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Circumstances of Multiculturalism

By Sofiya Petkova, Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.

HML-Multicultural-bigFollowing the Second World War, the UN implemented a system of universal human rights. Cultural minorities were no longer protected by means of “special rights”; instead, members of such groups were assigned the same rights as the majority and these individual economic, social, political and civil rights were granted regardless of their cultural belonging. The argument was that individual human rights such as the freedom of speech, conscience and association, while attributed to individuals, are actually exercised in common with others. Therefore, there was no need for additional rights for ethno-cultural minorities.

At that time, Western European democracies underwent a process of nation-building. Minorities were also included in this process and were gradually integrated into mainstream society. Of course, these transformations were not easy for the minorities and special policies were implemented to ease and mitigate the process of integration. Reaffirmation of particular identities has often challenged democratic mechanisms of social integration, calling for resolution on both the national and international level. Policies have been discussed under the scope of multiсulturаlism, human rights, and more recently, cultural diplomacy as well.

UNESCO defines multiculturalism as “a policy response to diversity” and “a theory that it is beneficial to a society within its structure”. The Council of Europe defines multiculturalism in its White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue as “a specific policy approach…, whereas the terms cultural diversity and multiculturality denote the empirical fact that different cultures exist and may interact within a given space and social organisation”. Will Kymlicka proposes other definitions of multiculturalism, namely “a political, social, and cultural movement which aimed to respect a multiplicity of diverging perspectives outside of dominant traditions” or “the way to describe how social structures create and maintain different cultures in a society”. The British politician, Roy Jenkins, introduced multiculturalism in the British political field in the 1960s as “an equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”.Throughout history, ethno-cultural diversity has often been seen as a threat to social cohesion and stability. Ethno-cultural minorities in poly-ethnic states, that are the result of immigration, have been subject to a range of policies with the intention to assimilate them. In the years after WWII however, such policies were typically abandoned and a different approach was adopted by Western democracies towards integration of minorities. This included a more accommodating approach to diversity and the adoption of multicultural policies for immigrant groups. The aim of these was to help reduce ethnic tensions, promote mutual respect, enhance the participation of minorities, and more generally, to build a more inclusive and just society.

It is important to point out however that although many have promoted this multicultural fashion, some have also vigorously contested the policy concept. Skeptics argue that multiculturalism policies entrench and exacerbate ethnic divisions, reduce inter-ethnic solidarity, and perpetuate illiberal practices. They have not only questioned the effects of these policies, but also their moral and normative value. While proponents of multiculturalism, such as Nathan Glazer who claims that “We are all multiculturalists now”, and Will Kymlicka, who says “the debate is over and the defenders of minority rights have won the day”, critics insist that the multicultural turn has been exaggerated, and that the adoption of multiculturalism policies was only a limited and passing phenomenon. For many, “the debate is far from over” and even “a dead end” when it comes to the question of how to address the challenges raised by cultural diversity in Western democracies.


Kymlicka, Will. Politics of the Vernacular. Oxford University Press, New York (2001)

Glazer, Nathan. We are all multiculturalists now. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA (2003)

UNESCO Official Webpage: http://www.unesco.org/

Kelly, Paul. Multiculturalism Reconsidered, Polity Press, UK (2007)

White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, “Living Together As Equals in Dignity”, Launched by the Council of Europe Ministers of Foreign Affairs at their 118th Ministerial Session (Strasbourg, 7 May 2008). http://www.coe.int/t/dg4/intercultural/source/white%20paper_final_revised_en.pdf

Center for Cultural Diplomacy Studies Publication
Institute for Cultural Diplomacy


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We are the Blogsphere Team of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy. We are the interactive part of the web resources of ICD. We spread culture and mutual understanding among cultures through blogs.



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