What is multiculturalism? How does it differ from diversity? Does multiculturalism create more cohesive societies or more tension within them? How do societies become multicultural? In this explanation, we will provide some answers to these questions and we will discuss a few examples of multicultural societies.

Multiculturalism Multiculturalism

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Table of contents

    Definition of multiculturalism?

    Multiculturalism is the idea that distinct identities and cultural groups should be acknowledged, preserved, and supported in society. Multiculturalism, thus, seeks to tackle the challenges that arise out of cultural diversity and minority marginalisation.

    Arguably, multiculturalism is not a full-fledged ideology, but it serves as an arena for ideological debate.

    The key theme of multiculturalism is diversity within unity. The emergence of multiculturalism has been strengthened by the trend of international migration since the end of World War II and has coincided with the end of colonialism. The collapse of communism also marked a historical point at which multiculturalism began to emerge as economic migration became increasingly prevalent and many nations were no longer monocultural.

    Multiculturalism history

    In the 1960s, the Black Consciousness movement led to the development of multiculturalism as a theoretical position. The origins of black nationalism can be traced to the early twentieth century and the rise of Marcus Garvey’s 'Back to Africa' movement.

    Simultaneously, parts of North America and Europe became subject to an increased sense of political assertiveness among minority groups from the 1960s through to the 1970s. This phenomenon was most evident amongst the French-speaking population in Quebec, the rise of Welsh and Scottish nationalism in the UK, and separatist movements in Catalonia.

    Multicuturalism a crowd of people protesting with Catalan flags StudySmarterFig. 1 - Catalan Independence Protest in 2012

    There was also a growing trend of ethnic assertiveness amongst the indigenous populations of the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. As pressure increased, several countries developed and adopted official policies on multiculturalism such as the Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988.

    The trend arose out of a desire to challenge both economic and social marginalisation and often racial oppression: ethnic politics became a vehicle for political liberation.

    Aside from the increased assertiveness of minority groups, multicultural politics was also strengthened by the rise in global migration in the wake of the Second World War, which resulted in increased cultural diversity in many societies. During the early post-World War II period, migration rates spiked as western states recruited workers from abroad to help with post-war reconstruction.

    Migration across the globe was also intensified during the 1990s as war, ethnic conflict, and political upheaval increased in the post-Cold War climate. Western states began to realize in the early 2000s that multicultural trends in modern societies were irreversible and they began to include multicultural policies in their governance.

    Characteristics of multiculturalism

    Let’s discuss the main characteristics of multiculturalism.


    Being recognised is an important aspect of one's sense of being and sense of self. To be recognised is to have your identity affirmed: this desire for recognition is in our human nature. A lack of recognition or misrecognition leads to the marginalisation of people and cultures which in turn can lead to oppression. Thus, many cultures today fight for the recognition of their difference.


    One’s culture shapes one’s identity in many spheres, these include one’s personal, political, and social identity. Multiculturalism shares some of the same ideals as nationalism in the sense that multiculturalism values and embraces the idea that culture is important to one's social and political identity.

    Identity politics shapes multiculturalism and seeks to address the marginalisation of groups by redefining the group’s identity from that of a damaging cultural stereotype. This is achieved through the reshaping of the group identity to give the group a sense of pride.

    The 1960s and 1970s were an example of this redefinition as there was a focus on minority groups perceived to be subordinated or disadvantaged. In these decades we witnessed the Gay Rights movement, Black Power, and second-wave feminism.

    Muticulturalism Crowd with banners and rainbow flags StudySmarterFig. 2 - Pride March in Hong Kong


    For multiculturalism, cultural diversity is not just something to be tolerated; it should be celebrated.

    Cultural diversity is positive and is compatible with civic unity, citizenship, and political cohesion. Diversity promotes understanding and cultural exchange between groups and encourages respect for the difference, and is the antidote to prejudice. Denying a space in which cultural diversity can flourish generates extremism and resentment.


    Minority rights are integral to multiculturalism as they serve to protect the rights and freedoms of an array of minorities whether these are religious minorities ethnic minorities or sexual minorities.

