In what sense is multiculturalism a form of communitarianism?

Multiculturalism is commonly cited as being a form of communitarianism, which is the belief that the self is constituted through the community, in the sense that the individual is shaped by the communities in which they belong and thus owe them a debt or respect and consideration.

Multiculturalism is commonly cited as being a form of communitarianism, which is the belief that the self is constituted through the community, in the sense that the individual is shaped by the communities in which they belong and thus owe them a debt or respect and consideration.

Multiculturalism can be seen to be a form of multiculturalism because it is rooted in an essentially communitarian view of human nature. For multiculturalists, humans can’t be understood ‘outside’ of society. They are intrinsically shaped by the social and cultural structures within which they live and develop. Therefore, there is an emphasis more on what is distinctive about the group to which the individual belongs and thus a link between the personal and the social, as society is made up of different cultural groups seeking recognition. This leads to the individual being ‘embedded’ in a particular cultural, social, institutional or ideological context. MacIntyre and Sandel portrayed the idea of the abstract individual – the ‘unencumbered self’ – as a recipe for rootless atomism. Only groups can give people a genuine sense of identity and moral purpose. Consequently, multiculturalists reject any universalist model of personal identity, such as that proposed by liberals.

The multiculturalist idea of minority group rights can also be said to constitute a form of communitarianism. Will Kymlicka argued for the existence of polyethnic and representation rights. Polyethnic rights are designed to help a cultural group maintain and express their cultural distinctiveness. These rights usually take the form of legal exemptions, such as Sikhs being allowed to not wear motorcycle helmets. Kymlicka also identified the importance of representation rights, designed to redress the under representation of disadvantaged groups in senior position in public life. This ‘positive discrimination’ is the only way of ensuring the full and equal participation of all groups in the life of their society, and ensures that public policy reflects the interests of these groups. Therefore, as minority groups rights help express the distinctiveness of a cultural group and therefore the individual, and also help embed these groups into society, they can be said to constitute a form of communitarianism.

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