colored image of world flags combined into one flag

Anthropology: Brief Overview of Multiculturalism Around the World

18th of December marks International Migrants’ Day. It aims to raise awareness about the challenges and difficulties of international migration and celebrate the contribution of migrants around the world. In 2020, approximately 281 people were international migrants, representing 3.6% of the global population. The movement of people is either voluntary or forced. Nevertheless, the patterns of immigration shape the level of diversity in receiving immigrant societies. This article will overview the ideology of multiculturalism by looking at the arguments in favor and against the ideology. It will also highlight the cultural significance of diversity in anthropology.

Multiculturalism – definitions in social sciences

Migration and multiculturalism are topics studied by various disciplines in the social sciences.  Generally, multiculturalism is an ideology that promotes cultural diversity. It is applied to the geographic make-up of a specific place, such as school, business, neighborhood, city, or nation. Thus, multiculturalism is a characteristic of a society that has many different ethnic or national cultures mixing freely.

In sociology, the concept of culture and everything that surrounds it is a significant notion that refers to the ways of life of the members of society or groups within a society. Therefore, multiculturalism is defined by sociologists as “the manner in which a given society deals with cultural diversity” (Longley, 2020). In the idea of multiculturalism, the assumption is that members of various cultures can coexist peacefully. Consequently, the idea behind multiculturalism is that it enriches society by maintaining, respecting, and encouraging cultural differences.

In political science, multiculturalism is “the way in which societies choose to formulate and implement official policies dealing with the equitable treatment of different cultures”. In other words, political scientists focus on how to understand and respond to the challenges associated with cultural diversity.

Anthropologists study the interaction and communication between different cultures that coexist together. Anthropological research focuses on different societies and the degree of social cohesion in plural societies.

Colored image of monument to multiculturalism in Toronto
Monument to Multiculturalism by Franco Pirelli (Toronto, Ontario, Canada). This is not the only “Monument to Multiculturalism” by Pirelli in the world. Other monuments are located in Sarajevo (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Nereto (Italy), Changchun (China), San Pedro (USA), and East London (South Africa). (

Multiculturalism theories

There are two main theories or models explaining how different cultures integrate into a single society. These theories are based on metaphors, commonly known as “the melting pot theory” and “the salad bowl theory”.

The melting pot theory

The melting pot theory of multiculturalism suggests that immigrant groups tend to “melt together”, by assimilating into the host society and abandoning their individual cultures.  The idea of a melting pot comes from a foundry’s melting pots in which the elements iron and carbon are melted together to create a single, stronger metal – steel (Longley, 2020).

The main criticism of the melting pot theory is that, from this perspective, a society reflects primarily the dominant culture, instead of fusing into a completely new entity. This is referred to by sociologists, anthropologists, and cultural geographers, as “Anglo-conformity” (Gloor, 2006). Consequently, this reduces diversity, as people lose their traditions, and forces assimilation through governmental policy. An example of this is the U.S. Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which forced the assimilation of almost 350,000 Indigenous people into American society. It completely neglected the diversity of their own cultures, heritages, and lifestyles (Longley, 2020).

colored illustration of the melting pot
The image of the United States as a melting pot was popularized by the 1908 play “The Melting Pot” (

The salad bowl theory

Another theory of multiculturalism is the salad b0wl theory, which describes a heterogeneous society in which people coexist but keep at least some of the unique characteristics of their individual culture. The theory is based on the metaphor of the salad bowl. This is because salad has various ingredients that are mixed together but retain their own distinct flavors. Similarly, different cultures may be brought together into a single homogenous society, yet maintain their unique ethnic and cultural characteristics (Longley, 2020).

The salad bowl model allows for more cultural tolerance. It highlights that giving up cultural heritage in order to be considered a member of the dominant society is not necessary. However, the salad bowl theory encourages cultural differences that can result in prejudice and discrimination in society and divide people. This approach centers on diversity and cultural uniqueness, which can result in intercultural competition over jobs, among other things, and may lead to ethnic conflict, instead of coexistence. Therefore, problems of racism and xenophobia will still exist (Morin, 2021).

