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Three Models for a Multicultural Society

Multicultural societies have existed for a long time, and have usually taken one of the three following forms: -segregation, assimilation or integration.
Four pair of splayed hands with different skin complexion
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Pre-reading activity:

Discuss the origin of food, music and films that you enjoy regularly. Can you define a certain country or culture as its originator, or has it originated in the integration and transformation of many cultures?

Benefits and Challenges in a Multicultural Society

Important benefits can be reaped from cultural diversity; for example enhanced gastronomy, increased cross-cultural competencies, mental flexibility and tolerance in the population, artistic blossoming, social and political innovations, economic growth factors and much more. However, it may also present important challenges, such as discrimination, conflicts and a feeling of alienation.

Sign in Durban that states the beach is for whites only under section 37 of the Durban beach by-laws. The languages are English, Afrikaans and Zulu, the language of the black population group in the Durban area.

Three Models for a Multicultural Society

A) Segregation

In a segregated society the different populations are kept separate, or stay apart, either geographically or by having very few relations, even though they may live in the same area.

In extreme cases (for instance in South Africa during the Apartheid regime, which existed until the beginning of the 1990s, and during Segregation in the southern states of the United States until the 1960s) certain groups will not have access to the same professions, civil rights and public services as the rest of the population. In such cases there is usually one group - the one in power - that assumes a privileged and advantaged position.

In other situations, where segregation also seems to be involved, although in a less radical and institutionalised manner, people tend to choose to live separately. Their social networks consist mainly of people from their own minority culture, and they do not have much contact with the majority culture or language in the country where they live. They could find themselves choosing from a reduced number of professions that are mostly occupied by people from the same culture as themselves.

In such cases, there may not be any laws preventing people from moving to other areas, choosing other jobs or becoming members of the greater society, but highly efficient boundaries nevertheless exist in people’s minds. This may be equally true for people who are part of the majority culture, and who don’t necessarily invite people in from the outside, and for people from minority cultures that don’t feel welcome or don’t feel comfortable outside the cultural group that they identify as their own.

B) Assimilation

Assimilation means that people from minority cultures adopt the majority culture. In turn, the majority culture may adopt certain elements from the minority cultures it has absorbed (vocabulary, food preferences, certain beliefs and values etc.), making them part of a unified whole.

The assimilation model has traditionally been influential in the United States, at least up until the 1960s, when the intellectual landscape changed radically under the influence of countercultures and liberal political philosophy. Successive waves of immigrants were absorbed and became part of their new country. To a large extent they were welcome, but they were expected to conform to the American way of life. Sometimes, parts of their original cultures became part of the common culture.

The melting pot is a common metaphor for the assimilation model: the imagery has its origin in containers used for heating up and mixing different metals, with a new metal as the result. Some find it more useful to compare American culture to a pizza. The crust is a set of values shared by all Americans, whereas the toppings represent the diversity of the various cultures. Thus the pizza becomes a metaphor of diversity based on core values. In other words they are unified as Americans, but still diverse.

Critics have claimed that assimilation as a model may lead to cultural minorities feeling discriminated against, as a result of what may be seen as a lack of tolerance and respect. Moreover, one may wonder whether a society based on strict assimilation does not risk experiencing cultural stagnation if it does not conserve a certain openness towards contributions from other cultures. However, others have claimed that cultural homogeneity and a strong national identity contribute to social harmony, with everything this entails.

C) Integration

Street with irish pub in britain. Photo.

The integration model is sometimes simply referred to as multiculturalism. In this model cultural minorities are allowed, and to some extent expected and encouraged, to keep their distinctive traits (values, worldview, habits…), as long as they adapt to a common and more or less minimal framework of norms and values that guarantee a well-functioning society (e.g. democracy, respect for human dignity through the observance of human rights, tolerance…). In other words, integration as a model for multicultural societies generates respect for cultural differences.

The integration model has had a lot of influence in the UK, where cultural diversity is far from being a new phenomenon and where it has been seen as a way of promoting social peace through respect for the different populations’ cultural differences. Since the 1960s, integration has also been an influential model in the US and Canada. Australia and New Zealand also seem to have adopted it to some extent, at least as far as their native populations are concerned.

A salad bowl is often used as a metaphor for an integrated society. Like a salad, society is composed of a large variety of elements that are all the more delicious because they keep their distinctive qualities. In Canada, the phrase cultural mosaic is often used: a whole composed of distinct parts.

In an integrated society people from a majority culture sometimes experience a feeling of alienation, as if they were foreigners in their own country. However, considering that it is highly unlikely that cultural diversity will disappear anytime soon, the most potent criticism towards the integration model seems to be that it may too easily develop into some sort of spontaneous segregation; different communities living side by side without communicating in any productive manner at all. This may lead to tensions: if cultures don’t communicate, they cease to understand each other, let alone give each other anything of value.

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CC BY-SASkrevet av Lars Aunaas.
Sist faglig oppdatert 13.11.2018


Immigration and Multiculturalism