PGCE 3500 words – MULTICULTURALISM Literature Review

Multiculturalism: Literature Review

With reference to relevant literature on the subject, assess the positives and negatives of the British approach to multiculturalism.

This work will provide a review of relevant literature within the field of multiculturalism in order to address the research question. It is organised thematically. Its thesis is that there have been many problems with the British approach to multiculturalism but policies of integration or cohesion, which have come to replace them, have been equally problematic. This leads to the proposal that new policy debates must be initiated, where the impact of shifting notions of British identity must be taken into account in order to avoid imposing concepts of ‘coherent’ Britishness, which play into the hands of nationalist discourse. Such debates must take into account the hybrid negotiations of identity inherent to its formation, and the impact of this on education policy. The first section draws on recent documents to discuss contemporary attitudes to multiculturalism in the UK. This can be summarised by the belief that multiculturalism has failed. The belief is supported by academic research, disseminated by the media, used for the agenda of politicians and leads to the re-shaping of relevant policy documents, providing an important context for the development of educational policy. This section shows how contemporary political discourse attempts to create a binary distinction between policies of multiculturalism and policies of ‘cohesion’ or ‘integration’. It argues, however, that this is not a new Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition construction but part of a legacy of New Labour policy, where, under Tony Blair, ideas of integration came increasingly to the fore. Secondly, the next section outlines in more detail a definition of multiculturalism and the British approach to it, and goes on to discuss some of its positives. Multiculturalism, essentially, is based on the tenet of the co-existence of different cultures within one country and the potential benefits of this in terms of a politics of diversity, respect and tolerance will be discussed. The context of globalisation will also be drawn attention to, proposing that multiculturalism provides a potentially appropriate model for understanding the types of forces reshaping national boundaries, structures and identities. Thirdly, the next section focuses on negatives of the British approach to multiculturalism. This includes, for example, the vagueness of its terms leading to difficulties of definition and implementation, as well as its utopian vision and conflicts between this and actual tensions and violence. It also focuses on the way that multiculturalism can lead to a kind of ‘cultural essentialism’ where identities are ‘put into boxes’ or reduced to over-simplified determining factors, not allowing for more complex interactions of communities and more complex and active negotiations and productions of identity. Fourthly, the following section considers some of the ways in which multiculturalism itself has been misunderstood, blamed or scapegoated for social problems, before moving onto a more thorough analysis of policies of integrationism to emerge from the wake of multiculturalism. This includes discussing a distinction between integration and assimilation and potential ways in which such discourses and policies could address some of the problems and issues of multiculturalism. Fifthly, some of the problems and tensions with these approaches are discussed, including issues of the colonial imposition of values and conflicts over who should define Britishness and what is at stake in such definitions. Finally a concluding section draws all of this research together in order to return to the initial thesis and consider its relevance. The main methodologies involved in constructing this Literature Review have been researching and selecting appropriate material from library and internet sources. These have been read and summarised and their key points adopted into this thematic structure. This research now provides a useful context for further research within the field and more specific considerations of its impact on education. In terms of limitations, there could have been further analysis of how debates are played out in detail within contemporary academic journals, and this would be possible within a longer piece of work.

The contemporary attitude toward discourses of multiculturalism within UK policy can be summarised by David Cameron’s remarks at a recent security conference, where he argued that “state multiculturalism has failed” (BBC, 2011). Multiculturalism can be understood, as it is has been outlined by Meien (2007, p.3) as based on a doctrine of co-existence between different cultures within one country. As a form of public policy it suggests an active methodology for managing cultural diversity through a sense of respect and tolerance. As Ritzvi and Lingard (2010, p.163) outline, according to a multiculturalist approach, “it is the role of the state and its institutions, such as schools and universities, to create conditions necessary for all citizens to be able to utilize their skills and talents, and thus be able to contribute to national development”. Such policies seem to have obvious and immediate benefits – respecting other cultures, for example, or allowing for diversity over a forced uniform definition of British culture. As Cameron’s speech alludes to and makes great political capital of, however, multiculturalism is widely perceived to have led to a number of difficulties. His speech makes a clear opposition between the “passive tolerance” (BBC, 2011) of other cultures that he associates with multiculturalism and the need for a stronger sense of national identity that he sees as fundamental to challenging ‘extremism’ in the UK. While Cameron’s choice of emotive and loaded language is clearly intended to draw on and mobilise public and media fears and opinions, it does reveal what has become a central opposition in UK public policy and its implementation within educational discourse. Against multiculturalism, Cameron proposes “cohesion” (BBC, 2011), by which he means the active promotion of specific values that are seen as fundamental to Britishness. Other cultures, he suggests, must ‘integrate’ into British culture, rather than co-existing within the same country. While such a binary opposition between multiculturalism and integration is difficult to sustain, Cameron is quick to tap into the perceived failings of multicultural-focused policy to maximise political gain. He characterises the ‘active’ nature of integration as against the ‘passive’ acceptance of other cultures as part of constructing a feeling of ‘doing something’ about elements of society perceived as a threat (ethnic tensions, immigration fears). This is not really a new approach, however, but can be seen as a development of ‘integrationist’ policies instigated and developed by the New Labour Government before. Tony Blair, for example, raised the issue of how multiculturalism could lead to “separation and alienation from the values that define what we hold in common” (cited in Somerville, 2007, p.51) in a 2006 speech. His attempt to construct a ‘we’ here mirrors Cameron’s intentions, where concepts such as the importance of core values of Britishness are mobilised for political gain. Integration has been a key aspect of UK policy, as Somerville argues (p.51) since 2001, where political developments such as citizenship tests, the necessity of swearing an oath of allegiance to the Queen and increase in demands for English language proficiency have challenged the co-existence of other cultures within a more apparently cohesive concept of ‘British identity’. While, as Pathak (2008, p.52) has argued, citizenship is a more complex and ongoing process than something for which one can simply pass or fail an exam, its invocation by both Cameron and Blair show both a reflection and shaping of public perception that within multiculturalism something (some sense of ‘Britishness’) is lost.