Colored image of a salad bowl

History of multiculturalism

The idea of multiculturalism has been prevalent since ancient times. The Achaemenid Empire, founded by Cyrus the Great, enforced a policy of integrating and tolerating various cultures, for instance.

Historically, Europe has always been a mixture of Latin, Slavic, Uralic, Celtic, Hellenic, Illyrian, Thracian and other cultures, with different belief systems. An example of multiculturalism is the ethnographic map of Austria-Hungary in 1910 or the ethnolinguistic map of the Second Polish Republic in 1937.

Multiculturalism in Canada

Although multicultural societies are ancient, the ideology of multiculturalism is new. In the 1970s, Canada implemented multiculturalism (a Just Society) as a tool of political governance, during the premiership of Pierre Trudeau (Eriksen, 2015: 29). It was a pragmatic response to rights claims from First Nations and burgeoning separatism among French-Canadians/Quebecois. It was then applied to contexts involving immigrants as well. In Canada, the ideology of multiculturalism is reflected in the law through the Canadian Multiculturalism Act and section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. With the rejection of dogmatic versions of Marxism on the political left, came the widespread rejection of class in the 1980s (Eriksen, 2015: 29).  In 1991, the Broadcasting Act of 1991 was introduced to assert that the Canadian broadcasting system should reflect the diversity of cultures in the country.

color image of people from different ethnic backgrounds holding Canadian flags

Multiculturalism in other countries

Other countries, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, followed Canada’s approach and adapted multiculturalist policies as a result of mass migration (Eriksen, 2015: 29). Australia was the second country after Canada to adopt an official policy of multiculturalism.  The White Australia Policy was dismantled after World War 2 by various changes to immigration policy. The official policy of multiculturalism was introduced in 1972. In 2020, nearly every country worldwide represented Australia’s population.

In the United States, the metaphor of the melting pot implied that every immigrant should assimilate into American society at their own pace. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, immigration after World War 2 shaped the face of British neighborhoods. Immigrants brought their culture with them and assimilated into British culture. Governments in Sweden and Netherlands also adopted policies of multiculturalism in the 1970s and 1980s (Bloemraad, 2011). Today, many societies around the world are culturally diverse.

Color image of intersection of neighborhoods in New York
New York’s neighborhoods (

Cultural diversity around the globe

According to the Pew Research Center, the most multicultural country in the world is Chad, in north-central Africa. The researcher, Erkan Gören of the University of Oldenberg in Germany, found that in Chad, 8.6 million residents belong to more than 100 ethnic groups. Similarly, in Togo, there are 37 tribal groups that speak one of 39 languages. The least culturally diverse countries in the world are Argentina, Haiti, or the isolated Comoros island off the southeast coast of Africa (Morin, 2013).

Overall, the top 5 culturally diverse countries are Chad, Cameroon, Nigeria, Togo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The top multicultural society in the West is Canada. The United States ranks slightly more diverse than Russia but less diverse than Spain (Morin, 2013).

On the other hand, the world’s least culturally diverse countries are Argentina, Comoros, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Rwanda, and Uruguay (Morin, 2o13).

a map illustrating the world most and least culturally diverse countries in the world

Multiculturalism in education

In education, multiculturalism is a set of strategies aiming to provide students with knowledge about the histories, cultures, and contributions of diverse cultural and ethnic groups. The goal is to promote the principles of inclusion, inquiry, critical thought, multiple perspectives, and self-reflection as a way of teaching. According to some studies, strategies set by multicultural education are effective in promoting educational achievements among immigrant students (Kislev, 2016).

There are various approaches to multicultural education. Those who argue for recognition of multiculturalism in education demand not just the distinction of characteristics of the group’s culture (such as African American art and literature) but also for the recognition of the history of group subordination and its experience that followed (Gooding-Williams, 1998).

The Canadian theorist, Charles Taylor (1992), advocates in his book “Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition” public institutions recognizing particular group identities as part of multicultural education. Others, such as Steven Rockefeller, advocate against a particular cultural identity over the universal identity of democratic citizens (Mohanty, 2021).

In contrast, in “Identity Against Culture: Understanding of Multiculturalism”, Kwame Anthony Appiah (1994) argues for “the need and possibilities of maintaining a pluralistic culture of many identities and subcultures while retaining the civil and political practices that sustain national life in the classic sense”.

