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The Varieties of Multiculturalism

December 6, 2012

Several months ago I asked the USIH weblog community about the best histories of multiculturalism. The discussion was outstanding: helpful, thoughtful, and thorough.Now I’m interested in a question that’s more philosophical, or present-minded, than historical. Here’s my line of thought:

How many varieties of multiculturalism exist? Or rather how similar are the ideas and actions of self-proclaimed adherents to multiculturalism?

Is essentialist, or ideological, multiculturalism exclusive of all forms of common culture? Is the ideology of multiculturalism against, by definition (i.e. cultural perspectivalism), opposed to all common culture? If not, what is allowable?  Who are the practitioners of ideological multiculturalism? Of non-essentialist multiculturalism?

From the USIH thread, and from my own extensions, I see these variations:

  1. ___X___ Power movements—These are somewhat out of fashion. It deals with cultural and social institutions, as well as politics. This is empowerment multiculturalism. It seems like a variation of anticolonial multiculturalism;
  2. Politics of Recognition—This derives, of course, from Charles Taylor’s famous line of thought. This is political multiculturalism;
  3. Identity—This deals with everyday living. This is individual, family, and/or tribal multiculturalism;
  4. Essentialists—All of human life is divided into a myriad of groups with equal legitimacy. This is more philosophical, a sort of  extreme relativist multiculturalism; and
  5. Balkanization/Little Platoons–I take this from Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture. This is a strain where groups live side-by-side, sometimes peacefully and sometimes in conflict, under the aegis of a single nation state.  This is social multiculturalism.


What have I missed? Let’s identify as many strains as possible, and attach representative public figures to each strain. – TL


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  1. Another strain: Educational multiculturalism—taught in schools and colleges as a means to social and political pluralism. This strain is more idealistic and less practical.


  2. Paul permalink

    When you speak of multiculturalism I think of points of intersection and less about isolated strains so my examples may be off point. I’m thinking about prisons, drug rehabs, immigration centers (government organizations), county or city library literacy (ESL) groups, airports, entrepreneurial enterprises (I’m thinking about the wine, food and travel industry in particular here.) The multi-culturalism is both explicit and implicit in many of these endeavors. Some of these may not put the best face on multiculturalism but in the spirit of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle the exposure changes you, maybe broadens your outlook.


  3. Sarah Iler permalink

    I am currently working on my dissertation on the intellectual historical origins of multiculturalism as it relates specifically to multicultural education and have been following your discussions on the subject both here and on the USIH blog with great interest.

    I agree with Tim Lacy’s initial definition, that educational multiculturalism qualifies as a separate strain. However, I respectfully disagree that it claims social, political, or cultural pluralism as its goal. For many educational multiculturalists, acknowledging or tolerating diversity is not enough; their aim is social justice, and this is what distinguishes multiculturalism from social, cultural or political pluralism. The focus in educational multiculturalism tends to be on providing equal and equitable education to a diverse student body of future citizens with the hope that doing so can foster student achievement (particularly among marginalized populations) and cultivate a deep respect, understanding and appreciation of difference within American society. In this, it touches on or tries to incorporate the best elements from each of the 5 strains you initially identified.

    I would also like to add that educational multiculturalism is more than just curriculum. It extends beyond modifying the curricular content in such a way as to be inclusive of, or culturally relevant to different cultural groups. Educational multiculturalism also addresses student learning processes, teacher education, classroom pedagogy, and school administration, among other aspects of American public schooling. It is not merely something that can be taught; it is a way of teaching, learning, and thinking. Some key figures in educational multiculturalism would include James Banks, Carl Grant, Christine Sleeter, Geneva Gay, Marilyn Cochran-Smith, and Donna Gollnick.

    In general, the breadth of educational multiculturalism has tended to render it idealistic and impractical as Tim Lacy pointed out. Specifically, it has limited the abilities of its proponents to offer a viable political program or vision of society that extends beyond a respect for, or embrace of diversity/pluralism/multiculturalism as both the goal and the means to achieve it.


  4. Sarah,

    Thanks for the long comment! My apologies for this mildly tardy reply.

    First, I’m so glad about your dissertation project. Much needed! My USIH colleague, Andrew Hartman, will be greatly interested. You should send us your abstract, or something short describing your project, by e-mail (

    I can see how toleration via liberal pluralism is not enough for multiculturalists, by definition almost. The strains I laid out above were somewhat off the cuff. That said, I’ve been thinking about multiculturalism in education for several years in relation to my own big project on the history of the great books idea. I had to sort out how Mortimer Adler did or did not make the transition from pluralism to multiculturalism.

    Based on your comment about multiculturalism being a “way of teaching, learning, and thinking,” it seems you’re arguing for a kind of processing I’ll call “multicultural thinking.” My question is this: How much history does it involve? It seems a very presentist philosophy. That might be why it is sort of impractical as a educational program—too broad and too limiting at the same time. But I’m just thinking out loud.

    Anyway, thanks a million for the reply.

    – Tim


  5. Sarah Iler permalink


    Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful reply. I would be happy to send you guys an overview of the project. I am really excited about it. Your reply raises some important points and thought provoking questions. In the first, I think your mention of Mortimer Adler reveals a distinction between multiculturalism in higher education and multicultural education in elementary and secondary schooling that is often overlooked. Multiculturalism in higher education tends to appear in the form of ethnic or cultural studies programs that take on redemptive undertones and are specifically aimed towards the recognition and empowerment of specific groups. In elementary and secondary schooling, multicultural education appears to me to be more broad based. It tends to target ways of thinking about, understanding, and tolerating cultural differences, and in so doing aims to reshape how schools and students teach/learn these skills.

    I think that educational multiculturalists would agree that multicultural education is geared toward the development of multicultural thinking. I see your point but wonder if you might clarify your question, “how much history does it involve?” a little further. Specifically, what do you mean by involve? Are you asking about History as a site for multicultural education reform? Or are you asking to what extent educational multiculturalists incorporate historical thinking (meaning an awareness, appreciation, or understanding of historical contexts, conditions, and events) into their theories, programs, practices, etc.?

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts,


  6. Sarah,

    On history, I meant how much does the subject of history figure into the multiculturalist project as it exists across all education levels (but particularly elementary and secondary). At the college level multiculturalism is particularly important to various studies programs (Hispanic, Black, Women’s, etc.). In those programs history is merely one among many approaches; historical thinking is not particularly important, even if it’s not forgotten. As for multiculturalism within history itself, that seems to come out in classes focused on ethnic groups, races, and nationalities. It’s pretty clear cut how it enters the history curriculum.

    – Tim


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