Multiculturalism and the End of History



Aleksandar Bošković

Department of Social Anthropology,

University of the Witwatersrand





 Introduction: “It’s the End of the World as We Know It”

Debates about the spread and the impact of multiculturalism have become intertwined with the ones about “the end of history” (Huntington 1996a, 1996b; Fukuyama 1992, 1995; Žižek 1997/1998, 1998). Both of these terms have been used, re-used and criticized in recent years, but both still seem to be viable for the attempts at explaining the changing world. In particular, the impact of “multiculturalism” in the developed world still seems at odds with the consequences of it in the not-so-developed world (cf. Žižek 2000). Recent attempts at installing a tolerant, multiethnic and multicultural environment have failed dismally (Kosovo) – and the African continent provides further examples of the difficulties of accepting different others.

One of the recent anthropological attempts of dealing with the concept is the one by Watson (2000). Watson uses his own fieldwork experience (especially in Malaysia) in order to illustrate and explain the complex phenomena associated with multiculturalism. In so doing, he does not really define multiculturalism (which would require a working definition of ‘culture’) but illustrates the ways it manifests itself in everyday life. He demonstrates the distinction people draw between ‘multicultural’ and ‘multiculturalism’, providing examples from South Asia, Britain and the US. In the Asian contexts, people tend to more readily ‘shift’ their cultural allegiances – seen as inherently unstable and fluctuating. On the other hand, in the developed countries like the UK and the US, the dominant culture puts itself more firmly onto the pedestal of the norm or the standard of what all the other cultures within the country should look like. Countries like Germany provide interesting examples of different cultures co-existing, but without actually having too much contact with each other – or at least people think so. According to Watson, the whole issue of multiculturalism has a lot to do with the building and appropriation of different identities (considered to be the ones that guarantee privileged position – as in the case with Han in China). One of the strongest points of the book is the fact that we are all multicultural – culturally ‘pure’ societies simply do not exist. While this sounds like quite an obvious point, it is not something that most people consciously perceive or even think about. 


In particular, South Africa has tried (since its triumphant re-entry onto the world stage in 1990) to build a new nation, “rainbow nation,” a kind of an amalgam of its own various cultural and ethnic experiences (the country has 11 official languages… which in practice means that people increasingly use only one of them – English). But multiculturalism is much wider and has wider implications. So what does multiculturalism mean for the world in general? Is it compatible with processes such as globalization, or with the new forms of expression opened by the new information technologies? And what does it mean for a particular (“multicultural”) country? In this paper, I wish to briefly trace the origin and the starting points of these debates, as well as to briefly point to where they might lead in the future. In doing so, I prefer to point to specific questions, not to try to give answers. I believe that in order to study and understand the current phenomena, we should first try to learn to ask questions – answering them will then be easy.



            “Culture” is a strangely ambiguous term. It is interesting to note that two recent influential authors (Mangena and Ndebele) seek in it answers to defining a particular (South African) identity, so it is perceived as a potentially very powerful tool. On the one hand, most people believe that they intuitively “know” what it means. On the other, relatively few people can, if pushed into a debate about it, actually agree among themselves on its meaning. “Culture” is a universalizing and totalizing concept, but one that cannot be avoided. Entire volumes have been written about it by learned people of the past, and I neither can nor wish to compete with them.[1] Following Umberto Eco, I propose to look at culture as something intrinsically heterogeneous.  In one sense, culture is something completely opposed to practical everyday activities, as well as areas like politics, economics or science.  Culture, understood in this way:

privileges the formation of aesthetic taste, according to the dominant class of course (Beethoven is culture, while appreciating the singing of drunks is not, unless in the form of ethnological study, nostalgia, or the snob research of kitsch) (...) It is not possible for everyone, for reasons of class, income and innate ability.  It is a sign of distinction.

                                                                        (Eco 1994: 117-118)


            This is what keeps sections on “culture” in newspapers and magazines separate from the ones devoted to the issues related to politics, society or production.

            In another sense, “culture” can be defined as a superior attitude of mind set against the ignorance of the masses.  In this sense, it does not necessarily privilege areas such as “humanities,” thus:

a bank manager and a customs officer are equally men of culture (...) In the final analysis, culture is the possession of knowledge in every sense (...)  In its democratic aspects this gives rise to appeals for the diffusion of culture among the lower classes.  But precisely because practical and manual knowledge are excluded from it.  A car mechanic is not a cultured man (...) Therefore this idea of culture also entails a measure of idleness as a necessary condition for cultural growth.

