‘Multicultural’ and ‘multiculturalism’ are ubiquitous terms. They are heard in political debates, in the language of ethnic group leaders, in local government strategies and budgets, in educational settings, in health care, in popular media, in commercial marketing and in scientific publications. The widespread use of the terms ‘multicultural’ and ‘multiculturalism’ can be seen as marking a significant change in the discourses in which societies, schools, organizations, and so on, describe and understand themselves. However, given the wide range of actors, contexts, interpretations and usages of these terms, it is apparent that there is no single view or strategy implied. Multiculturalism can mean many things and can refer to practices, policies, attitudes, beliefs and ideologies. The different meanings and interpretations has led to the use of adjectives for distinguishing between forms of multiculturalism, such as ‘critical and difference’ multiculturalism , ‘cosmopolitan and pluralist’ multiculturalism  and ‘liberal and illiberal’ multiculturalism .
Policies and ideologies regarding diversity, minorities and culture vary greatly from one society to another. Societies do not have the same history, the same collective representations of the nation and the same minority groups. These differences can affect processes of integration and people’s attitudes. Social psychological research has shown, for example, that evaluations of multiculturalism and the endorsement of minority rights are influenced by categories of minority groups and the ways in which they are defined . Not all minority groups are perceived to have equal moral claims. Multicultural recognition and rights is considered a more appropriate demand for ‘involuntary’ groups (original inhabitants, descendents of slaves, refugees) than for immigrant workers. These immigrants would have waived their demands and rights by voluntary leaving their country of origin. Self-determination implies a personal responsibility for one’s situation and position. Therefore, multiculturalism and minority rights tend to be endorsed less in relation to immigrant workers than in relation to involuntary minorities.
The term multiculturalism describes the complex range of issues associated with cultural and religious diversity in society, and the social management of the challenges and opportunities such diversity offers.
Social psychologists have tended to examine multiculturalism in terms of attitudes and ideologies. Empirical studies on multicultural attitudes indicate that the general support for multiculturalism is not very strong among majority groups in many Western countries. Apart from Canada where majority members have been found to favour multiculturalism , studies in other countries have found moderate support, such as in Australia and the USA  or low support, such as in Germany, Switzerland, Slovakia and the Netherlands .
Multiculturalism is not only about the majority group accepting and recognizing minority groups, but implies acceptance and recognition on the part of minorities too. Some studies have examined the endorsement of multiculturalism among ethnic minority group members. In many (European) countries, multiculturalism is typically seen as identity threatening for the majority group and identity supporting for minority groups. For minority groups, multiculturalism offers the possibility of maintaining their own culture and obtaining higher social status in society. Majority group members, on the other hand, may see ethnic minorities and their desire to maintain their own culture as a threat to their cultural dominance and group identity. Following social psychological theories that emphasize the role of group status and interests in the dynamics of intergroup relations , it can be expected that groups are more in favour of multiculturalism when they see gains for themselves. Hence, it is likely that multiculturalism appeals more to ethnic minority groups than to majority group members, who in turn endorse assimilation more strongly. Several studies in different countries have confirmed this expectation , including a study examining multicultural attitudes among majority and immigrant groups in 21 European countries . This group difference in attitudes towards multiculturalism is even stronger among majority and minority individuals who identify relatively strong with their own ethnic group.
There are many different responses to the challenges that multiculturalism throw up. It is not surprising, therefore, that there are so many different understandings of the term. Indeed, it has been argued by Samad  that the term ‘multiculturalism has different implications and meanings depending on its social, political and disciplinary location’ and so multiculturalism may be understood as either ‘conservative or radical, and social policy based upon it can have different implications and outcomes depending on the context in which cultural difference is negotiated’ [11, p. 240]. Therefore, an important starting point for the discussion of multiculturalism is to distinguish three different primary understandings of the concept:
. multiculturalism as an ideology
. multiculturalism as a social issue
. the academic study of multiculturalism
Multiculturalism as an Ideology
Many social commentators, particularly in the UK context, take the term multiculturalism to refer primarily as an ideological concept, particularly as a social programme of change. When taken in this sense, multiculturalism is seen as an effort to create (or impose) a series of social relations between specific defined groups, most often with the aim of establishing some level of social equality and social justice. Although this is for many the main objective of multiculturalism, it is arguably to understand multiculturalism only on this level is both misleading and unhelpful. Indeed, as Pnina Werbner argues, ‘there are as many multiculturalisms as there are political arenas for collective action . . . Multiculturalism is always a specific negotiated order and no amount of abstract philosophical or legal reasoning can prescribe a single “just” model’ [12, p. 263].
Within such arenas, the issue of multiculturalism becomes one of contest, often setting up those who proscribe a suitable multicultural programme against those who are in opposition to such a programme of equality and social justice (anti-multiculturalists). In this case, the ideology of multiculturalism is often perceived (on both sides) as politically left-of-centre and progressive, and the charge is commonly made by anti-multiculturalists that such multicultural policies (or programmes) are anti-nationalist. Therefore, it is common to hear in public debates the distinction being made between multiculturalism (as a policy of separation and/or segregation) and integration. Any context of multiculturalism does need to be developed with regard to national issues (particularly issues of national identity), and it is a mistake to assume that any ideology of multiculturalism will be necessarily anti-nationalistic. For some, the concept of multiculturalism may be ideologically distinct from integration, but in social practice the processes of multiculturalism often do require some implementation of policies of integration at some level.
