The Political Theory of Multiculturalism essay

It is an undeniable fact that the contemporary world is a highly multicultural and diverse place where hundreds of nations and cultures exist within different states and the representatives of which move around the globe thanks to globalization and international economic integration. Moreover, people have learnt to accept differences of other nations and cultures and to live in peace with other nations and cultures since time immemorial. Hence, it may be assumed that multiculturalism is a phenomenon that is as old as the humanity itself. However, this phenomenon also deems to be highly controversial in the modern world, especially in Western countries, where heated debates about this issue and its place within the framework of national policies rage. Representatives of some countries, for instance, David Cameron from the UK and Angela Markel from Germany, have claimed that multiculturalism has failed in the West and that their countries should and will revise their multicultural policies with a view to addressing urgent social issues that concern the entire nation rather than some cultural minorities. Other countries like Canada and Australia are considered as vivid examples and case studies of how multiculturalism can be integrated into the fundamental dynamics of the society and become an integral part of the national identity, which is often claimed to suffer from implementation of multicultural policies. Overall, it may be noted that debates surrounding multiculturalism are currently as topical as they have been throughout the past several decades when multiculturalism rose to the forefront of the political agenda in most Western countries. However, these largely theoretical debates frequently have little to do with the real world and are not extremely useful for understanding how multiculturalism works in reality. In turn, case studies of separate countries where multiculturalism seems to work like in Canada become of utmost significance with a view to comprehending the phenomenon and its real-life implications. Besides, they are useful for discovering whether multiculturalism is a viable component of the political and social domain. The current processes of globalization and international economic integration will likely fail if Western countries terminate existing multicultural policies and refuse to develop the ones that could be more effective based on the example set by Canada.

The Theory of Multiculturalism and Debates Surrounding the Concept of Multiculturalism

Debates surrounding the concept and phenomenon of multiculturalism have ranged perhaps since the time of its wide-spread application to integration into various state policies that have been developed and implemented in Western countries since the 1970s. These debates concern philosophical foundations and implications of multiculturalism as well as its effectiveness and failure based on already implemented multicultural policies and topical social issues detected in Western countries. With this in mind, the overwhelming majority of Western countries have announced the failure of multiculturalism, including Germany, France, the UK, Denmark, the Netherlands and many other European countries (Bloemraad, 2011). Hence, Angela Merkel was among the first European leaders to claim in 2010 that multiculturalism failed in their country, being followed by Nicolas Sarkozy, David Cameron and others (Bloemraad, 2011). It is important to note that such statements have been coming primarily from countries that have failed to implement well-devised and comprehensive multicultural policies as evidenced by the Multiculturalism Policy Index Scores for Selected Countries, 1980-2010 (Bloemraad, 2011). In turn, countries like Australia and Canada have shown the highest marks under this index, and the latter has even been called a story of success in terms of its dedication to promotion of multiculturalism (Kymlicka, 2012). In-between devoted supporters of multiculturalism and its opponents, there is a relatively limited optimistic group of researchers, policy-makers, politicians and ordinary individuals who believe that multiculturalism can be effectively promoted if it is properly understood and appropriate policies are developed with consideration of problems revealed on the sample of the existing ones. Therefore, they claim that any suggestions to move away from multiculturalism overshadow a real opportunity of revising existing policies and ensuring success of multiculturalism in Western countries (Kymlicka, 2012). Overall, this concept may be interpreted in different ways and it essentially impacts developed and implemented multicultural policies, hence predetermining either their success or failure to some extent.

Nowadays, there may be distinguished several key contexts within which multiculturalism can be discussed. One of these contexts is demographic multiculturalism that reflects the actual state of affairs existing in the society with respect to ethnic and cultural diversity. This diversity may be either inherent in the country since the time of its establishment like in Canada and Switzerland or it may be a result of active migration to the country from all corners of the world, like it has happened in the USA, France and many other countries. Most debates on multiculturalism focus on immigrants rather than on long-standing minority groups, which is why multiculturalism policies are often tightly interconnected with immigration policies (Bloemraad, 2011). Besides, within this context the correlation between multiculturalism and social cohesion is usually discussed (Bloemraad, 2011). This is also the main argument why many European countries have a desire to abandon their multicultural policies for the sake of building strong and cohesive national identities.

Multiculturalism can be also regarded as a political philosophy focusing on and supporting pluralism in the cultural domain (Bloemraad, 2011). This context of understanding is among the most prolific in terms of debates that usually turn into polemics and philosophical musings detached from the real world (Bloemraad, 2011). Brian Berry and Bhikju Parekh are two outstanding researchers representing the polarities within the continuum of ideas relating to multiculturalism as a political philosophy. Brian Barry (2001) supports classical Western liberalism based on universalism and equality of all citizens. He claims that the universalistic model of citizenship was developed in response to the wars of religion that made much of Europe a living hell in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. If it could bring those conflicts to an end – and on the whole it did – it is not at all apparent why it is unable to cope with religious and cultural differences now. (Barry, 2001)

