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Related subjects: Culture and Diversity

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Multiculturalism is the appreciation, acceptance or promotion of multiple ethnic cultures, applied to the demographic make-up of a specific place, usually at the organizational level, e.g. schools, businesses, neighborhoods, cities or nations. In this context, multiculturalists advocate extending equitable status to distinct ethnic and religious groups without promoting any specific ethnic, religious, and/or cultural community values as central.

Multiculturalism as " cultural mosaic" is often contrasted with the concepts assimilationism and social integration.

Different understandings of multiculturalism

In contemporary society, multiculturalism is generally understood in two different and seemingly inconsistent ways:

  • The first focuses on interaction and communication between different cultures. Interactions of cultures provide opportunities for the cultural differences to communicate and interact to create multiculturalism.
  • The second centers on diversity and cultural uniqueness. Cultural isolation can protect the uniqueness of the local culture of a nation or area and also contribute to global cultural diversity. The policy “ Cultural exception” introduced by France in General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) negotiations in 1993 was a precise example of protecting one's own cultural safety.

When different cultures operate with each other, those two understandings of multiculturalism result in dissimilar strategies - cultural interaction and isolation - and neither of them is absolutely right. The two understandings of multiculturalism are not absolutely distinct from each other. Moreover, the opposing understandings and strategies sometimes actually complement each other work to generate new cultural phenomena that embody the ideologies of the individual cultures and the relationships between them. The term “ Transculturation”, coined by Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz in 1940, indicates a transaction of one culture with another. Mary Louise Pratt coined the phrase “the contact zone” to describe cultural clashes and operations. In the cultural environment they illustrated, cultures are not only interacted or isolated. Those two strategies work at the same time and apply to different aspects of cultures to create new forms of cultures. Multiculturalism can be defined in a ways that go beyond human activities to give a vivid multi-dimensional understanding of cultural interaction, cultural isolation and phenomena between these two extremes.

Support for multiculturalism

Multiculturalism is seen by its supporters as a fairer system that allows people to truly express who they are within a society, that is more tolerant and that adapts better to social issues. They argue that culture is not one definable thing based on one race or religion, but rather the result of multiple factors that change as the world changes.

Opposition to multiculturalism

Multiculturalism is difficult to define. Andrew Heywood distinguishes between two forms of multiculturalism, "the term ‘multiculturalism’ has been used in a variety of ways, both descriptive and normative. As a descriptive term, it has been taken to refer to cultural diversity … As a normative term, multiculturalism implies a positive endorsement, even celebration, of communal diversity, typically based on either the right of different groups to respect and recognition, or to the alleged benefits to the larger society of moral and cultural diversity”.

Critics of multiculturalism often debate whether the multicultural ideal of benignly co-existing cultures that interrelate and influence one another, and yet remain distinct, is sustainable, paradoxical or even desirable. It is argued that Nation states, who would previously have been synonymous with a distinctive cultural identity of their own, lose out to enforced multiculturalism and that this ultimately erodes the host nations distinct culture. This is a common belief among right-wing political circles, as they are more of a advocate for assimilation and national identities.

Susan Moller Okin wrote about this question in her essay "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?" (1999).

Harvard professor of political science Robert D. Putnam conducted a nearly decade long study how multiculturalism affects social trust. He surveyed 26,200 people in 40 American communities, finding that when the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, the more racially diverse a community is, the greater the loss of trust. People in diverse communities "don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions," writes Putnam. In the presence of such ethnic diversity, Putnam maintains that

[W]e hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us.

Ethologist Frank Salter writes:

Relatively homogeneous societies invest more in public goods, indicating a higher level of public altruism. For example, the degree of ethnic homogeneity correlates with the government's share of gross domestic product as well as the average wealth of citizens. Case studies of the United States, Africa and South-East Asia find that multi-ethnic societies are less charitable and less able to cooperate to develop public infrastructure. Moscow beggars receive more gifts from fellow ethnics than from other ethnies [sic]. A recent multi-city study of municipal spending on public goods in the United States found that ethnically or racially diverse cities spend a smaller portion of their budgets and less per capita on public services than do the more homogenous cities.

