Multiculturalism In Modern Discourse

The theory of multiculturalism, societal multiculturalism and state multiculturalism: what is the difference?




The Multiculturalism of Theory

Multiculturalism is a concept that, much like terrorism, has consistently been rendered undefinable. Its underlying facets emerged from a speech by former Home Secretary Roy Jenkins in 1966, who described it as “equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance”.[1] Unlike assimilation, where the existence of minority cultures is viewed as a barrier to a harmonious society, multiculturalism views cultural difference to be positive – it explicitly recognises and values cultural diversity – whilst maintaining the need for a dynamic, fluid national identity.[2] It argues for the recognition that different individuals and communities will have different requirements, and as such if integration policy is to be truly equal it must take account of these different needs. In short, equality must be “applied in a discriminating but not discriminatory manner”.[3]

As such we can understand multiculturalism, the theory, as a combination of three key constituents: a) two-way integration involving both groups and individuals; b) policies of equality being applied in a discriminating but not a discriminatory way, and; c) seeking to create a dynamic national identity.[4]

Societal Multiculturalism

One topic worthy of clarification is the assertion that multiculturalism has never been an official state policy;[5] the claim that multiculturalism is but “a simple description of the character of our society”.[6] The Parekh Report labels the transformation of Britain into a multicultural society as multicultural ‘drift’ – meaning multiculturalism ‘just happened’ as opposed to it being a “concerted decision”.[7] To be sure, the multicultural, multi-ethnic characteristics of modern Britain are the result of immigration and globalisation throughout the last century. It did, to an extent, ‘just happen’ (though it was never intended to catalyse a long-term multi-ethnic, multicultural society).[8] Using ‘multiculturalism’ as a descriptor of British society today, however, is a separate concept to both multiculturalism as a theory, and as a description of multicultural policies (‘state multiculturalism’). For example, take the variety of cuisine available in London – it would not be far off to suggest that you can source food from every part of the world. This would lend itself to describing the city as truly multicultural. In other words, it possesses elements of many cultures. This would not change even if the government were to introduce an assimilationist integration policy; even if multiculturalism were rejected as an integration policy, we could still describe much of the United Kingdom as multicultural.

State Multiculturalism

Consider the following passage from Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence:

If a young girl in a conservative immigrant family wants to go out on a date with an English boy, that would certainly be a multicultural initiative. In contrast, the attempts by her guardians to stop her from doing this… is hardly a multicultural move, since it seeks to keep the cultures sequestered. And yet it is the parents’ prohibition, which contributes to plural multiculturalism, that seems to get most of the vocal and loud defence from alleged multiculturalists… as if the distinct cultures must somehow remain in secluded boxes.[9]

What Sen labels ‘plural multiculturalism’ can be likened to those British multicultural policies – ‘state multiculturalism’ – that are viewed by critics as consolidating cultural divisions and separate identities. The differentiation between ‘state multiculturalism’ and the theory of multiculturalism, however, is key. To make that distinction we must firstly recognise that the UK has implemented policies that follow the dogma of multiculturalism. For examples we can look to the increasing support of faith schools, or to the funding of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). But, secondly, we must also note the extent to which multiculturalism has been employed as an integration policy: it has not been implemented ‘properly’. We can take the example of the MCB again to demonstrate this. By choosing to place emphasis on the Muslim identity of British Muslims through an organisation which suffers from Lilliputian-like recognition by the Muslim community, the government failed to recognise the differing needs of the individuals within that group (may I refer the reader back to the definition of the theory for clarity on this matter). It sought to deal with all Muslims as one rather than acknowledging the different variants of Islam (Sunni, Shia etc.), or the different ethnicities encompassed in the British Muslim contingent, or the many other identities that British Muslims have.[10] Resultantly, whilst the funding of the MCB was something of a multicultural policy, it was not multicultural enough. Therefore it would be incorrect to assert that multiculturalism – the theory – has completely reared its head, and therefore we must make the distinction between the theory and the practice.

The debate over multiculturalism is very rarely an affront to a multi-ethnic society bringing together cultures from around the world. Its critics would argue it is over the inegalitarian nature of the theory and, in practice, its pointed partitioning of society. The point to be made is that there are multiple understandings of the word ‘multiculturalism’. It can be a description of society, it is the name of a theory, and it can be the name applied to policies used in furtherance of that theory, to whatever extent. Discourse should distinguish between these three interpretations of the word in order to avoid miscommunication.

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[1] Manning (2011)

[2] Mason (2000), p. 69; Modood (2011), p. 63

[3] CMEB (2000), p. ix

[4] Based on definitions provided by Modood (2011), p. 66 & CMEB(2000), p. ix

[5] Galloway (2012); Mahamdallie (2011), p.21

[6] Livingtone (2011), p. 29

[7] CMEB (2000), p. 14

[8] Leiken (2012), p. 97

[9] Sen (2006), p. 157

[10] A good parallel being Kissinger’s purported desire for a single phone number for Europe.


CMEB (2000), The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain: The Parekh Report (London: Profile Books)

Galloway, G. (2012), ‘The Dis-united Kingdom’, The Cafe, Al-Jazeera, [online] Available at:

Leiken, S. (2012), Europe’s Angry Muslims: The Revolt of the Second Generation (New York: Oxford University Press)

Livingstone, K. (2011), ‘In praise of multicultural London’, in Mahamdallie, H., ed., Defending Multiculturalism: A Guide for the Movement (London: Bookmarks Publications), pp. 26-37

Mahamdallie, H. (2011), ‘Introduction: Defending Multiculturalism’, in Mahamdallie, H., ed., Defending Multiculturalism: A Guide for the Movement (London: Bookmarks Publications), pp. 15-25

Manning, A. (2011), The evidence shows that multiculturalism in the UK has succeeded in fostering a sense of belonging among minorities, but it has paid too little attention to how to sustain support among parts of the white population, [online] Available at:

Mason, D. (2000), Race and Ethnicity in Modern Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press)

Modood, T. (2011), ‘Multiculturalism and integration: struggling with confusions’, in Mahamdallie, H., ed., Defending Multiculturalism: A Guide for the Movement (London: Bookmarks Publications), pp. 61-76

Sen, A. (2006), Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (London: Penguin)


5 thoughts on “Multiculturalism In Modern Discourse”

  1. I wish you would go back to your own country where you belong. “Multiculturalism” is simply the Third World invasion, occupation and colonization of the West by non-Whites, and we are sick to death of it. We’ve never consented to it, wanted it, or even been consulted on it. So fuck off, you racist, brown supremacist and tool of the New World Order. You are not welcome here, you are not wanted here, and you are not needed here. You are just a hypocritical, colonizing parasite.

  2. I think you qualify as perhaps the most entertaining poster I have ever had the pleasure of addressing – if only for the perjorative way in which you use the label ‘racist’ in the same passage as you yourself are racist. Something of an identity crisis, evidently.

    It is, however, good to see that our education system is at least teaching the brainless in this country how to spell. I’m actually impressed.

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