Cultural diversity is an inescapable fact of modern life. How we should think about it is less obvious. Should we celebrate the multicultural rainbow, merge its colours into one – like a colour wheel spinning into whiteness – or look away?
These options represent three well studied perspectives on diversity. Merging the colours corresponds to assimilationism, the idea that minority groups should let go of their distinctive traditions and melt into a shared, mainstream culture.
Looking away corresponds to colour-blindness. People who take this stance do one of two things. Some argue that despite their differences, all groups share a common humanity. Others argue we should see people first and foremost as individuals and set aside their group identities.
Celebrating the rainbow corresponds to multiculturalism. This belief system urges us to recognise and appreciate the distinctness of cultural groups. It has become the preferred perspective on diversity among progressives and a point of contention in political debate.
However contentious it might be, research typically finds that people who hold multicultural beliefs are less racially prejudiced, and more willing to make contact with members of other groups, than their assimilationist or colour-blind peers.
Even so, multiculturalism remains controversial. It is sometimes held responsible for the less attractive aspects of identity politics. Critics argue that it deepens social divides by instilling a sense that groups are fundamentally dissimilar and that group members are defined by their differences.
In response to these concerns, some thinkers have proposed a fourth option - polyculturalism. This is the view that cultures influence one another over time, and that cultural contact and borrowing are the norm.
The concept was put forward by historians Robin Kelley and Vijay Prashad, who charted the often hidden cross-cultural interactions that have forged contemporary cultural traditions. Kelley and Prashad argued that cultures have been forever fusing, exchanging ideas and practices.
As a result, each of us is a tangled skein of cultural influences, even if we identify with a single cultural group. Our music, cuisines, religions and folkways are all cultural mixtures.
Polyculturalism is unlike assimilationism because it prizes diversity rather than hoping for it to disappear. It differs from colour-blindness for much the same reason. It neither deflects attention outward to our shared humanity, or inward to the solo individual.
Importantly, polyculturalism differs from multiculturalism by acknowledging that cultures are dynamic, interactive and impure. Multiculturalism treats cultures as static entities and emphasises their differences. Polyculturalism pictures them as always in flux and emphasises their connections. Cultures engage in conversation with one another and their history is an often surprising record of forgotten exchanges.
The psychology of polyculturalism
Social psychologists have recently begun to explore the implications of polycultural ideas. They have devised simple ways to assess people’s endorsement of polycultural, multicultural, colour-blind and other beliefs about cultural diversity. They then examine how each belief is associated with social attitudes and practices.
The findings of this research indicate that polyculturalism has positive implications. In studies conducted in the USA and the Philippines, the more people endorse polycultural views, the more they are egalitarian, appreciative of diversity and comfortable with cultural differences.
Polyculturalism has been found to be associated with people’s interest in contact with members of other groups, such as immigrants and students of other racial or religious backgrounds. It is also associated with greater support for pro-immigrant and affirmative-action policies.
Polyculturalism generally has stronger links to pro-diversity attitudes than multiculturalism. These links are found among members of multiple ethnic groups. White Americans tend to endorse multiculturalism less than others, but polyculturalism is endorsed equally by different groups.
Polyculturalism also seems to have positive implications outside the realm of ethnic diversity. American and Australian research finds that people who endorse polycultural beliefs are less likely to display anti-gay and sexist attitudes. Endorsement of multiculturalism had no such relationship to these forms of prejudice.
Why polyculturalism beats multiculturalism
The more positive implications of polyculturalism relative to multiculturalism are not surprising from a psychological viewpoint. There is strong evidence that holding a dynamic view of human attributes, such as intelligence and personality, has beneficial implications.
People who believe these attributes are fluid rather than fixed tend to be more cognitively open, more oriented to personal growth and less prone to stereotype others. Similarly, people who view human groups in dynamic rather than static terms – as polyculturalists rather than multiculturalists do – are more open to engaging constructively with others across social boundaries.
Despite these advantages, polyculturalism does not resolve all the complexities of cultural diversity. One such complexity is the problem of cultural appropriation.
From a polycultural standpoint cultural borrowing is standard practice. Multiculturalists often see it as akin to theft if the borrower is from a dominant group and the exchange is not mutual. Nevertheless, a polycultural perspective calls into question the simplistic view that a culture’s ways of life are its timeless possessions, held by groups that have been insulated from outside influence.
Research in population genetics shows that all human groups are impure. Genetic variation across the world’s people carries traces of our ancestors’ relentless migrations and mixings. We are all mongrels. The idea of polyculturalism implies that what is true of our genes is equally true of our cultures.