Multiculturalism and intercultural capabilities

“Difference is of the essence of humanity. Difference is an accident of birth.
John Hume, Nobel Peace Prize, 1998

Why is multiculturalism an important issue today?

As we are living in an era of particularly rapid, radical change and hyperconnectivity, driven by advanced technology and globalisation on the one hand and environmental and demographic change on the other, we are experiencing an unprecedented level of cross-cultural contact.

News, current affairs and other information channels, delivered in digital “feeds”, bring us into contact with places, people and aspects of the world of which we knew very little. Numerous towns and cities all over the world have become a rich tapestry of multiple cultures representing diverse ethnicities and nationalities. Organisations in the working world have been undergoing a similar transformation. Cross-cultural interaction is not new, but it is the scale, speed and range that is unprecedented.

Migration is a one of the defining stories of humanity: according to the Scalabrini International Migration Institute (2020), “The Bible is a book written by migrants, for migrants and about migrants.” Between 1960 and 2020 there have been consistent increases both in the number of international migrants and the migrant share of global population (Migration Policy Institute), and that trend is set to continue in the forthcoming decades due to demographic factors (ageing and booming populations), economic imbalances and most significantly, climate change. The World Bank states that “migration will become a necessity in the decades to come for countries at all levels of income”; it will therefore need to be strategic, far-sighted and ethically managed.

The accommodation, recognition and integration of such a diverse range of people and cultures will require improved cultural and linguistic knowledge and skills for both the migrants and the people in the countries and organisations in which they live and work. In parallel, digital technology and artificial intelligence are dramatically extending the boundaries of cultural interaction online; they offer vast potential for cultural enrichment but also the risk of cultural homogenisation and impoverishment.

We have a long way to go for an internet that genuinely “connects people”, as Tim Berners-Lee envisaged, rather than just machines. While a UNESCO report showed improved linguistic diversity online, there remains a marked inequality of information on the internet, with strong anglophone linguistic and cultural dominance (58% of web content is in English, but 75% of global population does not speak English, and only 149 of 6000 languages are available in the most popular search engine).

Heightened levels of transmission, interaction and exchange across cultures and between organisations are creating both opportunities and challenges in all areas of society and the workforce. New ideas, new business opportunities and new perspectives are emerging from this exchange, often international and typically technology-mediated, but at the same time, many people are struggling to position themselves in this new “multicultural” context, and to develop the intercultural skills and awareness needed to flourish.

Multiculturalism: forms, policies, enablers

Multiculturalism is “the policy of accommodating any number of distinct cultures within one society without prejudice or discrimination” (Chambers dictionary).

Multiculturalism” is “the policy of accommodating any number of distinct cultures within one society without prejudice or discrimination” (Chambers dictionary). It is a noun and represents a policy or a belief (-ism). In contrast, the word “multicultural” is an adjective that describes a society or organisation that includes people of many different cultures and beliefs. A society or organisation can therefore become multicultural without design, due to the economic and demographic forces.

Most high income countries depend heavily on immigrants to staff public services such as health and transport and sectors such as hospitality and IT; in 2020 in the UK, foreign born workers represented 21%, 26%, 28% and 25% of all workers in these sectors respectively.

The last 200 years have seen many now high-income countries accommodate large numbers of people from different and distinct cultures and ethnicities, e.g., USA, the Netherlands, Germany. Multiculturalism can take different forms; whether it works depends on how it is conceived and managed, the existing cultural and economic context and whether it actively support two core concepts: diversity and inclusion.

The USA has historically favoured assimilation (e.g. the adoption of names and language of the home country). The Netherlands and the UK have tended towards a policy of accommodation and gradual integration, while the European Union has a policy of actively encouraging intercultural exchange.

Promoting intercultural dialogue is essential for avoiding conflicts, ensuring respect for universal human rights, creating opportunities and solving shared problems, such as the climate, biodiversity and pollution crises. So, given the reality of the climate crisis and of migration in the unequal global economy, a policy of merely accommodating people of different cultures without actively encouraging intercultural exchange is unlikely to be successful. A critical part of an effective multicultural policy is to actively support the existing/native-born residents in coping with the new cultures, especially in economically and educationally disadvantaged areas, and ensuring people have work and training pathways.

