Against multiculturalism and multiple modernities


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UNLIKE most other thoroughbred sociological concepts, modernization is often defined in terms of attributes and not as relations between people. This is quite contrary to the spirit of sociology where all dominant concepts have a strong relational aspect. Capital, for instance, is not just a sum of money, but a relation which brings together workers and owners of capital. Likewise, authority is understood as a relation between the ruler and the ruled, for brute power is now delegitimized making it possible to study politics across historical periods. Kinship terms, of course, are all about social relations; a wife is not just a woman and a father is not just a man. The list of such sociological concepts is very long, yet modernization often suffers as an analytical term for it is frequently associated with ‘things’ and not examined as a phenomenon that calls out to relations between people.

For example, Daniel Lerner saw modernization emerging as a consequence of the mass media, literacy, ability to vote, a high population density, a free market and a growing movement from fields to factories and from rural to urban.1 But now we know that such an understanding hardly takes into account the fact that patron-client relationships can persist across town and country and from fields to factories in voting behaviour and indeed, in market relations too. Lerner’s ideas on this subject are not unlike Hoselitz’s position that modernity lives in cities.2

Morphologically again, Marion Levy Jr. picks on technology as a defining feature of modernity. According to him, the ‘definition of modernization hinges on the uses of inanimate sources of power and the use of tools to multiply the effect of effort… A society will be considered more or less modernized to the extent that its members use inanimate sources of power.’3 Does this make all industrial societies modern? Would North Korea be a modern society? Would Saudi Arabia be modern? Indeed, would all of India be modern too? Alex Inkeles also emphasized factory work, but strongly stressed another morphological trait, namely, education.4 Yet, do we not know scores of educated people becoming jihadists and Hindu sectarians?

In recent times, morphological, or trait oriented definitions of modernity got a powerful boost from S.N. Eisenstadt. Probably recognizing the trap that such treatments of modernity were falling into, Eisenstadt declared that modernity should not be seen singularly but in its plenitude, as all traits were now included. He declared, in a famous article published in Daedalus, that we should not be discussing modernity as much as ‘multiple modernities’.5 This allowed Eisenstadt to calmly slip in fundamentalism as a variety of modernity along with the nation state and globalization.6


A cold assessment of this view will reveal a monumental categorical error which local patriots and cultural chauvinists do not want to recognize. What the term multiple modernities essentially does is to confuse all that is ‘contemporaneous’ with all that is ‘modern’. In other words, whatever one sees today is an illustration of modernity and a carrier of its message. This may seem little more than an oversight to some, but its consequences are quite damaging. Multiple modernities takes the heat off backward, atavistic and downright dictatorial and illiberal regimes by making them appear as if they were kindred souls with established modern democratic societies.

Eisenstadt makes it easier for his readers to accept all of this for he goes the distance and even calls Jacobinism a modern phenomenon. So now, all hard dictatorships can call themselves Jacobins after a fashion and use this label to conceal their backward policies and attitudes. Yes, Jacobins used violence for political ends, but just because they appeared in late 18th century Europe, and that too in France, does not make them modern. Nor by extension, can nation states qua nation states be considered modern either. What Eisenstadt needs to reflect upon is that some of the most intolerant regimes with immobile patriarchal and ethnic values are also viable nation states.


All of this certainly allowed the old attribute seeking conceptualization of modernity to rest easy, but Eisenstadt was actually shifting the burden from one to many. Apart from the old saying that security lies in numbers, the truth is that the idea of multiple modernities made backward countries, continents even, look good. Arabia, Asia and Africa gazed happily into the mirrors they were holding up to themselves and saw ‘multiple modernities’ everywhere. Now they were vindicated: we all have our own modernity, so who is to tell whom about which route to take or what goals to aspire for.

