Multiculturalism And Identity Politics Research Paper

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Multiculturalism is a social perspective that is committed to publicly recognizing and respecting many cultures and cultural identities. Identity politics is one means by which members of a society strive for public recognition of their cultures and cultural identities. One conception of multiculturalism that animates identity politics is that people primarily identify as members of groups defined by ethnicity, race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, and therefore can be expected to pressure their government for greater positive political recognition of, and public benefits for, their own group. Another conception of multiculturalism is critical of identity politics because it rejects the idea of a one-to-one correspondence between a person and a particular cultural identity and views individual identities as themselves multicultural.

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1. History

Although societies have long been multicultural, the use of multiculturalism as a term in social and political discourse is relatively recent.

1.1 Canada

The term was first prominently used in a 1965 preliminary report of the Canadian Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism to suggest that Canada recognizes many ethnic cultures other than the English and French, even though its official languages are English and French. The report introduced the recurring image of a ‘mosaic’ society in which citizens could maintain distinctive ethnic cultures within a larger societal framework (which in Canada is bilingual), as contrasted to that of a ‘melting pot’ society in which immigrant cultures are expected to blend into a mainstream culture over time.

Three general kinds of multiculturalism can be distinguished, which coexist in Canada (Kymlicka 1998). Ethnic multiculturalism is directed toward immigrant groups and reflected in the 1971 introduction of a formal multicultural policy in Canada, directing all parts of the federal government to respect the diversity of all ethnic groups in their policies and practices. Bilingual multiculturalism is recognized, among other places, in the Official Languages Act. Nationalist multiculturalism recognizes a special set of rights for indigenous peoples. The Quebecois also claim a kind of nationalist multiculturalism. All three multiculturalisms are recognized in the 1982 Canadian Charter of Rights, which guarantees minority language education within the country’s bilingual framework and special treaty rights of indigenous peoples.

In 1988, the Canadian Parliament unanimously passed the most thoroughgoing national statement of multiculturalism, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. The Act’s opening indicates that the aim of all three kinds of multiculturalism, taken together, is to recognize both the civic equality and the cultural diversity of all Canadians:

—–The Government of Canada recognizes the diversity of Canadians as regards race, national or ethnic origin, colour and religion as a fundamental characteristic of Canadian society and is committed to a policy of multiculturalism designed to preserve and enhance the multicultural heritage of Canadians while working to achieve the equality of all Canadians in the economic, social, cultural, and political life of Canada.

The Canadian experience also indicates that all three kinds of multiculturalism can become public policy in a single country, although not without controversy, consistent with maintaining social unity.

1.2 The USA And The Globalization Of Multiculturalism

In the late 1970s, the term multiculturalism began to be used in the USA and subsequently throughout the world to refer to a commitment to making societal cultures more inclusiveness of various kinds of diversity. Popular culture increasingly recognized the contributions of members of groups that historically had been socially marginalized. In 1976, for example, Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a best-selling novel and popular television program that vividly portrayed the history of an AfricanAmerican family, ignited great public interest in the genealogies of identity groups.

In the 1980s and 1990s, with the rapid expansion of world commerce and communications, multiculturalism became recognized as a global phenomenon in two senses: first, the societal cultures of many more countries became self-consciously multicultural, and second, the influences on diverse societal cultures became more apparently global. The globalization of multiculturalism in the second sense raised the question of whether the culture of commercialism and consumerism would dominate more indigenous and diverse cultural influences within societies. Some critics of globalization argued that it had led to greater cultural homogenization, which threatened the mosaic of cultural diversity within societies that many consider the hallmark of multiculturalism.

The recognition of diverse cultures within societies nonetheless continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Within the USA, a primary focus of concern about multiculturalism in this period was the content of public school curricula. A widely publicized New York State task force appointed by the Commissioner of Education issued a report, A Curriculum of Inclusion (1989), which proposed that ‘all curricular materials be prepared on the basis of multicultural contributions to all aspects of our society.’ A ‘Committee of Scholars in Defense of History’ publicly attacked the report for ‘contemptuously dismiss[ing] the Western tradition’ and reducing ‘history to ethnic cheerleading.’ A subsequent report by the New York State Social Studies Review and Development Committee, One Nation, Many Peoples: A Declaration of Cultural Interdependence (1991), came under similarly sharp attack for supporting what the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called the cult of ethnicity’ (Schlesinger 1992). Schlesinger voiced a general criticism of multiculturalism for portraying the USA as a ‘nation of groups’ in which ethnicity is the defining life experience rather as a ‘nation of individuals.’ Yet advocates and critics of multiculturalism alike agreed with one of its central aims: to publicly recognize the social contributions of members of minority groups and women in the history curricula of schools. Many history textbooks were consequently rewritten and social studies curricula throughout the country were revised to become more socially inclusive (Fullinwider 1996).

