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Multiculturalism is a policy that emphasizes the unique characteristics of different cultures, especially as they relate to one another in receiving nations. The word was first used in 1957 to describe Switzerland, but came into common currency in Canada in the late 1960s. It quickly spread to other English-speaking countries.


Overview a theory (albeit vague) about the foundations of a culture rather than a practice which subsumes cultural ideas. (Harrison, 1984)

Looked at broadly, the term is often used to describe societies (especially nations) which have many distinct cultural groups, usually as a result of immigration. This can lead to anxiety about the stability of national identity, yet can also lead to cultural exchanges that benefit the cultural groups. Such exchanges range from major accomplishments in literature, art and philosophy to relatively token appreciation of variations in music, dress and new foods.

On a smaller scale, the term can also be used to refer to specific districts in cities where people of different cultures co-exist. The actions of city planners can result in some areas remaining monocultural, often due to pressure groups active in the local political arena. This is especially applicable for the UK.

Official multiculturalism

Multiculturalism can also be a prescriptive term which describes government policy.

In dealing with immigrants groups and their cultures, there are essentially three approaches-

  • Monoculturalism: In most Old World nations, culture is very closely linked to nationalism, thus government policy is to assimilate immigrants. These countries have policies aiming at the social integration of immigrant groups to the national culture. This is typical of nations that define themselves as one and indivisible and do not recognize the existence of other nations within their midst.
  • Melting Pot: In the United States the traditional view has been one of a melting pot where all the immigrant cultures are mixed and amalgamated without state intervention. However, many states have different language policies within the union.
  • Multiculturalism: In comparison to the above two approaches, multiculturalism is a view, or policy, that immigrants, and others, should preserve their cultures with the different cultures interacting peacefully within one nation. Today, this is the official policy of Canada and Australia. Multiculturalism has been described as preserving a "cultural mosaic" of separate ethnic groups, and is contrasted to a "melting pot" that mixes them. This has also been described as the "salad bowl" model.

No country falls completely into one, or another, of these categories. For example, France has made efforts to adapt French culture to new immigrant groups, while Canada still has many policies that work to encourage assimilation.

Some, such as Diane Ravitch, use the term multiculturalism differently, describing both the melting pot, and Canada's cultural mosaic as being multicultural and refers to them as pluralistic and particularist multiculturalism. Pluralistic multiculturalism views each culture or subculture in a society as contributing unique and valuable cultural aspects to the whole culture. Particularist multiculturalism is more concerned with preserving the distinctions between cultures.


Multiculturalism became incorporated into official policies in several nations in the 1970s for reasons that varied from country to country.

In Canada, it was adopted in 1971 following the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, a government body set up in response to the grievances of Canada's French-speaking minority (concentrated in the Province of Quebec). The report of the Commission advocated that the Canadian government recognize Canada as a bilingual and bicultural society and adopt policies to preserve this character. Biculturalism was attacked from many directions.

Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker saw multiculturalism as an attack on his vision of unhyphenated Canadianism. It did not satisfy the growing number of young francophones who gravitated towards Quebec nationalism. While many Canadians of British descent disliked the new policies of biculturalism and official bilingualism, the strongest opposition to biculturalism came from Canadians of neither English nor French descent, the so-called "Third Force" Canadians. Biculturalism did not accord with local realities in the western provinces, where the French population was tiny compared to other groups such as the Ukrainian Canadians, the group that was arguably most important in modifying the policy of biculturalism. To accommodate these groups, the formula was changed from "bilingualism and biculturalism" to "bilingualism and multiculturalism."

The Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau promulgated the “Announcement of Implementation of Policy of Multiculturalism within Bilingual Framework” in the House of Commons on 8 October 1971, the precurson of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988 passed in 1988. Symbolically, this legislation affirmed that Canada was a multicultural nation. On a more practical level, federal funds began to be distributed to ethnic groups to help them preserve their cultures. Projects typically funded included folk dancing competitions and the construction of community centres. This led to criticisms that the policy was actually motivated by electoral considerations. After its election in 1984, the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney did not reverse these policies, although they had earlier been criticized by Tories as inconsistent with "unhyphenated Canadianism." This policy has been supported by every subsequent government and was added to Canada's 1982 constitution.


Around the world, important government multicultural policies can include:

  • dual citizenship
  • 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 arts from cultures around the world
  • programs to encourage minority representation in politics, education, and the work force

While multiculturalist policies oppose cultural assimilation, countries such as Canada do support structural assimilation. Immigrant groups are still encouraged to participate in the larger society, learn the majority languages, and enter the labour force.

Official multiculturalism around the world

The other country to have most fully adopted Canada's view of multiculturalism is Australia where many of these policies related to multiculturalism are pursued, for example the formation of the Special Broadcasting Service.

In the United States multiculturalism is not an official policy at the federal level. At the state level, it is sometimes associated with English-Spanish bilingualism. However, the government, in recent years, moved to support many multiculturalist policies. In some ways, the United States has gone even further than Canada and Australia with such policies. For instance, California drivers can take their exams in a number of languages and gerrymandered districts guarantee minority representation in government.