The root cause for the confusion that multiple modernities has cast is its inability to distinguish between what is happening now – the contemporaneous, with what is a sociological concept – namely modernity. As there is no emphasis on relations between people, Eisenstadt’s treatment of the subject brings out the worst elements of earlier studies on modernity. It does so by italicizing morphologies and not social relations. Inkeles, Hoselitz7 and even Marion Levy Jr., tended to flit between morphology and social relations, but as they did not make the category distinction clear, modernization got a rather simplistic rendition in terms of attributes – urbanization, literacy, free markets, overcrowded cities, gun wielding fundamentalists, nation states, and so on.


How then does one rescue ‘modernity’ from such ill-conceived and half-baked conceptual formulations? Simple: by emphasizing relations between people. It is not as if most of the sociologists mentioned above are unaware of Talcott Parsons, or Max Weber or Karl Marx; it is just that they have not put the contributions of these earlier scholars to work in a full-blooded fashion. This is why they tend to get carried away by the immediate charms of the given and the commonplace.

If one were to take leads from Parsons, Weber and Marx (and they have many noteworthy disciples), it would soon become apparent that modernity is as modernity does, especially in terms of how it orders social relations. In such a scheme of analysis, modernity would gain credence from the fact that it emphasizes universality of rules and norms, transparency in public affairs and when the two are put together, inter-subjectivity, or the ability to see oneself in others, is the consequence. When social relations exhibit these attributes then it is about time they are called modern, whether or not they have conquered the highest technological peaks. This is why it is hard to group North Korea, parts of the Middle East, or those who once hid behind the old-fashioned ‘iron curtain’, as modern. Where was transparency and universality in those countries? Consequently, there was no room for inter-subjectivity either.

If Parsons and Weber support the ideas of inter-subjectivity and universality, Marx’s theses against capitalism demonstrates that all market relations are not actually transparent; therefore, entrepreneurial freedom does not necessarily entail inter-subjectivity. Left alone, market principles are notoriously self-oriented and need social forces outside of the market so that they do not degenerate into buccaneer capitalism. This is why the norms of universality and transparency must work their way into the functioning of a modern economy to give it a human and modern face.


As a consequence, economic entrepreneurship now becomes a public affair and not one that is strictly at the level of individual greed or opportunism. One should in fact go quite a few steps further. From Hegel, to Marx, to Weber, to Husserl, to Mead, to Habermas, to Levinas, sociological theory has consistently stressed the relationship between self and other. If that be so, why should modernity be deprived of this privilege and only be understood in terms of attributes which are not relationship laden?

Once we begin to associate modernity with ‘inter-subjectivity’, ‘transparency’ and ‘universality’, it will immediately become clear that we are talking of a project at work. If we are emphasizing relations as being all important, it is simply because we have seen urban spaces, education, factories and even elections unable to wipe out traits of the past. Cultural bigotry not only persists but has, on many occasions, been strengthened, giving rise to the spurious allegation that modernity supports fundamentalism or ethnicity. Patron-client relationships continue to thrive through the so-called ‘free market’ bringing in all kinds of economic distortions. Worse, by pegging modernity to the attribute of ‘nation state’, dictatorships can now claim the mantle of modernity simply because they are fiercely nationalist in their disposition. As we have seen so much of all this in recent decades, the innocence of the past, when modernity was only morphologically understood, needs to be overcome. In this context, the notion of ‘multiple modernities’ is not just wrong, but actually dangerous. It gives the worst regimes reason to boast that they have a custom made modernity just for themselves.


When modernity introduces ‘inter-subjectivity’ it enables, as John Rawls once said, ‘to share in one another’s fate’.8 This breaks down the forces of patron-client relationships and creates a citizenry. According to T.H. Marshall, a foremost thinker on this subject, citizenship confers an equality of status, upon which structures of inequality may be built.9 This implies that at the foundational level citizenship aspires to level differences between people so that they may use socially available opportunities to distinguish themselves from each other in keeping with their talents and energies.

None of this would be possible without universalization of norms and rules and without transparency in public affairs. The initial levelling of differences creates the seed bed for inter-subjectivity and as citizenship practices get more and more entrenched, the ability to see oneself in others grows as well. It is then not a personal tie of dependence, or of patron-client relationship, or an ascribed connection with kin and clan that governs social interaction. Institutions now take over and individuals become their formal and substantive bearers. This is why in a modern society one would rather trust institutions and not individuals.

