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Multicultural Societies in a Historic Perspective

A multicultural society can evolve in many different ways. The following article will present three different models for a multicultural society: segregation, assimilation and integration. Pre-reading activity:

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Splayed hands

Discuss the origin of food, music and films that you enjoy regularly. Can you define a certain country or culture as 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 such as enhanced gastronomy, increased cross-cultural competencies, mental flexibility and tolerance in the population, artistic blossoming, social and political innovations, economical growth factors and much more. However, it may also present important challenges, such as discrimination, conflicts and a feeling of alienation – especially if the human tendency to spoil perfectly good opportunities is given free rein. This leads to the need for societies that include different cultures to make certain choices concerning how they wish to respond to this situation: the stakes are high, and indecision represents too great a risk.

Three Models for a Multicultural Society

A) Segregation

Colored Waiting Room, Jackson, Mississippi.
Colored Waiting Room, Jackson, Mississippi.

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, until the beginning of the 1990s, and during the Segregation, in the southern states of the US, until the 1960s, certain groups (based upon race in the examples above) will not have access to the same professions, civil rights, public services etc. as the rest of the population. In such cases there is usually one group, the one in power, that is receiving better treatment than the other(s).

In other situations, where segregation also seems to be involved, although in a less radical and institutionalized manner, people tend to live in ghetto-like areas. 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 very efficient boundaries exist nevertheless – in people’s heads. 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

Children in New York with roots in many different cultures saluting the American flag
Children in New York with roots in many different cultures saluting the American flag

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, dishes, certain beliefs and values…), making them part of a unified whole.

The assimilation model has traditionally been influent in the US, 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 made part of the 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 useful to compare American culture to a pizza. The crust is a set of values shared by all Americans, whereas the flavorable 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 radically assimilationist society 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.
Multicultural Britain. In a UK street you will find evidence of many different cultures.

Proponents of the integration model, also called multiculturalism, consider that 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 sports respect for cultural differences as a central value.

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. After 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.
As far as imagery is concerned, integration is represented by the Salad Bowl metaphor: like a salad, society is composed of a large variety of elements that are all the more delicious because they keep their specificity. In Canada, one often talks about the cultural mosaic – a whole composed of distinct parts.

In this context, it happens that people from a majority culture 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 (and that it is debatable whether culturally homogenous societies ever were the norm), the most potent criticism towards the integration model seems to be that it too easily may 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..

Tasks and Activities

Multicultural Societies Explained

Multicultural Societies Explained


  1. The author lists a number of advantages and challenges of a multicultural society, what are they? Can you think of any others?
  2. List the main characteristics of each of the three models for a multicultural society.
  3. Give examples of one or more countries which follow/have followed each model.
  4. What is the common expression used for a society based on the assimilation model?
  5. Where does the expression come from?
  6. Explain the difference between the above image and the pizza image.
  7. Which positive effects are claimed by supporters of the assimilation model?
  8. Which image represents a society based on the integration model? Is this a good representation? Why?/Why not?
  9. What is the criticism of the integration model?


Segregation, assimilation and integration may also be understood, respectively, as manifestations of fundamentalist, conservative and liberal views of culture. Use the dictionary Merriam-Webster dictionary to find the definitions of fundamentalist, conservative and liberal. Based on the definitions, explain why persons with these views would follow the courses of segregation, assimilation and integration, respectively.

Find Out

Search the Internet and find other examples of countries where segregation is practised in the world today.

Make a Poster

The first picture in the text represents a multicultural society. Do you think it is a good representation? Make your own picture, poster or Glogster representing a multicultural society and present it to the class.

Make Wordles

Use Wordle Create to make three different word clouds illustrating Assimilation, Segregation and Integration. Simply type in all the words you associate with the different terms. Compare with a classmate, decorate your classroom and/or post on your class blog.

Further Reading

Multiculturalism - A Challenge?

Sist oppdatert 13.11.2018
Tekst: Lars Aunaas (CC BY-SA)


Current debates in the English-speaking world

Hva er kjernestoff og tilleggsstoff?



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