Policies of multiculturalism can be traced back to 1970s developments in Canada and Australia as well as the UK, where shifts in social demographics led to the need for new approaches that could both respect the rights of ethnic communities and address the fears of existing majority groups (Rizvi & Lingard, 2010, p.163). Roy Jenkins, Labour Home Secretary in 1976 argued for the importance of multiculturalism “not as a flattening process of assimilation but equal opportunity accompanied by cultural diversity in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance” (cited in Somerville, 2007, p.51). This quote from Jenkins suggests some of the key tenets of the approach. It is opposed to ‘assimilation’ understood as a forcing of migrant communities to adapt to a pre-existent conception of British cultural identity. It is seen as a way of promoting diversity and difference as against the ‘flattening’ of culture into a homogenous and undifferentiated mass. It suggests equality as ideally those from other cultures would gain the same rights as those who were already British citizens. It encourages ‘cultural diversity’ to enrich the host culture and its focus on tolerance suggests a diffusing of potentially violent ethnic tensions. Multiculturalism, in other words, seems an appealing prospect. Ethically, as Meien (2007, p.3) argues, it is based on the assumption that no one culture has the right to dominate and impose its will on another. It can be seen to have had a number of positive impacts on UK culture. Rizvi and Lingard (2010, p.164), for example, discuss some of its advantages and successes. It has allowed for both a ‘politics of difference’ and a ‘politics of recognition’, where different cultures can co-exist and be recognised in their ethnic, religious or political specificity. It has allowed for a redistribution of resources, emphasizing access and equality between different ethnic groups, and it allows for the maintenance, rather than erosion, of a range of ethnic traditions. Bennett (1998, p.2) proposes that it can be a useful framework for considering “shared principles and problems in the ways that culturally diverse and divided societies are being represented today”, although he also goes on to acknowledge that, as a term, it has been used in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways (pp.3-6). Rizvi and Lingard’s analysis also highlights some other positive features of multiculturalism. It has co-incided with rather than clashed with neo-liberal economic models, they argue (p.164), where skills of international co-operation and communication are fundamental within a global market. The discourse of globalisation as a whole provides more support for multiculturalism. Bennett (1998, p.2), for example, describes multiculutralism as an “epiphenomenon of globalization”. As national identities become increasingly eroded by further migrations, diasporic shifts, developments in technology and challenges to sovereign state power from channels such as trasnational corporations (Li, 2004, p.135), then it seems to make less sense to speak of national identity and more to discuss multiculturalism as an inevitable by-product of a globalised world community.

