Minority and Majority as Asymmetrical Concepts: The Perils of Democratic Equality and Fantasies of National Homogeneity

Seminars and Colloquia

To this day, the conceptual couple of majority and minority is viewed as a harmless way of identifying an arithmetic relationship to make sense of cultural differences. The talk argued that a history of the binary juxtaposition between a majority and one or several minorities suggests that it is both a recent neologism and an essentially contested conceptual couple.

Based on an analysis of sources in several European languages, Till van Rahden studies when, where, and why it became seemingly self-evident to neatly compartmentalize societies and their history into a majority and minorities. Van Rahden argued that the idea of a dichotomy between majority and minority as a shorthand to describe relations between ethnic or religious groups is recent; in fact, it did not exist before 1919, when in the wake of World War I, four empires collapsed and the ideas of democracy and of the homogeneous nation-state triumphed simultaneously. Prior to 1919, languages of difference revolved around embedded concepts that referred to specific constellations.

The binary opposition of majority and minority, in contrast, introduced a level of abstraction into controversies over difference. It masked specificities and offered a magic formula promising a universal and efficacious remedy against cultural conflicts. “Minority rights” became the panacea in every struggle over recognition. Yet, as is so often the case, the side effects of such formulaic miracle cures could be worse than any remedial effects.

Till van Rahden is a professor of German and European Studies at the Université de Montréal and a non-resident senior fellow at the Forschungskolleg Humanwissenschaften, Bad Homburg. His research focuses on the history of democracy as a way of life since the Enlightenment, and he is an expert on German-Jewish history. From 2006 to 2016, he held the Canada Research Chair in German and European Studies. He received the Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History for his study Jews and Other Germans: Civil Society, Religious Diversity and Urban Politics in Breslau, 1860–1925 (Madison, 2008). His 2019 book Demokratie – Eine gefährdete Lebensform (Democracy – An Endangered Way of Life), explores ways to actively counter the perceived loss of meaning in liberal democracy. In 2022, he published Vielheit: Jüdische Geschichte und die Ambivalenzen des Universalismus (Multiplicity: Jewish History and the Ambivalences of Universalism), which analyzes the tension between the promise of democratic equality and a universal right to be different. 

Ludger Hagedorn, IWM Permanent Fellow, moderated the colloquium.


Fellows Colloquia are internal events for the IWM Visiting Fellows and Guests.