of cultural meaning and power structures.
Predictably, Talle’s book was not reviewed by VG nor by
any of the other mainstream media. But it had its share of attention in
the small elite media, and – more importantly – it began to
be used by health workers and public servants, who are often reminded
of their need to understand why certain immigrants do certain things.
However different their interpretations of each other might be, none of
those involved in this debate actually defends the practice of female
circumcision on cultural grounds.
During the debate about female circumcision, two minority views came across.
One was the view, expressed by journalist Peter Normann Waage, that it
should be legal but with an age limit of say, 18 or 20 years. When you
have come of age, the argument went, you should have the right to make
decisions about your own body. The other view, expressed by a minority
of academics, was that female circumcision may be compared to body practices
common in the West, such as piercing, extreme slimming often associated
with anorexia nervosa, and silicone implants. They argued that societal
pressure is exerted in both cases and that it cannot be claimed that the
one is chosen and the other enforced. However, it was added during the
debate, it does make a difference regarding the possibility to exert choice
whether one is an infant or a teenager.
The final example, which like the previous ones is a staple in migration
studies as well as public debate on minority issues, may also be helpful
in drawing the boundary between diversity and difference. Although it
has been shown time and again that arranged marriages is not a unitary
phenomenon but rather a continuum of marriage practices, public and political
debate on the issue have been less nuanced than research. Now, much of
the immigration into Western European countries consists in ‘family
reunification’, often meaning bringing young kinsmen and -women
into the country in order to marry them to relatives already resident
in the country. Denmark passed a controversial law on family reunifications
in 2004, which made it illegal to bring prospective spouses under the
age of 24 into the country. Officially an attempt to stop enforced marriages,
the new law also sought to limit new migration into Denmark. While similar
measures have been discussed in Norway as well, no such law has been passed
yet. At the same time, arranged marriages, especially in the large Pakistani-Norwegian
community, are often perceived in the majority as being more or less the
same as enforced marriages. Marriage between relatives – there is
a cultural preference for patrilateral parallel-cousin marriage –
is seen as problematic, ostensibly for genetic reasons, and more importantly,
it would appear that most Norwegians strongly favour individual choice
over collective decisions in matters like marriage. Indeed, a generation
gap has been identified among immigrants from South Asia, where members
of the second generation, influenced by individualist values, are inclined
to oppose the parental decisions. However, as Bredal (2004) documents,
the institution of arranged marriage continues to enjoy considerable legitimacy
among Norwegian residents of South Asian origin. Now, arranged marriages
cannot easily be banned, but enforced marriages are. A second-generation
Pakistani working as a journalist and writer, Khadafi Zaman, once expressed
the view that arranged marriages ‘are cultural’, while enforced
marriages are just ‘uncultured’ (ukultur in Norwegian). In
other words, if it were possible to draw an unequivocal dividing line
between the two, diversity would have been preserved, and difference would
have been condemned. Of course, such a boundary is unthinkable. Merely
a cursory look at the intricacies of marriage negotiations between and
within families, where small sacrifices and larger compromises are the
order of the day, shows that it is in fact impossible to identify objective
criteria for distinguishing arranged marriages from enforced ones. Moral
pressure is being exerted by all the parties involved, including the young
persons about to be engaged, and a society that bans moral pressure ceases
to recognise the most basic social tie known to humanity.
I have briefly presented four cases, where the boundary between difference
and diversity is made relevant. The public debate and policies implemented
suggest that the boundary is important in defining the shared values of
the new Norway of multiple, contested identities. The question is whether
or not diversity can be said to encompass more than curry houses and a
sprinkling of brown in the 17 May processions. The cases indicate that
neither variations in dress codes, in body practices or marriage strategies
are seen as problematic in so far as they do not violate conformity to
‘shared values’. However, it appears that most such variations
associated with immigrants are as a matter of fact seen to be at odds
with these values, given the public reactions to cultural variations here.