Dick Lamm, former three-term Democratic governor of the US state of Colorado, wrote in his essay "I have a plan to destroy America":

"Diverse peoples worldwide are mostly engaged in hating each other - that is, when they are not killing each other. A diverse, peaceful, or stable society is against most historical precedent."

Multiculturalism in contemporary Western society

Monument to Multiculturalism by Francesco Pirelli in Toronto, Canada. Four identical sculptures are located in Buffalo City, South Africa; Changchun, China; Sarajevo, Bosnia and Sydney, Australia.

Multiculturalism was adopted as official policy, in several Western nations from the 1970s onward, for reasons that varied from country to country. The great cities of the Western world are increasingly made of a mosaic of cultures.

Orthodox Cathedral in Sao Paulo. Brazilian megalopolis is an example of multicultural city.

Multiculturalism as introductory to monoculturalism

Multiculturalism, as generally understood, refers to a theoretical approach and a number of policies adopted in Western nation-states, which had seemingly achieved a de facto single national identity during the 18th and/or 19th centuries. Many nation-states in Africa, Asia, and the Americas are culturally diverse, and are 'multi-cultural' in a descriptive sense. In some, communalism is a major political issue. The policies adopted by these states often have parallels with multicultural-ist policies in the Western world, but the historical background is different, and the goal may be a mono-cultural or mono-ethnic nation-building - for instance in the Malaysian government's attempt to create a 'Malaysian race' by 2020.


German immigrants in Quebec City in 1911

Multiculturalism was adopted as the official policy of the Canadian government during the premiership of Pierre Elliot Trudeau in the 1970s and 1980s. The Canadian government has often been described as the instigator of multicultural ideology because of its public emphasis on the social importance of immigration. Multiculturalism is reflected in the law through the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In 2001, approximately 250,640 people immigrated to Canada. The newcomers settle mostly in the major urban areas of Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. By the 1990s and 2000s, the largest component of Canada’s immigrants came from Asia, including the Middle East, South Asia, South-East Asia and East Asia. Canadian society is often depicted as being very progressive, diverse, and multicultural. Accusing a person of racism in Canada is usually considered a serious slur. Canadian political parties are now cautious about criticizing their country's high level of immigration, because, as noted by the Globe and Mail, "in the early 1990s, the old Reform Party was branded 'racist' for suggesting that immigration levels be lowered from 250,000 to 150,000."

Political cartoon on Canada's multicultural identity, from 1911


Though not called Multiculturalism as such, the preamble of Argentina's constitution explicitly promotes immigration, and recognizes the individual's multiple citizenship from other countries. Though 97% of Argentina's population self-identify as of European descent to this day a high level of multiculturalism remains a feature of the Argentine's culture, allowing foreign festivals and holidays (e.g. Saint Patrick's Day), supporting all kinds of art or cultural expression from ethnic groups, as well as their diffusion through an important multicultural presence in the media; for instance it is not uncommon to find newspapers or radios programs in English, German, Italian or French in Argentina.


The other country to have most fully adopted Canadian-style multiculturalism is Australia, with many similar policies, for example the formation of the Special Broadcasting Service.

According to the 2006 census more than one fifth of the population were born overseas. Furthermore, almost 50% of the population were either:

1. born overseas; or

2. had one or both parents born overseas.

In terms of net migration per capita, Australia is ranked 18th (2008 Data) ahead of Canada, the USA and most of Europe.

United States

In the United States, multiculturalism is not clearly established in policy at the federal level.

Mulberry Street, along which Manhattan's Little Italy is centered. Lower East Side, circa 1900.

In the United States, continuous mass immigration had been a feature of economy and society since the first half of the 19th century. The absorption of the stream of immigrants became, in itself, a prominent feature of America's national myth. The idea of the Melting pot is a metaphor that implies that all the immigrant cultures are mixed and amalgamated without state intervention. The Melting Pot implied that each individual immigrant, and each group of immigrants, assimilated into American society at their own pace which, as defined above, is not multiculturalism as this is opposed to assimilation and integration. An Americanized (and often stereotypical) version of the original nation's cuisine, and its holidays, survived. The Melting Pot tradition co-exists with a belief in national unity, dating from the American founding fathers:

"Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people — a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs... This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties."

