Society & Multiculturalism Research Paper Starter

Society & Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism is a multi-dimensional term used to describe many aspects of an increasingly ethnically and racially diverse society. At an individual level, multiculturalism refers to how individuals shape their cultural identity and interact with others. At a national level, the term refers to how cultural groups organize themselves and how governments use policy to support or prohibit diversity. At an international level, multiculturalism becomes entwined with the issue of globalization and how changes in economic, political, and social activities will increase or reduce world diversity. This article explores some of the issues that are debated under the broad category of multiculturalism.

Keywords Assimilation; Cosmopolitanism; Cultural Competence; Culturality; Cultural Pluralism; Globalization; Multiculturalism; Transnationalism



The history of people is one of movement. Whether it is hunters following the food to warmer climates, refugees escaping war and political corruption or explorers and immigrants seeking new economic opportunities, humans have always been on the move. In their migrations, people have taken their cultures to new lands and through contact with different peoples have exchanged ideas, languages and customs. Yet cultural mixing around the world has not created one race of people. Rather, multiple distinct cultures have developed and have generally been divided by geographical and political boundaries.

For much of modern history, the world has been politically divided into nation-states defined by geographical borders and a perceived common cultural identity. While many nations, like the United States, are comprised of people from multiple cultural groups, feelings of nationalism and allegiance to the state have been thought to develop out of a shared sense of history, language, and culture as well as state autonomy (Kivisto, 2002). The result is that the world as it is has often been painted in a U.S. geography class is one that can be envisioned as it is drawn on a globe. A multicolored mix of oddly shaped landforms which can be defined by major economic activity and a few cultural markers that are sometimes mistakenly assumed to apply to all the country's inhabitants, such as religion, food and dress. This is the world as it has been known for a long time, but these conceptions are changing.

In the past several decades, two major trends have challenged the way the world has been conceptualized, and this has led to a redefining of local and world orders. First, within many nations, including the United States, minority cultural groups have advocated for greater recognition as ethnic or racial groups. In the United States, minority cultural groups in the 1960s and 1970s rejected assimilation theories (Griffin, 1998), which say the natural path when two cultural groups come into contact as the result of migration is for the groups to become more like each other (Kivisto, 2002). Eventually, through the process of amalgamation, or intermarriage, boundaries will be erased between the groups and a new shared identity will form (Park, 1950).

Assimilation vs. Cultural Pluralism

Rejecting this process as one that results in the loss of culture for minority groups (because they are expected to assume the ways of life of the dominant cultural group), minority groups argued in favor of a culturally pluralistic society. A culturally pluralistic society, it was theorized, would accept and tolerate many different cultures living together in one geographical space without requiring one culture to be lost to another (Kivisto, 2002).

At the global level, ethnic groups have also called for greater recognition, which has been described as a surge in ethnonationalism. Ethnonationalism refers to the desire by ethnic groups living within an autonomous nation-state for a recognized national identity that is separate from that state. Sometimes nationalist groups seek greater autonomy and control of affairs within the state (e.g., some Scottish nationalists in the United Kingdom) and sometimes they seek the creation of their own nation-states (e.g., Palestinians, Kurds in Turkey and Iraq)(Kivisto, 2002). The movement for recognition of minority groups around the world has been the impetus for one level of discussion on multiculturalism. That is, how can societies respect and preserve diversity within one political entity?


A second trend is globalization. Globalization is the term used to describe economic, political and social activities that have global impacts. In a globalized economy, for instance, corporations not only operate in their home countries, but also view the entire world as their marketplace. In global politics, the actions of one country not only affect the citizens of that country but have impacts that reverberate throughout the global community (Kivisto, 2002; Suter, 2006). Globalization can be symbolized by companies such as Coca-Cola, which sells its products in more than 200 countries and has 86% of its markets outside of the United States (Coca-Cola, 2008). In such multinational corporations, everyone in the world is a potential customer, and employees come from and live in every corner of the world. Globalization means that the world is becoming more interdependent. Problems in one country such as the weakening of an economy can rapidly affect the lives of individuals many thousands of miles away.

Globalization is also changing migration patterns and the political landscape. This is because with the world as its marketplace, a multinational corporation can locate manufacturing and operating facilities in countries where labor is cheap. Some countries have lost jobs while others have gained (Beck, 2000). One result is that individuals are moving to where the jobs are located, creating a new class of individuals known as transnationalists - individuals who hold citizenship in one country but who live and work in another (Kivisto, 2002). A second result is that the importance of national governments is diminishing while international organizations are becoming more prominent. This happens when local and national governments are weakened by the loss of tax dollars that occurs when corporate operations are dispersed. Multinational corporations no longer necessarily need national governments to successfully conduct business activities. At the same time, international organizations such as the United Nations, International labor organizations, non-governmental organizations and transnational organizations are becoming more important in dealing with issues of international trade and the rights of a global citizenry (Beck, 2000; Suter, 2006).

These trends, which in one way continue a long history of human movement and in another way challenge the way the world has come to be known, have raised questions and produced theories about multiculturalism.

Levels of Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism, as defined within this context, refers to the social reality that people from different cultures are intermingling more often, and thus invites discussion about multiculturalism at the individual level. Such questions include:

• How should individuals define themselves in a multicultural society?

• What skills and level of awareness are needed to interact with individuals from different cultural groups?

• What does it mean to respect, preserve and tolerate one's own or another's culture?

Within the United States and other countries incorporating multiple people under one political umbrella, multiculturalism refers to a kind of social organization that can be encouraged or prohibited by policy. Discussion of multiculturalism at a national political level in the United States includes:

• What does multiculturalism mean in relation to a common American identity?

• Should multiculturalism be encouraged by policy?

• What kinds of policies encourage multiculturalism?

At a global level, multiculturalism refers to the mixture of cultures and cultural symbols in the marketplace, where multinational corporations choose images to attract a diverse population of consumers. It also refers to the impact that a globalized society has on cultural identity and global political and social organizations. Questions at the global level include:

• How can individuals in a multicultural society improve communication?

• Does a globalized society preserve or destroy cultural identity?

• What political organizations can best serve a transnational citizenry?

• What new cultural boundaries and social organizations will form in the future?

Of course, these questions touch on only a few of the issues that can be debated, discussed and dissected under a broad term like multiculturalism.

Further Insights

Identity in a Multicultural World

In a multicultural and globalized world, the question of identity formation involves many choices. This is because identity formation is believed to occur as the result of discursive and interactional processes embedded within sociopolitical contexts (Howard, 2000). How one identifies his or herself depends on many factors, such as parental and societal socialization (how other people have taught one to see one's self) and the diversity of groups and networks to which one belongs. For instance, being a member of a religious organization is more likely to make one identify as someone who is of a certain religion, or who is religious.

Although some might say that being a member of an...

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