Three interrelated, but nevertheless distinctive, referents of multiculturalism and its related adjective multicultural which can be distinguished in public debate and discussion are:

  • The demographic-descriptive usage occurs where 'multicultural' is used to refer to the existence of ethnically or racially diverse segments in the population of a society or State. It represents a perception that such differences have some social significance-primarily because of perceived cultural differences though these are frequently associated with forms of structural differentiation. The precise ethnic groupings which exist in a State, the significance of ethnicity for social participation in societal institutions and the processes through which ethnic differentiation is constructed and maintained may vary considerably between individual States, and over time.

  • In the programmatic-political usage 'multiculturalism' refers to specific types of programs and policy initiatives designed to respond to and manage ethnic diversity. It was in this usage that 'multiculturalism' first gained currency after it was recommended in the 1965 Report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. This Report recommended that multiculturalism replace the bicultural policy based on the British and French Charter groups around whom policies for ethnic diversity in Canadian society had been organised for over a century. Since then, its usage has extended rapidly to encompass the demographic-descriptive' and the 'ideological-normative' usage.

  • The ideological-normative usage of multiculturalism is that which generates the greatest level of debate since it constitutes a slogan and model for political action based on sociological theorising and ethical-philosophical consideration about the place of those with culturally distinct identities in contemporary society. Multiculturalism emphasises that acknowledging the existence of ethnic diversity and ensuring the rights of individuals to retain their culture should go hand in hand with enjoying full access to, participation in, and adherence to, constitutional principles and commonly shared values prevailing in the society. By acknowledging the rights of individuals and groups and ensuring their equitable access to society, advocates of multiculturalism also maintain that such a policy benefits both individuals and the larger society by reducing pressures for social conflict based on disadvantage and inequality. They also argue that multiculturalism is an enrichment for the society as a whole. The close parallels between this ideological-normative usage of multiculturalism and the United Nations' views on cultural diversity are clear.

For more information on the concepts of Multiculturalism, please refer to UNESCO MOST Policy Paper No. 4, "Multiculturalism: New Policy Responses to Diversity" [PDF, 640 KB], Christine Inglis, UNESCO MOST 1996.

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