On the other hand, however, relevant literature shows there are also negatives to and problems with multiculturalism in the UK. The language of ‘recognition’ and ‘co-existence’ is, as Rizvi and Lingard point out (2010, p.164) inherently vague and abstract, open to interpretation in a number of different and competing ways. Multiculturalism may seem like a noble ideal but, at the level of policy, it must be constantly negotiated contested and fought over. Another problem is its very utopianism. The idea of contrasting cultures all living together in harmony is compelling but this has not always been the case on a practical level. Burnett (2008), for example, discusses the severe problems of lack of community co-operation and cohesion in Bradford, leading to the infamous urban disorders of 2001. Bradford has been held up as an example of a site where discourses of multiculturalism have specifically failed, leading to segregation, separation of communities and disharmony (p.36). The Cantle Report of 2002 (as discussed in Nagle, 2009, p.158) specifically blamed multiculturalism for the riots in Bradford in 2001, arguing that it created “cultural dysfunction, alienation, generational conflict and crime”. As Nagle goes on to discuss (p.158) multiculturalism shifted within UK policy discourse from being the solution to tensions between diverse communities to being the cause. Cole and Ferrari (2008, p.56) use the case study of Birmingham in order to argue that “there is ample research to suggest that living in close proximity to other groups is not a sufficient condition for overcoming ethnic, racial and class divisions”. Through its focus on co-existence, in other words, multiculturalism fails to address the issue that different cultures may not necessarily intersect at all but may exist in parallel. While this does not necessarily lead to clashes or violence, it is the case, as Cole and Ferrari’s analysis suggests, that barriers are being maintained rather than challenged and broken down through the impact of policies of multiculturalism at street level. There are also a set of problems from a more theoretical perspective. Nagle (2009), for example, discusses how the discourse of multiculturalism itself is inherently limiting, defining and reducing culture to its most obvious outward signs – primarily ethnic background, leading to a form of “cultural essentialism” (p.156). Separate and pre-existing cultures, in other words assume a certain fixity which is reinforced rather than challenged through their separate existences within the same country. Multiculturalism, understood in this way, takes little account of how identities are formed through negotiations and integrations, rather than coming pre-existent and pre-formed (Bennett, 1998). Identity formation is an ongoing process and this is true at the level of community and national formation as well as at an individual level (see, for example, Anderson, 2006), and it could be argued that multiculturalism, in its focus on mutual tolerance outlined above, has failed to account for this. To tolerate is not to change and adapt but simply to continue within one culture unaffected by changes around. Malik (2010) shares this view, pointing to the dangers for multiculturalism of putting people into ‘cultural boxes’ rather than engaging with the mixing of cultures that happens everyday at a local and everyday level. He discusses a confusion between two definitions of multiculturalism. On one hand, there is the lived experience of multiculturalism, where people perceive, generally positively, the effects of living in a diverse cultural landscape. On the other hand, there is also the policy aspect of multiculturalism and it is here, he argues, that multiculturalism must be challenged, where stereotypes are produced and reinforced, and borders are policed, on a physical, cultural, and imaginative level.

Malik’s analysis suggests confusions over what multiculturalism actually is and therefore over what the British approach to it should be. Pathak (2008, p.10) has discussed how multiculturalism itself has been scapegoated, stoked by media representations, minority ethnic groups are blamed for crime and ‘multiculturalism’ is represented as an embodiment of how such problems and divisions emerge. Burnett (2008, p.36) argues that multiculturalism has been recast since 2001 as a type of internal division rather than co-existence, a type of identity politics that overrides other social and political contexts. He discusses how attacks on multiculturalism are motivated by new forms of racism (pp.37-8) where ‘otherness’ is actively constructed, demonised and not only projected onto other cultures but also onto a system whereby other cultures are allowed to remain ‘unchallenged’. Nagle (2011, p.155) develops this point, discussing how multiculutralism was blamed for the 2005 transport bombings in London, leading to a Conservative opposition response for more integration in public policy. The irony here, however, is that those convicted of the attacks were ‘integrated’ into UK society, living within and as part of rather than separate to existing British communities. Problems with multiculturalism and its perception, however, have led to shifts at the level of policy. Pathak (2008, p.11) discusses the gradual shift within UK policy from liberal multiculturalism to liberal assimilation, while others have argued that challenges to multiculturalism are essentially ‘integrationist’ rather than ‘assimilationist’. Meien (p.4), for example, argues that while assimilation assumes a “complete adjustment” on behalf of the guest to a host country, integration does include becoming part of the host community but still allows scope for individual identity at the same time. The vital issue for integration, as Meien goes on (p.4), therefore becomes the question of where to draw the line. To what extent should those from other cultures be encouraged to retain their own cultural identities and to what extent should they be compelled to adapt? Such issues have been fundamental to discourses of ‘cohesion’ that have come to replace those of multiculturalism in more recent policy discourse. The Community Cohesion Review Team, for example, informed New Labour policy post-2001 in an attempt to challenge the model of ‘parallel lives’, which was seen as a legacy of multiculturalism, creating ghettos with little forms of communication between cultures. What was proposed instead was the necessity for “fostering core values, shared morals and national allegiance” (Somerville, 2007, p.51). Such focus on these values, as against the multicultural tradition was evident, for example, in the Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Trevor Phillips’ speech in 2004 (Baldwin and Rozenberg, 2004, all citations from here). Here, Phillips argued that multiculturalism was “out of date and no longer useful” and that it created a culture of “separateness” between communities. He suggested that the system was no longer relevant today and argues that in its place there should be re-asserted a “core of Britishness” which would apply across and unite society, “what we should be talking about is how we reach an integrated society”. Phillips argues that multiculturalism has led to a sense of exclusion on behalf of those (young Muslims in particular) who are made to feel separate from a mainstream and dominant sense of Britishness and therefore, according to his argument, prey to taking on identities as ‘extremists’ instead. This leads to two conclusions. In one sense, more of an effort should be made to include those who are actually excluded through processes of multiculturalism. Secondly, it also assumes that such groups should integrate more into existing aspects of British society. This double sense of integration has been more dominant in recent policy.

