What is Cultural Diversity?

Culture shapes the world, but what is culture? It’s the art, traditions, achievements, languages, and values of social groups. Culture is passed down from generation to generation. Unfortunately, many cultures, mostly indigenous ones, are in danger. The state of language is a good example. According to UNESCO, almost half of the world’s languages are at risk of disappearing. When languages are lost, a group’s history, stories, medical knowledge, and more are lost, as well. Culture is also threatened by things like climate change, war, religious discrimination, and development. When cultures vanish, the world’s cultural diversity suffers. Why does this matter?

What is cultural diversity?

“Cultural diversity” is the presence of various cultural and ethnic groups within a society. It’s also called “multiculturalism.” Due to drivers like immigration and economic globalization, cultural diversity is a hot-button topic. How does it manifest in society? There are two main theories: the melting pot and the salad bowl. Both these theories are simplified versions of reality. It’s not as if societies wholeheartedly embrace one or the other. They’re still worth knowing about.

The melting pot: unity or assimilation?

The melting pot theory of cultural diversity states that when different cultures meet, they melt together. The “melting pot” metaphor is often used to describe the immigrant experience in the United States. Just like different metals melt together to create something new and strong, different cultures unify into something better. Is this true, though? The positive view of a cultural melting pot says that there’s an equal blend of each culture’s strengths. In reality, however, what tends to happen is that certain cultures are forced to assimilate to the dominant culture and let go of their unique traditions. This is often enforced through government and work policies, as well as fear and shame-based discrimination.


The salad bowl theory: individuality or isolation?

In the 1960s, the salad bowl metaphor of cultural diversity gained traction. Instead of a pot where cultures meld together, cultures remain separate in a salad bowl. They retain their individuality while living side by side. We can see examples of salad-bowl communities in places like New York City, which has areas like Chinatown and Little Italy. A salad bowl preserves individual cultures, but it’s not without issues. There’s concern that society becomes fractured without a shared identity that connects the different cultures. This can lead to increased discrimination and prejudice when cultures do interact with each other. While the melting pot represents one side of the spectrum – assimilation – the salad bowl can represent isolation. There must be a balance between the two where cultures are respected and valued for their differences, but united in pursuit of the true common good. This isn’t an easy undertaking for societies. Is it worth it?

Why cultural diversity matters

Cultural diversity can lead to problems like discrimination, but it has many benefits. It can actually help reduce discrimination as opposed to fueling it. Empathy and a commitment to respect must be present. Mere proximity to a different culture may improve discrimination based on unfamiliarity, but as is clear from the United States and its long history of cultural diversity, closeness alone isn’t enough to significantly reduce discrimination. When proximity is matched with respect and celebration, different cultures benefit greatly from one another’s perspectives, skills, and values. There’s unity in this shared commitment to learning and connecting.

Cultural diversity is also important for the economy. According to research done on cultural diversity in the workplace, it’s shown to improve innovation and productivity. The more diverse a workplace is, the more ideas and perspectives there are. Tasks like problem-solving and brainstorming in particular benefit from diversity. Today, more and more businesses are investing in diversity and inclusion (D&I) practices and seeing results like better recruitment, higher employee satisfaction, and better performance.

Supporting cultural diversity

For the benefits of cultural diversity to become a reality, members of society need to come together to support it. Everyone, including but not limited to politicians, business leaders, and teachers, all play an important role in acknowledging and respecting cultural similarities and differences. Here are some examples:

  • Recognize and respect other cultures’ celebrations, traditions, beliefs, etc
  • Work to preserve disappearing languages
  • Consume media (books, movies, music, etc) from other cultures
  • Stand against cultural discrimination
  • Be aware of how societies often force people to assimilate
  • Encourage learning about other cultures
  • Let people from other cultures speak for themselves

As globalization continues, increased interaction between different cultures is inevitable for many societies. How those societies choose to respond to that interaction and the impacts are not set in stone. If fear of the unfamiliar, disrespect, and a lack of curiosity drive decision-making, discrimination and the degradation of culture will follow. When there’s acknowledgment, respect, and celebration, cultural diversity has the power to strengthen economies and communities.

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About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.