In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Multiculturalism

  • Introduction
  • Early Works
  • General Works
  • Theories of Multiculturalism
  • Anthologies
  • Nationalism and Self-Determination
  • Indigenous Peoples
  • Secularism and Religious Diversity
  • Race, Racism, and Racial Identity
  • Toleration, Harm, and the Limits of Multicultural Accommodation
  • Multiculturalism and Gender Equality
  • Citizenship, Solidarity, and Social Cohesion
  • American Multiculturalism
  • Multiculturalism in Comparative Perspective
  • Critical and Alternative Perspectives

Philosophy Multiculturalism
Michael Murphy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0361


Multiculturalism is a branch of political philosophy that explores the relationship between cultural diversity and human freedom and well-being, while offering justifications for accommodating the claims of cultural minorities in legal and political institutions and public policies. Multiculturalism is actually an umbrella term that covers a number of distinct subliteratures, including the study of identity politics, the politics of recognition, national self-determination and the politics of multinational citizenship, secularism and religious diversity, and the politics of indigeneity. Within these distinct literatures there are many different theories of multicultural accommodation, each with its own unique set of assumptions, argumentative strategies, and guiding normative principles, yet most of these theories converge around a common set of questions and concerns. Perhaps the most fundamental question is which social groups are included in the term “cultural minority”? While some define this term very broadly, most theorists focus their attention on ethnocultural groups such as immigrants and historical linguistic minorities; ethnonational groups, including stateless nations and indigenous peoples; religious minorities, such as European Muslims or North American Hasidim; and, to a somewhat lesser extent, racial minorities such as African Americans. Multiculturalists also seek to understand the nature of the demands these different groups make on the state, and what specific changes in law, the configuration of public institutions, or the distribution of rights and resources are critical to addressing their concerns. For example, linguistic and religious minorities might demand the right to operate their own separate religious schools with public funding, immigrant minorities may seek exemptions from certain laws or regulations (e.g., dress codes) that inhibit their participation in public institutions, while stateless nations and indigenous peoples frequently demand rights to territory and self-government. While there is near-universal agreement among multiculturalists that states should accommodate at least some of the demands of cultural minorities, they frequently disagree when it comes to determining the precise nature of that accommodation and how it can be justified in moral terms. Multiculturalists also differ profoundly when it comes to striking a balance between minority rights and traditional liberal concerns for freedom, equality, and fundamental individual rights (especially the rights of women and minors), and in terms of how they address the impact of multicultural policies on citizenship, social cohesion, and national unity. Although multiculturalism encompasses its own distinct universe of concerns, in many ways it grapples with age-old philosophical questions such as the nature of justice, the limits of liberal toleration, the significance of the secular-religious divide, and the appropriate division between the spheres of public and private life. In a world where issues of religious, ethnic, and ethnonational diversity continue to be a major source of public and political concern, multicultural political philosophy comprises an invaluable source both of moral and practical guidance.

Early Works

Questions of cultural minority rights were largely overlooked by postwar political theorists. An early exception is Van Dyke 1977, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the foundations for the modern debates over multiculturalism were truly established. What in many ways began as a debate between liberals and communitarians over the role of community in facilitating individual freedom and well-being (see, e.g., Kymlicka 1989, Raz 1986, and Taylor 1985) soon took on a life of its own by shifting its focus onto the relationship between majority and minority cultural communities and the justifiability of minority rights. While theorists such as Will Kymlicka (Kymlicka 1989) focused exclusively on the rights of stateless nations or indigenous peoples, the scope of the debate rapidly expanded to include ethnic and religious minorities and a wide variety of other sociocultural groups (e.g., Young 1990).

  • Kymlicka, Will. Liberalism, Community, and Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

    The book that launched the modern debate over multiculturalism and minority rights. Built around the example of aboriginal peoples in Canada, Kymlicka’s liberal autonomy-centered defense of minority rights to self-government became an instant classic.

  • Raz, Joseph. The Morality of Freedom. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986.

    Not strictly a book on or about multiculturalism, but Raz’s analysis of the social and cultural preconditions of individual autonomy had a major impact on subsequent autonomy-based defenses of minority rights, such as those advanced in Kymlicka 1995 (cited in Theories of Multiculturalism) and Spinner-Halev 2000 (cited in Secularism and Religious Diversity).

  • Taylor, Charles. “Atomism.” In Philosophical Papers. Vol. 2, Philosophy and the Human Sciences. By Charles Taylor, 187–210. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    Primarily a critique of a certain variant of liberal individualism, Taylor’s alternative “social thesis” is another important precursor of liberal-culturalist arguments linking minority self-government rights to the good of individual autonomy.

  • Van Dyke, Vernon. “The Individual, the State, and Ethnic Communities in Political Theory.” World Politics 29.3 (1977): 343–369.

    DOI: 10.2307/2010001

    One of the earliest, and most influential, liberal defenses of collective ethnic-minority rights and their relationship both to theories of the state and existing state practices. Includes a very illuminating discussion of the moral right to self-determination.

  • Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the Politics of Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990.

    In this classic work, Young critiques the predominant distributive conception of liberal justice for its failure to adequately address the plight of cultural minorities and other marginalized social groups. Her own alternative conception of justice is informed by a politics of difference that seeks to combat majority oppression and domination via democratic inclusion and group-differentiated rights and social policies.

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