Recognition and redistribution in Latin America: Reflections on the meaning of multiculturalism

Anna Krausova, Research Officer

The concept of multiculturalism is often an integral part of the debate on migration in the UK; and in recent years, proclamations that ‘multiculturalism has failed’ have frequently been made in the public debate. This has attracted empirical studies examining the consequences of multicultural policies, with some researchers being able to show convincingly that multicultural policies in the UK do not appear to have been detrimental to integration and community cohesion (e.g. Heath & Demireva, 2014). Yet the notion of ‘failed multiculturalism’ does not seem to have been particularly weakened in some public and political discourses.

2nd PLACE McGrath, Sandra, Hopes and Dreams, Photo Comp12
‘Hopes and Dreams’ by Sandra McGrath
(COMPAS Photo Competition, 2012)

In spite of the potency of the claim, perhaps not enough attention has been paid to the theoretical foundations of the concept of multiculturalism itself. Delving deeper into what we actually mean by multiculturalism could help to problematise the term further, allowing us to think more critically about what kinds of multiculturalisms we can think of as normatively acceptable as well as empirically beneficial.

The concept of multiculturalism refers to both normative theories in political thought and public policy recommendations on the one hand, and empirical realities of cultural plurality and the social meanings, attitudes and discourses used to describe and evaluate them, on the other. In terms of multiculturalism as a concept in political thought, its normative justifications have, I would argue, important practical implications.

A way of doing politics?
In one of the earliest takes on multiculturalism, Young (1976) conceptualized it[1] as one of the two main ways in which political claims and tensions can be expressed. In this sense, multiculturalism can be seen as a political struggle that bases its claims for justice on the precept of a cultural identity, as opposed to on the notion that rights stem from a particular class position within society.

What is crucial in this interpretation is that Young presents both of these possible ways of ‘doing politics’ as ultimately challenging inequality of values and resources. However, the conception of multiculturalism as used commonly in countries which receive migrants seems to talk less about the distribution of resources and more about the cultural rights of particular groups. Yet can, and should, these be so easily separated?

Much of the literature on multiculturalism has focused on questions of integration of migrant communities in receiving countries. However, the term has also been deployed when talking about state reforms and indigenous rights in other parts of the world. This includes the multicultural reforms that have been introduced in most Latin American countries in the last couple of decades, accompanied by the rise of social movements and political parties making demands on behalf of indigenous populations.

Despite the differences between multicultural experiences in Latin America and the ‘West’, exploring the ways in which the concepts have been used, and misused, in Latin America can highlight the contradictions and multiple interpretations of multiculturalism. Unpicking this could perhaps help us to better see the complexities of multiculturalism in Britain.

Recognition and redistribution
The term ‘politics of recognition’ was coined by Taylor (1994), whereby he outlines these to be political struggles for cultural recognition, as opposed to material redistribution (see also Kymlicka 2010b). Yet such accounts of multiculturalism arguably place too much emphasis on the group as the object of rights while side-lining issues of inequality, especially within a pluralist conception of politics (Benhabib, 2002; Fraser, 2003). Arguably, a sole focus on recognition presents the danger of a blinkered vision, whereby only recognition claims are included and the interdependent redistributive claims are excluded.

Interestingly, actors that oppose certain elements of multiculturalism can adopt  other aspects of it and use this ‘acceptance’ to legitimate their opposition to the rest of the multicultural proposal. Thus, white and mestizo (‘mixed-race’) elites in Bolivia, for example, make a ‘reverse racism’ claim in that granting special rights to marginalised indigenous groups gives more rights to one group over another. This echoes arguments made by the far-right in Europe in claiming that it is the rights of the white community that need to be protected. In a sense then, the language of multiculturalism is being used against multiculturalism itself.

Bringing inequality back into multiculturalism
At the same time, the Latin American experience highlights the scope of multiculturalism to encompass not only the notion of recognition of difference, but also of redistribution of resources. Another Bolivian example comes to mind[2]: the election of Evo Morales in 2006, the first indigenous president of a majority-indigenous country, on a left-wing as well as pro-indigenous ticket.

Protester with Wiphalia by Vera Bolkovic
Protester with Wiphalia by Vera Bolkovic

This stands in stark contrast to examples from Europe, including from the British political mainstream such as Gordon Brown’s ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ slogan. The latter in particular departs from Labour’s traditionally class focused arguments, and reframes economic inequality in ethnic terms.

It’s clear then that multiculturalism does not have an inherent tendency to side-line issues of redistribution, though it can end up being used that way in certain contexts. Perhaps instead of thinking about whether multiculturalism in general has ‘failed’ in Britain, it is more fruitful to think about what kind of multiculturalism is desirable, and crucially what role does material redistribution play in the quest for cultural recognition.



Benhabib, S. (2002). The claims of culture: equality and diversity in the global era. (Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press).

N. Fraser and A. Honneth (2003). Redistribution or recognition?: a political-philosophical exchange. (London: Verso).

Heath, A. & Demireva, N. (2014). ‘Has Multiculturalism failed in Britain?’. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 37:1. t

Kymlicka, W. (2010b). ‘Testing the Liberal Multiculturalist Hypothesis: Normative Theories and Social Science Evidence.’ Canadian Journal of Political Science 43(2): 257-271.

Postero, N. G. (2007). Now we are citizens: indigenous politics in postmulticultural Bolivia. (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

Young, C. (1976). The politics of cultural pluralism. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press).

This post draws partially on material from an MPhil thesis on multiculturalism and indigenous rights in Bolivia, submitted by the author for the degree of MPhil in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford.

[1] Young termed it cultural pluralism.

[2] With Bolivia being the country in Latin America where indigenous rights and multicultural reforms have perhaps gone furthest (Postero, 2007).