Demographics that include a large number of separate minority groups can make the cultural terrain a difficult one to navigate. “Cultural pluralism” refers to one of a handful of competing models for how multiple cultures can co-exist harmoniously within a society. The concept holds that minority groups should be allowed to maintain their cultural differences and identities, so long as these differences do not conflict with the major values and laws of the dominant culture.

History and Context

In the United States, society’s leading thinkers have been debating cultural assimilation versus cultural separatism since at least the first half of the 19th century. The concept of cultural pluralism was first developed by a group of vanguard intellectuals – most notably Horace Kallen, Alain Lock and Randolph Bourne – in the early 20th Century. The social philosopher Roy Brooks defines the term as an “ordaining” of cultural identities where there is no one, legitimate American mainstream but multiple mainstreams instead. The two other main competing theories on living within multicultural societies are cultural assimilation and transculturalism. Under assimilation, minority groups are encouraged to give up their traditional beliefs and customs and embrace those of the larger society. Transculturalism is basically the “melting pot” theory – a society’s diverse groups come together to create a new mainstream, amalgamated culture.

Advantages of Cultural Pluralism

A culturally pluralistic society is characterized by greater tolerance for groups that differ from the dominant society, resulting in less prejudice and discrimination toward minorities. This view diminishes ethnocentrism: the tendency of people to view divergent customs, people and beliefs through the lens of their own culture and to make judgments based on those standards. Cultural pluralism also promotes “intellectual dualism.” In other words, it exposes the voting public and society’s policymakers to multiple perspectives, which can improve critical thinking on decisions related to leading issues. Finally, if successful, cultural pluralism helps preserve the unique traditions, identities and languages of the many cultures within a society.

Disadvantages of Cultural Pluralism

Some critics of cultural pluralism say it threatens to divide American culture into more isolated units and, if pursued vigorously, could produce a more entrenched “bunker mentality," defined in Merriam-Webster as members of a minority group being so sensitized to prejudice that they become self-righteously intolerant of any type of criticism. Others are concerned that cultural pluralism could threaten America’s values and goals as well as the preservation of its own cultural history. An example of this concern is the debate over what should comprise the literary canon in education throughout the United States, as schools and universities have strived to make the canon more inclusive over the past half century. Some critics of cultural pluralism also fear the potential for cultural relativism – a condition where all ways of life, for example, plural marriage, are considered to be morally equal, even if one culture's accepted customs are viewed as immoral by others.

Melding of Views

As with most contemporary issues, there is no overriding consensus regarding which framework for a multicultural society works best. The question at the heart of the debate is how regions with diverse populations can manage and govern their societies in a way which ensures justice for all groups -- as well as political and cultural harmony -- in a world where demographics and politics are constantly changing. Also central to the issue is whose values should control the American “mainstream” when cultures clash.