Ultimately, it is this that enables a modern person from giving into the compulsions of patron-client ties. In other words, a modern society should leave no room for exclusivity of access to institutions that help people gain socially valuable assets, or skills, for themselves. If that does not happen, patron-client relations will naturally begin to dominate, making a travesty of modernity and citizenship too. In a modern society, if a person falls sick, the hospital is universally available; if a child needs education, the schools are there; if a rule is violated then regardless of who is involved the guilty will be punished. This compels patrons to quietly fold their tents and go elsewhere. This also encourages inter-subjectivity in social relations for attitudes of distance and domination are subdued by the forces of modernity.


The individual stands supreme in a modern society, but not in a selfish fashion, seeking only personal satisfaction. This individual is now constrained by an institutional setting which embodies the interests of society in a transparent, inter-subjective way. It is because an individual must function within such universal constraints and norms that the best in a person comes to the fore. A person is challenged to play by the rules and this invariably makes one perform way better than what would have been the case if such norms were not in place. If this is difficult to understand, just think of sport. If Michael Jordan or Sachin Tendulkar are so great in their own disciplines, it is because they played within a transparent and universal set of rules. Had they played cricket or basketball by idiosyncratic, culture based norms, they would hardly have been the super stars they now are.


It is because a modern society is universal in nature that its most obvious characteristic is inter-subjectivity. This inter-subjectivity is the unconscious, untheorized, unthought out way people see themselves in others. This is best exemplified in the respect that is given to others in social interactions even if they appear as anonymous personages. This ethical anonymity can only be achieved in modern societies as they are blind to ethnic and other ascribed traits and instead depend heavily on the transparency with which universal norms are upheld. This is what allows for the emergence of inter-subjectivity in social relations without people having to think about it in a self-conscious manner. It is this inter-subjectivity that Marshall captured in his own way when he discussed the notion of citizenship, which has been mentioned a little earlier.

What does the term ‘multiple modernities’ do instead? It does not take up the question of universality, transparency or inter-subjectivity, but allows for violence, bigotry, religious wars and deep wounding weapons to colour modernity. That it manages to do this with such facility is because it equates the modern with the contemporaneous and clouds popular judgment. It is tempting to mock at the clustering of inter-subjectivity, transparency and universality and ask: Where is this modern society? Is it just in our heads or does it have any empirical substance at all? Those who sneer at the relational aspects of modernity forget that there is no such thing as a pure of anything; there is no pure fundamentalism either. Nor is there a pure capitalism, a free market or even a perfect relationship between mother and child.

Modernity is a project that has achieved greater success in some places and less elsewhere. This obviously implies that there is a telos of modernity – a general direction that can be foreseen but only if certain conditions are upheld. Even if a society upholds universality, transparency and inter-subjectivity, the fidelity to such aspects will be differently expressed in different climes and regions. This does not mean ‘multiple modernities’ either, for a singular telos runs through all these variations. A little care will show that in all definitions there are certain features that are unbending, which allow a society to be designated as capitalist, or democratic or, as in our case now, modern. If the conditions for transparency, universality and inter-subjectivity are not present, or present weakly, or present but constantly compromised, then that society is way back in terms of modernity. If, on the other hand, many of these conditions are met strongly enough, we have a more progressive and modern society.


How modernity expresses itself may be different but it must abide by the three conditions mentioned above. In some cases, a modern society may not want to give any space to members of the government who exhibit their religious allegiance in public affairs, as in France; elsewhere, a modern society may prop up a titular monarch, but that head is governed by democratic law, as in Britain. America and Japan have their own varieties, as do Spain and Portugal, but when we come to North Korea, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan or Libya, one has to draw the line. Though each of these countries are contemporaneous (they also call themselves ‘modern’ and ‘democratic’), the social relations in them are so weighted against the relational tenets of modernity that they just do not make the grade. They would pass off if the generous criteria of ‘multiple modernities’ were to be employed, but then, modernity will have lost its conceptual edge.

