Issues regarding diversity are all over the news today. There is racial hatred between minority groups and police, there are growing concerns with immigration, and there are questions of whether we should allow equal rights for gay people. All of these questions fall under the realm of cultural diversity. Do we expect our society to have one definition for who we are, or do we instead need to respect a variety of cultural identities? There are several models of cultural diversity theory based on observations about the blending or lack of blending of different groups of people. The major theories include assimilation, pluralism, and multiculturalism.
Cultural assimilation is the process of two or more cultures blending so that one begins to take on some of the attributes of the other. In most cases, this is a shift from a minority culture such as an immigrant culture, to a dominant culture (Kottak & Kozaitis, 2003). While assimilation doesn’t require the individual or the group to change, they do begin to take on additional characteristics such as altering their clothing choices or celebrating additional holidays. Included in this concept are the ideas of the Melting Pot and Accommodation. The concept of the Melting Pot is particularly referring to the process of assimilation in the United States in which all cultures coming into the country are expected to melt into the culture of the United States, becoming one, homogenous whole. Accommodation occurs when the individual or group must change or even replace old ideas based on the new culture, for example, when old ethnic values or home languages are tossed away in favor of the new values / languages used by the dominant society (Cherry, 2015). A strong example of assimilation in the United States can be found in the case of the American Indian, many of whom are completely unaware of their own cultural backgrounds, stories, traditions, and languages and have instead a European American understanding of the world.
Pluralism refers to the idea that within a common society, different groups of different types (for example religions, ethnicities) maintain their own set of traditional culture. This might include examples such as Middle Eastern people coming to the United States and maintaining their own cultural identity at home and as a group through a common meeting place such as a church, but otherwise living among mainstream society as Americans. This idea also includes the concepts of Separatism in which the degree to which the group develops its own identity is so extreme that they become separated from the mainstream (Spencer, 1998). Groups can separate out from the mainstream society for a number of reasons either by their choice, as in the case of the Pennsylvania Dutch or through no fault of their own, such as in the case of African Americans. In the case of the Pennsylvania Dutch, the people have separated themselves away from mainstream American society voluntarily as a means of protecting their Amish religion and values. In the case of African Americans, there is a complex mix of why they are separated – enforced separation as a result of emotional hatred of their skin color by those who had once oppressed them and voluntary separation as a means of attempting to protect themselves through numbers from those same oppressors.
Rather than attempting to gather everyone into a single cultural identity as the Melting Pot theory would encourage, Multiculturalism attempts to set social policy that strives to make room for multiple cultural expressions. At its core, it suggests we should have greater sympathy and acceptance for lifestyles that are different from our own. If a woman feels it’s necessary to wear a veil over her hair, we should accept that as an expression of her religious convictions. If a man chooses to wear a sombrero to keep the sun off his head instead of a baseball cap, that too is an expression of his heritage that should be accepted. Examples of multiculturalism can be found in places like the DMV when tests or instructions are offered in more than one language. It sounds like a great concept, to accept everyone as they are, but critics argue that multicultural policies have instead created “fragmented societies, alienated minorities, and resentful citizenries” (Malik, 2015). While multiculturalism makes it possible for each group to have its own expression honored and valued within a larger group, the charge is that by making policies that enforce this, individuals and groups are being forced into definitions that may or may not apply to them while being discouraged from attempting any depth of assimilation they might otherwise have welcomed.
Although they are each discussed as if there are solid lines between these theories, in reality it is possible to see each of them in operation at any given time to greater or lesser degree. For example, in the city where I live, there is a lot of assimilation as people come from all around and try to achieve a similar kind of look. The houses they live in, the clothes they wear and the things they tend to value all have a common characteristic. However, if you look closer, there are small elements of what they do, such as how they choose to spend their lunch break, what they eat and what they do in their spare time, that illustrate more of a pluralist approach. The fact that the training materials at my workplace are offered in English, Spanish, and a few other language options demonstrates a multicultural approach.
- Cherry, K. (2015). “What is Assimilation?” About Education. http://psychology.about.com/od/aindex/g/assimilation.htm
- Kottak, C.P. & Kozaitis, K.A. (2003). On Being Different: Diversity and Multiculturalism in the North American Mainstream. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Malik, K. (2015). “The Failure of Multiculturalism.” Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/western-europe/2015-03-01/failure-multiculturalism
- Spencer, M. (1998). Separatism, Democracy and Disintegration. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.