The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Pluralism, Equality and Identity: Comparative Studies By T.K. Oommen, Oxford, Rs 475

The modern world is marked not only by globalization of the economy and society, but also by a reversal of the Enlightenment belief in progress as a movement towards modernity. The communal riots in Gujarat earlier this year can be considered an example of the assertion of recalcitrant primeval emotions. Social scientists thus need to develop new concepts and critically re-evaluate existing ones to grapple with today’s complex, fast-changing reality.

T.K. Oommen’s book is a step in this direction. It attempts to reformulate concepts, to apply them to various contexts and to compare them with existing social and political theories. Pluralism, equality, identity — the three central concepts are examined along with their connections in different situations.

Modernity has always emphasized individual equality and assumed it would bring about social equity. But where is the equity in modern multicultural societies' According to Oommen, equality has the best chance of taking root in homogeneous societies.

In heterogeneous and hierarchical societies, identity plays an important role. But not any one identity — individuals and groups may have multiple identities in which religion, race and caste are as important as class, citizenship and gender.

Oommen feels that while cultural heterogeneity is a social fact, dignified co-existence is the best way culturally-diverse groups can preserve their identities within a polity. Pluralism also has its own limitations — look at the anxiety caused among those who have to choose from a multiplicity of — often contesting — identities and ideas.

Oommen not only re-evaluates these concepts, but also places them in a variety of contexts. For example, the terms “ethnic” and “ethnicity” are favoured in the United States of America because the country is truly a conglomeration of various “uprooted” people from different nations. However, in Europe, the equivalent concepts are described best as “nation” and “national minorities”, pointing to the strong attachment of the people to their homelands.

In south Asia too people are strongly attached to their homeland but the terms “nation” and “national minorities” are rarely used. Most south Asian countries are composed of diverse peoples and hence an assertion of nationality means delegitimizing the authority of the state.

Oommen concludes that to assume universal validity for a concept is to ignore its history. Indeed, social scientists should not ignore the context and the social reality in which a concept is located.

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