The Multifaceted Nature of Multiculturalism


Colleen Ward (Victoria University of Wellington), Jaimee Stuart (Victoria University of Wellington) & Sara M. Watters (Victoria University of Wellington)

Multiculturalism: The cause of social problems or the cure for social ills?

Multiculturalism is a moving target. Proclaimed a failure in France, Germany and Britain, multiculturalism in Europe stands in sharp contrast to the successes enjoyed in Canada and Australia. At the same time multiculturalism has divided U. S. Americans over their “great melting pot” and colour-blind diversity ideologies. In the international arena multiculturalism is one of the most socially and politically divisive issues of the day as citizens, scholars, and policy-makers debate the question: Is multiculturalism the cause of social problems or the cure for social ills?

We set out to address this question by unpacking multiculturalism. First, we identify the core characteristics of multiculturalism and a multicultural society, arguing that diversity is a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition for multiculturalism. Second, we advance a psychological perspective on multiculturalism, suggesting that the everyday experience of diversity and the perceptions of a multicultural climate have significant implications for well-being and social cohesion. Finally, in assessing the costs and benefits of multiculturalism we ask the question “For whom?” Therefore, the present paper introduces a multi-dimensional model of multiculturalism and investigates its component parts as predictors of well-being and social cohesion in majority and minority groups in culturally plural nations.

Both the psychological literature and research in the broader social sciences have produced mixed results in evaluating the outcomes of multiculturalism. This is partially because there appears to be no consensus about its key definitional features. We rely primarily on psychological theory and research by Berry and colleagues to identify the core components of multiculturalism based on demography, ideology and public policy (Berry, 2013). More specifically, a multicultural society is characterized by cultural diversity, a widespread ideology that diversity is valuable and should be accommodated, and public policy that supports diversity, fosters integration and ensures equity for all ethno-cultural groups. However, citizens are often ill-informed about the population statistics and policy matters. In applying a psychological perspective to these issues we argue that “everyday multiculturalism,” i.e., the common perceptions and experiences of diversity in one’s society, can elucidate the costs and benefits of multiculturalism. Accordingly, we have constructed and validated a three-factor – Interacting with Diversity (ID), Multicultural Policies and Practices (MPP) and Multicultural Ideology (MI)- measure of Subjective Multiculturalism (SMC). The psychometric work began in New Zealand (N = 325) and the factor structure confirmed with a sample from the United States (N = 271). In both countries the factors were inter-correlated, generally producing small effect sizes. The measurement demonstrated good convergent validity in both contexts relating significantly to the criterion measures as expected. ID was associated with stronger national identity; MPP was related to lower perceived levels of structural discrimination and social disadvantage; MI was correlated with multicultural attitudes and positive views of diversity in both New Zealand and the United States.

In unpacking multiculturalism, it is recognized that its different components may lead to different outcomes. Consequently, we investigated ID, MI and MPP as predictors of well-being and social cohesion in a predominantly (94%) White British sample in the United Kingdom (N = 347). Overall the results showed that each of the SMC factors predicted positive outcomes in well-being (flourishing, life satisfaction) and social cohesion (trust, belonging, patriotism) although the specific predictors varied across outcomes. Moreover, there was no evidence for SMC predicting negative outcomes in these domains. The one exception to this pattern was the prediction of threat, where MPP predicted stronger threat perceptions at the same time that ID and MI predicted decrements in perceived threat. Of course SMC may operate differently for majority and minority groups. Consequently, we examined the role of SMC in the prediction of trust and patriotism in U.S. American Whites (n = 141) and Hispanics (n = 143).  Findings indicated that ID, MI and MPP predicted greater patriotism; however, the positive effect of MI was moderated by ethnicity and limited to Hispanics. The positive effect of MI on trust was similarly limited to Hispanics, who were less trusting overall. Nevertheless, there were no negative effects of SMC on these indices of social cohesion.

Overall we believe that this line of research makes a significant contribution to theory and research on multiculturalism. First, it demands a more complex conceptualization of multiculturalism that goes beyond cultural pluralism and recognition of difference. Second, it has demonstrated the importance of adopting and applying a psychological perspective on multiculturalism, which can complement the theoretical and empirical work by political scientists and sociologists. Third, it has shown that although multiculturalism may play out somewhat differently for majority and minority groups, multiculturalism is typically associated with positive psychological and social outcomes and the absence of negative ones. Finally, the research has a strong potential for application to the development of policies relating to the integration of immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers.