Multiculturalism, like multiple modernities, is an affront to modernity. In multiculturalism, it is not the individual who is at the centre, but the community, race or ethnic group. Will Kymlicka argued some years back that the ability to observe different kinds of community practices enlarges our levels of choices.10 That much is true, but what is troublesome is that if some cultural practices offend the rights of the individual, as they often do, which side then will we lean towards? Diversities can only be accepted if they do not negate the rights of the individuals that guarantee true citizenship and allow for the emergence of inter-subjectivity. If Hindus and Muslims do not have the same access to acquire socially valuable skills; if women regardless of their religious background cannot seek justice when patriarchy violates them, then there is no justification at all to call the circumstances within which these happen as being even remotely modern.


It would not be correct then to argue in terms of cultural rights because groups do not have rights, only individuals do. On the other hand, it is perfectly legitimate from a modern standpoint to articulate cultural policies so long as they do not infringe upon individual rights. So, at one level we have rights and at another policies, and the distinction needs to be kept intact. We cannot allow diversity, as Bhabha seems to advocate, a free run for that would then enliven attitudes that are inimical to modernity.11 Rajni Kothari once felt that only by observing tradition was it possible to enact ‘human governance’, forgetting that some of the most atrocious acts against fellow beings existed in tradition and in many cases there was just no recourse against them.12 Kothari’s heart was in the right place: he had seen democracy in India put to use to squash civic liberties in the name of majoritarianism, but the answer he sought was wrong. If only he were not to equate modernity with everything contemporary, he would probably have attempted to take India away from tradition, instead of succumbing to it.


Multiculturalism is a residue of democracy, but not its governing principle. It arises from policies that allow people of different communities to observe their tradition, but under strict conditions. What multiculturalism in its best form does is to invite everybody but nobody is preferred. This takes the stuffing out of discriminatory prejudices and makes all individuals, regardless of their provenance, equal players with equal access to socially valuable assets. This can only happen if the basic common denominator is individual rights based on the three principles of modernity, namely, universality, transparency and inter-subjectivity. Multiculturalism, as a policy, is the collateral beneficiary of modernity and cannot pose as its competitor, or stand apart. It is only because modernity, and its activist cohort, democracy, are culture blind, that every culture gets room to play and express itself equally with other cultures.

This is why democracy is such a difficult social arrangement as it is not at all in keeping with our native traditions, cultures and prejudices. Claude Levi-Strauss had drawn attention to how human beings spontaneously give cultural differences a natural colour such that the ‘them’ can never be like the ‘us’.13 This anthropological truism holds through time and space; even the most rudimentary stone age societies observe it. This is why democracy is not a spontaneous phenomenon that can be practiced without effort and constant surveillance. As democracy puts citizenship and fraternity in the centre, it rejects, in principle, our given prejudices that emanate from old cultural practices that separate people on a perennial basis.

Democracy without modernity would be just a majoritarian game, in which case it is pure nationalism. In that event, all old histories of blood, soil, territory and remembered humiliations come to the fore. This is why it is not correct to equate modernity with the nation state as some scholars had done, and discussed in earlier paragraphs. On the other hand, modernity without democracy would be a geek’s paradise, open to a rational usage of technology with no thought as to how different classes of people, in different cities and villages and with different background conditions, are going to be affected by them.


The frequent outbursts against the construction of dams in India are not because the protesters are backward, but because they want their citizen rights to be respected. A plain, rational logic, on its own and without democratic reasoning, is not modern and for good reason; it offends inter-subjectivity. This is why it is incorrect to equate modernity with rationality. Gandhi had many irrational fads, but he was modern because he believed in non-violence in deed and in words. It is this that opened the gates for citizenship and once that happens, can modernity be too far away?