Thus, like many other liberal scholars, Barry (2001) gives preference to universal rights and freedoms that should be privileged over rights and freedoms granted to peculiar groups of people distinguished by some trait, for instance, religion. In turn, the so-called implemented policy of difference, as the multicultural policy is often referred to, may lead to conflicts as it distinguishes and privileges some groups (Barry, 2001). Critiques of this position are against return to universalistic liberalism that is advocated by many current political parties in Western Europe (Mitnick, 2002). Bhikhu Parekh and his supporters, on the contrary, support multiculturalism as the only enlightened political philosophy that can ensure social cohesion and well-being in the long run (Parekh, 2005). They claim that one cannot treat people equally only in terms of their similarities and ignore their paramount differences that constitute an integral part of their identities (Parekh, 2005). Besides, their opponents’ claim of individualism is also virtually impossible as all human beings are born in peculiar communities that serve as a basis of their identity. That is why, social equality can be achieved only when governments explicitly acknowledge cultural minorities, endorse pluralism and are sensitive to cultural needs of minorities residing within the country.

Finally, multiculturalism is discussed from the perspective of public policies. It is not enough to acknowledge and celebrate diversity and pluralism in the society; it also necessary to encourage them through specific public policies. This context of understanding is a breeding ground for debates on multiculturalism in different countries in particular and across the globe on the whole. One of the topical issues concerns inadequate understanding of multiculturalism by public policies that perceive it as uncritical celebration of cultural diversity, while ignoring topical issues existing in the society, for instance, isolation and unemployment (Kymlicka, 2012). Social isolation and cohesion are also widely disputed by supporters of different views. On the one hand, multiculturalists claim that recognition of cultural minorities will result in the feeling of increased attachment to the community and nation and ensure deeper engagement with them. On the other hand, their opponents suppose that as a result of enhancement of multiculturalism, representatives of cultural minorities live in their isolated communities separately from the nation, which has a negative impact on their economic integration and social capital contribution.

Overall, one researcher has said that reviewing debates surrounding multiculturalism reminds him of a quote from Charles Dickens’ book: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” (Kymlicka, 2010). On the one hand, there are real-life examples like Canada where multiculturalism can, on the whole, work and benefit both minorities and the mainstream culture. On the other hand, there is a retreat from multiculturalism all over the world, which is fueled by the assumed failure of multicultural policies, return to universal liberalism and frequently unjustified claims about the negative impact of multiculturalism, for instance, seemingly due to its ability to erode social cohesion and promote terrorism. However, most debates seem to focus on particular minute aspects of the overall concept while ignoring the fact that there is no single understanding of multiculturalism. Moreover, different researchers and countries employ different theoretical foundations for the study and subsequent implementation of respective policies. Furthermore, countries that are the most vocal in criticizing the failure of multiculturalism have never been among the strongest advocates for implementation of comprehensive multicultural policies, which is why their experience can hardly be considered as exemplary and applicable for extrapolation to the entire world. Hence, the following section of the paper will focus on Canadian multiculturalism as this country is among the highest ranking in terms of its multicultural policies.

Canadian Multiculturalism

Canadian multiculturalism is a multifaceted and complicated phenomenon that has been widely promoted in the country as an integral part of the Canadian national identity since early 1970s. An extremely accurate definition of the concept is given in The Encyclopedia of Canada’s People, where it has been used to

refer to several different but related phenomena: the demographic reality of Canadian population that is made up of people and groups representing a plurality of ethnocultural traditions and racial origins; a social ideal or value that accepts cultural pluralism as a positive and distinctive feature of Canadian society; and government policy initiatives designed to recognize, support and – some might argue – manage cultural and racial pluralism at federal, provincial and municipal levels. (Hoyos, 2014)

As it has already been mentioned above, Canada was the first Western country to enshrine multiculturalism in its constitution and adopt a comprehensive multiculturalism policy. Nonetheless, multiculturalism remains a rather controversial issue in Canada nowadays depending on the position of researchers and specific perspective it is viewed from.

Hence, one study has claimed that one the Canadian story of multiculturalism is a success story due to some factors revealed (Kymlicka, 2012). First, it has been proved that immigrants to this country are more likely to acquire citizenship and actively participate in the political life than immigrants in other Western countries (Kymlicka, 2012). Second, children of immigrants display higher educational outcomes than children of immigrants to other Western countries (Kymlicka, 2012). Third, immigrants to Canada are not discriminated on the grounds of their professional skills (Kymlicka, 2012). Nonetheless, this may be particularly connected with the fact that most immigrants to Canada are highly skilled and educated, at least, much more than immigrants to other countries. Finally, Canada views immigration as a positive phenomenon and does not hold prejudice towards Muslims unlike the overwhelming majority of Western countries in the contemporary world (Kymlicka, 2012). The latter feature witnesses the multicultural orientation of Canadians as “in the post 9/11 era, Islam is seen as the biggest threat to Western nations, and Muslim cultures and practices are no longer welcomed” (Nagra & Peng, 2013). In turn, young Muslims residing in Canada claim that they hold a dual identity of Canadian Muslims and utilize the ideology of multiculturalism despite the increasing pressure experienced by all representatives of their religion due to recent events and terroristic attacks (Nagra & Peng, 2013). Moreover, supporters of multiculturalism claim that the latter seems to have no negative impact on social capital, levels of trust and social cohesion, which allows speaking about “Canadian exceptionalism” (Kymlicka, 2012).