In the United Kingdom multiculturalism has been the subject of extensive debate in recent years. Under the Conservatives (1979-1997), multiculturalist rhetoric and policies were confined to left-leaning councils. Since the election of the Labour government in 1997, multiculturalism has influenced government policies and statements.

Multiculturalism, along with other identity politics, has, in part, been successful because it is a useful tool for politicians to win the votes of minority groups. Government money for cultural celebrations or ethnic-specific newspapers can encourage new immigrants to support the governing party.


There have been many criticisms of official multiculturalism from both the left and right. However, criticism of such policies can be difficult, because it can quickly lead to accusations of racism and xenophobia.

Criticisms of multiculturalism can focus on the circumstances of one country or they can be more general.

Criticisms of multiculturalism in general

Critics charge that one of the dangers of pursuing multicultural social policies is that social integration and cultural assimilation can be held back. This can potentially encourage economic disparities and an exclusion of minority groups from mainstream politics. The political commentator Matthew Parris has questioned whether the pursuit of particularist multiculturalism is not apartheid by another name.

One of the most forceful critics of multiculturalism was Ayn Rand, who condemned the world-wide ethnic revival of the late 1960s as a manifestation of tribalization that would lead to an ethnic Balkanization destructive to modern industrial societies. Her philosophy considers multiculturalism to be based on the same premise as monoculturalism; this premise being culturally determinist collectivism (i.e., that individual human beings have no free choice in how they act and are conditioned irreversibly by society). Philosophically, Rand rejected this form of collectivism on the grounds that: 1) it undermines the concept of free will, and 2) the human mind (according to her philosophy) is a tabula rasa at birth. Combining these two premises, she concludes that we all can modify our actions volitionally, assuming we modify the premises we hold to support those actions (which is also volitional). Since this thinking was also her basis for rejecting racism, Objectivists and Neo-Objectivists/Post-Objectivists consider multiculturalism to be akin to racism.

In her 1999 essay, later expanded into an anthology, "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?" the feminist and political theorist Susan M. Okin argues that a concern for the preservation of cultural diversity should not overshadow the discriminatory nature of gender roles in many minority cultures, that, at the very least, "culture" should not be used as an excuse for rolling back the women's rights movement.

One of the most articulate and careful recent critics of multiculturalism is the political theorist Brian Barry, who argues from the liberal left in his 2002 book "Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism" that multiculturalism divides people when they need to be united in order to fight for social justice.

Another more recent and conservative criticism of multiculturalism based largely upon the Nordic and Canadian experience has been presented by the administrative scientist Gunnar K. A. Njalsson. According to him, multiculturalism is in fact a utopian ideology with a flawed, simplistic and overly optimistic view of human nature, the same weakness he attributes to Communism, Anarchism, National Socialism and many strains of Liberalism. He points out that the current climate in many western nations with official multicultural policies and programmes is such that even lucid and well-argued criticism of the ideology will tend to be met by emotional, sensationalist and even violent opposition. It is this aspect combined with a tendency to require all citizens to think and act in accordance with multiculturalism which, according to Njalsson, would tend to define multiculturalism as a potentially extreme and totalitarian ideology. He also voices concerns that some variants of the multiculturalist ideology may in fact equipe non-egalitarian cultural groups with political clout and influence in such a way as to eventually allow them to dominate the values system of a particular society. This realist criticism of multiculturalism maintains that in countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand or the US multiculturalism may actually further aggravate a situation where old-stock families are not permitted by their old world countries to consider themselves as English, French, Scandinavian, etc. while at the same time their identity-related sovereignty in their new world countries is reduced by equating them in culture with newer arrivals who can claim two or more national identities.

Country-specific criticisms

United States

Diane Ravitch argues that the celebration of multicultural diversity in America is used to mask hostility toward the mainstream.

In his 1991 work, Illiberal Education, Dinesh D'Souza argues that the entrenchment of multiculturalism in American universities has undermined the universalistic values that liberal educations once attempted to foster. In particular, he was disturbed by the growth of ethnic studies programmes, (e.g., Black Studies).


The response to multiculturalism in Australia has been extremely varied, with a recent wave of criticism against it in the past decade. While Paul Keating's Labor Government was an advocate of multiculturalism in the early 1990s the current Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard himself is a critic of multiculturalism, preferring instead a "shared national identity". An anti-immigration party; One Nation Party, was formed by Pauline Hanson in the late 1990s and enjoyed significant electoral success. Much of Australia's traditional Anglo-Celtic population are either opposed to or show apathy towards multiculturalism.

Before multiculturalism, the official government policy towards migrants was assimilation. Migrants were expected to abandon their language and traditions and become Australian.

However, by the 1970s, Australians began to acknowledge that they were living in a society in which many different cultures contributed to the richness of Australian life. The Racial Discrimination Act, passed in 1975, ended discrimination on the basis of race.


In Canada, the most noted critics of multiculturalism are Kenneth McRoberts, Neil Bissoondath and Reginald Bibby.

