Multiculturalism refers to the coexistence of multiple cultures. It celebrates diversity and promotes collaboration.
Multiculturalism involves acknowledging and respecting cultural variation among different groups—their history, values, and practices—to create a space where they can live together harmoniously. In a truly multicultural world, everyone is treated fairly and has equal opportunities to lead a fulfilling life.
From the perspective of political philosophy, multiculturalism refers to a state’s ideology and policies for dealing with cultural plurality within its boundaries. This can involve providing special rights to certain groups, giving them autonomous governance, etc.
Multiculturalism is a celebration of diversity, built upon the belief that society benefits from the harmonious coexistence of diverse cultures. However, many criticize multiculturalism for various reasons, as we will discuss later.
Definition of Multiculturalism
Anthony Giddens defines multiculturalism as
“the coexistence of different cultures within a single society, and to the policies and practices that promote this coexistence. Multiculturalism involves not only tolerance of cultural diversity but an active engagement with it, in order to promote social harmony and prevent conflict.” (2006)
Giddens adds that multiculturalism is based on the belief that diversity can enrich society, and it aims to build “bridges of understanding” across cultural divides. Traditionally, it is said that, in democracies, every citizen is treated equally in front of the law.
Multiculturalism can exist on a national level (like in Canada or Bolivia) as well as in smaller communities (like New York City or London). It can occur naturally through immigration or artificially through legislation; for example, when boundaries of different cultures are merged, as in French and English Canada.
Melting Pot vs Salad Bowl
Unlike the traditional liberal idea of the “melting pot”, multiculturalism upholds the image of the “salad bowl”.
The melting pot refers to the process by which different groups in society “melt together” into a common culture, say immigrants getting assimilated into a new culture. The metaphor comes from smelting pots where iron & carbon are melted together to create steel, a stronger alloy.
The melting pot essentially means that a heterogenous society becomes more homogenous. This involves the loss of tradition for many groups and reduces cultural diversity. Often it is enforced through government policy, like the U.S. Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which forcefully assimilated native Americans without much regard for their heritage.
In contrast to this, the “salad bowl” describes a world where heterogenous groups retain their cultural heritage and still live together harmoniously. Just as in a salad, the different elements stay together but do not merge into each other; instead, they retain their distinctiveness. We sometimes call this social integration.
Multiculturalism upholds the idea of the “salad bowl” and believes that diverse cultures can thrive together in a society.
Examples of Multiculturalism
- Normalization of Diverse Cultural Holidays: A key feature of multicultural societies is that the holidays of various cultures are accepted and normalized across the society. For example, one country may mark holidays from major cultures, such as Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, and Eid.
- Multilingual Populations: Another feature and consequence of multiculturalism is the emergence of multilingualism within a society. For example, many Canadians speak both French and English due to the both French and English language groups found through the country. Similarly, Indonesian people often speak their own local language (such as Javanese, Sudanese, and Balinese) as well as the national language.
- Religious Diversity: Multicultural societies are also often characterized by religious diversity, whereby you may notice Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and other places of worship all within the same city.
- Cultural Diversity on Television: A strongly integrated multicultural society will likely also have diverse representation of cultural groups, values, and beliefs on television. This will ideally occur naturally when producers attempt to reflect the stories of their audience in the stories’ narratives.
- Diverse Political Representation: In multicultural societies, people of multiple different cultural backgrounds are often represented in parliaments. In some nations, like Malaysia, ethnicities often vote for parties that represent their ethnic interests. In other societies, people of diverse ethnic backgrounds are often found in traditional left vs. right political blocks.
- Non-Discriminatory Immigration Policies: As political support for multiculturalism grew in the West in the 20th Century, countries’ migration politics became blind to a person’s racial, cultural, or ethnic background. This allowed for migration of various cultural groups into previously European-dominated Western nations.
- Multiculturalism in the Argentinian Constitution: Argentina is a great example of multiculturalism, both in its legislation and attitude. The preamble to their constitution explicitly promotes immigration and also recognizes multiple citizenships. Despite the majority of citizens being of European descent, they celebrate diverse festivals, promote cultural expressions of all ethnic groups, and encourage a multicultural representation in media.
- Ethnic groups in New York City (The United States): New York City is one of the most diverse cities in the world, having people from various racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds. It has unique ethnic regions like Chinatown in Lower Manhattan, Little India in Queens, etc. The city also celebrates diverse events like the African American Day Parade, the Lunar New Year Parade, and many others.
- Multicultural Australia: After the Second World War, the White Australia Policy was dismantled and multiculturalism was formally adopted in 1972. Australia’s immigration policy has several programs to support migrants and refugees. There are also policies for reducing discrimination, such as the Community Cohesion Program.