At the same time, opponents of the above mentioned positive view claim that multiculturalism in Canada is largely doomed and is about to fail even though it has lasted longer in this country than anywhere in the Western world and has proved to be more deeply integrated into the society. Attitudes of the population towards immigrants and representatives of other cultures can hardly be deemed extremely positive in Canada and fluctuate constantly. Thus, in 1991 survey 85% of respondents supported the multiculturalism policy and had a positive view of the phenomenon (Li, 2000). In 1993, 72% of them supported the view that Canada should change its multicultural policy and foster assimilation of immigrants like the USA did (Li, 2000). In 1994, the overwhelming majority of respondents was wary of too many immigrants and supposed that the latter should adapt to the Canadian lifestyle and adopt Canadian values (Li, 2000). The current position of the society is ambiguous, but a relatively negative perception and implicit discrimination of immigrants remains in place. Overall, most researchers and common citizens agree that Canadians view multiculturalism as their unique peculiarity (Sharma, 2011). One of the reasons for this lies in so-called “we are all immigrants” framework, which states that only Natives are non-immigrants in Canada (Sharma, 2011). Although this perspective is not widely popular and supported, it adds to the debate over multiculturalism in Canada.

Another perspective indicates that multiculturalism is either beneficial or disadvantageous for immigrants depending on the country of their origin (Drache, 2009). Hence, if they are of European descent, their multiculturalism stories will be those of success; yet if they or their parents have come from some non-Western country, the Middle East or Africa, their stories will be full of obstacles and problematic issues as well as income inequality and discrimination (Drache, 2009). Therefore, they claim that “multiculturalism has feet of clay” and “the vision and the promise of multiculturalism are troubled and unfulfilled” (Drache, 2009). At the same time, it is impossible to deny that the Canada’s multicultural policy has been partially successful as it has occurred at the time of economic expansion, wealth creation and the lack of a strong Canadian self-identity, which allows locals not to feel threatened by immigrants and immigrants not to feel pressured to assimilate (Drache, 2009). There also exist many systemic problems with the policy of multiculturalism that have to be addressed with a view to preserving the experiment success and preventing it from failing in the contemporary world marked by enhanced globalization (Drache, 2009).

Some of the currently debated topical issues that need further research and consideration include the effect of integration of immigrants into their minority cultural communities, experience of visible minorities with integration, experience of relatively new religious minorities with integration, impact of diversity as well as intergroup isolation and inequality (Reitz et al., 2009). Thus, the debate in Canada is centered on the question of the impact of diversity promoted by multiculturalism: whether there exists “‘unity in diversity’, as advocates say, or whether diversity leads to isolation, mistrust and disunity, as critics suggest” (Reitz et al., 2009). So far, findings of studies have been inconclusive as they prove both positive and negative impacts of multiculturalism in Canada. Still, this debate has real-world implications and may become useful for revision of the existing multicultural policies as opposed to the above mentioned philosophical disputes relating to the issue under consideration.


The current paper has shown that the disputes and debates relating to multiculturalism are pervasive in the contemporary world and can be witnessed even in countries that should be considered as vivid examples of success stories like Canada. Nonetheless, most debates seem to be quite detached from the real world and focus on theoretical debates of representatives of different sides such as, for instance, multiculturalists and universalists. Furthermore, such debates rarely contribute to the comprehension of the concept under consideration. Therefore, pervasive issues of multiculturalism have to be studied in more depth. Besides, multiculturalism can be considered from various perspectives, which only increases the amount of potential points for disputes by the stakeholders. The time has though come to stop theorizing about multiculturalism and the political theory of multiculturalism and to pay attention to empirical problematic issues associated with it and its impacts on both the society and cultural minorities. The overwhelming majority of Western countries have proclaimed the failure of multiculturalism and advocate return to nationalism and actively encouraged assimilation of ethnic, cultural and other minorities into the mainstream society. Even in Canada, which was the first to adopt the multicultural perspective, some problems with the current version of multiculturalism and multicultural policies may be detected, which is only exacerbated by popular moods and negative attitudes to immigrants and cultural minorities. With a view to preserving a well-known Canadian exceptionalism in this respect, the government has to revise its multicultural policies on the basis of available and future studies focusing on various topical aspects of the issue. In any case, retreat to the former ways of living without inclusion of multiculturalism would be similar to a backward movement to the past with widespread discrimination, social segregation, forced assimilation and intolerance to anything deviating from the mainstream, which is merely unacceptable in the modern highly civilized and globalized world. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that further globalization and international economic integration cannot succeed without the success of multiculturalism in the world.

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The Political Theory of Multiculturalism essay

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