Cultural Pluralism

Cultural pluralism is a form of cultural diversity in certain countries where cultures can still maintain their unique qualities and combine to form a larger richer whole. In many countries, including the United States, the term multiculturalism is used synonymously or in place of cultural pluralism.

According to Newman (1973, p. 29), societies can range from those that are monistic (composed of one group) or dyadic (composed of two groups) to those that are pluralistic (composed of many groups). He goes on to point out that “societies that are customarily described as culturally pluralistic are those composed of numerous groups that, either by virtue of coalitions between minorities or on the basis of their own critical size, are able to resist being lumped into an undifferentiated mass” (p. 29). Finally, Newman noted that “cultural pluralism may be expressed in the formula A+B+C = A+B+C, where A, B, and C represent different social groups that, over time, maintain their own unique identities” (p. 67).

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Stent, Hazard, and Rivlin (1973) provide a similar definition by proposing that:

[Cultural pluralism] is a state of equal co-existence in a mutually supportive relationship within the boundaries or framework of one nation of people of diverse cultures with significantly different patterns of belief, behavior, color, and in many cases with different languages. To achieve cultural pluralism, there must be unity with diversity. Each person must be aware of and secure in his own identity, and be willing to extend to others the same respect and rights that he expects to enjoy himself: (p. 14)

Cultural PluralismA key feature of these definitions of cultural pluralism is their contrast to the earlier approach to cultural diversity in countries, namely assimilation as the desired and inevitable process. This process of assimilation assumes a unidirectional pattern of cultural change whereby new immigrant and refugee groups would eventually become more and more like the dominant group in the host country. In the United States, this process of assimilation was referred to as the “melting pot” notion whereby all cultural groups would eventually melt in the same pot that is the United States and the result would be Americans, indistinguishable from each other. Critics of the assimilation model or the “melting pot” idea quickly pointed out that the actual process of cultural change was not the development of a new cultural identity for all who lived in the United States. Instead, the assimilation model involved the imposition of Western European cultures on all non-European groups with the accompanying loss of these groups’ unique cultural heritage. According to Newman’s mathematical model (1973), assimilation would be represented by A+B+C = A, where A, B, and C represent different social groups and A represents the dominant group” (p. 57).

Given this perspective on assimilation and the dangers of cultural monopoly where the dominant cultural group can impose its attitudes, values, beliefs, and customs onto the smaller or less powerful cultural groups, a key ingredient in the cultural pluralism perspective is the recognition, maintenance, and ultimately respect and appreciation of the uniqueness and distinctiveness of different cultures. To return to the earlier metaphor of the “melting pot” which represents the assimilation perspective, others have proposed the “salad” or “tapestry” as good metaphors for the cultural pluralism perspective since both involve the creation of a unified item which maintains the unique and distinctive qualities of the separate elements contained within the item. Berry (1997) has proposed acculturation as a useful framework for understanding different forms of cultural adaptation in a culturally pluralistic society.

On the other hand, cultural pluralism can also be described from many different social science perspectives using different levels of analysis. In one sense, cultural pluralism can be viewed psychologically in terms of an individual’s cultural orientation or multicultural ideology. At the same time, cultural pluralism is a demographic trend in many countries including the United States, occurring as a result of increasing cultural diversity of the population in a particular country. In another sense, cultural pluralism can also be viewed as a national policy. For example, many international social scientists who have traveled to both the United States and Canada have commented on how cultural pluralism is an explicit part of the national policy in Canada but not the United States. Relatedly, it can be analyzed from the perspective of social psychology and political science. For example, what political factors have created the ethnic conflict and warfare between the cultural groups in Yugoslavia which have occupied much of the I990s?

Given the increasing cultural diversity of the population in most countries, it can also become an educational philosophy on how we can and should educate the children of a country who come from many different cultural backgrounds. Finally, cultural pluralism has also become an issue of concern in organizations to the extent that cultural differences between workers and between workers and managers can lead to conflicts and misunderstandings that negatively affect productivity and morale. These last two perspectives on cultural pluralism have received the most attention from psychologists and will be discussed later in the current article.

Next, it would be useful to delineate some psychological barriers to the achievement of cultural pluralism. Berry (1997) provides a useful conceptualization of the barriers to achieving cultural pluralism and recommends examining three levels, namely the national, institutional, and individual levels. At the individual level of analysis, Berry (1997) recommends examining the multicultural ideology of individuals. These attitudes and beliefs can serve as barriers to the achievement of cultural pluralism in day-to-day interactions and encounters. One important example of the barriers created by individual social cognition is ethnocentrism.

Many cross-cultural psychologists have pointed out that ethnocentrism is a natural and widespread phenomenon. Ethnocentrism is the belief that the customs, norms, values, and practices of one’s culture represent the correct way of ordering society, and are, indeed, superior to those of other cultures (Triandis, 1994). Scholars studying cultural pluralism have pointed out that ethnocentrism is responsible for much of the resistance to the establishment of policies, practices, and procedures in educational and organizational settings based on cultural pluralism. Within the United States, ethnocentrism has been proposed to be primarily manifested as a Eurocentric bias since White European Americans dominate the country politically, economically, and demographically. In response to this Eurocentric bias, some scholars from Black studies have proposed an Afrocentric curriculum for African American children. This Afrocentric approach would embed not only the content but also the process of education in the African-centered experiences of African Americans.

