2.5 Cultural Diversity and The Mauritian Society

In the previous section, we have seen that culture is not a static entity throughout human history. It changes according to changes in the technological environment.

The contact between different cultures resulting from the migration policies also modifies the original content of each culture.

Let's try to examine how we can characterise the concept of culture in the Mauritian society. Before proceeding to the characteristics of the Mauritian culture, it is important to distinguish between culture and ethnicity. There is a tendency to confuse the use of the terms culture and ethnicity.

Culture vs. Ethnicity

• they are not the same
• culture is learned
• ethnicity is biological
• the same ethnic group can be divided biologically
o In Rwanda: Hutus and Tutsis are of the same ethnic group but they are different cultural groups.
o In Bosnia, the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims are all from the same Slavic ethnic group, but they are different cultural groups. For example, they speak different languages and practice different religions.

"Ethnic conflicts" are usually "cultural conflicts". Often they are not between different races, but rather between different cultural groups. Now let us consider the issue of culture in our country.

Mauritian society is characterised by a number of ethnic groups. The Mauritian society, having no indigenous population, was populated by people coming from different countries. The majority of the inhabitants came from different parts of India, mostly as indentured labourers while others were mostly traders. The Indo-Mauritians, which constitute about 69% of the population, can be further subdivided into different ethnic groups. Hindus, Muslims, Tamils and Telegous. The remaining third of the population is made up of descendants of French settlers, known as Franco-Mauritians (about 1,7% of the population), African slaves (about 27% of the population) and a small Chinese community (around 3% of the population).

So, each of these different groups of people had its own norms and values, that is, a particular culture. However, when they left their homeland and came to Mauritius, they had to adapt to a new environment. This means that though they had a particular set of norms and values, they had to be responsive to changing situations, needs and interests. However, though conditions did change, it did not mean that each ethnic group changed radically its norms ad values. Ethnic boundaries were still maintained. This can be observed in all ethnic groups in our society even today. For example, X-Mas does not exist in Indian cultures yet all Mauritians do participate in this festivity, including Indo-Mauritians. Similarly, almost all ethnic groups participate in the pilgrimage to Ste-Croix, which is a Christian festival.

However, though on some occasions, there might be a fusion of ethnic identity, ethnic groups are also active in maintaining ethnic boundaries, particularly on the language issue.

The interaction among the various ethnic groups exhibits varying degrees of conflict and cohesion. Conflict may arise out of competition for scarce resources and in Mauritius, this is most obvious on the labour market. The unequal distribution of power is another source of conflict. While political power, given the ‘first past the post principle' and the clientelistic nature of Mauritian politics, resides mainly in the hands of Indo-Mauritians, economic power is mainly held by the private sector, made up mostly of the "Franco-Mauritians".

Conflict coexists with countervailing forces promoting order and stability. The acceptance by all individuals of parliamentary democracy, the interdependence and exchange relationships emerging in the market and the value of better standards of living work towards consensus. Hence conflict and consensus are complementary in the process of the construction of social order and change.

The coexistence of several ethnic groups with their distinctive cultural characteristics has been given a variety of labels such as "cultural diversity", "cultural pluralism", "multiculturalism" and "polyethnicity". Though these terms are not virtual synonyms, yet all point to the existence of several cultural traditions in a particular society.

The coexistence of several ethnic groups can illustrate the concepts of acculturation, assimilation and accommodation.

Acculturation: When people from one culture incorporate norms and values from other cultures into their own, we speak of acculturation. This incorporation can be enforced or it could be the people's own free choice. Let's take an example: the study of the English language and its adoption in the 1950's can be seen as an imposed decision, since without the mastery of that language, Mauritians were not allowed to vote.

Assimilation is the process whereby distinct groups put aside their own culture and adopt that of a particular group. For example, through the influence of mass media, most Mauritians, irrespective of their group, are becoming westernised. This can be seen in the form of the craze for Pizza Huts, KFC's and Nando's products, the popularity of Hollywood stars among the young, the belief that the USA promote stability and fight terrorism and also the dress and hair styles.

This does not mean that Mauritians are being "Americanised", but in a way, through interaction with the various ethnic groups and the rest of the world, we are developing what can be termed as a Mauritian culture. Hence, when we refer to the Mauritian culture, we mean symbols that are shared by all Mauritians, irrespective of their ethnic group. Several examples can be taken to illustrate elements of the Mauritian culture: the sega, birthday parties, races at the Champ de Mars, the dholl puri, X-Mas, English Soccer, the wearing of Jeans, etc.

We mentioned earlier that contact with other cultures does not mean giving up all the elements of one's culture. In other words, when assimilation is not complete, we speak of a subculture.

"Any group that has a great deal of interaction within itself and whose experiences set it apart from the rest of society will tend to develop local cultures, or what sociologist call subcultures. These are distinctive sets of beliefs, norms and values that are possessed by particular groups in society and that set these groups off from others. While a subculture contains culture common to members of the wider society, it has also elements more or less unique to it."

(Hagedorn, p68.)

Hence, individuals who maintain their own subculture generally also share many values and norms of the larger culture but retain certain rituals, traditions, norms and values that set them apart. These distinctions at times act as barriers between group members and the society at large.

At times, subcultures challenge the accepted norms and values of the larger society and adopt an alternative life style and set of beliefs. This is referred to as counterculture; the hippie movement in the 1960's and the women's liberation movement are some examples. Subcultures are pressurised to confirm to the values of the larger culture but when these subcultures are able to preserve the major features of its culture, we speak of accommodation.

Accommodation requires that each side accepts the existence and the different identity of the other and shares the same territory as well as participates in the same social institutions. The essence of accommodation is the tolerance of each other. Should members of different ethnic groups fail to tolerate each other, we then observe the rise of separatist movements. This can be found in Cachemire and in Kosovo, for example.

We have taken a few examples of behaviour from the Mauritian society to explain the concepts of accommodation, assimilation and acculturation. However, these concepts rest on the assumption that in a country, at the beginning of its history, there exists a dominant group and as time goes by, other groups come. The coexistence and interactions between the existing dominant group and those who arrive, give rise to the process of assimilation, acculturation, and accommodation. In the case of Mauritius, no dominant group had existed. The Mauritian nation is made up of migrants. There is much more a process of cultural diffusion which affects the different ethnic groups at varying degrees. Nevertheless, each group still holds its own particular identity. The concept of the melting pot does not apply in Mauritius. Rather, different ethnic groups with particular identities coexist.

IDevice Icon Activity 2.3
Examine the factors which (a) promote cultural diffusion (b) maintain cultural boundaries in our country.