Conflict and Compromise in Multilingual Societies: Switzerland


274 pages
Contains Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-88920-133-1




Reviewed by Berkeley Fleming

Berkeley Fleming, Assistant Pfofessor in the Sociology and Anthropology Department at Mount Allison University, Sackville, N.B., was also Director of Canadian Parents for French, an advocacy group promoting French second-language learning opportunities.


This is the first in a series of case studies examining four multilingual developed societies — Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, and Canada — which have a common democratic tradition, recognize more than one “official language,” and are exceptions to the seeming relationship between linguistic heterogeneity and low socioeconomic development. McRae intends in a projected fifth volume to examine critically from a comparative perspective extant social-scientific theories about, as well as public policies in, plural societies.

The author begins by reviewing major questions addressed in the literature on multilingual states. I shall give two examples. First, he attempts to clarify the Fishman-Pool debate concerning the relationship between development and linguistic diversity by distinguishing plurilingual from multi-lingual societies, arguing that the latter are compatible, under certain conditions, with high levels of economic and political development. Second, he examines the variable relationship between linguistic, economic, ethnic, religious, political, and institutional divisions in such societies, and argues that linguistic cleavages are particularly significant as potential sources of social hostility and conflict, especially in societies in which equality and equity are stressed. McRae then reviews the analytic framework he plans to use in each of the case studies. The rest of the book is devoted to a careful and detailed analysis of Swiss society in terms of four guiding themes: the historical and developmental factors establishing a tradition of mediation; the social and economic situations of and relationships between the major language groups; group perceptions and attitudes and their impact on politics; and the constitutional and institutional rules that accommodate language diversity. Separate chapters on each of these themes are followed by an instructive analysis of two current language issues — Jura separatism in Bern and the problematic viability of two language groups in Southern Switzerland. In the concluding chapter, McRae assesses various explanations for Swiss “exceptionalism” — relative social stability despite linguistic cleavages — by focussing on the degree to which and how the four sets of factors identified above serve to generate, increase, reduce, and regulate linguistic and cultural conflict. The balance of these factors is shown to lead to conflict avoidance and regulation, which is tantalizingly contrasted briefly to the situation in Belgium, the subject of the second volume.

This complex analysis might interest members of the general public curious about Switzerland, but its main audience will doubtless be political-science specialists interested in plural societies and framers of legislation and makers of policy concerning official languages. Such readers would profit from carefully considering McRae’s argument here and in the subsequent volumes in the series.



McRae, Kenneth D., “Conflict and Compromise in Multilingual Societies: Switzerland,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 25, 2024,