Communication Cultural Pluralism and Communication
Alin Olteanu
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0264


Cultural pluralism refers to conceptions of cultural heterogeneity, the term pluralism being understood in contrast to substance individualism. In general, pluralism denotes anti-monadism. Accounts of cultural pluralism stretch over a broad spectrum, from the atomistic view of plurality as a collection of autonomously coexisting and individually defined cultures to the view of culture as an intrinsically heterogenous phenomenon within which distinct clusters cannot be identified. In between these two poles, different schools account for various construals of cultural boundaries, from less to more easily permeable. Views on cultural pluralism are underpinned by the mutually implicit notions of boundary, difference, and identity. Scholarly notions often carry an ideological charge, as exhibited by the common “liberal pluralism” notion. Construing cultural pluralism depends on how the boundary between two (or more) cultures is defined and, consequently, what is deemed cultural identity. Because various concepts of boundary, difference, and identity circulate in different disciplines, there is no clear consensus on a scholarly use of “cultural pluralism.” In many cases, it relates to conceptions about language heterogeneity and the relation between (natural) language and cognition. As such, cultural pluralism is not the specific object of any particular discipline. Approaches are usually interdisciplinary and stretch throughout the broad spectrum of humanities and social sciences, with inputs from other sciences (systems theory, game theory, evolutionary biology). While the notion is plentifully debated and used in a variety of scholarly concerns, there are no dedicated academic journals or textbooks. Discussions on cultural pluralism often take communication as a main concern, as questions on intercultural dialog and cultural conflicts are implicit. In brief, the study of cultural pluralism implies studying the communication processes between the elements that constitute a plurality (be it distinct or overlapping cultures or different communities belonging to similar cultural spaces). On most accounts, the notion of cultural identity also supposes construals of otherness and, therefore, dialogism. Invoked in various paradigms, cultural pluralism cannot be pinpointed as a defined technical term. The usage of “cultural pluralism” as a specific terminology was debated academically, in a focused way, in the third quarter of the 20th century, in the North American context, arguably in the wake of the civil rights movement. Conversations here relied on earlier American anthropology and concerned matters of cultural and immigration policy. The notion has specific connotations in educational research, where social and cultural inclusivity are considered. Many scholarly works address cultural pluralism, directly or through their implications, by using different and cognate terms such as dialogism, speech community, heterogeneity, or multiculturalism. Given the state of the art in relevant areas and the nature of the concept, this attempt to systematically overview the main bibliographical sources for cultural pluralism cannot offer an exhaustive account. For this reason, while there is a vast amount of literature that studies cultural pluralism practically, in specific communities and regions, this overview focuses on theoretical studies.

General Overview

As cultural pluralism is a relevant topic for various academic disciplines, not a discipline with specific theories of its own, it has been shaped by discussions in several fields. Thus, foundational works in various cognate disciplines have been seminal in shaping discussions on cultural pluralism and related notions. As these often are studies of defining importance for their disciplines, it should not be supposed that cultural pluralism is an exclusively defining topic for any of them. Primarily, this is the case of landmark works that shaped various disciplines. Zangwill 1909 is a work of fiction that has been highly influential for early American anthropology, which ushered in more recent cultural studies, e.g. Hall, et al. 2005 (cited under Media). Bauman 1995 and Levinas 1979 are landmarks for philosophical notions of plurality and otherness. Brockmeier and Carbaugh 2001 and Salvatore, et al. 2014 shaped notions of relationship and identity in recent attempts to bridge cognitive and cultural studies. While not always cited directly in scholarship on cultural pluralism, such foundational works laid the ground for construing monadism and anti-monadism. Bhabha 1994 and Eagleton 2000 are landmark works with explicit consequences for concepts of culture. Huntington 1996 supports a strongly relativist view on culture, by discussing post–Cold War geopolitical conflicts as a clash of civilizations, which are formed through cultural identities. Some few publications—particularly from the third quarter of the 20th century, among which Haug 1967; Pantoja, et al. 1976; and Young 1976 feature prominently—are noted for having addressed cultural pluralism in an explicit and focused manner. Toffolo 2003 offers a reflection back on those debates from the perspective of more recent findings. Brooks 2002 also offers an encompassing and critical reassessment of issues that have been defining for cultural pluralism for a longer time.

  • Bauman, Z. 1995. Modernity and ambivalence. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

    This landmark monograph constituted a remarkable step in cultural studies by explaining that strangerhood has been historically and uncritically deemed a universal of the human condition. It discusses the historical shift from premodern to postmodern culture and society as the shift from stigmatizing to valuing difference. As such, it argues that while postmodernity advocates against the discrimination of the other, it still endorses a view on cultural plurality as an atomistic collection of cultural identities. Originally published 1993.

  • Bhabha, H. K., ed. 1994. The location of culture. London and New York: Routledge.

    This book discusses construals of culture by problematizing the notions of identity and, implicitly, of boundary. Cultural identity is presented as intersubjective and collective negotiation. Belonging is construed as the self’s present interrogation, as a passage that transcends the boundaries that delineate artificial dualisms.