As a young man, McRoberts worked for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and his career as a political scientist has roughly coincided with the policy of multiculturalism. While some argue that the shift in official discourse from biculturalism to multiculturalism has had a neutral effect on relations between Quebec and the rest of Canada, McRoberts believes that it was disastrous for Canadian nationalism, as it offended Quebeckers and their a dualistic vision of Canada as a bilingual and bicultural society.

In 1971, when official multiculturalism was introduced by the federal government, separatism was fringe movement in Quebec, with less than a tenth of the population supporting the idea of being an independent country. The next few years saw the growth of separatist sentiment and the election of a provincial government committed to independence. To many French Canadians, multiculturalism threatened to reduce them to just another ethnic groups, along with the Greeks and the Vietnamese. In the 1995 independence election on separation from Canada, the advocates of Quebec independence lost by only a small margin.

Of all Canadian provinces, Quebec has been the least supportive of multiculturalism, due in part to a widespread view that multiculturalism was implemented at the federal level to dilute the "two founding peoples" philosophy which had preceded it, thereby diminishing the place of the province's French majority within Canada, and due in part to Quebec's policy internally of welcoming people of all origins but insisting that they assimilate into Quebec's French-speaking society. Recently, however, the more assimilationist aspects of this policy have been tempered with a recognition that Quebec is a de facto pluralist society and understanding of pluralism as a feature of modern Quebec society or any other society that welcomes immigrants. The Quebec government has therefore adopted a form of multiculturalism termed an "interculturalism policy."

This policy seeks to integrate immigrants into the mainstream French-speaking society of Quebec on the basis of French, the language of the majority, as the common public language of all Quebecers; all citizens are in this way held to be invited to participate in a common civic culture. Interculturalism is in this way consistent with the Quebec government's view of itself as the "national" government for all Quebecers, because interculturalism is viewed as less threatening than multiculturalism to an understanding of Quebec's population as constituting a single and distinct nation. Whether as a first, second, or third language, French becomes the instrument which allows the socialization of Quebecers of all origins and forces interaction between them. Interculturalism is thus viewed by its proponents as a policy that aims at fighting racism and misunderstanding of others by inducing the solidarization of a multiethnic collection of human as a national collectivity.

In his Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada, the Trinidad and Tobago born Bissoondath argues that official multiculturalism limits the freedom of minority members by confining them to cultural and geographic ghettos. He also argues that cultures are very complex and must be transmitted through close family and kin relations. To him, the government view of cultures as being about festivals and cuisine is a crude oversimplification that leads to easy stereotyping.

Bibby, in his Mosaic Madness: Pluralism Without a Cause, argues that official multiculturalism is a divisive force that is reducing national solidarity and unity.

Criticism of Kymlicka's communitarianism

It devolves responsibility of the public society to its "subsets" which are cultural communities, whose responsibility is to integrate individuals experiencing cultural alienation or in need of cultural choices. In other words: the society doesn't integrate individuals, "communities" do; the society doesn't integrate individuals, it only integrates "communities". Through such communal devolution, the society actually devests itself of the direct responsibility to rein in racism assaulting human dignity (not just "group dignity") and to provide equal opportunities and cultural fulfillment for individuals. And then, the discourses concerning anti-racism and egalitarianism are directed exclusively toward the preservation of group dignity, group integrity, group autonomy and inter-group harmony.

United Kingdom

London's Chinatown, near Leicester Square.
London's Chinatown, near Leicester Square.

In the UK, supporters of the current Labour government's approach have described it as having defended the rights of minorities to preserve their culture, while also seeking to ensure they become fully particpatory citizens — that is, integrating without assimilating. Critics say the policy fails on all accounts: If social conditions and racism become barriers to the integration of minorities, then multiculturalism does not properly function. There is now a lively debate in the UK over multiculturalism versus "social cohesion and inclusion." The current Labour government appears to favour the latter. In the wake of bomb attacks on London in 2005 (which left over 50 people dead) the opposition Conservative home secretary called on the government to scrap its "outdated" policy of multiculturalism. One of the foremost critics of multiculturalism is Trevor Phillips the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality and a one-time black activist. Criticisms of the multiculturalism policy have also been made by Uganda-born author Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, in her book After Multiculturalism. While it is claimed that the United Kingdom receives the largest number of immigrants every year, ahead of France and the United States, the UNHCR reports on its website that this is in fact exaggerated. Most of the immigrants come from the Indian sub-continent or the Caribbean. This is the main reason why London is the world's most cosmopolitan city. In the May 2004 edition of Prospect Magazine, David Goodhart, the Editor, temporarily couched the debate on Multiculturalism in terms of whether a modern welfare state and a "good society" is sustainable as its citizens are becoming increasingly diverse. David Goodhart. Too Diverse? Prospect, Open criticism of multiculturalism, given Prospect's pedigree and reputation, was thereafter firmly part of the mainstream. Events since then - such as the London bombings - have shifted the debate away from sustainability and cohesion towards a focus on the uneasy bedfellows of free speech and security.

See also


M Harrison, cited in Sneja Gunew, "Denaturalizing cultural nationalisms: multicultural readings of Australia" in Bhaba, Homi K. (ed.) 1990, Nation and Narration, New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall Inc. (p.99)

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