Key thinker: Bhikhu Parekh (1935–)
Bhikhu Parekh (1935–)
Bhikhu Parekh was born in the village of Amalsad in the province of Gujarat, India. His parents had received little formal education but encouraged their children to study (see 23.1. Introduction). Parekh attended the University of Bombay, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1954 and a master’s in 1956. In 1959, Parekh moved to London to pursue his graduate studies. He was awarded a PhD from London School of Economics (LSE) in 1966 (https://www.msubaroda.ac.in/Lord-Bhikhu-Parekh). Parekh briefly taught at LSE and the University of Glasgow, before moving to the University of Hull, where he was appointed Professor of Political Theory in 1982. He currently holds the post of Emeritus Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Westminster and Emeritus Professors at the University of Hull. Parekh is a Fellow of the British Academy and a Labour Party member of the House of Lords (https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/fellows/bhikhu-parekh-FBA/).
Parekh has published academic books on political thinkers ranging from Jeremy Bentham (see Key Thinker: Jeremy Bentham in Chapter 12 on John-Stuart Mill), Hannah Arendt (see Chapter 19 on Hannah Arendt) to Karl Marx (see Chapter 13 on Karl Marx) and Gandhi (see Chapter 27 on Gandhi). He has worked with the Commission for Racial Equality and the Committee of Inquiry into Educational Problems of Ethnic Minority Children. His work on multiculturalism in particular has been praised both inside and outside of academia. From 1998 to 2000, he served as Chair of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain (https://www1.essex.ac.uk/honorary_graduates/or/2003/bhikhu-parekh-oration.aspx). The commission’s report, often called the ‘Parekh Report’, is considered a foundational document for the debate on multiculturalism in Britain in the 21st century. While the report’s findings were frequently misinterpreted in the media at the time, it is still discussed today (see 23.6. The Parekh Report, Political Philosophy, and Practice).
In Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory (2000), Parekh offers a critique of liberal accounts of multiculturalism, like those of Will Kymlicka (see Key thinker: Will Kymlicka) or Allen Patten (Kymlicka, 1995; Patten, 2014). Parekh’s theory of multiculturalism was inspired by Michael Oakeshott (see Key thinker: Michael Oakeshott), who mentored Parekh at the LSE, and Gandhi’s writing on cultural diversity. For Parekh, multiculturalism refers not to a set of liberal policies, as the ‘liberal theory of minority rights’ suggests, but to a certain ‘perspective’, which allows us to better understand culturally diverse states and societies. According to Parekh, this multicultural perspective is made up of three core ideas: that human beings are all influenced by culture; that cultures are always plural; and finally, that cultural diversity can be an important source of intercultural learning (see 23.1. Introduction). Yet the entire Western tradition of philosophy, from ancient Greek and Roman to contemporary liberal thinkers, has ignored how important cultural diversity, and not just culture itself, is for any polity (see Key concept: polity).
Kymlicka’s limited conception of culture (see Key concept: culture), which claims that it refers to a national or societal culture that is territorially defined and based on a shared language, only offers a narrow interpretation of the concept. This definition, Parekh argues, cannot account for immigrant cultures of diaspora populations, for example, which are not territorially defined and, in some cases, do not even share a language (see 23.3. Culture and Cultural Diversity). For Parekh, culture is made up of different patterns, beliefs, and practices that have emerged over time and are interpreted in different ways by individual members of a community. Yet culture offers a means for individuals to create common systems of meaning and morality that help them make sense of the world around them or decide how to act towards others. While different cultures express only a limited amount of values or ways of life, this can be enriched by engaging in intercultural dialogue (see Key Concept: Intercultural Dialogue) with others, who might disagree with us. This way, we can learn from each other and collectively determine what values are worth keeping and which should be discarded.
Critics have noted that Parekh’s conception of multiculturalism always favours the views of a cultural majority (Barry, 2001). But he instead argues that this only applies if a practice is deemed obviously wrong or morally unacceptable. Parekh has also been criticized for assuming that cultural majorities would be willing to engage in intercultural dialogue with minorities, whom they perceive as culturally ‘different’ (see 23.3. Intercultural Dialogue). European societies, for example, have responded to the influence of other religions and cultures with hostility instead of dialogue. Parekh acknowledges that the intercultural dialogue he advocates is not always possible. In such situations, he argues, minorities should resort to other political tactics, such as protests, to challenge exclusive and xenophobic conceptions of national culture (see 23.5. Encouraging Unity Among Culturally Diverse Citizens). Parekh’s vision of national culture as a means to encourage unity among culturally diverse citizens offers an alternative to ethno-nationalist articulations of citizenship, which have again taken root in many European societies. Despite the declining popularity of multiculturalism in Europe (https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/western-europe/2015-02-18/failure-multiculturalism), Parekh’s political thought remains as important as ever.
Parekh, B. (2000), Rethinking Multiculturalism. Cambridge: Harvard University Press and Palgrave Macmillan.
Parekh, B. (2000) The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain Report (Parekh Report), London, Profile Books.
Barry B (2001) The muddles of multiculturalism. New Left Review 8, April.
Mookherjee M (2015) ‘At the Borders of Otherness: Tracing Feminism Through Bhikhu Parekh’s Multiculturalism’. In Uberoi V and Modood T, Multiculturalism Rethought, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.