Another controversial set of policies, loosely called affirmative action, has become widely associated with multiculturalism and identity politics in the USA. Although early affirmative action policies were supported by both Democratic and Republican presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, these policies soon became a source of partisan controversy. Affirmative action was defended as a partial means of correcting the competitive disequilibrium created by past discrimination against women, African-Americans, Latino-Americans, Native Americans, Asian- Americans, and other disadvantaged groups. Special efforts were made by government agencies and con- tractors, large corporations, and selective colleges and universities to recruit members of these groups into the competitive social positions from which they had previously been excluded, either by de jure or de facto means, or often by both. By the 1980s, affirmative action policies had helped to transform the face of many public and private institutions. By the 1990s, affirmative action policies became a lightning rod for controversy over identity politics in the USA.

Two kinds of affirmative action policy, which parallel two kinds of multiculturalism, were distinguished in a seminal US Supreme Court case, Regents of the University of California . Allan Bakke (the Bakke case), decided in 1977. One kind aims for proportional representation: it sets separate quotas for women and disadvantaged minorities (the ‘protected’ groups) so as to ensure that a proportional number are chosen for competitive positions, regardless of the relative quality of members of the protected and unprotected groups in the pool. A second kind aims for nondiscrimination: it sets ‘targets’ that are to be achieved only if a sufficient number of applicants in the protected groups qualify by the relevant criteria, which count race, ethnicity, and gender as one but only one among many qualifications. The pivotal opinion in the Bakke case, that of Justice Powell, found the use of quotas unconstitutional (in the absence of a ‘compelling’ state interest), but the use of race as one among many qualifications constitutional. As of January 2000, Bakke remains the reigning constitutional law of the land, but the 5th District Court of Appeals in the case of Hopwood . Texas (1996) decided that the use of race even as one factor among many in university admissions was unconstitutional.

2. Competing Conceptions

Different perspectives on various dimensions of multiculturalism—personal identity, public recognition, and standards of assessment—help elucidate the controversies that multiculturalism generates and the policies that it supports.

2.1 Two Perspectives On Identity Formation Of Individuals

One perspective on multiculturalism is based on the idea that personal identities are not just influenced but constituted by cohesive cultural communities. On this view, communally constituted identities call for special political recognition in the form of exemptions from otherwise legitimate laws, or more broadly in the form of rights of self-governance for the group as a whole. Indigenous groups in multicultural societies have a right to be governed by their own group rather than by the larger political unit whose laws would otherwise govern anyone who lived within its territorial boundaries. The argument generated by this perspective is that in the absence of group rights to self-governance, the larger political unit will violate the cultural identities of the members of indigenous groups. The core premises are that inherited cultural identities are essential attributes of individuals, these identities must be politically respected, and political respect will be forthcoming only by a government that itself represents the particular cultural identity of the group. In the absence of political recognition of indigenous group rule, members of the indigenous group will experience a loss of identity, an injury to who they are, and therefore an injustice.

A second multicultural perspective supports some of the same policy conclusions as the first but for different reasons. The second perspective defends individuality. It rejects the idea that inherited cultural identities are ‘essential’ attributes of individuals, and therefore argues against the view that personal identity either is or should be ‘tightly scripted,’ as the philosopher K. Anthony Appiah puts it, by a person’s cultural inheritance (Appiah 1996). To endorse a tight one-to-one correspondence between personal identity and cultural inheritance is to subscribe to what the literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr. calls ‘cultural geneticism’ (Gates 1993). The historically inherited identities of African Americans and women, both perspectives agree, are not changeable merely at whim or will. But the perspective that defends individuality argues that inherited group identities can be altered, and are often altered, by human agency over time. This perspective on multiculturalism, by contrast to the first, therefore views change in personal identity over time not necessarily as a ‘loss’ or an injustice, but rather as a possible—and often desirable—manifestation of individual freedom.