  • Brockmeier, J., and D. Carbaugh, eds. 2001. Narrative and identity. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    This volume discusses the making of identities, as subjective processes of the self, through narratives. Narrative is deemed a basic structure of the human mind and of human societies, through the development of which identities are constructed. The volume gathers twelve chapters, including the introduction, by world-leading scholars in the field, who discuss identity vis-à-vis narrativity from the perspectives of psychology, philosophy, social sciences, literary theory, psychiatry, communication, and film theory.

  • Brooks, S., ed. 2002. The challenge of cultural pluralism. Westport, CT: Praeger.

    The introduction and ten chapters of this edited volume offer a comprehensive and critical overview of cultural pluralism. The papers address important contemporary issues that involve cultural pluralism and critically engage with mainstream theories and views on policies regarding cultural integration and heritage. The book particularly exhibits a Canadian school of thinking on cultural pluralism, formed around the political scientist Kenneth D. McRae, different from the mainstream and influential Canadian multiculturalist school, championed by Charles Taylor.

  • Eagleton, T. 2000. The idea of culture. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell.

    A landmark for cultural theory, the book dissects the history of the concept of culture. Of particular consequence for cultural pluralism, the notion of culturalism, as the ideological doctrine that human life is determined by culture, is coined. The roots of culturalism are identified in philosophical Romanticism. Its contemporary uptakes in cultural relativism and multiculturalism are explored. This involves a criticism of the enthusiasm toward what the book calls liberal-pluralist societies.

  • Haug, M. R. 1967. Social and cultural pluralism as a concept in social system analysis. American Journal of Sociology 73.3: 294–304.

    DOI: 10.1086/224477

    This is an influential social study that aimed to establish a technical consensus on the cultural pluralism idiom. It is illustrative for the scholarly debates of the 20th century, in the American context, that aimed to find a consensus for this terminology. By relying on survey data, the paper defines cultural pluralism in view of demographic, communication, economic, and political variables.

  • Huntington, S. 1996. The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. New York: Simon & Schuster.

    This landmark work for peace and conflict studies is also an important reference for cultural pluralism because it supposes that the main factor of geopolitical conflicts in the post–Cold War world is cultural and religious pluralism. The starting assumption is that the identification of enemies is essential to the formation of new identities in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR. The book takes a strong relativist position and a rigid notion of cultural identity, considering that culture and religion define civilizations at a large scale. Consequently, the argument is that communities sharing cultural traits—i.e. civilizations—are deemed to clash violently.

  • Levinas, E. 1979. Totality and infinity: An essay on exteriority. Translated by A. Lings. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-94-009-9342-6

    This major work of 20th-century phenomenological philosophy has been seminal for construals of alterity and, hence, dialogism. It does not explicitly address cultural pluralism but it has immediate implications for its construal. It discusses communication only as implicit to the human individual’s existential condition. In what is a complex philosophical treatise, the Other is deemed the only locus for transcendence and fulfillment of the self. [Original title: Totalité et infini: Essai sur l’extériorité.]

  • Pantoja, A., W. Perry, and B. Blourock. 1976. Towards the development of theory: Cultural pluralism redefined. Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare 4.1: 125–146.

    This is an influential study, also illustrative of the search for a consensus on cultural pluralism in the American context, in the 20th century. It (re-)defines cultural pluralism primarily in consideration of the social movement that this terminology denoted at the time, noting lacunae in the many existing theoretical definitions. It points to demographic groups of “alternative life styles” that form this movement. As such, it takes difference as the main criterion for defining an operational notion of cultural pluralism.

  • Salvatore, S., A. Gennaro, and J. Valsiner, eds. 2014. Multicentric identities in a globalizing world. Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

    This edited collection discusses the pluralization of the notion of identity in the context of globalization in fifteen chapters. It takes a social semiotic approach to the topic, in awareness of discussions in anthropology, sociology, and relevant cognitive theories. By considering its many aspects, the noted authors construe identity as dynamic, plural, and negotiated. The volume has the merit of showcasing the relevance of a semiotic approach to identity, given the state of the art, evasiveness, and interdisciplinary nature of the concept.

  • Toffolo, C. E., ed. 2003. Emancipating cultural pluralism. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press.

    This edited volume resurfaces the notion of cultural pluralism from previous debates of the 1960s and 1970s, in light of newer trends in cultural studies. Several issues intrinsic to cultural pluralism, such as religiously, politically, and ethnically defined conflictuality, are discussed in light of globalization, now more visible and accelerated than in contexts previously discussed. This leads to redefining cultural pluralism through the problematization of identity politics.

  • Young, C. 1976. The politics of cultural pluralism. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    This is one of the first and few treatises focused explicitly on cultural pluralism. The notion is explored in a political concern, through detailed and comparative analyses of cultural conflicts. It regards cultural pluralism widely as a modern phenomenon, due to social changes brought by urbanization and industrialization.

  • Zangwill, I. 1909. Melting pot: Drama in four acts. New York: Macmillan.

    While a work of fiction, this influential play greatly raised awareness of the benefits of the mixing of communities of immigrants populating the USA. It advanced an idea of American identity as the melting together of the many cultural identities of the Old World. It displays the first remarkable use of the idiom “melting pot,” in this sense, in literature. The expression had been circulating in the USA for a while. The staging of the play had a profound impact, both social and academic, popularizing the idea of cultural pluralism, particularly in North America.

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