Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism

It's the last day of your school week, and you and your friends are trying to organise a get-together at the weekend. You all have prior commitments. After a lengthy group chat, it turns out you are all free for a few hours on Sunday at lunchtime. Great! You decide to have lunch together at that great little place where you know all your individual dietary preferences are catered for.

Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism

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Table of contents

    This is a small picture of cosmopolitan multiculturalism. You and your friends are all equals, all want to be able to meet, and you all need to eat. You are also all different, but you have the necessary knowledge and respect for each other to devise a solution that allows you all to socialise together while respecting those differences.

    So let's explore cosmopolitan multiculturalism in a bit more depth. Here we'll learn what it means and how it has been theorised. We will also look at the characteristics of cosmopolitan multiculturalism, debates around identity and rights, and the point of meeting between cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.

    Cosmopolitan multiculturalism meaning

    To understand what we mean by cosmopolitan multiculturalism, let's first look at the meaning of the two words separately.

    Cosmopolitanism holds that all human beings are part of one single community. Cosmopolitan societies are full of people from different cultures and parts of the world. Cosmopolitan citizens construct their culture from elements of various cultural expressions found in cosmopolitan societies. Cosmopolitan citizens usually identify as citizens of a global community.

    Multiculturalism is a synonym for ethnic or cultural pluralism. This means many ethnicities and cultures living side by side and finding ways to coexist peacefully without losing the community's specific identity. Multiculturalism implies that no culture should be diluted as a result of coexistence.

    If we merge these two concepts, we reach the definition of cosmopolitan multiculturalism.

    Cosmopolitan multiculturalism is the idea of a global community coming together and embracing differences and different cultural perspectives to solve common problems.

    Cosmopolitan multiculturalism theory

    One of the foremost theorists of cosmopolitan multiculturalism is Jeremy Waldron. In his book Minority Cultures and the Cosmopolitan Alternative (1992), he discusses arguments for cosmopolitanism and the protection of minority cultures. He paints a picture where both perspectives can actually be mutually reinforcing despite being potentially opposed to each other. His works are what much of cosmopolitan multiculturalism theory.

    Cosmopolitanism and minority cultures

    Waldron points out that cosmopolitanism, individualism and belonging to a minority culture, which we want to protect and defend, are not natural events. Rather, they are abstract concepts created and developed by communities; therefore, they can change and be re-shaped. Cosmopolitan multiculturalism uses the process of identity-creation to develop a shared sense of belonging within a society based on respect for cultural differences.

    Individualism is the school of thought that prioritises the needs of the individual over the needs of the community. In this context, it supports cosmopolitanism, as the individual defines themselves not in relation to their community of origin. Instead, they are a “citizen of the world” whose individuality is defined through their own specific experiences and whose daily experience is made up of interactions with global structures such as trade and communication.

    Waldron challenges the assumption that each of these concepts can realistically exist in exclusion of each other.

    Just because aboriginal communities or strict religious sects want to protect their distinct way of life, it does not mean that they can realistically survive independently of the rest of the world. Or that they don't have anything in common with any other sect of society.

    The sense of self and values

    Waldron explores the origin of individual values using the work of philosopher Will Kymlicka1. Kymlicka argues that in order to enjoy the variety of lifestyles offered by cosmopolitanism, we need to be emotionally grounded in the kind of strong emotional safety net offered by a particular culture.

    Kymlicka also points out that individuals generally do not start from scratch to know what is right and wrong. They rely on pre-determined ethical frameworks which have been tested over time within specific cultures. He goes one step further by saying that for us to choose a way of life from the myriad choices offered by cosmopolitanism, we choose one that resonates with us because of our own cultural background.

    The fables and myths we read and learn about while growing up, established moral frameworks we can use and rely on in later life when making decisions about how to live.

    Waldron responds to this idea by highlighting that cultures have been intermingling for millennia, and so it can be difficult to distinguish where certain moral lessons come from.

    You might have heard the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, Hansel and Gretel. No matter your ethnic or cultural background, this tale might have left an impression on you. Whether you are German, like the Grimm Brothers, or even European, doesn't matter. What matters is the meaning your culture gives to the events in the tale.

    Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism A Painting of Hansel an Gretel StudySmarterFig. 1 the Grimm brothers' Hansel and Gretel

    Waldron challenges the assumption that belonging to a minority community is necessarily sufficient to satisfy an individual's need for meaning and self-realisation.

    If we were to understand the sense of self from a cosmopolitan perspective, we would quickly see that each person has absorbed different influences. Because of this, they will, from time to time, have inner conflicts. But these conflicts might be a way of developing the individual flexibility necessary to exist in a cosmopolitan society and respond to it appropriately.

    Cultural purity and choice

    Waldron also questions Kymlicka's idea of choice. He does this by pointing out that a true choice can only be made when one is faced with options. Genuine options can only come from a cosmopolitan society where different cultures merge. The potential risk posed by cosmopolitanism to traditional communities is the loss of purity. However, this is only a negative thing if our understanding of culture is something static and fixed, which, of course, it isn't.

    Traditional societies have fairly strict understandings of gender roles. To truly choose to comply with these norms means to be exposed to the more flexible and dynamic understandings of what it is to be a male, female, or non-binary, and choosing the traditional understanding. Never being exposed to the alternative, which means questioning, and potentially leaving traditions behind, would not have allowed us to make a true choice.

    Waldron further argues, that trying to “preserve” a culture, prevents it from evolving through the exchange of ideas that inevitably happens when different cultures meet.

