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In his regular column, Dr Graham Haydon argues that in responding to multiculturalism, we need to think hard about the idea of culture.

We live in a multicultural society. Schools need to prepare their students for life in such a society. These seem to be truisms. But multiculturalism has had a bad press recently. Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has suggested that multiculturalism in Britain is leading towards ghettoisation. The underlying concern is that policies designed to recognise and respect different cultural groups may tend to keep these groups separate rather than integrated.

If there is doubt and debate about multicultural policies, could it be that part of the trouble lies in the idea of multiculturalism? Though it seems straightforward, it brings with it at least two risks of misunderstanding. Both of these turn on what we make of the underlying idea of culture. This is an idea that students should be paying attention to, not only in citizenship, because of the nature of the society in which we live, but also in PSHE, because students’ own cultural background make a difference to their values and choices.

The first problem with the word ‘multicultural’ is that it tends to be used interchangeably with ‘multiethnic’ or ‘multiracial’. But culture and race are very different notions. Culture refers to ways of life that are passed on by example and teaching. ‘Racial’ characteristics – of which skin colour is of course the most obvious – are passed on genetically. That is not to subscribe to the idea of distinct races any more than talk of culture needs to subscribe to the idea of distinct cultures. The point is only that there is no necessary connection between what is inherited and what is learned. That may be why we have invented the notion of ethnicity, which seems to straddle the two.

The second problem with the word ‘multicultural’ is that by suggesting that there are many cultures it assumes that we can identify distinct cultures (otherwise how could we say there are many of them?). But are there distinct cultures at all? Of course, it depends how broadly we define culture. On one level, there is a technologically advanced, industrialised, commercial culture of modern developed societies that almost everyone in Britain today has at least some share in.

There is also an anthropologist’s idea of culture, as in the quote below (actually from a cosmopolitan philosopher who thinks that today each of us can construct our own identity out of many cultural fragments):

‘The culture of a community is a way of doing things, particularly the things that are done together, throughout the whole course of human life: language, governance, religious rituals, rites of passage, family structures, material production and decoration, economy, science, warfare, and the sharing of a sense of history.’
Jeremy Waldron

Are there, in 21st century Britain, distinct cultures in the anthropologist’s sense? Think of the various dimensions along which there can be cultural variation. Some of them are outlined below.

None of these dimensions can constitute a culture in itself. Everyone can be similar to some people in some dimensions and to other people in others. So is it plausible that people’s ways of living fall into distinct cultures? Shouldn’t education for citizenship encourage people to think critically about this idea? Shouldn’t PSHE be encouraging individual students not just to identify with one particular culture, but to realise that all of us here and now are subject to a variety of cultural influences and that we will all handle them in rather different ways?

Some contemporary critics of multiculturalism have an agenda of assimilation, wanting minorities to live the same kind of life as the majority. That is not where my argument is heading. If cultures in general are not distinct entities, there is no distinct British way of life either.

The danger is that the word multiculturalism  may now be taken over by those who do have a particular agenda. Would we be better off with a word that, instead of suggesting that there are many different cultures, could convey the multiplicity of dimensions along which people can vary in their beliefs and ways of life in infinite combinations? Do we have such a word? Do readers – or their students – have any suggestions?

Some cultural dimensions:

Geography We sometimes use geographical labels for culture: European culture, South Asian culture. These have more to do with the perceived origin of a culture than with the birthplace of individuals.

History A sense of a shared history may be part of what leads people to identify with certain others, but it can’t determine how they live now.


Nations are, in Benedict Anderson’s phrase, ‘imagined communities’. Many ‘nation states’ are very recent developments, historically speaking. A nation may give people something to identify with, but doesn’t necessarily have a distinctive culture.
Language Speaking a particular language may affect how one sees the world, which is one aspect of culture. But it is obvious in the modern world that many languages cut across cultures.
Values Values are the ideas – often only implicit – that lead people to live their lives in one way rather than another. But there are – fortunately for life in modern societies – many values that can be widely shared (see the Statement of Values in the National Curriculum).
Religion This does genuinely mark a cultural difference – since religious beliefs and practices are characteristically shared across groups and passed on by upbringing and deliberate teaching – but people of the same religion may live quite different lives in other ways.

This article first appeared in – Feb 2006

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