Jessica Gale (University of Lausanne), & Christian Staerklé (University of Lausanne)

Perceived compatibility between multiculturalism and individual justice beliefs: The role of group membership

A key issue in contemporary debates on immigration concerns the compatibility between liberal principles of individual justice and group-based principles of collective justice. To what extent are meritocratic principles of Western societies at odds with specific rights granted to immigrant and other minority groups? Under which conditions do groups and individuals consider that individual and collective justice principles are in conflict or, on the contrary, compatible with each other? The present contribution describes a comprehensive research programme aiming to provide answers to these questions.

Multiculturalism as an immigrant integration approach can be defined in terms of collective justice principles. The approach conceptualizes society as composed of groups, seeks equality between these groups and accentuates minority recognition and rights. Individual justice principles, in turn, suggest all people should be treated equally regardless of group membership. When distinguishing between people, their character, merit and individual responsibility are taken into consideration, instead of the origins or status of the group(s) to which they belong.

Some critics suggest that multiculturalism risks segregating, essentializing, and/or favouring specific minority groups, renouncing fundamental liberal democratic principles like individual freedom, equality and human rights (Barry, 2001; Joppke, 2004). Affirmative action policies granting more favourable chances of employment for minority group members, for example, violate the principle of equal opportunity according to these critics. Indeed, in recent years, Europe has experienced a backlash against multiculturalism, with both scientific and political discourse announcing its failure and vouching for a stronger emphasis on the assimilation of minorities into the national majority culture on the one hand, and on political liberalism and individual rights on the other. Other critics, however, suggest that multiculturalism complements such individual justice principles (Kymlicka, 1995, 2001). In this view, implementing cultural minority rights with affirmative action and other multicultural policies is considered to ensure the individual liberty and equal treatment of all people. Such policies therefore protect group members who are systematically disadvantaged by society’s existing laws, regulations and norms that are often—though not necessarily intentionally—more favourable for the dominant group.

Research has amply shown that immigrant minorities tend to support multiculturalist principles and policies more than nationals. The purpose of the present research is to take this finding a step further and to analyse how the perceived compatibility or incompatibility between multiculturalism and meritocracy is shaped by more general asymmetric intergroup processes. Our general hypothesis is that members of immigrant, low status and numerical minority groups perceive greater compatibility between multiculturalism and meritocracy than members of native, high status and numerical majority groups.

The expected pattern between asymmetric groups was observed in a number of studies using both survey and experimental methodology. All data were collected in Switzerland, an immigrant-receiving and linguistically diverse western country that prides itself with liberal values of personal responsibility and individual merit. Study 1 (N = 139) compared national majority and non-national minority group members, while study 2 (N = 202) experimentally manipulated low versus high social status, numerical minority versus majority, and immigrant versus native group membership (2 x 2 x 2 design). Additional evidence was gathered from the International Social Survey Programme (study 3, round 2013), the European Social Survey (study 4, round 2014), and the World Values Survey (study 5, round 2007; representative sample of Swiss linguistic regions). Studies included measures of support for multiculturalism as an ideology, emphasizing recognition and celebration of cultural origins (study 1 and 2), a policy, seeking to overcome structural inequalities between cultural groups (study 1 and 2), or a value, postulating that cultural diversity resulting from immigration is good for society (study 3, 4 and 5).

In line with our predictions, results showed that non-national minority group members perceived greater compatibility between meritocratic beliefs and multiculturalism than nationals (study 1, 2, 3 and 4), and that low status group members perceived greater compatibility between meritocratic beliefs and multiculturalism than high status group members (study 2 and 3). While the experimental study showed no significant difference between numerical minorities and majorities, study 5 showed that Italian-speaking minorities in Switzerland perceived greater compatibility between meritocratic beliefs and multiculturalism than German-speaking majorities. No significant differences were found between other asymmetric groups such as women and men, in any of the studies.

These results suggest that membership in specific low status, immigrant and minority groups shapes perceived compatibility between individual (meritocratic) and collective (multicultural) justice principles. Given the specific political context of Switzerland, results are discussed in terms of generalizability to other national contexts. Additional implications and avenues for future research are also discussed.