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world citizenship
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Kosmopolis Institute Pluralism What is Pluralism?

What is Pluralism?

Within pluralism we can distinguish process - and content perspectives. Pluralism as process refers to ways of recognition. Democracy and democratic processes are crucial in the practice of pluralism defined as process of recognition. Pluralism as content refers to diversity, to differences in values and beliefs, and to notions of ‘otherness’.

Promoting pluralism does not mean prescribing any specific way of organising society or political system. It means opening spaces for dialogue and enhancing human dignity and equality.

This provisional description of pluralism is based on three points of departure:

People should be respected for what they have reason to value

As first central element of pluralism the knowledge programme recognizes that there are diverse ways of realising the individual’s right to determine the course of one’s life and his/her relation to culture and identity. The principle that people should be respected for what they have reason to value in their lives is a key value of the Capabilities Approach and human development theories as developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

Pluralism promotes active engagement with diversity

As a second point of departure this knowledge programme subscribes to four orientations to pluralism developed by Diana L. Eck (2006) in the Pluralism Project at Havard University:

1. Pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.
2. Pluralism is not just tolerance, but the active seeking of understanding across lines of difference.
3. Pluralism is not relativism, but the encounter of commitments.
4. Pluralism is based on dialogue.

Pluralism is not a ‘universal’ value, but a pluralistic notion itself

Although the significant value of democratic processes and respect for Human Rights are at the heart of our understanding of pluralism, we depart from an understanding that pluralism, democracy, human rights and diversity are not perceived as ‘neutral’ or ‘universal’ concepts. In non-Western contexts in particular, pluralism is often qualified as ‘liberalism’ and seen as liberal political theory which is intrinsically linked to related key concepts, such as the neutral and secular state, the separation of state and religion, the distinction between the private and the public sphere etc. Last decades many of these core themes of conventional wisdom about liberal democracy have been seriously challenged and Human Rights appeared not to be globally accepted values.

Realizing the challenges and the reservations and objections that exist in the South vis-à-vis the terms ‘pluralism’, ‘democracy’ and ‘fundamentalisms’, the need to create dialogical spaces to arrive at conceptual clarity becomes apparent. This knowledge programme wants to open spaces for ways of theorisation that emerge from both mainstream and alternative practices of ‘pluralisms’ at local levels in the South. We expect that opening such spaces for other than ‘liberal’ ways of conceptualising pluralism will create new opportunities to enhance the understanding of practices of pluralism in the context of the complexities of our times.

Bhiku Parekh



Pluralism is more about creating relations than about defining and defending differences