As a descriptive term, multiculturalism refers to the coexistence of people with many cultural identities in a common state, society, or community. As a prescriptive term, it is associated with the belief that racial, ethnic, and other groups should maintain their distinctive cultures within society yet live together with mutual tolerance and respect. Advocates of multiculturalism often propose going beyond traditional liberal principles of tolerance for members of other groups toward acknowledgment of their positive value.
The development of multiculturalism as an intellectual theme and social movement has been most prominent in the United States—although it has spread rapidly to other countries. Debates over the content of education in the 1970s and 1980s were pivotal in this process. These centered primarily around multiculturalist arguments for expanding the curricula to include the history and work of marginalized groups (e.g., African Americans, Native Americans, women, immigrants—and later Hispanics, Asians, gays, lesbians, and other minorities). They also urged enlarging the canon of “great works” to include texts originating outside the Western tradition. Perhaps most controversially, multiculturalism has been associated with campus movements to ban offensive speech, and with a much-maligned (and frequently exaggerated) drive for “politically correct” language and behavior (see political correctness).
Although debates in the U.S. educational arena were the most conspicuous sign of multiculturalism's growing influence during the 1980s and 1990s, the broader and deeper themes of inclusion and difference also pervaded transnational political and social discourse. In both Australia and Canada, multiculturalism has been institutionalized in laws that regulate relations among immigrant groups and between ethnocultural minorities and the majority culture. In a number of cases, group-specific rights have been established for the preservation of minority cultures.
Opposition to multiculturalism has come from many sides. Liberals and conservatives have claimed that multiculturalism's celebration of difference and its relativization of the Western tradition threaten social and political cohesion and encourage separatism among groups. Some have argued for a return to traditional liberal individualism and to a renewed assimilationist ideal or transcultural humanism to buttress liberal society and its institutions (see liberalism). Multiculturalism has undergone a number of internal critiques as well, especially regarding the essentialism implicit in many forms of group identification and the challenge it poses to strongly constructivist accounts of social identity. Some have charged that excessive emphasis on the representation of different groups undermines coalition building.
Despite these misgivings, multiculturalism has had a lasting effect on global political and social practices. In some respects, the battle is over: the educational curricula of many countries now include more attention to the contributions of the diverse groups that compose them (and human society more generally). The success of multicultural discourse in many societies reflects, in part, the unavoidable facts of massive international migration, cross-national integration (e.g., European unification), and lingering questions about the citizenship and autonomy of aboriginal groups.