As a philosophy, multiculturalism began as part of the pragmatism movement at the end of the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States, then as political and cultural pluralism at the turn of the twentieth. It was partly in response to a new wave of European imperialism in sub-Saharan Africa and the massive immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans to the United States and Latin America. Philosophers, psychologists and historians and early sociologists such as Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, George Santayana, Horace Kallen, John Dewey, W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke developed concepts of cultural pluralism, from which emerged what we understand today as multiculturalism. In Pluralistic Universe (1909), William James espoused the idea of a "plural society." James saw pluralism as "crucial to the formation of philosophical and social humanism to help build a better, more egalitarian society.

United Kingdom

Multicultural policies were adopted by local administrations from the 1970s and 1980s onwards, in particular by the Labour government of Tony Blair. Most of the immigrants of the last decades came from the Indian subcontinent or the Caribbean, i.e. from former British colonies. In 2004 the number of people who became British citizens rose to a record 140,795 — a rise of 12% on the previous year. This number had risen dramatically since 2000. The overwhelming majority of new citizens come from Africa (32%) and Asia (40%), the largest three groups being people from Pakistan, India and Somalia.

In the Western English-speaking countries, multiculturalism as an official national policy started in Canada in 1971, followed by Australia in 1973. It was quickly adopted as official policy by most member-states of the European Union. Recently, right-of-centre governments in several European states—notably the Netherlands and Denmark— have reversed the national policy and returned to an official monoculturalism. A similar reversal is the subject of debate in the United Kingdom, among others, due to evidence of incipient segregation and anxieties over "home-grown" terrorism.

Continental Europe

Ethno-linguistic map of Austria–Hungary, 1910. Ethnic nationalism became the paramount issue as Italians, Slavs and Hungarians resisted rule by the German-dominated Habsburg state.
Ethno-linguistic map of the Second Polish Republic, 1937. The Polish-Ukrainian animosity grew into ethnic massacres of 1943-44 in which up to 100,000 Poles died.
Hungarian and Romanian language newspapers published in Cluj ( Transylvania, Romania).

Historically, Europe has always been polycultural—a mixture of Latin, Slavic, Germanic and Celtic cultures influenced by the importation of Hebraic, Hellenic and even Muslim belief systems; although the continent was supposedly unified by the super-position of Roman Catholic Christianity, it is accepted that geographic and cultural differences continued from antiquity into the modern age.

Especially in the 19th century, the ideology of nationalism transformed the way Europeans thought about the state. Existing states were broken up and new ones created; the new nation-states were founded on the principle that each nation is entitled to its own sovereignty and to engender, protect, and preserve its own unique culture and history. Unity, under this ideology, is seen as an essential feature of the nation and the nation-state—unity of descent, unity of culture, unity of language, and often unity of religion. The nation-state constitutes a culturally homogeneous society, although some national movements recognized regional differences.

Where cultural unity was insufficient, it was encouraged and enforced by the state. The 19th-century nation-states developed an array of policies—the most important was compulsory primary education in the national language. The language itself was often standardized by a linguistic academy, and regional languages were ignored or suppressed. Some nation-states pursued violent policies of cultural assimilation and even ethnic cleansing.

Some European Union countries have introduced policies for "social cohesion", "integration", and (sometimes) "assimilation". The policies include:

  • compulsory courses and/or tests on national history, on the constitution and the legal system (e.g., the computer-based test for individuals seeking naturalization in the UK named Life in the United Kingdom test)
  • introduction of an official national history, such as the national canon defined for the Netherlands by the van Oostrom Commission, and promotion of that history (e.g., by exhibitions about national heroes)
  • tests designed to elicit "unacceptable" values. In Baden-Württemberg immigrants are asked what they would do if their son says he is a homosexual. (The expected answer is that they would accept it).
  • prohibitions on Islamic dress — especially the niqab (often misnamed as burqa).


In the 1950s, the Netherlands was generally a mono-ethnic and monocultural society: it was not explicitly monolingual, but almost everyone could speak standard Dutch; Frisian, Limburgish and Dutch Low Saxon were the only indigenous minority languages. Its inhabitants shared a classic national identity, with a national mythos emphasizing the Dutch Golden Age, and national heroes such as Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. Dutch society was segmented along religious and ideological lines, sometimes coinciding with differences in social class and lifestyle. This segmentation had developed since the late 19th century into a uniquely Dutch version, called pillarization, enabling peaceful cooperation between the leaders of the various "pillars", while their constituencies remained largely segregated.