Phillips’ speech did cause controversy and criticism. Brice (2006, p.18), for example, proposes that it relies on cliché and stereotypes. While integration and cohesion suggests new approaches to multiculturalism, which can challenge both reductive essentialism at the level of identity and potential ghettoisation and conflict at the level of lived experience, they have also run into many problems and difficulties. There is a basic problem, for example of who should have the right to define ‘Britishness’, and what power interests are at stake in such a definition. While identities may be multi-faceted and constantly produced through a variety of negotiations, it seems difficult for the Government to assert authoritatively what such a nebulous concept as ‘Britishness’ should be. National identity, as Benedict Anderson (2006, p.6) has argued, is inherently imaginary, “communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity\genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined”. This means that myths and discourses of Britihsness can be constantly produced and reproduced in the interests of power. It is not a fixed concept. There lies a problem then of assuming that there can be some kind of unified cohesive identity into which cultures should coalesce. Waves of migration and the impact of other cultures upon the UK means that Britishness itself is constantly changing. While discourses of multiculturalism may risk essentialising identities and maintaining separation, the enforcing of integration could lead to the enforcing of a different type of Britishness to that played out and performed by people of all different ethnic backgrounds at a local level. Pledging allegiance to the Queen, for example, may appeal to a Government-oriented notion of what constitutes Britishness but may seem absurd, archaic and unimportant to the majority of citizens. Multiculturalism, and its more recent interpretations and critiques in terms of cohesion need to be constantly challenged and re-assessed.

After addressing the literature on the topic, it appears that what is needed is a sense of multicultural integration that can engage with these problems and issues. It must take into account the problems of multiculturalism, how it can separate communities, reduce communities to essential definitions and lead to a lack of cohesive social fabric, for example. It must also address, however the different facets of multiculturalism including the ways it has been represented and scapegoated within the media for issues and problems with more deep-rooted and varied causes. A sense of cohesivness and integration must not alienate other cultures by enforcing specific models of Britishness but incorporate a sense of fluidity and change as Britishness itself modulates and changes in the wake of global movement and the intersection of new cultural identities. It was proposed initially that there have been many problems with the British approach to multiculturalism and these have been shown through the discussion of literature here. It was also proposed that policies of integration or cohesion, which have come to replace them, can been equally problematic, and these issues have also been discussed. The hypothesis remains therefore that new policy debates must be initiated, taking into account hybrid negotiations of identity between cultures. The production of such debates remains as the potential for further research.


Anderson, B. (2006) Imagined Communities. London: Verso.

Baldwin, T. and Rozenberg, G. (2004) ‘Britain must scrap multiculturalism’, The Times, April 3rd 2004,

BBC (2011) ‘State multiculturalism has failed says David Cameron’,

Bennettt, D. (1998) ‘Introduction’ to Multicultural States: Rethinking Difference and Identity. London: Routledge, pp.1-26.

Brice, K. (2006) ‘Sleepwalking to Segregation or Wide-awake Separation’,

Burnett, J. (2008) ‘Community cohesion in Bradford: neoliberal integrationism’, in J. Flint (Ed.) Community Cohesion in Crisis: new dimensions of diversity and difference. London: Policy Press, 35-56.

Cole, I. And Ferrari, E. (2008) ‘Connectivity of Place and Housing Market’, in J. Flint (Ed.) Community Cohesion in Crisis: new dimensions of diversity and difference. London: Policy Press, pp.57-80.

Malik, K. (2010) ‘Multiculturalism undermines diversity’,, Wednesday 17th March 2010,

Meien, J (2007) The Multiculturalism vs. Integration Debate in Great Britain. London: GRIN.

Li, D.L. (2004) Globalization and the Humanities. Aberdeen, HK: Hong Kong University Press.

Nagle, J. (2009) Multiculturalism’s Double Bind. Farnham: Ashgate.

Pathak, P (2008) The Future of Multicultural Britain: confronting the progressive dilemma. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Rizvi, F. and Lingard, B. (2010) Globalizing Education Policy. London: Routledge.

Somerville, W. (2007) Immigration under New Labour. London: Policy Press.