Multiculturalism as a Social Issue
The second aspect of discussing multiculturalism is the use of the term to describe social issues. In this sense, there is common use of ‘multiculturalism’ to summarise a state of social organisation (a particular social context). That is, multiculturalism is used in this way to describe a context where there is some level of perceived (and recognised) diversity. Most often this starts with demographic data—i.e. numerical descriptors of populations—which are used to demonstrate that a particular social context has sufficient diversity at some level (particularly cultural or ethnic diversity) to be classified as ‘multicultural’.
It is important, however, to note that multiculturalism is not merely a matter of numbers and population percentages. The term multicultural is sometimes conflated with particular population statistics, with the assumption that there is a certain proportion or percentage of ‘minorities’ that make a society ‘multicultural’. It is arguable that this is not the case. For example, Scotland has approximately 5 per cent of its population that is considered to be minority ethnic and/or religious, whilst in England the ratio is 10 per cent. These figures, of course, contrast with other contexts, such as Malaysia, where the native population (Bumiputra or Malays) make up just over half of the total population, with the remainder being non-Malay Malaysians (see the papers by Ahmed and Ibrahim in this issue). In the case of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) (particularly in Dubai and Abu Dhabi), the ratio is even higher, with figures suggesting that the national Emirati (Arab) population make up only 10–20 per cent of the overall population, with the remaining 80–90 per cent non-nationals being resident in the country as temporary migrant workers. All of these examples could be considered to be multicultural societies, with visible cultural and religious diversity. It is a difficult, and probably needless, judgement to make that a particular country is ‘more’ multicultural than any other. It is probably quite inevitable that the higher the proportion of minority ethnic population, the greater the challenges that such diversity may create for the native or majority population for governance, management and the maintenance of a distinct identity.
Academic Study of Multiculturalism
In contrast to the above two, it is necessary to note that there is another important aspect of multiculturalism that needs to be clearly delineated. That is, the academic study of multiculturalism. This study is not necessarily ideological, although as Werbner notes [12, p. 263] scholars in this field are often ideologically driven.
The study of multiculturalism—in contrast to any particular ideology or public discourse of multiculturalism—is an attempt to understand and analyse various contexts and experiences of diversity. An important basis for this is that there is no single ‘form’ or experience of multiculturalism, it is not an ‘ideal’ state, nor does any multicultural context necessarily have a clear end goal. Instead multiculturalism is about a process of management (and governance) in which differences are fore-grounded, whilst at the same there is recognition of the importance of connections and a common area of engagement across differences. The study of multiculturalism seeks to understand such processes.
In summary, multiculturalism is about changes—the twenty-first century is a time of rapid and unavoidable change. These changes happen through the forces and flows of globalisation, through breath-takingly fast technological changes, and also social and cultural changes coming through the rapid spread of ideas, through new media (both broadcast and information media). The processes of multiculturalism both reflect and generate some of these changes. To pursue the
study of multiculturalism is to try to understand how some of these changes operate within particular contexts of nation-states across the world. Multicultural studies examine the ways in which change resulting from such globalisation leads to difference and diversity, relations between different groups, and the ways in which these differences are perceived and governed.
Multiculturalism is concerned with complex issues that involve many questions and dilemmas. There are promises and there are important pitfalls. Considering the psychological and social importance of ethnic and racial identities, a focus on groups and group differences is understandable and, to a certain extent, useful, for example, for improving intergroup relations. It can, however, also lead to a situation in which these identities become overwhelming or unidimensional and society, out-groups and in-groups oblige people to place this particular identity in the forefront of their minds and make it central in their behaviour. Multiculturalism can turn into an obsession with differences and group identities, leading to a widening of divisions between groups and a hampering of individual choices and opportunities.
Multiculturalism is about the delicate balance between recognizing differences and developing meaningful communalities, between differential treatment and equality, between group identities and individual liberties. There are different kinds of diversity and different forms of multiculturalism that try to accommodate cultural differences. Some differences are relatively easy to accept and to recognize, but others go against moral convictions and basic premises of society. There are limits to pluralism and moral diversity as there are limits to tolerance and what is acceptable. Tolerance does not imply the relativism found in some forms of multiculturalism that celebrate diversity and argue that one should refrain from value judgements in assessing other groups. Tolerance always has limits and does not imply a full acceptance and valuing of all social practices of other groups, such as potentially harmful activities, illiberal internal rules and undemocratic actions.
The debate on the way to manage cultural diversity continues and social psychologists increasingly try to make a contribution to these debates. In doing so, it is important to examine not only ethnic and cultural identities and intergroup relations, but also to focus on differences within groups and intragroup processes, on the ways that religious identities are understood and used in society and for organizing collective action, and on people’s reasoning about tolerance and civil liberties related to concrete dissenting practices and behaviours.
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