U.S. Intellectual History Blog

BLEG: The History Of The Idea Of Multiculturalism

by Tim Lacy

With this post I am seeking to build a strong sense of historiography on the idea, or intellectual history, of multiculturalism. It seems, based on my own explorations and surveying colleagues, that no authoritative text exists, either in article or book form. But I have no high confidence in this assertion.

Although several books on my shelf touch on the emergence of multiculturalism in the 1970s, I will likely build my thinking on Rodgers’ accounting in—you guessed it—Age of Fracture.

What texts have you found most useful for discussing the historical development of the idea of multiculturalism?

As a starting point for thinking about the idea’s history, here is some excerpted material from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Definition (only one offered, surprisingly): The characteristics of a multicultural society; (also) the policy or process whereby the distinctive identities of the cultural groups within such a society are maintained or supported.

First use recorded in OED: 1957   Hispania 40 349   The key to successful living here, as it is in Switzerland, is multilingualism, which can carry with it rich multiculturalism.

To add some subtlety, let’s look at a few of the OED’s entries for pluralism (using their number system):

 3. Polit. A theory or system of devolution and autonomy for organizations and individuals in preference to monolithic state power. Also: (advocacy of) a political system within which many parties or organizations have access to power.

First used: 1917   H. J. Laski Stud. Probl. Sovereignty i. 6   Pluralism, in the ultimate sense, is..impossible, for it would make unintelligible any rational interpretation of society.

4. The presence or tolerance of a diversity of ethnic or cultural groups within a society or state; (the advocacy of) toleration or acceptance of the coexistence of differing views, values, cultures, etc.

First used: 1924   H. Kallen Culture & Democracy in U.S. 43   Cultural growth is founded upon Cultural Pluralism. Cultural Pluralism is possible only in a democratic society whose institutions encourage individuality in groups, in persons, [and] in temperaments.

And a bonus entry from the usage list: 1995   N.Y. Rev. Bks. 19 Oct. 30/1   The institutions and practices of liberalism are likely to open public space to previously repressed and invisible groups, turning a merely theoretical or potential pluralism into an actual on-the-ground pluralism.

So the key difference here between multiculturalism and pluralism seems to be, for the former, active maintenance and support of difference of ethnic and/or cultural groups. But the latter is characterized by more passive tolerance and acceptance. The bonus entry, furthermore, tells us that liberalism is perhaps more often associated with pluralism than multiculturalism (think of the consummate liberal Arthur Schlesinger here, and Rodgers’ citation (p. 210-211) of The Disuniting of America in relation to intellectual opposition to multiculturalism).

I’m looking forward to your input!

30 Thoughts on this Post

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    • Andrew’s post reminds us, among other things, that we must consider the terminological overlap of “identity politics” and “______ Power” movements with multiculturalism, as well as Taylor’s phrase “the politics of recognition.” The intellectual grounds were laid in the 1960s for the emergence in the 1970s of the idea of multiculturalism.

      Hartman’s post is excellent in relation to piecing together primary resources (esp. philosophical), but I’m hoping here to accumulate histories of multiculturalism *in addition to* Andrew’s recounting. – TL

  1. I would start with these two:

    Everett Helmut Akum, Transnational America: Cultural Pluralist Thought in the Twentieth Century (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002)

    Christopher Shannon, A World Made Safe for Differences (Rowman and Littlefield 2000)

    and, of course, David Hollinger, Postethnic America (1995).

    I don’t think there’s a strong distinction to be made between the idea of cultural pluralism and the idea of multiculturalism. The Progressive Era foundational texts are generally recognized as Kallen’s Democracy vs. the Melting Pot, and Randolph Bourne’s, Transnational America.

    Good luck Tim!

    • Thanks Dan! Of course I know about Hollinger, but had missed Akum’s work and forgotten about *A World Made Safe for Differences*. My personal goal is work over the histories that deal best with the post-1960s period. – TL

    • It appears, based on my perusing Shannon’s introduction, that his book should be read in dialogue with Hollinger’s Postethnic. – TL

  2. one place to look might be the more recent (90s and since) historiography of the austro-hungarian empire. ‘multiculturalism’ is posed there as a question or challenge to echo ‘multinational’ or ‘multiethnic.’ just to take a swipe at american exceptionalism…

    • How dare you take a swipe at American exceptionalism here?! 😉 But seriously, my personal goal is understand how a particular American thinker (i.e. Mortimer J. Adler) encountered the idea, esp. in the 1970s and 1980s. He wrote about pluralism directly in a 1990 book, but I’m trying to get a sense of when he, and his community of discourse, could/should have become aware of the idea and the term. As far as I know, he didn’t follow the historiography of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—not that there’s anything wrong with that. 😉

