Identity, multiculturalism and the role of normlessness
Within the studies of social science one major tendency of thought differs against the traditions of the ”truer” natural sciences: the tendency of norm critique.
The Uppsala-based political scientist Katarina Barrling recently voiced an interesting perspective on normlessness in the daily Svenska Dagbladet (28. September 2015), arguing that normlessness in fact has the potential of becoming a norm in itself in Sweden. Barrling quotes the 2013 investigation of Socialstyrelsen (the Swedish National Board on Health and Welfare) and the 2016 Swedish budget proposition, which both to a degree see worsened mental health – in particular amongst young people – as a consequence of increased normlessness.
Normlessness is traditionally defined as the breakdown of universalist social moral guidance to the individual, a condition that the French sociologist Émile Durkheim refered to in his 1897 book Suicide as ”anomie”. Durkheim saw anomie within modern society as something gaining traction hand-in-hand with the at the time seemingly ever-increasing emacipation of the individual, ultimately risking to lead to the future fragmentation of identity and self-regulatory values.
What is truly fascinating is how the purported tendency towards anomie ties together with two of the hallmark projects of liberal democracy: identity politics and multiculturalism.
Identity politics is, to quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, political activity and theorizing which, rather ”than organizing solely around belief systems, programmatic manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context.”
Before advancing further (bear with me!) I’d first wish to make myself absolutely clear on my opinion on identity politics: nothing points to it being a problem as such. Identity politics has contributed to various outcomes and tendencies both good and bad, ranging from the liberation and emancipation of sexual minorities and women to, according to Eric Hobsbawm amongst others, potentially contributing to the ever-present spectra of nationalism and sectarianism.
These parallels, however, stretch even further – more specifically to the concept of multiculturalism.
Multiculturalism means accepting or promoting the existence of multiple perceived cultural traditions (usually associated as to belonging to specific ethnic groups) within the sphere of a single jurisdiction. Multiculturalism has since the end of the second world war officially become one of the foremost pillars of the social organization of western society.
In theory, the single most problematic aspect of multiculturalism is it’s dependency of percieved collective identities that differentiate minorities from the ”majority.” As generations go by it often becomes very difficult for those many to genuinely self-identify vis-a-vis a certain pre-defined ethnic or cultural group. As such, multiculturalism is both dependent on and contributive to the continued feeling of needing to categorize individuals into pre-defined cultural slots, a relationship possibly strengthened by the ever-dominant individualism of western capitalist society.
This dependence on identity within multiculturalism could unfortunately cause as well as be caused by the continued stigmatization of ”others”, in many cases potentially manifested in the perceived strengthening of society’s fixed power hierarchies. To paraphrase Marx in The German Ideology (1846), “as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape.” This reflection on the effects of labor specialization perfectly paraphrases the central problem with of identity as a central pillar of multiculturalism: it risks limiting us, curtailing perceived human potential and as such could keep many from becoming full-worthy participants in the public forum.
Let it once more be stressed that I’m not of the opinion that there necessarily exists a clear negative causal relationship between normlessness, identity politics and multiculturalism.
I do, however, wish that these concepts would figure more prominently within the public debate. For example: how can we perceive the aforementioned tendencies around us and how should we better actively relate to them within the policymaking process?
Once again science asks more questions than it answers.