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Queen's University

Multiculturalism Policies in Contemporary Democracies


Beginning in the 1960s, a number of Western democracies took a “multicultural turn” in their approach to ethnocultural diversity. In the past, ethnocultural diversity was often seen as a threat to political stability, and hence as something to be discouraged by public policies. Immigrants, national minorities and indigenous peoples were all subject to a range of policies intended to either assimilate or marginalize them. Today, however, many Western democracies have abandoned these earlier policies, and shifted towards a more accommodating approach to diversity, including the widespread adoption of accommodation policies for immigrant groups, the acceptance of territorial autonomy and language rights for national minorities, and the recognition of land claims and self-government rights for indigenous peoples.

This “multicultural turn” has been hotly contested, and commentators disagree about its effects. Defenders argue that it has helped to reduce ethnic tensions, promote mutual respect, enhance the participation of minorities, and more generally build more inclusive and just societies. Critics argue that multiculturalism policies entrench and exacerbate ethnic divisions, reduce inter-ethnic solidarity, and perpetuate illiberal practices. Indeed, commentators disagree not just on the effects of these policies, but even on their very existence. While some commentators argue that “we are all multiculturalists now”, others insist that the multicultural turn has been exaggerated, and that the adoption of multiculturalism policies was a limited and passing phenomenon.

One reason for the persistence of these debates is the absence of any quantitative measure of the presence or absence of multiculturalism policies across time and across countries. It is our hope that the Multiculturalism Policy Index available here will provide a useful tool for assessing the social effects of multiculturalism, and for determining how these policies are evolving over time.

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