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Martyn Barrett: Multiculturalism and interculturalism

The Multiculturalism Forum is honoured to publish this blog by Professor Martyn Barrett, emeritus professor at the University of Surrey. Professor Barrett is a social and developmental psychologist, who has authored and edited many books and articles on multiculturalism (see On the occasion of the publication of his latest edited book, “Interculturalism and multiculturalism: Similarities and differences”, he writes for us about some key ingredients for multiculturalism and interculturalism. 


Multiculturalism and interculturalism: Is there a difference?

Martyn Barrett


Multiculturalism proposes that the cultural practices, rights and well-being of non-dominant minority cultural groups should be recognised, respected and accommodated by the majority cultural group. Despite its well-intentioned goals, multiculturalism has come under sustained attack from politicians and social commentators for the past decade. Among the many criticisms made, it has been argued that multiculturalism encourages the members of different cultures to live separately in parallel communities that have only minimal contact and interaction with one another, generating mutual ignorance and mistrust; that multiculturalism weakens collective identities and common values, and undermines national identity and loyalty to the country; and that multiculturalism supports and encourages unacceptable minority cultural practices (such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage).

Simultaneously, over the past few years, an alternative approach to the management of cultural diversity has been emerging – interculturalism. This approach has been championed most prominently by the Council of Europe, especially through its ‘White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue’. Interculturalism proposes that not only the rights of minority groups but also social cohesion can best be safeguarded through intercultural dialogue, which needs to take place within the context of the universal values of human dignity, human rights and the rule of law. Advocates of interculturalism claim that it avoids many of the pitfalls associated with multiculturalism.

At first sight, the differences between multiculturalism and interculturalism appear to be stark. However, it is important to bear in mind that there are many forms of multiculturalism. These include symbolic multiculturalism, which focuses on the celebration of ethnic differences; structural or equity multiculturalism, which focuses on race relations and systemic disadvantage and the removal of barriers to the economic and social participation of minority groups; and dialogical multiculturalism, which proposes that, in order to ensure the well-being of all cultural groups, dialogue between groups should operate in both political and non-political arenas as the unifying focus and principle of society. This last form of multiculturalism, which been articulated most clearly by Bhikhu Parekh, seeks to identify the principles and institutional structures that are required for intercultural dialogue. Dialogical multiculturalism in fact shares a number of features with interculturalism.

Does the difference in theoretical emphasis between multiculturalism and interculturalism make any tangible difference in terms of the policies that should be used to manage cultural diversity? Some proponents of interculturalism have argued that they do, with interculturalism requiring policies concerning:

  • The promotion of intercultural dialogue, interaction and exchanges, especially at school, in the workplace and in the community, but also at the organisational, institutional and international levels
  • The implementation of intercultural education throughout the formal educational system to equip individuals with the intercultural competence which is required to participate in respectful intercultural dialogue
  • The need for strong institutional structures to safeguard human rights and the rule of law
  • The creation of state institutions to support civil society organisations promoting intercultural dialogue and providing intercultural education
  • The provision of instruction in the language of the dominant majority culture for those members of cultural minority and migrant groups who might require this so that they are able to engage in dialogue with members of the majority culture

By contrast, many proponents of multiculturalism have argued that it is more important to prioritise policies concerning:

  • The measures required to ensure that the cultural needs of minority groups are accommodated where it is reasonable to do so
  • The provision of inclusion through employment, which may require forms of affirmative action
  • The provision of inclusion through education, which may require devising new non-discriminatory educational curricula and practices
  • Combating all manifestations of discrimination, hatred and intolerance through legislation

However, it can be argued that the contrast between the two approaches even at the policy level is overstated. For example, dialogical multiculturalism, in particular, affirms many ‘interculturalist’ policies. Furthermore, interculturalism affirms many ‘multiculturalist’ policies – this is because both approaches place great value on cultural diversity and pluralism, which in turn necessarily entails the implementation of reasonable cultural accommodations. Both approaches are also concerned to tackle the underlying structural political, economic and social disadvantages and inequalities that are often experienced by members of minority groups. This involves taking action to counter discrimination and all forms of hatred and intolerance, affirmative action to give special assistance to disadvantaged groups, and taking steps to eliminate systematic educational disadvantage. Indeed, the Council of Europe itself has explicitly acknowledged the need for all of these kinds of actions as an integral component of its own intercultural approach.

Thus, interculturalism is not such a radical break from multiculturalism as might appear at first sight. Instead, interculturalism builds on the foundations of multiculturalism, but places a much greater emphasis on intercultural dialogue and the various kinds of institutional support which such dialogue requires. It develops the arguments made by dialogical multiculturalism, and articulates a wide range of specific policy actions which may be taken by governments to support intercultural dialogue and to ensure the well-being of all cultural groups within society. As such, its advent is to be welcomed. 

For further information about the debate over the relationship between interculturalism and multiculturalism, see:

Barrett, M. (Ed.) (2013). Interculturalism and Multiculturalism: Similarities and Differences. Strasbourg: Council of Europe Publishing.

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