Barriers at the national level can be manifested in explicit policies or official laws and procedures. Examples of national policies that serve as a barrier to the achievement of cultural pluralism include the contrast between Canada and the United States. As mentioned earlier, multiculturalism is an explicit national policy in Canada (Berry, 1997) while it is not in the United States. Many international visitors have observed that due to this difference in national policy, Canada does a better job of respecting and integrating the members of different cultural groups into its society than the United States. Some authors have pointed out that another example of policies that seek to undermine cultural pluralism were attempts in the 1990s to pass laws in the state of California making English the official language. These authors argue that while English is the dominant language in the United States, passing a law to make English the official language would in effect encourage neglect and even discrimination against recent immigrants and refugees who have not yet mastered the English language.

At the institutional level, cultural pluralism has also become an important policy and practice issue in both work organizations and educational institutions. In educational settings ranging from elementary school to colleges and universities, the issue of cultural pluralism as an educational approach or educational philosophy has received increased attention during the last decade. Given the increasing cultural diversity of student populations in schools and universities, pressures to attend to the cultural differences, and sometimes cultural conflicts, created by these changes have been mounting. How to create a classroom and a general educational environment that promotes cultural pluralism have been discussed increasingly in many educational institutions. These discussions have occurred in student affairs conferences, continuing education workshops for teachers, courses in schools of education, and seminars for university administrators. The content of these discussions has ranged from policies about appearance and dress for students, to the underrepresentation of faculty of color in various university departments, to how many and what type of courses focusing on various cultural groups should be included in the curriculum.

The results of some of these discussions have sometimes been quite controversial. For example, there was an uproar at Stanford University when faculty selected mainly Western European works as the basic required material that Stanford undergraduates should be exposed to during their years in college. At the University of California-Berkeley, certain Asian American groups filed a lawsuit when they perceived the change in university policy about the cut-off scores for admission was changed selectively to discriminate against Asian Americans. The university had raised cut-off only on the verbal and not the math scores on the SAT for admission which these Asian American groups perceived as targeted at them. Asian Americans tended to have lower verbal scores which they make up for with their high math scores, and many were getting admitted into the university based on the total score approach. The use of specific minimum cut-off scores for math and verbal meant that many Asian Americans would no longer be accepted into the university. In some school districts in the United States, heated debates have resulted from the African American community leaders’ demand for Afrocentric schools as alternatives to the regular school systems which they perceive as ignoring or minimizing the educational coverage of the cultural heritage of their children. At the same time, many ethnic minority and cultural groups have perceived a backlash against the cultural pluralism movement in the schools with the attack on affirmative action programs in universities.

Within work organizations in the United States, the cultural pluralism movement has had a somewhat different track from that of educational institutions. The integration of a cultural pluralism approach has been a less contentious issue in organizations. This is due to the fact that organizations are perhaps more oriented toward effectiveness and the impact of ineffectiveness on the bottom line of productivity and profits. Starting around 1987 with the Workforce 2000 report (Johnson & Packer, 1987), organizations in the United States began to realize that a culturally diverse workforce was inevitable and that attention to cultural differences in the workplace was essential. With this recognition, many organizations began hiring consultants and trainers to help them deal with this cultural diversity issue. Not surprisingly, there was a parallel increase in the number of books and journal articles dealing with the issue of managing cultural diversity in organization (Triandis, Kurowski, & Gelfand. 1993). Many of these interventions involve providing training workshops and seminars for various levels of managers and supervisors on how to interact and communicate more effectively with the increasingly culturally diverse workers. Some critics of this approach to cultural pluralism in the workplace have accused organizations of making only superficial attempts at changes in the form of transient interventions such as workshops and seminars rather than structural changes (e.g., hiring more cultural and ethnic minorities as managers and supervisors). The cultural pluralism movement in organizations is still relatively new and we will need more time to accurately determine if long-lasting changes have been effected with these current sets of interventions.

In summary, cultural pluralism is an issue which will remain central for many years to come and there is a great need for more cross-cultural studies to form the basis of the cultural pluralism movement. As pointed out by Berry (1997):

All contemporary societies are now culturally plural. There are no longer any societies that can claim to be homogeneous with respect to objective cultural markers (such as ethnic origin, language, and religion) or subjective indicators (such as one’s ethnic identity or personal expressions of one’s culture). Such diversity elicits a variety of responses at a number of levels: national societies, institutions. and individuals can celebrate or deny it: they can share it or isolate it: they can accommodate it or attempt to squash it. Whatever the attitude or course of action, however, both history and contemporary experience provide compelling evidence that cultural pluralism is durable, even if its forms and expressions evolve over time. . . . (p. 17)


  1. Berry, J. W. (1997). Individual and group relations in plural societies. In C. S. Granrose & S. Oskamp (Eds.), Cross-cultural work groups. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  2. Johnson, W. B. & Packer, A. H. (1987). Workforce 2000. Indianapolis, IN: Hudson Institute.
  3. Newman, W. M. (1973). American pluralism: A study of minority groups and social theory. New York: Harper & Row.
  4. Stent, M. D., Hazard, W. R., & Rivlin, H. N. (1973). Cultural pluralism in education: A mandate for change. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  5. Triandis, H. C. (1994). Culture and social behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  6. Triandis, H. C.. Kurowski, L. L. & Gelfand. M. J. (1993). Workplace diversity. In M. D. Dunnette & L. Hough (Eds.), Handbook of industrial and organizational psychology (2nd ed., Vol. 2, pp. 769-827). Palo Alto. CA: Consulting Psychologist Press.