Controversy over multiculturalism

The topic of multiculturalism is highly debated in many countries around the world, especially the United States. It is also gaining popularity in Europe. After the murderous rampage by right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik in Norway, the world’s attention was focused on anti-immigrant sentiments and extremist politics in northern Europe. In October 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed that the multicultural approach of her government had “utterly failed” in Germany. A year later, in 2011, French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, also noted that multiculturalism is a failure. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron, said that Britain’s policy of multiculturalism fails to promote a sense of common identity and encourages Muslim segregation and radicalization (Bloemraad, 2011).

Criticism of multiculturalism questions the ideal of the maintenance of different ethnic cultures within a country. Critics of this idea often argue against the cultural integration of distinct ethnic and cultural groups into the existing laws and values of the dominant culture. Others argue for the melting pot model, claiming that assimilation of different ethnic and cultural groups into a single national identity is best for the most effective functioning of society.

According to critics of multiculturalism, cultural neutrality is completely impossible in public institutions, especially in democratic societies. This is because democracy is based on government by the majority, thus minorities are oppressed despite the laws and rights that promote and guarantee certain freedoms. Bloemraad (2011) exemplifies this by saying that “even if a country does not declare an official language, the public school system will be run in just one or (at most) a few languages. Immigrants who do not speak that language are thus placed in an inherently more difficult situation than the majority group.”

Diagram showing Multiculturalism Policy Index Scores for selected countries
Multiculturalism Policy Index Scores for Selected Countries, 1980-2020 (

Anthropological critiques of multiculturalism

Anthropologists who study multiculturalism argue that it reifies and essentializes cultures as rigid, homogenous, and unchanging wholes with fixed boundaries (Baumann, 1999). Thus, it assumes that there is a fixed and unchanging connection between culture and space. This in itself is seen by anthropologists as a false theorization of culture, as anthropologists proclaim that the idea of culture is creating and ever-changing. It has been shown that people in one culture constantly borrow from others, thus cultures are absorbent. As a consequence, cultures do not have a single leadership, and any attempt by the state to impose one is false and oppressive.

Cultural significance in anthropology

The concept of culture and multiculturalism has been significant in anthropology since the early 20th century. It has its roots in German Romantic thinking that cultures are “equal but different”. Anthropologists have been questioning cultural rights and working with complex societies. Although anthropologists are usually sympathetic toward this ideology, they have rarely defended radical multiculturalism projects, involving, for example, polygyny. Therefore, the relationship between multiculturalism and anthropology is close. Approaches to cultural diversity in anthropology focus on the studies of indigenous struggles, school curricula in North America, cosmopolitanism in Malaysia, and xenophobia in Europe (Eriksen, 2015).


Baumann, G. (1999) The Multicultural Riddle: Rethinking National, Ethnic, and Religious Identities. New York: Routledge.

Bloemraad, I. (2011) The Debate Over Multiculturalism: Philosophy, Politics, and Policy. Available:

Charles, T. (1992) Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Eriksen, T. (2015) Multiculturalism, Anthropology of. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. 2nd Ed. Vol. 15. Oslo: Elsevier Ltd.

Gloor, L. B. (2006) From the melting pot to the tossed salad metaphor: Why coercive assimilation lacks the flavors Americans crave. Hohonu: A Journal of Academic Writing. Vol.4. University of Hawaii, Hilo. Available:

Gooding-Williams, R. (1998) Race, Multiculturalism and Democracy. Constellations. Vol. 5. No 1.

Kislev, E. (2016) The Effect of Education Policies on Higher-Education Attainment of Immigrants in Western Europe: A Cross-Classified Multilevel Analysis.  Journal of European Social Policy. Vol. 26, No2. Available:  (

Kwame A., A. (1994) Identity Against Cultures: Understanding Multiculturalism. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

Longley, R. (2020) What is Multiculturalism? Definition, Theories, and Examples. Available:

Mohanty, S. (2021) Culture Wars & Claims of Multiculturalism. Available:

Morin, R. (2013) The most (and least) culturally diverse countries in the world. Available: Pew Research Center

Morin, S. (2021) Is America a Melting Pot or a Salad Bowl? Available:

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