Intercultural exchange often takes place at a very local level (e.g. twinned cities, ethnic restaurants) but a coherent policy is required at national level, to support the cultural integration process, and support the existing residents so that they see the benefits rather than the threats. Where there is a lack of such a constructive policy, fear, propaganda and hostility will fill the void. The terminology used can inhibit or create a constructive context for intercultural dialogue. The use of “alien”, an official term in the USA, (recently discouraged), is bound to contribute towards alienation and a less open attitude to foreigners.

Key concepts underpinning multiculturalism

Identity, inclusion, diversity and recognition

According to Max-Neef, identity is one of 9 fundamental human needs, closely associated with a sense of belonging and self-esteem. It is manifest in values, languages and customs, is a basis for self-knowledge and for understanding how one fits in the world. Identity is closely bound up with culture, in that our cultural background (including, especially, family background) is the main formative factor in our identity.

Identity is only significant by virtue of the wider social context in which we exist and is affirmed by positive human contact, which brings a sense of belonging, supporting our sense of inclusiveness. The more limited and narrow contact is with other social groups, the narrower the sense of identity tends to be, to the extent that it can end up becoming purely self-referential, lose the connection with other identities, and become exclusive in its assertion against others. When people explore their family trees, they often discover ethnicities in their family they were not even aware of; understanding identity involves increasing self-knowledge.

Multiculturalism recognises that people have a right to keep their cultural identity and that they should not suffer prejudice or discrimination because of it. However, this depends on people recognising that others’ identity is equally important to their own, i.e., recognising and respecting diversity and plurality – a significant challenge in individualistic and secular societies and impossible in totalitarian regimes. Many isolated indigenous societies respect diversity and plurality as manifest in the natural world around them, recognising the identity of each living thing.

Successful multiculturalism requires more than just recognition, however. Hannah Arendt reminds us:
“..if it is good to be recognised, it is better to be welcomed, precisely because this is something we can neither earn nor deserve.” (Davide Sparti, Nel segno della pluralità: Arendt e la concezione non identitaria dell’identità, 2008) A culture of hospitality (philoxenia) can overcome fear of the stranger (xenophobia).

Culture as ethos

Culture is much more than “a way of life” or a “lifestyle” in that it encompasses values, customs, practices and beliefs which have often developed organically over time.  Etymologically, the word “ethos” is perhaps the most appropriate single term by which to reference culture, as it derives from the Greek meaning “custom” or “culture”. Ethos is the set of beliefs characterising a group/community which shape the behaviour of those in that group. While ethos is only one aspect of culture, it is nevertheless core, so we can think of culture as the ethos of a community.

Culture is not the same as nationality. National boundaries and state names repeatedly change throughout history for a variety of political, military and economic reasons, but culture is the cumulation and expression of customs, practices, ideas and values formed over a period of time, often across generations.

Factors undermining multiculturalism

Increased inequality and the forces of globalisation

Unfortunately, one of the effects of globalisation, unregulated economies and advanced technology is an increase in inequality within countries. A critical factor is inequality of opportunity, which is often keenly felt by those in disadvantaged areas who see an influx of migrants offered language courses and other forms of support. It is a complex challenge; a coherent and integrated set of national and regionally sensitive education, skills, housing and health policies is needed to minimise inequality and hostility to migrants and to avoid undermining multiculturalism.

Cultural impoverishment

The existence of a rich diversity of cultures is something to be celebrated; diversity enriches us, expanding our knowledge and awareness and bringing colour and variety to our lives. If a national or organisational culture becomes rigidly homogenous to the extent of undermining or erasing its diversity of cultures, then cultural impoverishment results. Life becomes monotonous, there is little innovation, the nation/organisation becomes self-referential and struggles to interact effectively and empathetically with other nations or organisations.

