Current political debates around the concept of multiculturalism offer a challenge to anthropology. Anthropologists can provide comparative ethnographies of multicultural situations and offer critiques that can enrich public debates on equality and diversity, on human sameness and otherness. The central point at issue is what is understood today by the idea of "culture" beyond our scholarly circles, how it is used, and for what purposes. How should anthropologists reflect critically upon the uses (and abuses) of a concept that they helped to introduce into public debate?
The purpose of this panel is to provoke anthropological questions about multiculturalism as a political phenomenon. The rhetorical strategies of multiculturalism invoke the idea of "culture" as a central concept, using it in a variety of ways that are not always compatible with anthropological understandings of it, nor with (Western) conceptions of democracy. Should anthropologists be involved in these public debates by providing ethnographic and theoretical analyses that are able to frame both multiculturalism and its central idea — "culture" — as objects of critical scrutiny? Since the rise of multiculturalism in the United States in the 1960s, "culture" and its conceptual relatives, "identity" and "ethnicity", have become the global coinage of public discussion about various kinds of similarities and differences between individuals, groups, nations, and even civilisations. We think it important and timely that anthropologists should observe and reflect critically upon the uses (and abuses) of concepts such as "culture" which they helped to introduce into public debate. Multiculturalism as a political agenda, and also ethnic marketing practices, not only seem to acknowledge human cultural diversity, but also sometimes clearly suggest more essentialist forms of alterity and otherness. Multiculturalism also tends to emphasize differences at the expense of shared attributes, and valorises the sectional over the individual, challenging the classical ideals of liberty and citizenship upon which modern democratic and secular nation-states were founded and which remain central to their constitutional principles.