The multicultural controversy.

Author:Bullock, Roger

The statement by Angela Merkel that 'Germany's attempt to create a multicultural society has utterly failed', echoed by David Cameron for the UK, (1) raises serious concerns for social work. Of course, her comments might have been politically opportune and taken out of context, and residents of countries with a long multicultural tradition--like Canada and Brazil (2)--will probably dismiss them as unduly alarmist. But nearer to home, her observation is part of a drift to the political right on this issue noticeable across the EU, and so is bound to have some effect.

Professions have always been subject to generalisations and grotesque claims of applicability across thousands of individuals, even if they are seen as containing an element of truth. So, everyone has a beef about some group or another, and social workers are no exception. The criticisms they face need not be expounded here except to say that two aspects of their work provide a powerful defence. Social workers deal with people whom few critics are rushing in to help and, unlike services that rely on appointments, non-compliance cannot be ignored because of legitimate concerns about child protection, the confused elderly and mentally disordered.

With such august responsibilities, social workers have to deal with diverse groups of people and their communication has to be effective if progress is to be made. In this context, familiar practice mantras, such as 'start from where the client is', 'listen to children' and 'local solutions for local needs', seem eminently sensible. But when multiculturalism comes under scrutiny, their validity is less obvious.

One of the problems is that multiculturalism means many different things. Angela Merkel referred to 'people living side by side without integration' but this is only one example. Nearly every country in the world is now multicultural and a range of political solutions can be seen--from apartheid, demarcated reservations, ghettoes (formal and informal), repression of particular groups and 'allowing double lives', via elaborate assimilation for citizenship to an open society where individuals express themselves freely and everyone enjoys the variety this produces. Each of these policies sets boundaries for social work practice.

In political discussion, multiculturalism is closely tied to race and ethnicity, and their associated languages, religions and customs. This view is significant for social work because these components are...

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