Laurie Taylor (LT) In your book Culture: the Anthropologist's Account you talk about how suspicious and concerned you've become about the word 'culture'. Partly because of its ambiguity, but also because of its ubiquity.

Adam Kuper (AK) Yes. And also because of the power people ascribe to it. Everybody's got this rather vague idea that there's a new force out there in the world called culture which has replaced social class and replaced biology and replaced all those other determinants of behaviour. Culture, we are told, is what really makes us behave the way we do. Not only that. It explains history and explains difference and explains the future. But when you try and put your finger on this thing culture and try to find out what it tries to explain it turns out to be very vague. It turns out that what culture explains is culture. So it's not only ambiguous and ubiquitous, it's far too powerful and it's also circular.

LT You talk about the idea of 'culture' as being too powerful. In your book you provide a dramatic example of how the word can be invoked for quite sinister purposes. You refer to the way in which your own background in South Africa alerted you to the manner in which the concept of culture replaced that of race as an argument that could be politically employed in support of apartheid and separate development.

AK Well, that's right. It wasn't though something that I cleverly perceived. It was something that was hammered into us day after day by government propaganda; this was the story they were telling us all the time. They kept saying, look you've got it wrong. We are not racist. We don't believe that there are these biological differences in the world. But there are real differences between people, differences which are more important than biological differences, which in a way cause biological differences. These are cultural differences and they cause biological differences because cultural groups are endogamous. And they should be endogamous. Those who share a culture should live and breed together. Because preserving culture gives meaning and direction and spiritual richness to human life. So the real differences between people in the world are cultural differences by which they meant things like ways of thinking, ways of believing, but also ways of organising and doing things. So, having chiefs, and always bowing and scraping in front of chiefs, was part of your culture and if you didn't like it, if you thought that you wanted to be a democrat then you were not wrong, you were rebelling against your culture, you were rebelling against yourself, you were denying yourself. It was almost an impossible situation. The only reason why you might want to rebel against your culture was because you had been got at by some western liberals who've put these different ideas into your head. So culture was destiny. But the fact that the cultural groups who emerged from all this were exactly identical to what were once called racial groups, was, of course, as the Marxists say, no accident. I think that in a lot of the multicultural discourse we find people using very vague and meaningless terms like culture because what they really mean, what they really want to say, is race and racial difference. They want to talk about racial groups that necessarily have different ways of life, different mentalities, different cultures. And never the twain shall mix.

LT But isn't there any way in which we can rescue the term 'multiculturalism'. Isn't it possible to talk about multiculturalism in a completely relativist way which celebrates all cultures rather than being an argument for separate development imposed by one group upon another? A sort of celebration of difference. Is this a useful way of saving the concept of multiculturalism?

AK Well I'm very unpersuaded by it. It may be a different emphasis. We are no longer saying, as the English upper classes used to say, that everybody out there has got accents, whereas we don't have any accents at all. We are no longer saying that everybody out there's got their culture whereas we have these universally true, rational ideas. No, in fact, we are saying that our own ideas are also culturally specific, culturally determined, culturally relative and so on and so on. That's the critical multicultural argument which, you know, up to a certain point is true but I don't think that it's very different from the other kind of multiculturalism except that it involves a negative rather than a positive valuation of yourself.

LT But what are your feelings about what might be called the assimilationist opposition to multiculturalism, the argument that if you allow people to have their distinctive cultures, if you say all right you have a licence to pursue your own cultural identities, to have your own institutions, have your own schools, your own radio stations, your own music, then you are in danger of moving away from the enlightenment vision of a common human civilisation. You can be distinctive but not so distinctive that you're going to end up losing what it means to be an American or what it means to be British, to be able to pass the Norman Tebbit cricket test.

AK I think that the most interesting part of your statement is the way you phrased it, because you mimicked the point of view of the person who would talk in that way, you mimicked the governor, the person in power, who is doing the allowing, who is creating the space, who is saying OK you can have your own radio station, you can have your own schools and so on. And more than that. You have to have them. You're jolly well going to go to those schools and we're going to separate you. And that leaves no room for the person who says but my mother was from this group, my father was from that group, I'm not quite sure where I want to belong. Why can't I make a series of choices of my own? Why should you tell me that I have to go to a Catholic school or to an Irish language school? I'm not just buying into my culture, I'm being forced into it by a highly authoritarian political movement with a nationalist agenda of its own which is going to discipline me if I break out, which is going to stop me asking questions and so on. In practice, the so-called multicultural agenda, when it is adopted by the state, turns into a very, very prescriptive and limiting set of choices with all sorts of connotations which I might not like.

LT But surely one of the reasons why people might put up with this sort of cultural direction or even welcome it, is that they believe this is a route that will allow them to discover their real identity. There's a very prevalent, if essentialist, argument that if you burrow deep down inside yourself then you will discover your true identity whether it lies back in the hills of Wales or in the plains of Ethiopia.

AK That's right. That's based on the view that we're all still adolescents; that we're all looking around all the time saying who am I, what am I going to be when I grow up. I can't say that's anything that's worried me for a very long time. It's a view that's been picked up by the therapy movement which says that you've only got to find your true identity and then you'll be whole and well. All of which reminds me of one of the most wicked forms of multiculturalism that I've ever discovered. A Maori psychologist in New Zealand wrote to me about this - it's an absolute horror - she says that Maori prisoners now in prison are being forced to learn Maori culture, so they have these prison guards coming to these blokes in prison teaching them Maori dances because they're told that the reason they're in prison, the reason why they've gone off the rails, is because they've lost their culture, they've lost their identity. Can you imagine? The idea is that there is a culture out there to which you're beholden. You've lost your culture so you have to be forced back into it. Never mind that you have learned something new, that you have kicked over the traces of your parents. You're told that you have lost your way.

LT So in opposition to that process, which is sanctioned by some forms of multiculturalist rhetoric and which, as you've argued, can lead to exploitation, you would want to celebrate the idea that people have multiple identities.

AK Well that's right because otherwise you are involved in putting labels on people and telling them that they have to behave in certain ways in order to be proper people of the kind that we have defined you as being by virtue of your ancestry.

LT And you'd wish to persuade people not to accept any multicultural invitations that might come their way because by doing so they would end up by denying some part of their identity?

AK Let's not say 'denying their identity'. Let's say denying part of their possibilities, part of their options.

Adam Kuper has done extensive field work in Botswana and Jamaica and taught at universities in The Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden and the USA. He is a past chairman of the European Association of Social Anthropologists and is currently Professor of Social Anthropology in the Department of Human Sciences at the University of Brunel.