                                                                                    (Eco 1994: 118)


            Finally, in what Eco calls an “anthropological definition,” culture comprises “institutions, myths, rites, laws, beliefs, codified everyday behavior, value systems and material techniques elaborated by a group of humans.”[2] In this sense, culture does not have to be explicit, nor does it invite value judgments. On the other hand, “cultures whose experience of other, different cultures has not been traumatic do not identify themselves as a culture, but as the model of humanity pure and simple” (Eco 1994: 120). It is precisely this last sense in which a certain set of cultures have established themselves as dominant over other cultures, and it is precisely this aspect which is questioned by contemporary anthropologists. Of course, anthropologists are not the only ones questioning this — for example, Stephen Toulmin (1990) has shown how the prevailing Western attitude has changed since the Renaissance, in order to establish a new dominant set of narratives.

            In the case of the Western European expansion that started in late 15th and early 16th century with Columbus reaching the Antilles in 1492 and Vasco da Gama sailing around Africa in 1498, the West put itself in a position of absolute domination and control, its master narrative was to become a master narrative of the whole world that it wanted to subjugate; it had appropriated (“discovered”) new worlds, and something had to be done about it.

            What was done was essentially a rationalist revolution, initiated by René Descartes in philosophy and Sir Isaac Newton in science. This revolution claimed the separation between the mind and the body, it started to treat different systems as always incompatible, different systems of values as mutually exclusive, and also it set up a standard (of the Western colonial powers in expansion — although, to be clear, neither Descartes or Newton were particularly involved or interested in the colonial expansion) that was to become the standard for judging and evaluating all other (different) cultures. This stood in sharp contrast to the humanist ideals of the Renaissance (in fact, Toulmin calls this revolution “Retreat from the Renaissance” [1990: 30]), and it has made several important breaks with the earlier tradition.

            First of all, the emphasis shifts from the oral to the written, rhetoric losing its position as a legitimate field of study, and the stress is put on the rational  presentation of arguments, in the sense of producing proofs. Who presents the arguments, in which context, to what audience, becomes totally irrelevant. Decontextualization enters the West European science and humanities. Secondly, there is a shift from the particular to the universal; in the world that was becoming (colonially) globalized, particular cases and situations lost their importance, the laws are set with universalistic claims (primarily in the context of raging religious wars in Europe).       

            If respecting the other was implicit in the moral and philosophical theories of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, from the 17th century onwards, this respect became irreconcilable with the strategies of domination, where the other had to be subsumed under the General Law of Reason. There is an important shift from the timely to the timeless, closely associated with the new strategies. While in previous centuries scholars paid much more attention to the context of specific situations, this interest is lost in the rationalist revolution. Finally, the shift in all the major theoretical debates (both in the sciences and in the humanities) changes from the local to the general, all in accordance with the new universalistic claims. 

            Although Toulmin looks at this break primarily from the perspective of the actual political and historical context of the 17th century Europe (which led to the savage war that from 1618 until 1648 raged in Germany and Bohemia), his arguments deal with the characteristics of Modernity itself, its emphasis on rationalization, the pursuit of Truth, and the quest for certainty that eventually became self-fulfilling. It is against this background of universalistic claims and the belief in “objectively” existing knowledge (usually associated with the idea and concept of Modernity [cf. Toulmin 1990, Bauman 1993, etc.]) that so-called “postmodern” social scientists, humanists, and philosophers react. The “postmodern” reaction might be understood in terms of Rorty’s (1980, 1989) reference to the “edifying” procedure of gaining knowledge; one that distrusts the notion of essential rightness and single and universal logic, one that is open to relativism and skepticism, one that is situationalist and subjective, one that constantly doubts even its own premises. To quote from Bauman:

Modernity, by comparison, seems never to have entertained similar doubts as to the universal grounding of its status. The hierarchy of values imposed upon the world administered by the north-western tip of the European peninsula was so firm, and supported by powers so enormously overwhelming, that for a couple of centuries it remained the baseline of the world vision, rather than an overtly debated problem. Seldom brought to the level of consciousness, it remained the all-powerful ‘taken-for-granted’ of the era. It was evident to everybody except the blind and the ignorant that the West was superior to the East, white to black, civilized to crude, cultured to uneducated, sane to insane, healthy to sick, man to woman, normal to criminal, more to less, riches to austerity, high productivity to low productivity, high culture to low culture. All these ‘evidences’ are now gone. Not a single one remains unchallenged. What is more, we can see now that they did not hold in separation from each other; they made sense together, as manifestations of the same power complex, the same power structure of the world, which retained credibility as long as the structure remained intact, but were unlikely to survive its demise.