Cultural impoverishment results from a lack of intercultural exchange. If policies, such as higher education funding, health or housing policy, are reduced to economic or technological affordances, then the social benefits, which include intercultural exchange, are obscured. Benefits are seen as private and therefore a matter of possession, which leads to jealousy, exclusion and stereotyping along “tribal” fault lines. To reduce these risks, policies that emphasise shared benefit and intercultural education are needed.

Narrow sense of identity

As mentioned above, identity can also become a factor undermining multiculturalism, if it involves exclusiveness and lack of recognition for other identities. One of the dangers of a narrow sense of identity, for example in extremely nationalistic political discourse, is the tendency to view external forces either as threats that must be countered or as allies against these threats (“you are either with us or against us”).

Hannah Arendt put it thus: “tribal nationalism always insists that its own people is surrounded by ‘a world of enemies,’ ‘one against all,’ that a fundamental difference exists between this people and all others. It claims its people to be unique, individual, incompatible with all others, and denies theoretically the very possibility of a common mankind” Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951.

This type of binary polarisation becomes self-perpetuating in that people cling even more tenaciously to the narrow sense of identity as if on a raft in a stormy sea, thus cutting themselves off from opportunities for constructive engagement, collaboration and development.

“Without prejudice or discrimination” (in the definition of multiculturalism above) depends on people being honest about their own identity and not claiming “badges of convenience” for advantage under peer pressure or pitting one cultural identity against another in a divisive fashion, as we so often see in unedifying social media exchanges.

Genuine freedom in society involves reciprocity: respecting others’ cultural identity. For Arendt, as citizens, we disclose our own identities and recognise others’, to create the collective identities essential for participating in sustainable democracy. This is not easy and, besides intercultural skills, requires a process of constant renegotiation.

As Benedetto Croce noted “Freedom of the individual only exists in freedom of the many” (“La libertà al singolare esiste soltanto nelle libertà al plurale.”) Croce, Storia d’Europa nel secolo decimonono, 1932)

Intercultural capabilities

So, what are the intercultural skills and how can people recognise and develop them, given that the rate and intensity of cross-cultural interaction has significantly increased (Adler & Aycan 2018)?
First and foremost, we need to recognise that a good level of education for a child anywhere in the world should afford basic cross-cultural awareness. Secondly, formal education, and increasingly widely accessible informal learning online provide opportunities, though not always sufficient, to gain proficiency in languages, which in turn provide a window of cultural understanding.

However, when we consider the “softer” cross-cultural skills, such as how we interact with those from other cultures and what our attitudes are towards them, there is relatively little guidance and support in post-16 education or training. Such skills are rarely taught in formal education or in workplaces.

The below definition of intercultural capability and social inclusiveness is designed to help organisations and individuals recognise effective intercultural capabilities and the observable behaviours that demonstrate this 21st century competency, plus the underpinning qualities, e.g. empathy, curiosity, trust.

Intercultural capability and social inclusiveness

The ability to interact sensitively and inclusively, and to facilitate inclusive interaction, with people of different cultures, gender, ethnicity and abilities on an equal basis with respect and empathy, recognising diversity as an opportunity and an advantage that brings new perspectives.

Enabling behaviours (abridged):

  • Interact inclusively, challenging bias and disadvantage, for shared purpose
  • Understand own & others’ feelings & needs to avoid/solve problems together
  • Consider others’ perspectives, recognise multiple human stories

The intercultural opportunity

Cultural diversity is a powerful benefit for organisations and nations because progress and innovation come from the exchange of ideas across cultures; a monoculture is a sterile environment without stimulus or challenge and will tend to become an echo chamber.

The increase in intercultural interaction brings with it significant benefits. These include individual benefits such as improved interpersonal skills and societal benefits such as increased tolerance, understanding and less pressure to conform. For the organisation, benefits include opportunities for innovation, enhanced market knowledge and positioning plus active progress towards becoming a learning organisation.

To leave the final word with Bhikhu Parekh (Rethinking Multiculturalism, 2002):
“Different cultures correct and complement each other, expand each other’s horizon of thought and alert each other to new forms of human fulfilment”.

written by: Simon Whittemore , 16 April 2024

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