What are those shared values of the majority, then? The answer may have
been straightforward a generation or two ago, when Norwegian society still
defined itself almost uncontestedly as Lutheran and was equally uncontestedly
based on the ideal of the nuclear family, the authority of the father
and a cultural class structure according to which classical music ranked
higher than pop ditties. Homosexuality was illegal and there were no non-European
immigrants. Since the 1960s, the cultural hierarchies have, like in other
Western societies, become less clear, and it has become increasingly uncertain
what the shared values underpinning society are. In 1997, a ‘commission
of values’ was thus set up by the government with a mandate to define,
and propose ways of strengthening, the shared values of Norwegian society.
Its findings, disseminated through a series of publications, suggested
that society is less strongly committed to a set of shared values than
it may have been some decades ago. Individualism, sexual permissiveness
and legalisation of homosexuality, an increased variation in household
structure, social and geographical mobility, democratisation of the family
and secularisation are some of the keywords.
In other words, if it can be said that certain immigrants fail to conform
to the shared values of Norwegian society, it then becomes logically necessary
to make those values explicit. Judging from the examples briefly mentioned
above, it may appear that gender equality, individual choice in finding
a partner and the right to make decisions pertaining to one’s body
are seen as such overarching values. Interestingly, the Commission of
Values made it one of its priorities to look into the situation of the
elderly, concluding that there is a huge discrepancy between the values
people in general claim to support, on the one hand, and actual practices,
on the other. Elderly Norwegians are often isolated and institutionalised,
and nobody seems to think that this is a good thing. By contrast, elderly
immigrants tend to stay with their families until death. In this regard,
immigrants succeed better than ethnic Norwegians in conforming to the
‘shared values’ supported by the Christian Democrat-led government
in power at the time of writing.
As a preliminary
conclusion, we may state that individualist values associated with the
freedom to choose – the ethos of consumerism or neo-liberalism,
one might say – are paramount, and that (intolerable) difference
as opposed to (unproblematic) diversity appears whenever the collectivity
overrules the individual. This situation sets the stage for a kind of
xenophobia which is markedly different from earlier forms; the yardstick
is now individual human rights and values associated with freedom, not
adherence to national ideas and practices.
A shift to neo-liberalism
Over the last decades, there have been changes in the ways multiethnic
society is being debated publicly and in politics. This is not a situation
unique to Scandinavia; in all of Western Europe, there has occurred a
gradual shift in recent years, especially after 11 September, in the dominant
framework regulating exchanges of views about immigrants and natives.
Two changes are particularly noticeable. First, there has been a shift
from a sociological focus on discrimination and racism, towards a focus
on repression and rights violations inside the minority communities. Second,
the anthropological emphasis on cultural rights (associated with language,
religious practices etc.) has been replaced almost completely by public
debates regarding individual rights and choice as unquestioned values,
even in extreme quantities. Freedom values replace security values, and
the burden of evidence is pushed from greater society across to the immigrants
theselves. The stigmatising right-wing term ‘culturally alien’
(fremmedkulturell) has entered the everyday vocabulary of the press in
spite of warnings from both academics and journalists. The blanket term
‘immigrant community’ has become synonymous with oppression
and dark powers. The tragic Fadime affair in Sweden, where a secularised
Kurdish-Swedish girl was murdered by her father (Kurkiala 2003), demonstrated
to the public sphere once and for all that groups are evil, and what now
matters is to speed up and intensify ‘integration’ (read Norwegianisation).
Both of these tendencies can be connected to neo-liberalist ideology,
which transcends conventional political divides and is as widespread in
the social democratic Labour Party as in the neo-nationalist Progress
Party. This is the ideology which, among other things, promotes maximal
individual freedom of choice and the adjustment of public services to
render them more efficient and their institutions more compatible with
Neo-liberalism is not in itself xenophobic. Quite the opposite: it is
a doctrine of freedom which promotes open borders and free competition.
However, it is based on a view of what it is to be human which conforms
badly with lived reality in ways which can stimulate xenophobic attitudes.
Neo-liberalist ideology can be described as an unreformed (and unreflected)
individualism where the only thing the individual owes his surroundings
is self-realisation. This individualism carries with it conventional criteria
of success – money, power, public visibility. Moreover, it implies
that groups either do not exist (‘There is no such thing as society’)
or create obstacles to the individual’s freedom.