  3. There may also be a dimension of this history that concerns the multicultutalism and multiracialism of capital and of management–a set of practices and views very different from anti-racism. Betsy Esch and I try to further understanding of this topic in our new THE PRODUCTION OF DIFFERENCE. peace, dave roediger

  4. Tim, you know I despise threaded comments — all that scrolling back and forth to find the most recent post — so here is my unruly reply to one of your comments above…

    Wouldn’t you expect to read *all* of those books “in dialogue” with each other? Or do you mean that it seems to you that Shannon is responding to Hollinger? Either way, since they are (apparently, per Wickberg) dealing with the question you’ve raised, it seems that you’d read them all with/against each other to get a sense of the historiography.

    This is not an idle or smug quibble. I’m about 25 books into one of my reading lists, and I am still trying to figure out how to read the damn things. (And, no, I don’t need a copy of Adler’s How to Read a Book!) But seriously, as far as I can tell, all this reading is supposed to (eventually) hang together.

    Speaking of which…

    There’s one book on my reading list that might be interesting for your purposes:

    John Higham, Hanging Together: Unity and Diversity in American Culture. I haven’t gotten to it yet, but judging from the TOC and the index, it would be a good text to look at. The penultimate chapter of the book is titled, “Multiculturalism and Universalism: A History and Critique.” Bet you could plunder that chapter for some historiography.

    • LD,

      I was specifically referring to reading Shannon in reply to Hollinger because Shannon pointedly refers to disagreeing with Hollinger in the introduction. But, otherwise, in a larger sort of way, we’re always reading books against each other.

      Thanks for reminding me about the Higham book, which is also on my shelf! Although I love Higham, I had been thinking of that essay more as a primary than a secondary source. But I have to get over that hang-up with this topic. – TL

    • Yes that whole primary/secondary dichotomy is kind of out the window with this topic!! I struggle with that as well…

  5. Hollinger’s OAH address on ecumenical Protestantism, “Cloven Tongues of Fire,” suggests some religious origins of multiculturalism, as does Kevin Schultz’s TRI-FAITH AMERICA.

  6. The best I’ve seen on the origins of multiculturalism (and cultural pluralism) includes Philip Gleason’s Speaking of Diversity: Language and Ethnicity in Twentieth-Century America (1992). On the varying definitions of multiculturalism and pluralism, there’s also Alain Locke’s The New Negro (1925) and his article, “Minorities and the Social Mind,” Progressive Education 3 (March 1935): 141-44. By the way, this was my area of research between 1991 and 2004, and I don’t recall nailing down the exact origins of multiculturalism, other than the connections between cultural pluralism, intercultural education and multiculturalism between roughly 1890 and 1950. But, I digress.

  7. It sounds to me like Charles Taylor traces multiculturalism back to JG Herder. A discussion begins at about 5 minutes into part 2 of this interview:


    Listen closely at about 15 minutes. Also, you might look at the work of Isaiah Berlin who wrote about Herder at length (Berlin is mentioned in the interview).

    Herder also comes up in parts 3 and 4 of this interview, specifically around non-western political systems, and how modernity doesn’t develop in a standard way–that there are many modernities.

    Also, Taylor worked with Amy Gutman on her work in defense of identity groups in politics.

  8. You might also look at Elisabeth Lasch-Quinnn’s, Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution. Although it errs on the side of cultural criticism, it’s still a provocative and important history of some of the more pernicious and ridiculous consequences of the multi-culturalist, diversity orthodoxy that still haunts us today.

  9. I would recommend Avery Gordon and Christopher Newfield’s edited volume Mapping Multiculturalism for a sense of the current status of “multiculturalism” within left/critical race thought. Many, many excellent and provocative pieces.

  10. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition

    Charles Taylor (Author), Amy Gutmann (Editor), Kwame Anthony Appiah (Commentary), Jürgen Habermas (Commentary), Stephen C. Rockefeller (Commentary), Michael Walzer (Commentary), Susan Wolf (Commentary)


    Haven’t read it, but looks helpful…

  11. Werner Sollors, “A Critique of Pure Pluralism,” in Sacvan Bercovitch, ed., Reconstructing American Literary History (Harvard Univ. Press, 1986)

    (discussion of Locke, Kallen, etc.)

    apologies if mentioned already — only skimmed the comments

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