As modernity has to do with universality, transparency and inter-subjectivity, it naturally promotes a kind of homogeneity at base – one might even call it iso-ontology. Just as Marshall had said about citizenship, modernity too grants a solid basis of uniformity so that people can choose to be different as long as that basis is not jeopardized. To argue that homogeneity is bad or evil, as many multiculturalists tend to do, is just too romantic for words. There is nothing wrong if in certain essential aspects we resemble one another. When that happens it shows universality, public transparency and inter-subjectivity at work – or, at least, gives evidence of such aspects struggling to find a place. In fact, Emile Durkheim had once said that his first obligation was to resemble the others.14 It is for a similar reason that Emmanuel Levinas asserted that ethics is really ‘other people’.15


If India were not to promote homogeneity to the extent it did, it would have been impossible for India to remain together. India survived the worst predictions of specialists, lay people and politicians and stayed as one simply because it was able to project its territory as sacred space in the popular imagination. By itself, this is no great virtue, but as it also enabled secularism to become a fundamental trait of our Constitution it needs to be celebrated. India’s economy too, over the years, developed linkages, both forward and backward, across regions, and these have again brought about a greater degree of homogeneity in social life.

Our educational curricula have a lot of elements that are in common which is why it is possible to take national qualifying examinations and for migrants to move out of their provinces and localities to far distances in search of jobs. But as the access to health and education in India varies vastly from class to class and from rural to urban, it makes it difficult for Marshall’s notion of citizenship to apply. As there is a clear lack of equality when it comes to issues that provide the foundations of social life, citizenship is automatically threatened. When there is a striving for homogeneity in terms of citizenship ties then that should be welcomed, and not derisively addressed.


In India today there are a number of features that should make us sit up and take stock of modernity and its promises, instead of bartering all that away in the name of multiculturalism or multiple modernities. Marshall’s doctrine of citizenship conferring an equality of status is far from being realized in practice. Our human development indices show such a wide variation across income groups and professions in society that many often wonder what good democracy has done to us.

It is, however, not democracy’s fault, for democracy enjoins us to deliver to citizens so that we can all equally access the fruits of modernity. The problem is, as mentioned earlier, that democracy is not easy; it is hard to practice for it requires dedication and determination to resist the low hanging alternatives. The temptation to lapse into multiple modernities or multiculturalism is to be feared as that would be highly injurious to our future. It is important to be warned from the start that once these anti-modern elements get a toehold, it will not be long before they claim the whole nine yards.

The extent of fragmentation of the rural economy has been commented upon at length by several scholars and administrators. This is why there is such a powerful urge today to leave the village for the city, but that is still a difficult proposition. While village life requires one kind of patron-client relationships, heading to the city for an urban job calls out to another kind of patron-client bonding. This time it may well be the contractor who replaces the landlord, or the slumlord who takes over from the village oligarch.

Under these conditions, when futures are uncertain, the only insurance that a person has is the family, kin and clan. Quite naturally, these phenomena are buoyant and exist side by side a defunct village economy and a struggling urban dream. As one is beset by vulnerabilities, the past tends to haunt the present. Democracy needs to tackle this head on with a social security network along the lines that Marshall had recommended and not give into multi-culturalism or multiple modernities.


Poor people get into poverty over-night when somebody in their family is seriously sick. The fact that roughly 76% of all health expenses are borne by individuals (known as out-of-pocket expenses) in India, gives one an idea of how far we have to go so that inter-subjectivity can become visible first and graspable next. There are few countries that are worse than India in this respect, Pakistan and Iraq immediately come to mind. But are these the societies that India should be taking its cues from? In India, in terms of state expenditure on health it barely touches 1% of our GDP, whereas in Europe it is on an average 8% of GDP and in USA about 14% of GDP.

If, therefore, traditional practitioners of health get some mileage it is because modern medical facilities are not available to the poor. Contrary to what many anthropologists and culturologists (multiculturalists among them) think, most sick people go to the allopath first. It is only when they are turned down at the door of such a practitioner that they look elsewhere for help. If so many of them cannot afford medical care and therefore retreat to the smoky dens where exorcists and magicians dominate, can we term this as unconditional subservience to cultural norms?