                                                            (Bauman 1993: 135-136)



Multiculturalism and Globalization


            I understand “multiculturalism” in the most literal sense — to mean a multiplicity of cultures.[3] Thus, they necessarily interact and influence each other. As such, they are one of the favorite targets of the xenophobes and racists. On the other hand, there are people who did not spare the time or the effort to prove that the coexistence of different cultures is impossible  — and the war and destruction of the former Yugoslavia presents a good example (cf. also Geertz 1993). On the other hand, cultural analysts like Slavoj Žižek point to the fact that Balkan peoples started re-enacting what was expected of them (since it was “expected” that they would hate each other, they started acting accordingly)! In this context, multiculturalism is perceived as a threat  — a threat to the already established world-order, where there is a sharp and clear-cut distinction between “ourselves” (“our” culture, tradition, life values, and everything that goes with it) and “others” (as everything that is foreign or alien, everything that could potentially undermine “our” culture, tradition, life values, and everything that goes with it). Of course, there is another sense in which Žižek sees multiculturalism — as a new way of domination by the international capital (perceived as intrinsically connected with giant multinational corporations). The Western idea of multiculturalism is, according to Žižek, intrinsically Eurocentric and even racist, since it posits a single (Western) perspective for seeing all other cultures. Diversity seen through “our” eyes and “our” perspective is also a diversity that fits “our own” needs and interests.[4] Others are primarily seen as means for achieving the desired ends. (Of course, the very idea that processes of movement and shifting of the international capital should be seen as the determining factor for understanding of the culture change is not that new — it has been proposed by Talal Asad as far back as 1979.)

            To go back to Toulmin’s book, multiculturalism is definitively not something new. It was there long before the 16th century expansion of Western powers. It was certainly there two thousand years ago in the Mediterranean, when it was quite normal for every merchant (especially in the Levant) to speak four or five different languages. The shock and horror as a reaction to “others” is a relatively recent phenomenon.

            Of course, there is a sense in which the process of globalization is seen as something opposed to multiculturalism. We all live in a world which is increasingly being connected and reconnected through the media, as well as new forms of interactive communication like the Internet.

            Therefore, we are not exactly in the position from which Adolf Bastian in 1881 remarked that

For us, primitive societies (Naturvölker) are ephemeral, that is, as regards our knowledge of, and our relations with them, in fact, inasmuch as they exist for us at all.  At the very instance they become known to us they are doomed. (quoted in Fabian 1991: 194)


             The image of other worlds is constantly being distorted and remodeled, based on Western media assumptions, and it is mostly presented through the Western media.  In the globalized world, these distorted images then sift back even to the ones that they are (were) supposed to represent. For some people, mostly advocates of various racist or xenophobic views, this is a threat. Thus, many right-wing politicians (like Patrick Buchanan in the US, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, etc.) see it as a threat. Actually, they also fear the way in which new global corporations perceive even their “home” countries (countries where they have originated) as just another area (or space) to be colonized. In a world of multinational corporations, even citizens of the most highly industrialized countries are treated as some “Third World” subjects. A whole new class (“virtual class” – see Kroker and Kroker 1996) is emerging.

However, these processes are also opening many new areas. Even in a “colonized” space, there is a difference between people who realize that there are also some liberating possibilities that should be explored, and the ones that just sit back and lament over all the evils of this new “colonization.” In this sense, I see new processes of globalization as a way for enriching our own cultures, and as a part of the process, which is already, well on its way. Stopping it at this stage is not only impractical, but also highly improbable. New realities and new ways of perceiving things are being brought into our homes via the new information technologies, which are increasingly becoming a part of our daily lives.


Multiculturalism – South African Style


            In the early February 1990, the Yugoslav national TV broke its regular program to broadcast (“live”) Nelson Mandela leaving the prison – the image that captured hearts of people worldwide.  Of course, it is somewhat paradoxical that as Mr. Mandela was leaving prison, a great multicultural experiment that was Yugoslavia was beginning to collapse, but that is another (hi)story. Emerging countries seek to establish their identities based on what differentiates them from their neighbors. In the case of South Africa, what clearly set the country apart was a brutal segregationist regime (“apartheid”) that served as an absolute metaphor for injustice world-wide. I remember my own father back in Yugoslavia singing a song from the play Cry, the Beloved Country that he saw in Belgrade back in 1950s (I believe that he still remebers it, almost 50 years after seeing the play). The experience of oppression was something with which not just left-wing movements and parties, but also entire nations (especially in the so-called “developing world”) could easily identify. In that aspect, the struggle against apartheid regime was perceived as the ultimate symbol of struggle for justice and human dignity.