    For multiculturalism, the existence of minority cultures in society must be embraced. The needs of minorities must be acknowledged, recognised, and met. This has occurred in the form of minority rights in which the collective entitlements of minority groups exist, such as the legal protection of religious holidays and dress codes.

    In the UK, for example, Sikh men are exempt from wearing motorcycle helmets as they interfere with their religious dress code which requires the use of turbans. Minority rights guarantee individual freedom and personal autonomy.

    Impact of multiculturalism

    An easy way to determine the impacts of multiculturalism in society and politics is by delving into the education curriculum in specific nations. Multiculturalism in Europe and the United States has directly resulted in revisions to educational curricula. As a result of the rise in multiculturalism, educational curricula have experienced a transformation. This transformation has taken place through all levels of education, from primary school to university.

    The adoption of multiculturalism in education has also impacted the dominance of eurocentric thought. Previously, eurocentric thinkers and theories were positioned as the most correct, important, and valuable form of knowledge. There has been an overemphasis on the contributions of white European colonial powers and underemphasis on the contributions made by indigenous people and people of colour.

    Multiculturalism has tried to transform education by recognising and acknowledging the contributions of other cultural groups have made in a variety of fields.

    Example of multiculturalism

    Multiculturalism Logo with the words Black History Month in the middle StudySmarterFig. 3 - A logo for Black History Month

    The establishment of Black History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in the United States is an example of multiculturalism.

    In the UK, whilst Black History Month has been celebrated for decades there has also been a rise in the celebrations of other ethnic groups such as South Asian Heritage Month.

    Types of multiculturalism theory

    According to multiculturalism there are many types of multiculturalism. Let’s explore some of them, the theory around them, and their differences.

    Liberal multiculturalism

    Liberal multiculturalism champions individualism and freedom. This reflects the ideals of liberalism in which rationalism and freedom of choice are championed. In multiculturalism, liberalism is the right of the individual to retain, practice, and celebrate their culture and cultural identity.

    Liberal multiculturalism champions the tolerance of cultural differences. However, it is important to note that this tolerance is extended so far as the cultures are in line with ‘liberal ideologies’.

    An example of this is the prejudice that veil-wearing and hijab-wearing women face in the UK. Whilst the UK claims to be accepting of all cultures, the veil, the burka and the hijab are often wrongly judged as a sign of oppression and many people in the UK believe there is no place for them in British society. The Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, even derogatorily referred to the burkas that some Muslim women choose to wear as ‘letter boxes’.

    Multiculturalism Woman with a hijab StudySmarterFig. 4 - Woman with a hijab

    Conservative multiculturalism

    Conservative multiculturalism embraces the idea that for unity to occur there can be no diversity and therefore cultural homogeneity is required. This cultural homogeneity and unity can be achieved through assimilation.

    Examples of conservative multiculturalism can be seen when those speaking a language other than English in public are told ‘You’re in England now, speak English!’. Conservative multiculturalism opposes the idea of hotel-like societies in which people may come and go with no connections to one another or a shared cultural history.

    Pluralist multiculturalism

    Pluralist multiculturalism is similar to liberal multiculturalism but it extends further than the acceptance and tolerance of cultures that align with liberal ideologies. Whilst liberal ideologies are tainted with notions of racism and colonialism when it comes to which cultures can be tolerated, pluralism is devoid of these cultural biases.

    Pluralist multiculturalism is accepting of competing political ideologies, moral values, and cultural practices or beliefs. Under this form of multiculturalism, complete civic cohesion is unattainable as there is the question of to what extent can certain beliefs be tolerated.

    Cosmopolitan multiculturalism

    Cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism are at their core, conflicting ideas. Multiculturalism embraces cultural diversity and the distant and separate nature of cultures. Cosmopolitan multiculturalism, however, values cultural diversity but only to the extent where components of cultures can be shared and adopted as part of a wider goal to establish a unified and international identity.