Because of the gradual accretion of land over several centuries, Russia has over 150 different ethnic groups. Tensions between ethnic groups, particularly in the Caucasus region, have occasionally escalated into armed conflicts.

Multiculturalism in contemporary Eastern society


The culture of India has been shaped by its long history, unique geography and diverse demography. India's languages, religions, dance, music, architecture and customs differ from place to place within the country, but nevertheless possess a commonality. The culture of India is an amalgamation of these diverse sub-cultures spread all over the Indian subcontinent and traditions that are several millennia old.

The term multiculturalism is not much used in India, except in the recent times by the left-liberals and the communists. The term diversity (within the Indian culture) is the term which is used by the Indians more often.

Religiously, the Orthodox Hindus form the majority, followed by the Muslims. The actual statistics are: Hindu (80.5%), Muslim (13.4%, including both Shia and Sunni), Christian (2.3%), Sikh (2.1%), Buddhist, Bahá'í, Ahmadi, Jain, Jew and Parsi populations. Linguistically, the two main language families in India are Indo-Aryan (a branch of Indo-European) and Dravidian. India officially follows a three-language policy. Hindi is the federal official language, English has the federal status of associate/subsidiary official language and each state has its own state official language (in the Hindi sprachraum, this reduces to bilingualism). The Republic of India's state boundaries are largely drawn based on linguistic groups; this decision led to the preservation and continuation of local ethno-linguistic sub-cultures, except for the Hindi sprachraum which is itself divided into many states. Thus, most states differ from one another in language, culture, cuisine, clothing, literary style, architecture, music and festivities. See Culture of India for more information.


There are more than 700 living languages spoken in Indonesia and although predominantly Muslim the country also has large Christian and Hindu populations. Indonesia's national motto, "Bhinneka tunggal ika" ("Unity in Diversity" lit. "many, yet one"), articulates the diversity that shapes the country. Due to migration within Indonesia (as part of government transmigration programs or otherwise), there are significant populations of ethnic groups who reside outside of their traditional regions. Soon after the fourth Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid came into power in 1999, he quickly abolished some of the discriminatory laws in efforts to improve race relationships. Chinese Indonesians are now in the era of rediscovery. Many younger generations, who cannot speak Mandarin due to the ban decades earlier, choose to learn Mandarin, as many learning centers open throughout the country. The Ambon, Maluku was the site of some of the worst violence between Christian and Muslim groups that gripped the Maluku Islands between 1999 and 2002.


Japanese society, with its ideology of homogeneity, has traditionally rejected any need to recognize ethnic differences in Japan, even as such claims have been rejected by such ethnic minorities as the Ainu. Japanese Minister Taro Aso has called Japan a “one race” nation. However, there are "International Society" NPOs funded by local governments throughout Japan.


Malaysia is a multiethnic country, with Malays making up the majority, close to 52% of the population. About 30% of the population are Malaysians of Chinese descent. Malaysians of Indian descent comprise about 8% of the population. The remaining 10% comprises:

  • Native East Malaysians, namely Bajau, Bidayuh, Dusun, Iban, Kadazan, Melanau, Orang Ulu, Sarawakian Malays, etc.
  • Other native tribes of Peninsular Malaysia, such as the Orang Asli and Siamese people, and
  • Non-native tribes of Peninsular Malaysia such as the Chettiars, the Peranakan and the Portuguese.

The Malaysian New Economic Policy or NEP serves as a form of affirmative action (see Bumiputera). It promotes structural changes in various aspects of life from education to economic to social integration. Established after the May 13 racial riots of 1969, it sought to address the significant imbalance in the economic sphere where the minority Chinese population had substantial control over commercial activity in the country.

The Malay Peninsula has a long history of international trade contacts, influencing its ethnic and religious composition. Predominantly Malays before the 18th century, the ethnic composition changed dramatically when the British introduced new industries, and imported Chinese and Indian labor. Several regions in the then British Malaya such as Penang, Malacca and Singapore became Chinese dominated. Co-existence between the three ethnicities (and other minor groups) was largely peaceful, despite the fact the immigration affected the demographic and cultural position of the Malays.