The second perspective, because it defends individuality at its core, makes a more moderate case for group rights than the first. The political philosopher Will Kymlicka argues that among the basic human (or primary) goods is having a cultural community as a ‘context of choice’ (Kymlicka 1989). It does not follow that unwanted changes in cultural communities are unjust. The identities of Quebecois and Inuit Indians in Canada have changed significantly over time, partly in response to the political environment that is beyond any individual’s control, or even beyond a single group’s control. But Quebecois and Inuit Indians as individuals have not therefore lost their personal identities. Unwanted change in a person’s identity in itself is insufficient to constitute an injustice on this perspective. A more limited claim is therefore made on behalf of multiculturalism, personal identity, and group rights: groups that were involuntarily incorporated into a larger political unit—often through colonial conquest—have a right to govern themselves at least partly independently of that larger political unit.

The claim that indigenous peoples have a right to collective self-governance is an extension of the basic democratic right of self-governance, applied to indigenous people. It is therefore a claim that can be exercised consistently with a rejection of the idea that personal identity is completely constituted by group inheritance or membership. The second perspective therefore supports a correspondingly more qualified conception of a group right. A group that has historically been taken over by force may legitimately exercise rights of collective self-governance against the larger political unit, but it must not exercise its group rights in a way that limits the individual rights of its members. On this perspective, the claims of ‘tradition’ or ‘cultural purity’ must not take priority over those of individual rights (Kymlicka 1998).

The second multicultural perspective addresses itself to the concern that group rights are a way of subjugating the less powerful members of a group, often women and children, to the more powerful, and therefore should be opposed (Okin 1999). This concern still leaves open the question as to whether some individual members of the indigenous groups in question, if given the choice as individuals, would choose to be governed by the larger or smaller political unit. In the case of children, the question also remains as to what governing unit best serves their interests. These questions do not lend themselves to easy political answers because political governance is necessarily a matter of collective agency even if human identities and interests are individualized.

Historical evidence makes clear that multiculturalism is misconceived if it is premised on the idea that people have singular or unchangeable group identities. Individual identities themselves are multicultural and they are alterable over time. Not only societies but individuals are shaped by more than a single culture. And they are not only externally shaped, but also internally altered, by human agency. In short, people are multicultural agents of change. The contrast between cultural identities that are completely constituted by an inheritance and those that are completely voluntary is therefore a false dichotomy. Most cultural identities are neither given like hair color nor chosen like high cuisine. People select, interpret, and evaluate stories, histories, and customs in an attempt to make the best out of the various cultures given to them. They also interpret and evaluate the institutions, laws, practices, and procedures of the society that they inherit. The range of moral responses to a multicultural inheritance includes obedience, criticism, reform, civil disobedience, self-imposed exile, and revolution. All are part of the human potential for cultural identities that are morally reflective and multicultural. In even minimally free societies, such identities turn out to be very diverse.

2.2 Two Modes Of Public Recognition

Should multicultural societies publicly recognize the diverse cultural identities of individuals, and if so, how? Many public schools in the USA once assigned American history texts that referred to Native Americans as savages, and were almost entirely devoid of voices of African-Americans and women. Their curriculum also commonly included Protestant prayers that all children were expected to reverently recite. These curricular practices reflect two different problems to which two different modes of public recognition are a response. Although the modes of public recognition differ, they are united by the single principled aim of treating individuals with diverse cultural identities as civic equals.

The history books illustrate the first problem: exclusion and therefore public disrespect of the experiences of historically disadvantaged and therefore marginalized groups. The mode of response to this problem that is consistent with civic equality is public recognition of the experiences of oppressed groups. The forced recitation of Protestant prayers in public schools illustrates the second problem: public intolerance of minority beliefs and practices. The mode of response to this problem that is consistent with civic quality is not public recognition but toleration, agreeing to disagree about beliefs and practices that are considered part of the basic liberty of individuals. Toleration substitutes for imposing a single comprehensive system of beliefs and practices on all students, which would disregard their religious or other spiritual convictions. Public recognition and toleration are different modes of response to multiculturalism, depending on what is at stake; they need not compete with one another.