The ideological shift has led to a change in emphasis in the standard
presentation of minority issues (enforced marriages rather than discrimination
in the labour market; unwillingness to integrate among immigrants rather
than demands for cultural rights), and entails that greater society is
either regarded as non-existent or devoid of responsibilities –
it is up to the individuals themselves to sort out their lives –
and cultural institutions in minority groups become disturbing elements;
they curtail individual freedom and reduce the efficiency of Norway Ltd.
As a part of the new rhetoric, it has become a common exercise among commentators
to denounce the ‘kindness policy’ of the 1970s and 1980s.
Since both female circumcision and enforced marriages demonstrably occur
among immigrants (however rarely), and researchers have devoted relatively
little attention to such phenomena, myths have been spun and disseminated
quickly and efficiently about powerful alliances of NGOs networks, researchers
and high-ranking bureaucrats who have refused to face realities, and who
have instead built a castle in the sky called ‘the rainbow society’.
On the other hand, it is correct that it was until quite recently common
to accept the validity of a structural understanding of problems associated
with migration; that is, one could not just blame failures and shortcomings
on individual decisions, personal idiosyncracies and so on. Someone who
belongs to a minority is entitled to both freedom and security. He or
she can take decisions, and greater society is obliged to ensure that
the choices are real. For example, within the framework of a liberal society
it must be possible, not just in theory but also in practice, for rural
and working-class youths to take higher education if they want to, and
it similarly must to be possible for a young woman with Pakistani parents
to refuse to marry the man her parents have chosen for her.
At the same time, it would be an expression of sociological illiteracy
to deny that important aspects of the social world we inhabit have not
been chosen, neither by ourselves nor by anybody else. We do not choose
our early childhood experiences, our kin, our class background or our
mother tongue. As every anthropologist knows, crucial experiences vary
and imply that each of us make decisions on differing premises. To some
of us it is not even certain that the decisions or choices are the most
important things in life; maybe we prefer security, predictability and
belonging to a group.
There is a genuine predicament here, which incidentally goes right to
the core of the foundational problems of social science. On the one hand,
society is nothing but the result of a lot of individual choices. On the
other hand, these choices are impossible unless there exists a society
beforehand, which provides us with a language and a set of values, and
identifies which alternatives it is possible to choose between.
Eager to emphasise the freely choosing individual, public debate and policy
have almost inadvertently done away with the groups. At the very least,
this has happened in the minority debate. All of a sudden, culturally
specific experiences and cultural differences have no value in the marketplace
of ideas; and if they exist after all, they should be flattened out of
consideration for the free choices of individuals. Just a decade ago,
it was acceptable to talk about cultural differences in a respectful way,
indicating that they had to be understood and acknowledged if the integration
of culturally different groups in a single society were to be successful.
Differences in child-raising and gender roles provoked and enraged social
democratic politicians and social workers, and many were hoping that things
would eventually change – but at the same time, everybody involved
agreed that it was impossible to remove deep-seated cultural practices
by decree. Such changes come about slowly and gradually, as people acquire
new experiences and notions.
This kind of insight has become rare. The Norwegian public sphere thus
tends to see only shortcomings and evil intentions when confronted with
cultural differences. Diversity is fine; it is morally harmless and potentially
economically profitable, but ‘the others’, bearers of difference,
have again become inferior, as they were in the past. This time, however,
they are not inferior as a race or a cultural group, but exclusively as
individuals, who oppress each other, who tacitly allow themselves to be
oppressed, and who cannot blame majority society if they are insufficiently
The new way of talking about minorities and rights in Norway is not, in
other words, a result of nationalism. The latter was a kind of collectivism
which could occasionally propose compromise and peaceful co-existence
with other groups. It nevertheless had its obvious weaknesses, which could
only be addressed properly via a strong antidote of no-nonsense individualism.
However, the pendulum has now swung so far in the opposite direction that
concepts such as ‘ethnic group’ or ‘cultural minority’
are immediately associated with enforced marriages and authoritarian religion.
In this kind of situation, entire life-worlds are opened to general suspicion
In sum, diversity is economically profitable and morally harmless (see
Hutnyk 1997 on the WOMAD festival), while difference threatens the individualism
underpinning and justifying neo-liberalism. In this perspective, it is
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