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Definition: multiculturalism from The Columbia Encyclopedia

or cultural pluralism, a term describing the coexistence of many cultures in a locality, without any one culture dominating the region. By making the broadest range of human differences acceptable to the largest number of people, multiculturalism seeks to overcome racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.


Summary Article: multiculturalism
from The Dictionary of Human Geography

An ideology and state policy that seeks to establish a model of governance to permit the coexistence of culturally diverse populations. Its distinctive feature is a respect for cultural difference and, in contrast to assimilation, support for the maintenance of old-world cultures. While not new, cultural diversity assumes its accentuated current profile from the large movements of documented and undocumented workers from the global South to the depleted labour markets of the global North (see migration; north–south).

Multiculturalism is not an inevitable policy response to cultural diversity; in western europe, while the UK invoked some commitment to multiculturalism, France’s republican model rejected reference to pre-existing immigrant cultures in favour of assimilation to a putatively egalitarian national citizen, while the German tradition of ius sanguinis, or ethnic exclusivity (see ethnicity), envisaged temporary guest-workers rather than permanent immigrants. The UK, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian states would most readily have described themselves as multicultural nations, though there has been some back-pedalling of late. More complete multicultural commitment occurs in Australia and especially Canada, the only country with a Multiculturalism Act and which includes multicultural rights within its constitution.

In an important respect, all states are multicultural inasmuch as they include culturally distinct minorities. But the existence of demographic multiculturalism is no basis for assuming that institutional and legal recognition of diversity will occur. A necessary development is, at minimum, a tolerance of ethnic difference, and more positively a respect and welcoming of cultural diversity that may lead to heritage multiculturalism, where the state celebrates diversity with grants to permit the expression and survival of folk cultures, including literature, dance and religion. In the USA, the principal manifestation of multiculturalism has been the often controversial use of Spanish as a heritage language of instruction in schools in some districts with concentrations of Latino immigrants. But heritage multiculturalism offers no protection of citizenship rights, and a more mature development is a rights-based multiculturalism that offers legal protection against group-based discrimination, where minorities can claim rights in such fields as anti-racism, social service delivery, employment equity, policing and immigration policy.

Despite its liberal objectives, multiculturalism has attracted considerable criticism. The political right fears the escalation of an identity politics that fragments the national project (Huntington, 2004: see also nation-state; nationalism). The political left, in contrast, challenges the existence of a veil of cultural equality that conceals structures of economic inequality, and suspects that multiculturalism has been co-opted as a vehicle to promote neo-liberal trade and investment (Mitchell, 2004b; see neo-liberalism). To this, Ghassan Hage (1998) has charged that multiculturalism in Australia has become a tool of an older white elite to divide new immigrants, thereby maintaining traditional political privileges. But following September 2001 and subsequent terrorist attacks in Europe and Asia, such intellectual challenges have been superseded by a populist and media barrage that has falsely blamed multiculturalism for nurturing hostile criminal and terrorist cells within the matrix of tolerated cultural difference. In the present decade, multiculturalism is a policy forced on the defensive (Joppke, 2004).

Suggested readings

Full bibliography is available here.

Mitchell (2004b)

Parekh (2000).

David Ley
Professor of Geography
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada
© 2009 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd except for editorial material and organization, © 2009 Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael J. Watts, and Sarah Whatmore

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