Multiculturalism, the view that cultures, races, and ethnicities, particularly those of minority groups, deserve special acknowledgement of their differences within a dominant political culture. That acknowledgement can take the forms of recognition of contributions to the cultural life of the political community as a whole, a demand for special protection under the law for certain cultural groups, or autonomous rights of governance for certain cultures. Multiculturalism is both a response to the fact of cultural pluralism in modern democracies and a way of compensating cultural groups for past exclusion, discrimination, and oppression. Most modern democracies comprise members with diverse cultural viewpoints, practices, and contributions. Many minority cultural groups have experienced exclusion or the denigration of their contributions and identities in the past. Multiculturalism seeks the inclusion of the views and contributions of diverse members of society while maintaining respect for their differences and withholding the demand for their assimilation into the dominant culture.
Multiculturalism stands as a challenge to liberal democracy. In liberal democracies, all citizens should be treated equally under the law by abstracting the common identity of “citizen” from the real social, cultural, political, and economic positions and identities of real members of society. That leads to a tendency to homogenize the collective of citizens and assume a common political culture that all participate in. However, that abstract view ignores other politically salient features of the identities of political subjects that exceed the category of citizen, such as race, religion, class, and sex. Although claiming the formal equality of citizens, the liberal democratic view tends to underemphasize ways in which citizens are not in fact equal in society. Rather than embracing the traditional liberal image of the melting pot into which people of different cultures are assimilated into a unified national culture, multiculturalism generally holds the image of a tossed salad to be more appropriate. Although being an integral and recognizable part of the whole, diverse members of society can maintain their particular identities while residing in the collective.
Some more-radical multicultural theorists have claimed that some cultural groups need more than recognition to ensure the integrity and maintenance of their distinct identities and contributions. In addition to individual equal rights, some have advocated for special group rights and autonomous governance for certain cultural groups. Because the continued existence of protected minority cultures ultimately contributes to the good of all and the enrichment of the dominant culture, those theorists have argued that the preserving of cultures that cannot withstand the pressures to assimilate into a dominant culture can be given preference over the usual norm of equal rights for all.
Some examples of how multiculturalism has affected the social and political spheres are found in revisions of curricula, particularly in Europe and North America, and the expansion of the Western literary and other canons that began during the last quarter of the 20th century. Curricula from the elementary to the university levels were revised and expanded to include the contributions of minority and neglected cultural groups. That revision was designed to correct what is perceived to be a falsely Eurocentric perspective that overemphasizes the contributions of white European colonial powers and underemphasizes the contributions made by indigenous people and people of colour. In addition to that correction, the contributions that cultural groups have made in a variety of fields have been added to curricula to give special recognition for contributions that were previously ignored. The establishment of African American History Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States is an example of the movement. The addition of works by members of minority cultural groups to the canons of literary, historical, philosophical, and artistic works further reflects the desire to recognize and include multicultural contributions to the broader culture as a whole.
There are two primary objections to multiculturalism. One is that multiculturalism privileges the good of the certain groups over the common good, thereby potentially eroding the common good in favour of a minority interest. The second is that multiculturalism undermines the notion of equal individual rights, thereby weakening the political value of equal treatment.
Multiculturalism raises other questions. There is the question of which cultures will be recognized. Some theorists have worried that multiculturalism can lead to a competition between cultural groups all vying for recognition and that this will further reinforce the dominance of the dominant culture. Further, the focus on cultural group identity may reduce the capacity for coalitionnal political movements that might develop across differences. Some Marxist and feminist theorists have expressed worry about the dilution of other important differences shared by members of a society that do not necessarily entail a shared culture, such as class and sex.
Multiculturalism is closely associated with identity politics, or political and social movements that have group identity as the basis of their formation and the focus of their political action. Those movements attempt to further the interests of their group members and force issues important to their group members into the public sphere. In contrast to multiculturalism, identity politics movements are based on the shared identities of participants rather than on a specifically shared culture. However, both identity politics and multiculturalism have in common the demand for recognition and a redress for past inequities.
Multiculturalism raises important questions for citizens, public administrators, and political leaders. By asking for recognition of and respect for cultural differences, multiculturalism provides one possible response to the question of how to increase the participation of previously oppressed groups.