Our public expenditure on education is about 3% of GDP and we all know how dismal our schools and colleges are. Not only do we individually spend more money than we can or should on health, the same is true for education as well. Over 21% of rural children and 51% of urban children are enrolled in private schools. This is up from a mere 2% at the all-India level in the 1980s.16 The aspiration to get up and go and access facilities that will bring about uniformity in starting conditions is all there, but the institutions that need to be in place for this purpose are still ineffective. This is why Marshall’s criterion for citizenship in practice is floundering on Indian soil.


Today, the cry everywhere, including in the poorest quarters, is to have our democracy deliver to aspirations and not just needs. Needs keep people in one place, in a stagnant condition, but when it is about aspirations, one sees society on the move. Unfortunately, most of our current policies are closer to addressing needs than aspirations. That is why we have a plethora of initiatives that go under rubrics such as health for the poor or education for the poor. These government led initiatives soon degenerate to poor health and poor education and, at best, keep the poor alive but not eradicate poverty.

Aspirations are always seeking to break cultural barriers. Women need to be educated, poor want better jobs, and cities beckon people not just because incomes and facilities are better there, but because inter-subjectivity gets more space in urban conditions. In none of these cases can culture or multiculturalism provide any succour. Nor can we design health and education to meet the needs of just women, or just scheduled castes or just the poor. They must all be culturally neutral in the end; else how can we aspire to modernity and, with it, to citizenship in a democratic state.

Religion is a private matter and if it is ever allowed to enlarge itself by eating up the individual, the first victim would be modernity and, with it, democracy. This is a fact that multiculturalists are unaware of. However, religions generally express certain values that can be harnessed for the cause of modernity and cultural policies of democratic states should be sensitive to them. All faiths talk of charity, oneness of humankind, and forgiveness. If handled sensitively and imaginatively, those religious texts that openly espouse these values could be integrated in public proclamations of fraternity. This, however, should not mean that the entire religious baggage should get a free entry into the modern world.

There is no harm in confessing that we in India would like to enjoy the fruits of modernity as the Europeans do. It does not mean that we must imitate Europe, but if we can learn from it, where is the harm? Europe put culture in its place, and with it, multiculturalism and multiple modernities, by providing institutions that supported universality, transparency and inter-subjectivity. Europe’s social network created a modern citizenry as well as an autonomous patron free middle class. Nobody is perfect, but can’t those countries that are less modern learn from more modern ones?

Why give up the ghost and yield to the temptations of sirens, for that is what multiculturalism and multiple modernities really amount to?



1. Daniel Lerner, The Passing of Traditional Society: Modernization and the Middle East. The Free Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 1958.

2. Ibid., 1953.

3. Marion J. Jr. Levy, Modernization and the Structure of Society. Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1966, p. 11.

4. Alex Inkeles, ‘Making Men Modern: On the Causes and Consequences of Individual Change in Six Developing Countries’, American Journal of Sociology 75(2), 1969, pp. 208-221.

5. S.N, Eisenstadt, 2000 ‘Multiple Modernities,’ Daedalus 129(1), Winter 2000, pp. 1-29.

6. Ibid., p. 16.

7. Bert Hoselitz, ‘The Role of Cities in the Economic Growth of Underdeveloped Countries’, The Journal of Political Economy 61(3), 1953, pp. 195-208.

8. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass, 1971, p. 102.

9. T.H. Marshall, Class, Citizenship and Social Development. Chicago University Press, Chicago, 1977.

10. Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship: A Liberal Theory of Minority Rights. The Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995.

11. Homi Bhabha, ‘"Race", Time and Modernity’, Oxford Literary Review 13, 1991, pp. 192-219.

12. Rajni Kothari, State Against Democracy: Search for Human Governance. Ajanta, Delhi, 1988.

13. Claude Levi-Strauss, Totemism. Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1969.

14. Emile Durkheim, Professional Ethics and Civic Morals. Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1957.

15. Emmanuel Levinas, Entre-Nous: Thinking-of-the-Other. Columbia University Press, New York, 1998.

16. Sonalde Desai, Amaresh Dubey, Brij Lal Joshi, Mitali Sen, Abusaleh Sharif and Reeve Vanneman, Human Development in India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2010.