Cultural pluralism and multiculturalism are both examples of societies in which multiple cultures coexist peacefully.
The difference between cultural pluralism and multiculturalism is that:
- A culturally plural society has one dominant culture. Other cultures can coexist as minority cultures peacefully. They can continue to practice their own culture.
- A multicultural society has no dominant culture. All different cultures intermingle and practice their own cultural traditions peacefully. There is no single hegemonic cultural group in the society.
Multiculturalism is best understood through the metaphor of the salad bowl – the different ingredients of a salad are individually identifiable, and they do not fuse together to form a single substance. No single ingredient dominates the other.
Cultural Pluralism vs Multiculturalism
Similarities between cultural pluralism and multiculturalism include:
- There are multiple cultures peacefully co-existing within one society.
- People in the society are not expected to assimilate to any other culture.
- All cultures are allowed to continue to practice their traditions, heritage, and values within the law.
Differences between cultural pluralism and multiculturalism include:
- Culturally plural societies have a dominant culture.
- Multicultural societies do not have one single dominant cultural group.
1. Cultural Pluralism
The United States is the quintessential example of a culturally pluralist society. While there are many cultures that coexist in the United States, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) cultural identity remains dominant. They hold most positions of power in society and the plurality of Americans are WASPs.
However, African-Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hispanic, and other cultures all live in the United States. Each cultural group continues to celebrate its heritage and culture. They participate in democracy and are not forced to assimilate.
Similarly, other new world nations like Canada and Australia experience the same phenomenon.
In history, the best example of cultural pluralism is Medina. In Medina, the majority population was Muslim. However, the prophet Mohammad went to great lengths to make Christians feel welcome and promised them they could continue to practice their religion.
The historical Austro-Hungarian empire in Europe ruled by the Habsburg dynasty may be regarded as an example of multiculturalism, ruling over a large multinational, multi-ethnic population with no pressure to create a unified culture, and no single dominant culture (Feichtinger & Cohen, 2016).
Many people aspire for the United States to be a multicultural society. For this to occur, the dominance of the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) would disintegrate. Instead, there would be no one dominant cultural group and widespread cultural variation.
This is likely to happen at some point in the 21st Century. Some cities are already minority-majority, meaning less than 50% of inhabitants identify as white. Furthermore, by 2050, the United States is expected to be the nation with the largest amount of Spanish-speaking citizens.
How Cultures Co-exist in Culturally Plural and Multicultural Societies
Under both cultural pluralism and multiculturalism, the expectation from new arrivals or minorities is to be integrated, rather than be assimilated.
To understand these two terms – integration and assimilation – it is important to understand their roots.
1. They Integrate (Integrationism)
Integration is derived from the Latin “integer” which means whole. In mathematics, integers are discrete numbers such as 0,1,2,3 etc. These numbers remain discrete and distinct, even when they come together in mathematical operations.
So, we know that at any given time, the integer 3 is arrived at by adding the integers 2 and 1. Anytime we want, we can extract the components of the integer back into their original form.
Just like if we had 2 red balls, we know that we can separate out each single ball, or put them back together anytime we want – the individual balls do not lose their essence.
2. They are not forced to Assimilate (Assimilationism)
To assimilate, on the other hand, means to become similar. When two things assimilate, they become similar to each other, so that it becomes difficult to distinguish one from the other.
When things assimilate, they lose their individual identities. The term assimilation is most often used in chemistry and biology to describe how nutrients and other chemicals are absorbed by organisms.
Once these are absorbed by the organism, they become a part of the organism and can not be separated from it. In cultural melting pots, different cultures assimilate, and lose their individual identities.
Origins of Cultural Pluralism
The terms ‘cultural pluralism’ and ‘multiculturalism’ were developed in the United States during the early 20th century in response to the massive influx of migrants from all over the world, and a concomitant shift in the ethno-cultural makeup of the United States.
With the arrival of streams of immigrants from Italy, China, Poland, Spain and other countries, the dominant ethno-cultural character of the USA, defined by its earliest settlers who had arrived from northern European countries, and were Anglo-Saxon, Germanic, or Scandinavian, began to change.
This sparked a debate among American intellectuals and policymakers on how to best describe American culture – as a melting pot, or a salad bow? Multicultural or culturally plural? Whether the new arrivals should assimilate or integrate?
Who Invented the Term ‘Cultural Pluralism’?
The Harvard philosopher Horace Meyer Kallen (1882 – 1974) is credited with coining the term cultural pluralism. A German born Jew who emigrated to America, Kallen experienced the travails of the integration and assimilation first hand as he struggled to preserve his Jewish identity while identifying as an American.
Kallen was concerned that many Jewish immigrants to the United States were getting assimilated into the “melting pot” of America and losing their Jewish identities.
Kallen’s concerns had previously been expressed in 1908 by Israel Zagwill, a Jewish plawright, when he wrote the play “The Melting Pot” about a Russian Jew who emigrates to America in the aftermath of religious persectution, hoping to live in a society free from any distinctions and divisions among men.
Zagwill’s play popularized both the term “melting pot” and the ideas associated with a cultural melting pot. In response, Kallen wrote his 1915 essay Democracy vs the Melting Pot in which he laid out his defence of a cultural pluralism as a more desirable for Amercian democracy.
In a world that is increasingly becoming globalized and culturally diverse, being able to use the correct lexicon that captures its essence correctly is imperative. While the subtle differences between cultural pluralism and multiculturalism, salad bowl and melting pot, integration and assimilation might seem like an exercise in splitting hairs to some, a social scientist can ill-afford to overlook the importance of taxonomy.
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.