What is multiculturalism? ndla.no

Nowadays fewer than 15% of countries are ethnically homogeneous, provoking the need for modern societies to develop a means to coexist peacefully. Thus two main definitions for multiculturalism began to emerge.  The first definition focuses on the relation between different cultures and how these interactions create a shared link between different traditions. The second definition focuses on isolating cultures in order to preserve the cultural identity by protecting minority cultures from becoming homogenous with the dominant culture. .


In sociology, ‘multiculturalism’ is a term used to describe the existence of several cultures in a community, presupposing the acceptance and promotion of its cultural traditions. In a political context, the term can have different meanings. For example, multiculturalism can be defined by the advocacy of respect of different cultures in the society, connected to the cultural diversity policies which promote the maintenance of different traditions, or in other cases multiculturalism means the policies used by the authorities to approach each social group.

Seventy years ago, a Cuban anthropologist, Fernando Ortiz, created the concept of ‘transculturation’, meaning that two different cultures can be united and mixed to create a new culture (neoculturation). This definition can be used to explain a lot of interactions between different cultures around the world. To explain it, Oritz used the case of Spanish colonisation in Cuba, which he considered a failed transculturation. The transculturation process is a long path of interactions between two cultures, and the integration process has several steps before a perfect harmony is reached. The last step culminates with a peaceful coexistence- the creation of a new, culturally-integrated society in which there are no differences between people and everyone has access to the same institutions without discrimination. Unfortunately this phase is not achieved by many cultures because of ethnocentrisms such as religion and traditions.

Mary Louise Pratt, a professor in New York, have a different concept about the interaction of cultures: “the contact zone”. This term is used to describe the cultural shocks, when different cultures are fighting for their values. This can also be observed in colonial times. The coloniser tries to impose his own culture and religion upon the indigenous population, like the Portuguese and Spanish did during the Discoveries of the fifteenth century. Here the multiculturalism must be seen beyond the human activities, like a multidimensional understanding of culture.

In ‘Multiculturalism Without Culture’, Anne Phillips uses feminism as the principal basis to develop her ideas about multiculturalism. Philips says that multiculturalism challenges feminism by subordinating the rights and interests of women to the supposed traditions of their cultures. She develops multiculturalism in a way that the definition is not linked with any culture. For Phillips, culture is no longer something immutable and dominated but something fluid. It is not the group that have rights but the individuals, because they are the most important element in societies.

The multitude of definitions and understandings of culture and multiculturalism illustrates the complexity of approaching the cultural mosaic that is our society. Nowadays multiculturalist political ideologies have embraced disadvantaged groups, such as the LGBT+ community or indigenous people, for instance. All these definitions are important to understand the multiculturalism policies adopted by the States as each government has their own views about multiculturalism.

In 1971, Canada became the first country in the world to adopt multiculturalism policies, and it continues to be recognised as one of the best examples of multiculturalism.  Unfortunately, policies regarding multiculturalism in Western European societies are going backwards. The Netherlands and Denmark, once beacons of liberalism and tolerance, are beginning to adopt policies reflecting the increasingly prevalent attitudes of monoculturalism among their respective populations.

Unfortunately genocides did occur many times in our history. Would it not be better to live in a multicultural world where we learn from our differences, than to live in a monocultural world in which we are all the same? Multicultural societies should be open minded and have space for all cultures, traditions, religions and tastes. We can all live together under the same home, if we respect each other.