In the political philosophy of multiculturalism, ideas are focused on the ways in which societies are either believed to or should, respond to cultural and religious differences. It is often associated with "identity politics", "the politics of difference", and "the politics of recognition". It is also a matter of economic interests and political power. In more recent times political multiculturalist ideologies have been expanding in their use to include and define disadvantaged groups such as African Americans, LGBT, with arguments often focusing on ethnic and religious minorities, minority nations, indigenous peoples and even the disabled. It is within this context in which the term is most commonly understood and the broadness and scope of the definition, as well as its practical use, has been the subject of serious debate.
Most debates over multiculturalism center around whether or not multiculturalism is the appropriate way to deal with diversity and immigrant integration. The arguments regarding the perceived rights to a multicultural education include the proposition that it acts as a way to demand recognition of aspects of a group's culture subordination and its entire experience in contrast to a melting pot or non-multicultural societies.
The term multiculturalism is most often used in reference to Western nation-states, which had seemingly achieved a de facto single national identity during the 18th and/or 19th centuries.
Multiculturalism has been official policy in several Western nations since the 1970s, for reasons that varied from country to country, including the fact that many of the great cities of the Western world are increasingly made of a mosaic of cultures.
The Canadian government has often been described as the instigator of multicultural ideology because of its public emphasis on the social importance of immigration. The Canadian Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism is often referred to as the origins of modern political awareness of multiculturalism. In the Western English-speaking countries, multiculturalism as an official national policy started in Canada in 1971, followed by Australia in 1973 where it is maintained today. It was quickly adopted as official policy by most member-states of the European Union. Recently, right-of-center governments in several European states – notably the Netherlands and Denmark – have reversed the national policy and returned to an official monoculturalism. A similar reversal is the subject of debate in the United Kingdom, among others, due to evidence of incipient segregation and anxieties over "home-grown" terrorism. Several heads-of-state or heads-of-government have expressed doubts about the success of multicultural policies: The United Kingdom's ex-Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australia's ex-prime minister John Howard, Spanish ex-prime minister Jose Maria Aznar and French ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy have voiced concerns about the effectiveness of their multicultural policies for integrating immigrants.
Many nation-states in Africa, Asia, and the Americas are culturally diverse and are 'multicultural' in a descriptive sense. In some, communalism is a major political issue. The policies adopted by these states often have parallels with multiculturalist policies in the Western world, but the historical background is different, and the goal may be a mono-cultural or mono-ethnic nation-building – for instance in the Malaysian government's attempt to create a 'Malaysian race' by 2020.
Multiculturalism is seen by its supporters as a fairer system that allows people to truly express who they are within a society, that is more tolerant and that adapts better to social issues. They argue that culture is not one definable thing based on one race or religion, but rather the result of multiple factors that change as the world changes.
Historically, support for modern multiculturalism stems from the changes in Western societies after World War II, in what Susanne Wessendorf calls the "human rights revolution", in which the horrors of institutionalized racism and ethnic cleansing became almost impossible to ignore in the wake of the Holocaust; with the collapse of the European colonial system, as colonized nations in Africa and Asia successfully fought for their independence and pointed out the discriminatory underpinnings of the colonial system; and, in the United States in particular, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, which criticized ideals of assimilation that often led to prejudices against those who did not act according to Anglo-American standards and which led to the development of academic ethnic studies programs as a way to counteract the neglect of contributions by racial minorities in classrooms. As this history shows, multiculturalism in Western countries was seen to combat racism, to protect minority communities of all types, and to undo policies that had prevented minorities from having full access to the opportunities for freedom and equality promised by the liberalism that has been the hallmark of Western societies since the Age of Enlightenment. The contact hypothesis in sociology is a well documented phenomenon in which cooperative interactions with those from a different group than one's own reduce prejudice and inter-group hostility.
C. James Trotman argues that multiculturalism is valuable because it "uses several disciplines to highlight neglected aspects of our social history, particularly the histories of women and minorities [...and] promotes respect for the dignity of the lives and voices of the forgotten. By closing gaps, by raising consciousness about the past, multiculturalism tries to restore a sense of wholeness in a postmodern era that fragments human life and thought."
Tariq Modood argues that in the early years of the 21st century, multiculturalism "is most timely and necessary, and [...] we need more not less", since it is "the form of integration" that (1) best fits the ideal of egalitarianism, (2) has "the best chance of succeeding" in the "post-9/11, post 7/7" world, and (3) has remained "moderate [and] pragmatic".
