Original Research

The modern city: A symbolic space of memory and a crucible for multiculturalism?

J. Vlasselaers
Literator | Vol 23, No 1 | a323 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v23i1.323 | © 2002 J. Vlasselaers | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 06 August 2002 | Published: 06 August 2002

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J. Vlasselaers, Institute for Cultural Studies, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Belgium

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This article highlights some critical remarks concerning the use of the terms multiculturalism and cultural identity in various currents of contemporary discourse. The focus will be on the modern metropolis Brussels which will serve as a case study. Brussels is the capital of Belgium and of the European Union and is one of the most distinctly international and multiethnic cities in Europe. In this multicultural society, characterized by the coexistence of groups with different linguistic and cultural traditions, the phenomenon of multi-sociality, i.e. the fact that individuals simultaneously take part in several social subsystems, may neutralize and even overrule cultural or ethnic differences. When it comes to the access of relatively prominent social positions, social differences appear to be of more importance than cultural or ethnic-cultural differences. The question thus remains how to cope with the notion of cultural identity. Second- and third-generation immigrants raising the issue of cultural identity, generally refer to contrastive markers. Culture is conceived of as a package: the differences are articulated as culture, while what is shared with ‘outsiders’ (especially material culture, science, technology and daily routines) seems to be irrelevant. The city builds a cultural superstructure submitted to an uninterrupted process of change. The ethnic factor is very attractive because people want to experience a community to which they “really” belong and where they can express themselves. The younger generations, however, gradually step out of the strategies of self-protective isolation and advance towards a moderate cultural relativism. In this respect the irrational and affective dimensions of culture, as well as the spatial and social urban fabric, constitute elements of major importance for a close analysis of ethnic-cultural diversity and inequalities.


Cultural Identity; Cultural Studies; The Study Of Culture; Ethnicity; Multiculturalism; Urban Semiotics


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