    This ‘pick and mix’ of cultures in cosmopolitan multiculturalism often results in the hybridity of many different cultures which can weaken and blur distinctive cultures.

    Key thinkers of multiculturalism

    Let’s take a look at some of the key thinkers of multiculturalism. Isaiah Berlin, Charles Taylor, Bhikhu Parekh, Tariq Modood, and William Kymlicka are some of the most influential thinkers in the development of multiculturalism.

    Isaiah Berlin (1909–97)

    Isaiah Berlin was a Latvian historian and philosopher. Berlin’s most famous work is titled Four Essays on Liberty. Here Berlin argued liberal views should not hold more authority or value than non-liberal views.

    Multiculturalism Profile of Isaiah Berlin with a bow tie StudySmarterFig. 5 - Isaiah Berlin

    Berlin was a supporter of pluralism and argued that conflicting ideas, cultures, and values were core to human life. This conflict should not be feared.

    Charles Taylor (1931–present)

    Charles Taylor is a Canadian academic. His work titled The Politics of Recognition embraced the idea of the universal right for all people to have their identity recognised.

    Taylor has championed the twin ideals of equal dignity and equal respect between cultures and rejected the particularism of liberal multiculturalism and the perceived moral superiority of liberal ideology.

    Bhikhu Parekh (1935–present)

    Bhikhu Parekh is an Indian-born political philosopher and politician member of the Labour Party in the House of the Lords. His famous work Rethinking Multiculturalism rejected liberalism and liberal multiculturalism in favour of pluralism.

    Multiculturalism Official portrait of Bhikuh Parekh StudySmarterFig. 6 - Bhikuh Parekh

    Parekh is a supporter of methods of positive discrimination such as affirmative action as he believes these methods are necessary to place cultural minorities on a level playing field with majority cultures.

    Tariq Modood (1952–present)

    As a professor at the University of Bristol and the author of the book Multiculturalism, Modood argued that strong cultural identities are a positive contribution to society. Modood's work was in response to the growing opposition to multiculturalism due to the fear of radical Islam and immigration.

    William Kymlicka (1962–present)

    William Kymlicka is a Canadian political philosopher viewed as the leading theorist in liberal multiculturalism. Kymlicka champions the importance of minority rights and argues that the provision of minority rights is consistent with liberal-democratic principles.

    Multiculturalism - Key takeaways

    • Multiculturalism seeks to tackle challenges that arise out of cultural diversity and minority marginalisation.
    • The core ideas of multiculturalism are diversity, recognition, identity, and minority rights.
    • Liberal multiculturalism is accepting and tolerant only of cultures that support liberal ideologies.
    • Conservative multiculturalism rejects the idea of unity in diversity and focuses on cultural assimilation.
    • Pluralist multiculturalism is accepting and tolerant of all cultures regardless of whether there are conflicting values across cultures.
    • Cosmopolitan multiculturalism seeks to create a unified international culture and values cultural diversity only to the extent to which one can pick and choose valuable parts of the culture.


    1. Fig. 1 - 2012 Catalan Independence Protest ( by Kippelboy ( licensed by CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
    2. Fig. 6 - Official portrait of Lord Parekh ( by Roger Harris licensed by CC-BY-3.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Multiculturalism

     What is multiculturalism?

    Multiculturalism is the process in which distinct identities and cultural groups are acknowledged, maintained, and supported in society.

     What are examples of multiculturalism?

    An example of multiculturalism can be the celebration of black history month or the inclusion of non-white thinkers in educational curriculums in the UK. 

    What is the importance of multiculturalism?

    Multiculturalism is important as it tackles the challenges that arise out of cultural diversity and minority marginalisation. 

    What is multiculturalism theory?

    Multiculturalism theory refers to the process in which distinct identities and cultural groups are acknowledged, maintained and supported in society.

     What are the problems of multiculturalism?

    Multiculturalism can lead to the erosion of one's own culture in favour of a melting pot of cultures.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

     What event strengthened the emergence of multiculturalism?

    What are the four different types of multiculturalism?

    What is the name of Isaiah Berlin's famous work?


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