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Multiculturalism is the acceptance or promotion of multiple ethnic cultures, for practical reasons and/or for the sake of diversity and 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.

The policy of multiculturalism is often contrasted with the concepts assimilationism and social integration. Multicultural policies are sometimes confused with the concept of the multinational state. A country may be multi-national without being multicultural.

Some countries have official (or de jure) policies of multiculturalism aimed at promoting social cohesion by recognizing distinct groups within a society and allowing those groups to celebrate and maintain their cultures or cultural identities. Many critics of deliberated, government-instituted policies believe they artificially perpetuate social divisions, damaging the social cohesion of the nation-state.

However, proponents of multicultural programs argue that social cohesion has too often been achieved either by explicit discrimination against cultural minority groups (e.g., laws that restrict the freedoms of certain groups) or by an implicit discrimination which rejects other cultural forms as being without value (e.g., school programs that never teach the historic and artistic contributions of minorities).

Critics of multiculturalism often charge multiculturalists with practicing cultural relativism (i.e., judging customs and practices of other cultures in their contexts), often confusing this with moral relativism (lack of an idea of right and wrong), and they emphasize that not all cultural values and practices must be held in equal regard in every given society. They warn against special treatment that might violate the principal of equality before the law, and emphasize that citizenship denotes an tacit agreement to abide by the laws, customs and accepted value system of nation, especially in regards to those who chose to emigrate from abroad to join their newly adopted society.

Advocates of multiculturalism counter these objections by claiming that 1) the issue is not cultural relativism but the whitewashing of history, i.e., that history has been written to play up the contributions of the dominant group and to downplay the (often significant) contributions of minority groups; 2) with regards to cultural/artistic contributions, the claim that minority culture is inferior is often based less on aesthetic quality than on politically-motivated criteria; 3) the issue is often not legal equality but simply recognition that minorities do exist in the culture; and 4) many minority groups did not immigrate but were either imported or previously living on the land.

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 in societies where ethnic groups have comparatively equal status, difference is tolerated better, e.g. Sweden, which has low income inequality. They also argue that multiculturalism is a better system because culture is always changing. For instance, the culture of the United Kingdom has not arisen from one ethnic group, but from the 'immigration' and influence of Anglo-Saxons (Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain), Vikings (Great Heathen Army), Normans (Norman conquest of England) and so on. Therefore, they argue, culture is not one definable thing based on one race or religion, but is the result of multiple factors that change as the world changes.

Opposition to multiculturalism

Criticism of multiculturalism often debates 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. Nation states that, in the case of many European nations, 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.

Other critics argue that multiculturalism leads directly to restrictions in the rights and freedoms for certain groups and that as such, it is bad for democracy, undemocratic and against universal human rights. For instance, 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.

Multiculturalism in contemporary Western society

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 ofcultures.

Government multicultural policies may include:
  • recognition of multiple citizenship (the multiple citizenship itself usually results from the nationality laws of another country)
  • government support for newspapers, television, and radio in minority languages
  • support for minority festivals, holidays, and celebrations
  • acceptance of traditional and religious dress in schools, the military, and society in general
  • support for music and arts from minority cultures
  • programs to encourage minority representation in politics, SET (Science, Engineering and Technology), Mathematics, education, and the work force in general.
  • enforcement of different codes of law on members of each ethnic group (e.g. Malaysiamarker enforces Shari'a law, but only for a particular ethnic group)

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 governments attempt to create a 'Malaysian race' by 2020.

Origins in Canada

Canada has the highest per capita immigration rate in the world, driven by economic policy and family reunification. In 2001, 250,640 people immigrated to Canada. Newcomers settle mostly in the major urban areas of Torontomarker, Vancouvermarker and Montrealmarker. 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. All political parties are now cautious about criticizing of the 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 86% 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 minorities, as well as their diffusion through an important multicultural presence in the media; for instance it is not uncommon to find newspapers or radios program in English, German, Italian or Guarani language 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. While the White Australia Policy was quietly dismantled after World War II by various changes to immigration policy, the full political introduction of official policies of multiculturalism was not until 1973. The idea of multiculturalism especially became popular in Australia during the 1980s. It replaced the notion of assimilation where non-British migrants were expected to change their way of life and abandon their cultural traditions to fit in with existing Australian traditions. Organizations were formed to encourage immigrants to keep aspects of their original culture, and to share them with other Australians.

United States

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

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. An Americanized (and often stereotypical) version of the original nation's cuisine, and its holidays, survived.Note that 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 In national policy, legislation includes Race Relations Act and the British Nationality Act of 1948.Most of the immigrants of the last decades came from the Indian subcontinent or the Caribbeanmarker, 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 Pakistanmarker, Indiamarker and Somaliamarker.

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-center governments in several European states—notably the Netherlandsmarker and Denmarkmarker— 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

Historically, Europe has always been polycultural--a mixture of Latin, 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 sovereign state 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". They are sometimes a direct reversal of earlier multiculturalist policies, and seek to assimilate immigrant minorities and restore a de facto mono-cultural society. The policies include:


In the 1950s, the Netherlandsmarker was generally a mono-ethnic and monocultural society: it was not explicitly monolingual, but almost everyone could speak standard Dutch; Frisian and Nedersaksisch 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 colonialism and 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.


In this field, Belgium shows the huge differences between multiculturalism and interculturalism. In the Flemish part, Flanders, the official policy (which is supported by all main political parties except for one extreme-right party) is clearly inter-culturalist. The French-speaking parties however are very much multiculturalist.

Multiculturalism in contemporary Eastern societies


According to many scholars, Indiamarker is the most culturally, linguistically and genetically diverse geographical entity after the African continent. India's democratic republic is "premised on a national belief in pluralism, not the standard nationalist invocation of a shared history, a single language and an assimilationist culture." State boundaries in India are mostly drawn on linguistic lines. In addition India is the most religiously diverse country in the world, with significant Hindu (80.5%) , Muslim (13.4%), Christian (2.3%), Sikh (2.1%), Buddhist, Bahá'í, Ahmadi, Jain and Parsi populations. Occasionally, however, India has encountered religiously motivated violence, such as the Moplah Riots, the Bombay riots, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and 2002 Gujarat riots.


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 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, Malukumarker was the site of some of the worst violence between Christian and Muslim groups that gripped the Maluku Islandsmarker between 1999 and 2002.


Malaysiamarker 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:

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 Penangmarker, Malaccamarker and Singaporemarker 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 Malayamarker, 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 orthodox Muslims and Islamist parties, who oppose secular and non-Islamic religious influences. The issue is related to the controversial status of religious freedom in Malaysia.


Multiculturalism is a characteristic feature of the island of Mauritiusmarker. 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 Philippinesmarker 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.


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

Areas which are enclaves containing a large population of certain ethnic groups exist in areas such as Chinatown, Geylang and Little India in Singapore.

See also


Further reading

External links

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