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Kymlicka: Multicultural citizenship

Disclaimer. Don't rely on these old notes in lieu of reading the literature, but they can jog your memory. As a grad student long ago, my peers and I collaborated to write and exchange summaries of political science research. I posted them to a wiki-style website. "Wikisum" is now dead but archived here. I cannot vouch for these notes' accuracy, nor can I say who wrote them.

Kymlicka. 1995. Multicultural citizenship. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Kymlicka differentiates between two kinds of "multiculturalism" (which is, in his view, an overly stretched concept). (1) "Multinational states" are states in which a "national minority" lives. This minority is a distinct national group, with a language, culture, territory, etc. (2) "Polyethnic states" are states that experience immigration. These immigrant groups are "ethnic groups," not "national groups," because they have culture and language, but no defined territory or claim of ownership. Ethnic groups usually integrate into the larger society--after all, they immigrated to it by choice. National groups usually remain distinct--the state usually came to them (through conquest or agreement). Many states are both multinational and polyethnic, like Canada, with the French (and British) immigrant ethnic group and the Inuit national group.

These groups generally advance three types of claims for special treatment. (1) National groups frequently advance claims of self-determination or autonomy, perhaps in a federal structure. (2) Ethnic groups frequently want protection of their distinct culture and language, so that integration into the dominant culture does not require abandonment of previous ways. (3) Both groups may claim special representation in the central government (e.g. a reserved number of seats or something) to protect their special status [in the case of national groups] or to protect them from the majority given their small relative size [in the case of both groups].





Some liberals worry that granting concessions to national or ethnic groups hurts democracy: democracy, for them, requires a common citizenship based on treating people identically as individuals. When a particular group seeks some accomodation, this requires us to treat people differently based on their group affiliation, which strikes many as illiberal. Kymlicka turns this on its head. He argues that request for accomodation actually reflect minorities' desires to integrate. For example, Orthodox Jews in the US seek an exemption from military dress codes so they can wear their yarmulkas. They want the exemption not so they can be different, but so they can join the army and be like everybody else.

However, when groups [usually national minorities] want self-rule or autonomy, the situation is more complicated. On the one hand, this does prevent the formation of a common citizenship and patriotism, which, Kymlicka argues, are important for liberal democracy. On the other hand, forcing national minorities to assimilate will be problematic (as far as liberal theory goes) and can easily lead to violence. Sometimes, secession/partition is a good solution. But what we really need is a theory that explains the conditions under which multiple national groups can coexist peacefully within a single political unit.

Kymlicka reviews what has been done here, but inexplicably never mentions Lijphart's work (all of which aims to address exactly that question). He first refutes the idea that shared values won't form the basis for a happy union, only a shared identity. He wants somebody to develop further ideas, though: "A fundamental challenge facing liberal theorists, therefore, is to identify the sources of unity in a democratic multination state" (192). He ought to go read Lijphart for a useful starting point.

Research on similar subjects


Kymlicka, Will (author)Political TheoryDivided SocietiesNationalismEthnic CooperationDemocracy and Society

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