- Bolivia’s Indigenous and European Cultures: Bolivia consists of 36 different types of indigenous groups and is the most indigenous country in Latin America. A significant percentage of the population belongs to the mestizo, people having European and indigenous ancestry. The country’s constitution recognizes 36 official languages (each linked to an indigenous group & culture) and is shaped by multicultural principles.
- Indian Multiculturalism: India is an incredibly diverse country, with over 1600 indigenous languages and 2000 ethnic groups. “Unity in Diversity” is the motto of the nation’s multiculturalism, and it is home to Hindus, Muslims, and several other religious groups. There are several programs to address inequalities, such as the reservation policy. However, the country is still facing challenges like communal tensions and xenophobia.
- Malay and Indian Populations in Singapore: Due to its history of immigration, Singapore is home to Chinese, Malay, and Indian populations. The country considers each group’s language and therefore has four official languages: English, Mandarin, Malay, and Tamil (South India). It also celebrates all the festivals like the Chinese New Year, Diwali, and Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
- South African Demographics: South Africa, with its diverse population and complex history, is a great example of multiculturalism. After the establishment of democracy in 1994, apartheid was abolished and the country slowly worked towards inclusivity. Today, it recognizes 11 official languages and celebrates a range of festivals.
- Cosmopolitan Food Cultures: The widespread availability of international cuisine reflects how multiculturalism has seeped into our everyday life. Today, we can find restaurants serving Chinese, Indian, Italian, and several other kinds of cuisines. It shows our desire to experience new flavors and allows us to learn about other cultures.
- India’s Hindu-Muslim History: India has over time seen both conflict and harmony between its Hindu and Muslim populations. Today, while many Muslims left in the 20th Century, there are many monuments (including the Taj Mahal) that reflect the nation’s history of Hindu-Muslim harmony.
History of Multiculturalism
Multiculturalism has a long history, going back to Ancient Greece, but its systematic study became significant in the late 20th century.
In Ancient Greece, there were people from various regions like Aetolia, Locris, and Epirus, all of whom had different costumes, traditions, dialects, etc. Similarly, the Ottoman Empire, despite having a majority of Muslims, also had Christians, Jews, and people from other religions.
In recent times, the Canadian government was the first to adopt a multicultural ideology with a strong emphasis on the social importance of immigration (Wayland, 1997). Their Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism is often seen as the originator of modern multicultural views.
Canada has created special provisions for the French-speaking majority of Quebec, allowing them to autonomously govern their own members and use French as an official language. Taking inspiration from Canada, most Western countries also adopted a multicultural outlook.
Countries in Asia and Africa have their own diverse groups, although their historical backgrounds are different. These nation-states have also created policies to accommodate differences and maintain harmony.
Criticism of Multiculturalism
Although multiculturalism is widely seen as an inclusive approach to diversity, it has also faced criticism from many scholars.
One of the most common criticisms is that multiculturalism leads to social fragmentation. Brian Barry argues that multiculturalism encourages people to identify more strongly with their respective cultures, creating divisions in society and eroding a shared national culture (2001).
Another criticism is that multiculturalism reinforces cultural stereotypes and perpetuates inequality. Tariq Modood says that it can promote essential views on culture, that is, the belief that members of a particular group must necessarily share certain characteristics (2007).
However, both these criticisms have their own limitations. Social cohesion does not require a homogenous society or a national identity; it can be based on a shared acceptance of diversity. We can promote social cohesion even as we celebrate diversity.
Similarly, multiculturalism does not try to promote essential views. Instead, as Kymlicka points out, it actually counters negative stereotypes by encouraging people to recognize and accept different cultural practices (2012).
- Multicultural Education Strategies
- Cultural Lag
- Cultural Convergence and Convergence Theory
- Cultural Transmission
Multiculturalism refers to the coexistence of diverse cultures in a society.
It means the recognition and acceptance of the cultural practices of different groups. In political philosophy, it refers to the ways in which a society accommodates its cultural diversity, say creating special provisions for marginalized sections.
In our globalized world, most societies are a mosaic of cultures and must inevitably find ways to accommodate differences. While there are concerns about divisions, the right form of multiculturalism can promote social cohesion and still celebrate cultural diversity.
Barry, B. (2001). Culture and equality: An egalitarian critique of multiculturalism. Harvard University Press.
Giddens, A. (2006). “Multiculturalism”. In J. R. Gibbins & W. E. Paterson (Eds.), Canadian society: Global perspectives. Pearson Education Canada.
Kymlicka, W. (2012). Multiculturalism: Success, failure, and the future. Migration Policy Institute.
Modood, T. (2007). “Multiculturalism and the politics of recognition”. The Political Quarterly, 78(2). Wiley-Blackwell.
Wayland, Shara (1997). “Immigration, Multiculturalism and National Identity in Canada”. International Journal of Group Rights. 5 (1). Brill Academic Publishers.