Sociology 211

September 24, 2004



A.  Introduction

B.  Definitions

C.  History

D.  Meanings

E.  Problems

F.  Conclusion


A. Introduction to multiculturalism

Multiculturalism has been a difficult term to define.  It is subject to many interpretations and has a multitude of meanings and interpretations associated with it.  In a paper I wrote earlier this year, I argued that the concept of multiculturalism has many possible meanings and ways of approaching it.  It can refer to any one of population structure, cultural diversity, insitutional program or policy, societal practice, ideology, value, ideal, symbol, educational approach, management style, business strategy, or sociological or political concept of theory.  In Chapter 1, Fleras and Kunz outline five different meanings of multiculturalism (pp. 7-21).  These are as follows.

·        Fact.  Multiculturalism as fact of cultural diversity that exists in Canada and other countries and regions.  Isajiw begins his book by discussing this.

·        Ideology.  Multiculturalism as a set of ideas about how social relations among and attitudes toward others might be structured and practiced.  Many of your comments about the meaning of multiculturalism revolve around this.  Next week I will review the meanings of multiculturalism in this context.

·        Policy.  Multiculturalism is an official policy of the Canadian government, with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and a branch of Canadian Heritage responsible for overseeing the programs.  Some of the provincial governments also have multiculturalism programs, as do some institutions.  I will review the history of the policy and comment on it.

·        Practice.  This is the means by which multiculturalism is put into practice – Fleras and Kunz deal primarily with the practice at the political and minority level.  There are other means of practice, but they do not dicuss these here, although they later discuss how the media could become more multicultural.

·        Critical discourse.  Fleras and Kunz identify this as a way that individuals and groups have challenged the dominant institutions and discourses of society and its institutions.  Challenges have come from women, national and ethnic minorities, the disabled, and those with sexuality outside regular social norms.  Such individuals have often claimed their voices and interests have been neglected by society’s dominant social system and groups.  The critical statements from members of these groups has been a means of widening the forms of debate around social relations, institutions, and structures, and attempting to change these.  In Canada, multiculturalism has been primarily associated with federal government policy, so it has not been a critical multiculturalism.  In contrast, in the United States, where there is no such state policy, multiculturalism has often been associated with these critical views and challenges from minority individuals and groups.  These latter have often attacked majority views and practices and have argued these have oppressed or excluded members of minorities.  Such critical views and protests have sometimes led to social changes – leading to greater accommodation and inclusion of all.

Approaches.  In addition to these multiple meanings, there are quite different approaches to multiculturalism.  Some praise it and argue it is a model not only for Canada, but the world as a whole; in this approach, Canada has been a successful laboratory of multiculturalism and we should export this model to the rest of the world. 

For others, it is divisive, a threat to national unity, makes integration of immigrants difficult, and confuses what it means to be Canadian.  For some it “does nothing to challenge the structural barriers such as racism, sexism, classism” (James, 1999, p. 215), “is a vehicle for racialization” (Bannerji, 2000, p. 78), and does not speak to social justice (Bannerji, 2000, p. 79).  Just as the term “visible minority” arouses strong support or opposition, so does the concept of multiculturalism. 

One conclusion I draw from this is that the term and concept are overloaded with meanings – there are many dimensions to multiculturalism and a single term may not be able to meet all the needs imposed on it.  In that sense, the concept may be similar to a concept such as “health” – a term with so many meanings that it is necessary to specify how it is being used.  As a result, the approach taken by Fleras and Kunz, to outline different interpretations of the meaning of multiculturalism is very useful.  We might argue with some of the specific aspects of their categorization, but this is a worthwhile approach.

Multicultural and multiculturalism.  In order to sort through some of the meanings, I  begin by distinguishing multicultural from multiculturalism.  Bhiku Parekh, Chair of the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, states that a multicultural society is a “fact of cultural diversity,” while multiculturalism is “a normative response to that fact” (Parekh, 2000, p. 6).  That is “multicultural” refers to the situation of ethnic diversity that exists in most countries, and especially in Canada and the United States.  (Isajiw, pp. 11-13)  Fleras and Kunz (pp. 7-10) refer to this as “multiculturalism as fact” – there are people of many diverse ethnicities and ancestries in Canada, so there is a multicultural reality.

Multiculturalism is also normative, in that it specifies a way the people and groups of these diverse ancestries relate to each other – what is proper or acceptable.  There are many societies with diversity – in some of these people of different ethnicities get along or cooperate, in others they are in conflict.  Presumably a multicultural approach means some set of social relationships among people, and perhaps institutional policies, that lead to greater respect, acceptance, and cooperation among those of different ethnicities, ancestries, and cultures.   That is, social responses of extended conflict and reduced acceptance or increased distrust toward those of ancestries other than one’s own do not demonstrate multiculturalism.

B.  Definitions of multiculturalism


Fleras and Kunz.  Define multiculturalism as “a process of constructively engaging diversity as different yet equal.” (p. 5).  Exactly what “engaging” would mean is not too clear, although in their book they outline various aspects of what this might mean, especially in the media.  “Constructive” has Parekh’s normative aspect to it, although different people have different views of what is constructive.  In the paragraph that follows this definition though (middle of p. 5), they tend to identify multiculturalism with official policy, national interests, and minority men and women.  While all of these are aspects of multiculturalism, these aspects alone can be considered to limit the scope for what is meant by multiculturalism.  That is, focussing on policy and national interest makes it appear as if multiculturalism is something official and part of government and state.  This not only leaves open to criticism as part of the governing of society but also makes it appear as if multiculturalism is only a response by the state to some problem or management of diversity in the society.  By focussing on minority men and women, Fleras and Kunz narrow the scope of multiculturalism, treating it as a policy to deal with minorities.  This may lead to singling out minorities as having special problems and labelling them as the ones who are different.  Rather than treating society as being a place for all, where all can participate on some equal footing, this can lead to resentment against these minorities and blaming them for the social problems Canada faces.