Bhikhu Parekh counters what he sees as the tendencies to equate multiculturalism with racial minorities "demanding special rights" and to see it as promoting a "thinly veiled racis[m]". Instead, he argues that multiculturalism is in fact "not about minorities" but "is about the proper terms of relationship between different cultural communities", which means that the standards by which the communities resolve their differences, e.g., "the principles of justice" must not come from only one of the cultures but must come "through an open and equal dialogue between them."
Balibar characterizes criticisms of multiculturalism as "differentialist racism", which he describes as a covert form of racism that does not purport ethnic superiority as much as it asserts stereotypes of perceived "incompatibility of life-styles and traditions".
While there is research that suggests that ethnic diversity increases chances of war, lower public goods provision and decreases democratization, there is also research that shows that ethnic diversity in itself is not detrimental to peace, public goods provision or democracy. Rather, it was found that promoting diversity actually helps in advancing disadvantaged students. A 2018 study in the American Political Science Review cast doubts on findings that ethnoracial homogeneity led to greater public goods provision. A 2015 study in the American Journal of Sociology challenged past research showing that racial diversity adversely affected trust.
The Wikimedia Foundation suggests that "diversity of perspectives is crucial to increasing the quality of the free knowledge resources that [their] movement provides". Wikidata also suggests that "the world is complicated and there is no single truth–especially in a knowledge base that is supposed to serve many cultures."
Critics of multiculturalism often debate whether the multicultural ideal of benignly co-existing cultures that interrelate and influence one another, and yet remain distinct, is sustainable, paradoxical, or even desirable. It is argued that nation states, who would previously have been synonymous with a distinctive cultural identity of their own, lose out to enforced multiculturalism and that this ultimately erodes the host nations' distinct culture.
Harvard professor of political science Robert D. Putnam conducted a nearly decade-long study on how multiculturalism affects social trust. He surveyed 26,200 people in 40 American communities, finding that when the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, the more racially diverse a community is, the greater the loss of trust. People in diverse communities "don’t trust the local mayor, they don’t trust the local paper, they don’t trust other people and they don’t trust institutions," writes Putnam. In the presence of such ethnic diversity, Putnam maintains that:
"[W]e hunker down. We act like turtles. The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined. And it’s not just that we don’t trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don’t trust people who do look like us".
Putnam has also stated, however, that "this allergy to diversity tends to diminish and to go away... I think in the long run we'll all be better."
Ethnologist Frank Salter writes:
Relatively homogeneous societies invest more in public goods, indicating a higher level of public altruism. For example, the degree of ethnic homogeneity correlates with the government's share of gross domestic product as well as the average wealth of citizens. Case studies of the United States, Africa and South-East Asia find that multi-ethnic societies are less charitable and less able to cooperate to develop public infrastructure. Moscow beggars receive more gifts from fellow ethnics than from other ethnies [sic]. A recent multi-city study of municipal spending on public goods in the United States found that ethnically or racially diverse cities spend a smaller portion of their budgets and less per capita on public services than do the more homogeneous cities.
Dick Lamm, former three-term Democratic governor of the US state of Colorado, wrote in his essay "I have a plan to destroy America":
Diverse peoples worldwide are mostly engaged in hating each other—that is, when they are not killing each other. A diverse, peaceful, or stable society is against most historical precedent."
A number of conservative historians used the religion of the Mexica, better known as the Aztecs as an example of what they see as the flaws of multiculturalism. The Australian historian Keith Windschuttle cited the accounts of his fellow Australian historian Inga Clendinnen of the festival of Ochpaniztli where to honor the Maize Lord a young woman was sacrificed by ripping out her heart so the crops might grow:
Then, still in darkness, silence, and urgent haste, her body was flayed, and a naked priest, a 'very strong man, very powerful, very tall', struggled into the wet skin, with its slack breasts and pouched genitalia: a double nakedness of layered, ambiguous sexuality. The skin of one thigh was reserved to be fashioned into a face-mask for the man impersonating Centeotl, Young Lord Maize Cob, the son of Toci.
Windschuttle argued that the gruesome religion of the Aztecs that required that dozens of young people be sacrificed and eaten every day so that the sun might rise the next day and hundreds of people sacrificed for major holidays as proving that multiculturalism is a facile doctrine that requires Westerners to respect Aztec religion as equal to any other religion. The American classicist Victor Davis Hanson used the perceived differences in "rationality" between Moctezuma and Cortés to argue that Western culture was superior to every culture in the entire world, which thus led him to reject multiculturalism as a false doctrine that placed all cultures on an equal footing.
In New Zealand (Aotearoa), which is officially bi-cultural, multiculturalism has been seen as a threat to the Māori, and possibly an attempt by the New Zealand Government to undermine Māori demands for self-determination.