            The emergence of a new democracy in South Africa that followed the opening in 1990 and the first general elections in 1994 presented the country with many dilemmas, some of which dealing with the questions of identity. Is it possible to have a basic ("core") South African identity? Is the country irreparably split into two "camps" (one black, one white) with totally different identities? (The latter seems to be suggested in a recent speech by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Njabulo Ndebele [2001].) Or should one try to employ other strategies to make South African realize their common identity?

            In the words of the Deputy Education Minister, Mosibudi Mangena, the way to resolve this would be a return to the “African cultural heritage.” Ndebele also seeks answers in culture, in the complex structures that he calls “cultural calendars,” which “provide social cohesion and security” (2001: 7).  

            Unfortunately, “African cultural heritage” is a very wide construct, with little or no iformative value.[5] What is included and what is excluded? By whose criteria? And who decides what is “African”? Is the legacy of the white colonizers of South Africa part of it? Or is it just the privilege of black Africans? (Within them, is it a privilege of black African colonizers, or the ethnic groups/nations that have been subjugated by them?) If so, then the problems arise with the Arab legacy (or, if one goes further back, legacy of the ancient Egypt — which seems to have been basically a non-racial society), the legacy of North Africa. [Some of the issues regarding the representations of “Africanness” were outlined on 18 February 2002 in the WISER research seminar presented by Achille Mbembe.]

            South African intellectuals seem to be caught up in a dilemma on how to define themselves. There is both a wish to be a strong, unified country, and a reality that the country is composed of various different ethnic groups with their different cultural heritages. So is it possible to lump all of these heritages together? Or is it just a political trick?[6]

            The two authors I quote above are highly influential, so what they say should be taken very seriously. The fact that they have problems in delineating and defining concepts should be taken seriously as well. It witnesses not only the complexity of a particular situation, but also a sense of nostalgia for the “good old days,” when it was easy to be united in a struggle against the common enemy. In a way, they both witness a particular “end of history” – South African style – a series of complex events that brought closure to the past, but without opening clear perspectives for the future.


The End of History: A New Beginning?


            “The end of history” is an expression made popular since 1991, primarily by Francis Fukuyama, Professor of History at the George Mason University. It is important as an expression of a certain attitude of global powers (in this case, the only remaining world superpower), and a belief that the process of globalization (along with the consumerism, Western ideas on democracy and power, etc.) has come to dominate the whole world. However, this view is not shared even among some other highly influential Western intellectuals that speak from a similar position,[7] like Samuel Huntington from the Harvard University:

In recent years Westerners have reassured themselves and irritated others by expounding the notion that the culture of the West is and ought to be the culture of the world. This conceit takes two forms. One is the Coca-colonization thesis. Its proponents claim that Western, and more specifically American, popular culture is enveloping the world: American food, clothing, pop music, movies, and consumer goods are more and more enthusiastically embraced by people on every continent. The other has to do with modernization. It claims not only that the West has led the world to modern society, but that as people in other civilizations modernize they also westernize, abandoning their traditional values, institutions, and customs, and adopting those that prevail in the West. Both theses project the image of an emerging homogenous, universally Western world — and both are to varying degrees misguided, arrogant, false, and dangerous.

                                                                                    (Huntington 1996a: 28)


            Of course, Huntington himself postulates another way of globalizing, in what he sees to be a set of different “civilizations” (or what I would call “cultures”) — Western, Orthodox, Islamic, Latin American, African, Confucian, Buddhist, Hindu, and Japanese. I believe that his way of universalization is equally wrong, since it again postulates the existence of broad cultural concepts, while ignoring the differences not only among, but also within his “civilizations.” His aim is to establish a strategy of Western response to the forthcoming “clash of civilizations” — the wars between different cultures that will, in his view, dominate the time to come. 

            Every attempt to universalize is dangerous and, in my view, doomed to fail. Here I do not hink that there is much difference in trying to generalize on a global scale, or on a more moderate one (as in the case of a country like South Africa). The knowledge and the understanding of the differences both among and within various cultures (or sets of cultures) are the most important thing for understanding of the world we live in. One way of coping with the increasing complexities of our world (or worlds), is the notion of eclecticism, since

Eclecticism is the degree zero of contemporary general culture: one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald’s food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and ‘retro’ clothes in Hong Kong; knowledge is a matter for TV games.