In my view, to represent equality and participation more fully, and broaden the scope of multiculturalism, it should be concerned with social practices and social relations, and not just with government policy.  That is, multiculturalism could be a way of constructing social relations in society, and that is done by members of society, perhaps with a strong input from government but also as part of what some call civil society.  In terms of the subjects of multiculturalism, my view is that it should be inclusive, dealing with all citizens and indivduals.  It should not be confined to dealing only with “minorities” and minority issues, even if that is how it emerged and what it is a large part of its focus.  This latter may increasingly be recognized by multicultural policy – Fleras and Kunz argue that the focus of official multiculturalism has become “civic multiculturalism” in the last ten years (pp. 15-16).  Rather, multiculturalism should be aimed at all, part of social relationships in society as a whole, and deal with all institutions.  This includes official multiculturalism but is much broader than that.


Kymlicka.  In his book Multicultural Citizenship, Will Kymlicka begins by stating that the challenge of multiculturalism is usually considered to be how societies are “confronted with minority groups demanding recognition of their identity, and accommodation of their cultural differences” (Kymlicka, 1995, p. 10).  But he also argues that it is difficult to generalize, given there are many different types of minority groups and many different forms of accommodation to the fact of cultural diversity.  Greater recognition for each group, the wish to maintain identity, the desire for autonomy and self-government, are all aspects of this.  Kymlicka argues that multiculturalism is a means by which group culture can be protected, not to separate a group or make it more distinctive, but as a means of allowing the group to participate more fully in a culture and society which may be alien to them.


Parkekh argues that multiculturalism is about cultural differences and cultural diversity – differences created and sustained by culture.  That is, some differences among people are a result of choices or because of economic structures of a society.  While some of these may be cultural, Parekh identifies diversity as connected to culture – “the body of beliefs and practices in terms of which a group of people understand themselves and the world and organize their individual and collective lives”  (Parekh, 2000, pp. 2-3).  Parekh discusses three types of diversity (p. 3):

·        Diversity in social practices – sexuality (gay and lesbian), unconventional lifestyles or family structures (some Utah polygamous families, communes/hippies), specialized occupations (artists, fishers, trappers), and perhaps groups such as bikers.  These groups may be  part of the dominant culture in many ways, but they choose to exercise diversity and may push at the edges of norms and conventions, attempting to expand or widen diversity.  In addition, they attempt to make these practices more widely acceptable, or at least they expect tolerance toward them and argue these should not affect their ability to participate in society.

·        Critical diversity.  Groups such as some environmentalists, socialists, feminists, and fundamentalists argue that there are some values or structures in society that are flawed, so that major changes in social relationships or structures need to occur.  This can be a real challenge to society, and may reject the dominant culture (feminists), or is not primarily cultural (socialists, environmentalists).  These may be associated with communities or groups in the other two categories, but is conceptually distinct in that the challenge here is more ideological and in the realm of ideas, debate, discussion, and social or political movements.

·        Communal diversity.  Communities of the type we have referred to as ethnic groups, national minorities, and some religious communities.  These are ethnic groups, communities or imagined communities, national minorities, each with a long-standing and historical tradition that helps define the individual and group, with the culture providing a means of linking these.

It is the latter type of diversity that Parekh regards as central to multiculturalism, since societies have increasingly “found themselves faced with distinct cultural groups” (p. 4).  Previously nations with single cultures, there are immigrants of different ethnicity or national minorities that have either not forgotten their history and culture, or have rediscovered it.  Parekh then distinguishes multiculturalism from monoculturalism

It might welcome and cherish it [cultural diversity], make it central to its self-understanding, and respect the cultural demands of its constituent communities; or it might seek to assimilate these communities into its mainstream culture either wholly or substantially.  In the first case, it is multiculturalist and in the second monoculturalist in its orientation and ethos.  Both alike are multicultural societies, but only one of them is multiculturalist.  (p. 6).

Historically, Canada was monoculturalist, and some might argue it still is.  But it has become more multiculturalist.  This is partly officially directed but partly a social change or social movement that has led to Canadians treating multiculturalism as part of Canada’s self-understanding, orientation, and practice.  People have incorporated this into their social relationships – at least many people have.  Having said this, the history of multiculturalism usually begins with the 1971 declaration by then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that Canada is a bilingual country but that “multiculturalism within a bilingual framework” is Canadian government policy.


Next day – history and meaning. 



Bannerji, Himani.  2000.  The Dark Side of the Nation: Essays on Multiculturalism, Nationalism and Gender, Canadian Scholars’ Press, Toronto.

Bibby, Reginald, Mosaic Madness:  Pluralism Without a Cause, Toronto, Stoddart, 1990.

Burnet Jean R. and Howard Palmer, “Coming Canadians”  An Introduction to a History of Canada’s Peoples, Ottawa, Ministry of Supply and Services, 1988.

Canada, Department of the Secretary of State of Canada, Multiculturalism ... being Canadian, Ottawa, Ministry of Supply and Services, 1987.  F

Fleras, Augie and Jean Leonard Elliott.  2002 Engaging Diversity: Multiculturalism in Canada, Nelson Thomson, Toronto.

James, Carl E.  1999.  Seeing Ourselves: Exploring Ethnicity, Race and Culture, second edition, Thompson Educational Publishing, Toronto. 

Kymlicka, Will.  1995.  Multicultural Citizenship, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Parekh, Bhiku. 2002.  Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press.

Canadian Heritage web site:



Last edited September 24, 2004