    Cosmopolitan multicultural differences

    Cosmopolitan and multiculturalist perspectives on the formation of individual identity mean that the two approaches are potentially in conflict with each other. As such, there are some differences between cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.

    Multiculturalism prioritises a communitarian approach.

    Communitarianism defines an individual's identity based on their connection to their community and how the latter influences and moulds them. Communitarianism gives less space to individual self-expression and identity.

    As a consequence, multiculturalism focuses on identity politics, the respect and recognition of cultural differences and, where necessary, seeks to redress past injustices.

    Identity politics are political agendas based on individual characteristics such as ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, social class or religious affiliation.

    Cosmopolitanism, instead, focuses on moral universalism and creating a unified social system. There are disagreements among cosmopolitan thinkers on how to bring about this system.

    For example, some cosmopolitan thinkers suggest promoting universal moral standards and a state that encompasses the whole world. Others support the idea of a looser, voluntary structure of global governance.

    Moral universalism is the position that holds that some ethical principles apply to all people, regardless of those very characteristics that identity politics emerge from.

    Cosmopolitan multiculturalism tries to balance these two approaches. It understands individual identity as dynamic, capable of changing and adapting over time, according to the communitarian base of origin and the cosmopolitan influences to which it is exposed.

    Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism Characteristics

    Any country's policies that attempt to embrace both cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism must be incredibly culturally aware. This is because considering either of these two philosophies without regard for the other can lead to dangerous conflicts.

    The prioritisation of minority cultures can highlight cultural differences and feed divisive “us and them” politics. While Cosmopolitanism, taken to extremes, can make minority cultures feel diluted and threatened.

    Therefore, cosmopolitan multicultural societies must ensure political representation for all minority groups as high up in the political structure as possible.

    To combat potential divisions between individual groups, the education system would have to include different cultural histories and perspectives and how they fit into a cosmopolitan system.

    Lastly, grassroots advisory groups would have to be encouraged to feed into government decision-making to ensure peaceful coexistence.

    Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism 5 kids walking StudySmarterFig. 2 Multicultural children

    Cosmopolitan multiculturalism rights

    To uphold everybody's rights in cosmopolitan multicultural societies, national and international legislative bodies have to take into account both universal principles, and minority rights.

    Following the atrocities the world witnessed during World War II, several countries came together to create the United Nations. One of the first documents adopted by this new grouping of nations was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). The Declaration embodies the idea of moral universalism, as it spells out 30 rights and freedoms that belong to all and can't be denied to anyone.

    Check out our explanation on the United Nations.

    Although the UDHR is not legally binding, the protection of the rights and freedoms mentioned have been incorporated into many countries' legal systems.

    On the other hand, the UN also adopted a treaty that includes the right to pursue one's own (minority) culture. This is the International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights. Article 27 states:

    In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language.”

    The International Covenant on Civic and Political Rights is a multilateral treaty adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966. It commits all ratifying parties to respect civil and political rights. These include the right to life, electoral rights and right to due process, freedom of speech, assembly and religion, among others.

    Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism ICCPR members shown on the world map StudySmarterFig. 3 ICCPR members: Dark Green - signed and ratified Light Green - signed, but not ratified Orange - signed, ratified but has stated it wishes to leave the covenant.

    Crucially, the fact that such a cosmopolitan organisation protects this right as the UN represents how cosmopolitanism can be of benefit to multiculturalism. Yet, for cosmopolitanism to work, it needs the multifaceted opinions generated by the multitude of cultures that make up contemporary society.

    Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism - Key takeaways

    • Cosmopolitan multiculturalism is the idea of a global community coming together and embracing differences and different cultural perspectives to solve common problems.
    • Cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism are potentially mutually conflictual in their approaches to individual identity, but they can also be mutually reinforcing.
    • Theories of cosmopolitan multiculturalism raise issues of how to define the self, we get our values from, and the meaning or real choice.
    • The main difference between cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism is in how they view communitarianism and moral universalism.
    • Policies for cosmopolitan multicultural societies have to carefully balance everybody's interests to avoid conflicts.
    • Individuals' rights and the right to pursue one's own minority culture have both been promoted by the UN.


    1. Will Kymlicka Liberalism Community and Culture 1989
    2. Fig. 3 ICCPR members Dark Green - signed and ratified Light Green - signed, but not ratified Orange - signed, ratified but has stated it wishes to leave the covenant ( by Dudeman5685 ( licenced by CC-BY-SA 3.0 ( Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism

    What is a cosmopolitan theory?

    Cosmopolitan theory focuses on moral universalism and creating a unified social system. 

    What are the three types of multiculturalism?

    Three types of multiculturalism include:

    1. Liberal Multiculturalism

    2. Pluralist Multiculturalism

    3. Cosmopolitan Multiculturalism

    Each represents alternative theoretical subbranches of multiculturalism.

    What is a cosmopolitan society?

    A cosmopolitan society refers to a place full of people from different cultures and parts of the world.

    What is an example of cosmopolitanism?

    Cosmopolitan multiculturalism is the idea of a global community coming together and embracing differences and different cultural perspectives to solve common problems. An example of cosmopolitan multiculturalism is the meaningful political representation of minority groups in political bodies and institutions. 

    What is cosmopolitanism in culture?

    Cosmopolitanism in culture described the individuals who are influenced by the multitude of cultures that come together in modern societies. This is in opposition to minority cultures.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Are cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism the same?

    Cosmopolitanism focuses on: 

    Creating policies for a cosmopolitan multicultural society is easy and conflict free.


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