Preceding independence of the Federation of Malaya, a social contract was negotiated as the basis of a new society. The contract as reflected in the 1957 Malayan Constitution and the 1963 Malaysian Constitution states that the immigrant groups are granted citizenship, and Malays' special rights are guaranteed. This is often referred to the Bumiputra policy.

These pluralist policies have come under pressure from racialist Malay parties, who oppose perceived subversion of Malay rights. The issue is sometimes related to the controversial status of religious freedom in Malaysia.


Multiculturalism is a characteristic feature of the island of Mauritius. Mauritian society includes people from many different ethnic and religious groups: Hindu, Muslim and Sikh Indo-Mauritians, Mauritian Creoles (of African and Malagasy descent), Buddhist and Roman Catholic Sino-Mauritians and Franco-Mauritians (descendants of the original French colonists).

The Philippines

The Philippines is the 8th most multiethnic nation in the world. It has 10 distinct major indigenous ethnic groups mainly the Bicolano, Ibanag, Ilocano, Ivatan, Kapampangan, Moro, Pangasinense, Sambal, Tagalog and Visayan. The Philippines also has several aboriginal races such as the Badjao, Igorot, Lumad, Mangyan and Negritos. The country also has considerable communities of American, Arabic, Chinese, Indian and Hispanic descent and many more. The Philippine government has various programs supporting and preserving the nation's ethnic diversity.


Besides English, Singapore recognizes three other languages, namely, Mandarin Chinese, Tamil and Malay as its official languages, with Malay being the national language. Besides being a multilingual country, Singapore also acknowledges festivals celebrated by these three ethnic communities.

During the British colonial rule, there are areas which are enclaves containing a large population of certain ethnic groups exist in areas such as Chinatown, Geylang and Little India in Singapore. Presently (2010), remnants of the colonial ethnic concentration still exists but housing in Singapore is governed by the Ethnic Integration Policy, where The current Indian/Others ethnic limits are 10% and 13%, the limits for Malays are 22% and 25%, the limits for Chinese are 84% and 87% for the maximum ethnic limits for a neighbourhood and a block respectively.

South Korea

South Korea is among the world's most ethnically homogeneous nations. Those who do not share such features are often rejected by the Korean society or face discrimination.

However, the word "multiculturalism" is increasingly heard in South Korea. In 2007, Han Geon-Soo, Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kangwon National University, published an article entitled "Multicultural Korea: Celebration or Challenge of Multiethnic Shift in Contemporary Korea?", noting: "As the increase of foreign migrants in Korea transforms a single-ethnic homogenous Korean society into multiethnic and multicultural one, Korean government and the civil society pay close attention to multiculturalism as an alternative value to their policy and social movement." He argued, however, that "the current discourses and concerns on multiculturalism in Korea" lacked "the constructive and analytical concepts for transforming a society".

The same year, Stephen Castles of the International Migration Institute argued:

"Korea no longer has to decide whether it wants to become a multicultural society. It made that decision years ago – perhaps unconsciously – when it decided to be a full participant in the emerging global economy. It confirmed that decision when it decided to actively recruit foreign migrants to meet the economic and demographic needs of a fast-growing society. Korea is faced by a different decision today: what type of multicultural society does it want to be?"

The Korea Times suggested in 2009 that South Korea was likely to become a multicultural society. In 2010, JoongAng Daily reported: "Media in Korea is abuzz with the new era of multiculturalism. With more than one million foreigners in Korea, 2 percent of the population comes from other cultures." It added:

"If you stay too long, Koreans become uncomfortable with you. [...] Having a 2 percent foreign population unquestionably causes ripples, but having one million temporary foreign residents does not make Korea a multicultural society. [...] In many ways, this homogeneity is one of Korea’s greatest strengths. Shared values create harmony. Sacrifice for the nation is a given. Difficult and painful political and economic initiatives are endured without discussion or debate. It is easy to anticipate the needs and behaviour of others. It is the cornerstone that has helped Korea survive adversity. But there is a downside, too. [...] Koreans are immersed in their culture and are thus blind to its characteristics and quirks. Examples of group think are everywhere. Because Koreans share values and views, they support decisions even when they are obviously bad. Multiculturalism will introduce contrasting views and challenge existing assumptions. While it will undermine the homogeneity, it will enrich Koreans with a better understanding of themselves."
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