A multiculturalism based on respecting individuals as civic equals supports public recognition of the social contributions of diverse groups when the absence of public recognition—as in the case of history textbooks that exclude the contributions and experiences of oppressed minorities or women—is publicly disrespectful and discriminatory. When cultural beliefs and practices are matters of personal conviction rather than matters of public concern, these beliefs and practices call for toleration rather than public recognition. Whether and how individuals worship God, for example, calls for toleration, not public recognition of the value of divine worship or its absence among individuals. These are the two modes of response that are consistent with a perspective that tries to secure both the basic liberty and the civic equality of individuals with culturally diverse identities.

Rather than viewing these two modes of responses as both appropriate reactions to different problems that arise within a multicultural society, some debates about multiculturalism instead pose a dichotomous choice between toleration and public recognition. Either a society tolerates cultural differences among groups by privatizing them, or it respects cultural differences by publicly recognizing them. The first response is often identified with the values of liberal democracy and the second response is often identified as critical of liberal democratic values. But as the educational examples suggest, the choice of whether to tolerate or to publicly recognize cultural differences does not necessarily reflect a choice between different underlying values. Depending on the circumstances, each response can be justified by the same aim of treating all individuals as civic equals.

Neither response—public recognition or toleration—is justifiable if extended to some cultural practices, such as slavery, torture, human sacrifice, child prostitution, and female circumcision (clitoridectomy), that violate individual rights or otherwise oppress individuals. The fact that such an oppressive cultural practice is valued by some or even many members of a society is not in itself a sufficient reason to defend either its toleration or public recognition when the basic human rights of individuals are at stake (Taylor 1994). A separate question still arises as to how oppressive cultural practices that violate human rights are best changed, and by whom, in light of the social support they continue to receive, often by the most powerful members of a society.

2.3 Two Standards Of Assessment

Controversies over multiculturalism raise a recurrent philosophical question about standards for assessing whether cultural practices are good or bad, consistent with basic human rights or oppressive. Does multiculturalism presume that the standards for assessing specific cultural practices are themselves culturally specific? Or are there universal standards of assessment? Cultural relativism suggests that moral responses to cultural practices necessarily depend on one’s specific cultural identity, and proclamations of cross-cultural standards are themselves culturally specific. Universalism suggests that there are moral responses to cultural practices that span a wide range of cultural identities and that defend a set of human needs and capacities, such as freedom from want and for personal and political self-determination. On this view, these responses are common to all human beings who live under favorable social conditions (Gutmann 1993).

Cultural relativism suggests that standards of morality and justice are relative to particular cultural understandings. It follows that if cultural understandings are radically different, then some cultural practices—which seem oppressive to members of one culture—can be justified to members of another culture. On this view, a multicultural society should allow different cultural groups to be governed by their own cultural understandings. Culturally diverse people can relate to each other, at best, by tolerating their different cultures. They can live peacefully and indifferently side by side, however, only if their own cultural understandings are compatible with establishing a modus vivendi with other cultures. In the absence of an appreciation of the virtue or usefulness of cross-cultural toleration, multicultural politics on this relativist view becomes a war of all cultures against all.

Whereas relativists criticize universalists for the moral hubris that is a source of colonialism and imperialism, universalists criticize relativists for condoning the oppression of vulnerable individuals— women, children, and disadvantaged minorities—in the name of respecting cultural practices that by the relativists’ own moral standards are unworthy of respect. Less widely noted is the fact that cultural relativism calls for the same critical response as does universalism by all people whose own moral standards—whether relative or universal—consider torture, slavery, religious intolerance, and gender and racial discrimination to be oppressive practices.

The convergence between relativist and universalist standards of assessment is made possible by three common features of diverse cultures. First, cultures contain moral standards by which their cultural practices themselves can be criticized (Walzer 1987). Second, cultures are not internally univocal in their moral standards (Gutmann 1993). Third, human beings are not completely constituted by their cultures (Kateb 1992). They can and do think beyond their cultural inheritances. Multiculturalism therefore need not await a resolution of the age-old debate between relativism and universalism to support a set of moral standards for assessing cultural practices, and to permit proponents of multiculturalism to oppose cultural practices that oppress individuals or otherwise violate human rights.


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