                                                                        (Lyotard 1983: 76)


            Another way of dealing with multiculturalism and the fields it opens is simply accepting the uncertainty and the fluidity of everything we know (or everything that we think we know), and see everything not as “the end of history” — but as a new history, a history which will include narratives of different cultures and different traditions, all grouped together and all treated with equal respect. These other narratives and other discourses are not something that can be ignored  — in the same way as shutting one’s eyes before something that one does not want to see does not make something go away.

            Above all, the changes in our perception of the world are brought by the multiplicity of information (in fact, the second part of the title of Lyotard’s [1979] highly influential book is A Report on Knowledge). This multiplicity changes the cultural landscape — to the point of creating an understanding of the landscapes that French anthropologist Marc Augé calls non-places.[8] Places which are there, but not for everyone and not necessarily at the same time, places where socialization takes completely new and sometimes even unpredictable forms. With its numerous Web sites and almost endless possibilities for interactive communication, the Internet provides a good example of one of these non-places. At the same time, new technologies are proving to be more difficult to control and censor, so they provide a way for literally any alternative discourse. For example, the Zapatistas in Mexico have their own Web site (which was instrumental in getting the Mexican government officials to start negotiating with them), and numerous indigenous groups (like, for example, the Kayapo from Brazil) have been using modern technology to further their own cause and present their own views and their own “histories.” The histories that are being written (and lived) today will have to take into account this multiplicity, as well as the fact that numerous marginal groups are increasingly coming into a position from which their own views can finally be heard on a global level.

            Alternatively, not noticing this multiplicity of discourses that is increasingly becoming a fact of life, could only produce total ignorance and complete misunderstandings of the processes (particularly the ones that new information technologies bring along) that are shaping our reality. It could also produce deep misunderstandings of the ways in which our own cultures are interacting, as well as of the products of these interactions. In this sense, I would say that the discourses of the end of history are very much premature. However, discourses about the end of a certain type of history are not.




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1979        Anthropology and the analysis of ideology.  Man (N.S.) 14: 607-627.


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1995    Non-places: An Introduction to the Anthropology of Supermodernity. Translated by John Howe. New York: Verso.


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1993[1987]      The fall of the legislator. In: Thomas Docherty (ed.), Postmodernism: A Reader, pp. 128-140. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf. 


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1994(1983)      Does counter-culture exist?  Translated by Jenny Condie. In: Umberto Eco,  Apocalypse Postponed pp. 115-128. Edited by Robert Lumley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, London: British Film Institute.


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1995    Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. Glencoe: Free Press. 


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2001        Development must be built on culture. The Star, p. 15. Thursday, 1 March 2001.


Moore, Henrietta L.

1988    Feminism and Anthropology. Cambridge: Polity Press.


Ndebele, Njabulo S.

2001        Culture can redeem where politics fails. The Sunday Independent, p. 7. 25 February 2001.


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2000    Multiculturalism. Buckingham: Open University Press.


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[1]  Of course, as noted by Moore (1988: 197): “There is no generally accepted definition in social anthropology of what a culture is.” For a good recent overview, see Thornton 2000.

[2]  Mangena follows the Tylor's definition when he describes culture as "That sum total of customs, rituals, norms and values [that] make us human. They govern and regulate the patterns of our day to day life" (2001: 15).

[3]  And this is similar to Watson’s understanding of the concept.

[4]  A similar line of criticism is offered by Wilson (1997), who sees multiculturalism as “a strategy designed to save “America” as an idea, and as a system of social control.”

[5]  It is perhaps a by-product of another grand recent universalization, the idea of the “African Renaissance,” which is being used as a powerful ideological tool. For the excellent deconstruction of this concept and an analysis of its huge cultural and ideological baggage, see Leroke 1999.

[6]  Some of the problems relating to this issue have been outlined by Nuttall and Michael in their Introduction (Nuttall and Michael 2000).

[7]  What I mean is that both Fukuyama and Huntington are not simply two idle Western intellectuals meditating on the margins of society — both of them are highly influential in different strategic institutes and policy-making organizations (including the ones that practically shape up American foreign policy), which makes their views something that is of relevance to a much broader circle of people.

[8]  Augé refers to the queues in banks, ATM machines, airport lobbies, etc. - all of these are places where people are engaged in some form of social interaction, but places that have (so far) not been studied as such.