Multiculturalism Around the World

Countries that embrace multiculturalism experience more positive outcomes

Posted Jul 20, 2015

As the European Union is struggling to deal with the migrant crisis (hundreds of migrants drowned in the Mediterranean), German Chancellor Angela Merkel is on record as saying “you can’t all come,” following her 2010 comments that “multiculturalism has failed” in Germany.  Negative attitudes and backlash against multiculturalism is not surprising given poor immigrant integration, parallel societies, and a threat to national identity.  However, multiculturalism can be a source of competitive advantage, for countries such as Australia and Canada, which are confronted with a demographic challenge. 

Background: Multiculturalism can be viewed in four distinct ways.  First, it is a demographic reality as a result of globalization, talent flow, forced migration, and family reunification.  Multiculturalism is slowly occurring even in countries that have not historically been receiving a large number of immigrants, such as South Korea.  Second, multiculturalism is also a political philosophy related to immigrant integration and acceptance.  The presence of ethnocultural diversity necessitates that host country nationals deal with those who are different from themselves.  Third, multiculturalism is a vehicle for government (and organizations) to formulate policies based on their views and attitudes on multiculturalism.  Fourth, multiculturalism is a discourse for governments to signal their directions on multiculturalism.  Politicians frequently craft narratives to influence views on a country’s approaches to multiculturalism.

According to social psychologist John Berry, the success of multiculturalism is dependent on both the “cultural maintenance” by immigrants and “cultural acceptance” by host societies.  Strong cultural maintenance by immigrants and weak cultural acceptance by host society lead to separation and marginalization.  Conversely, weak cultural maintenance by immigrants lead to assimilation into host society culture.  When host society is more accepting of ethnic minority culture, cultural maintenance can lead to positive outcomes such as better immigrant integration and economic advantages for the host country.

Different countries have implemented multiculturalism in different ways, and with varying degrees of success.  Ng and Bloemraad use SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis to delineate the advantages and disadvantages associated with multiculturalism across different countries.

Strengths – in Canada, multiculturalism is a source of national identity (and a tool to unite French and English-speaking Canadians), so much so that multiculturalism is cited as the second greatest source of pride among Canadians (after democracy and freedom).  In South Korea, which is a largely homogeneous country, multiculturalism is used to symbolize modernization (where minority rights and equality are cherished) as it aspires to be perceived as on par with Western liberal democracies such as Canada, the US, and Europe.

Weaknesses – multiculturalism can create faultlines by reinforcing separateness and differences based on ethnicity or religion, through the allocation of group rights (i.e., certain groups are entitled to more rights than others) as in the case of Mauritius.  In many European countries, such as Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, multiculturalism can also promote separate and parallel lives when ethnic minorities retreat to their ethnic enclaves and fail to interact and integrate with their host country citizens.  When immigrants fail to integrate, they experience poorer labour market outcomes and have lower civic engagement.

Opportunities – Australia and Canada have successfully promoted multiculturalism to convey a climate of tolerance and inclusion to attract skilled workers.  As a result, both countries saw an influx of talents, foreign capital, and international students helpful in bolstering their economies.  Immigrants also retain transnational ties with their countries of origin which are conducive to promoting trade and international business between their countries of origin and new countries of residence.  As an example, Canadian export is projected to grow by 10% annually simply by matching exports to countries represented by its immigrants’ countries of origin. 

Threats – multiculturalism is sometimes seen as an obstacle to equality in Western societies that value human rights and fair treatment.  For example, the maintenance of cultural practices (such as wearing the hijab or niqab), often associated with multiculturalism, is seen as an affront to gender equality.  The tendency to view cultural preservation as a rejection of (and a threat to) host country values and culture has resulted in hostility towards immigrants, particularly for Muslims. 

In general, countries that embrace multiculturalism report more positive outcomes in the form of better integration of ethnic minority immigrants.  Conversely, societies that demand immigrants to assimilate report poorer ethnic minority integration and experience backlash from its citizens.  For multiculturalism to be effective, assimilationist societies must be prepared to change elite and public attitudes and implement policies that do not produce backlash among the native-born majority population.

Eddy Ng is the F.C. Manning Chair in Economics and Business at Dalhousie University, Canada.  Irene Bloemraad is the Thomas Garden Barnes Chair in Canadian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.  They recently coedited a special issue on “Multiculturalism during challenging times” in American Behavioral Scientist (Sage).  Follow Ed on Twitter @profng.