Interview With Fathali M. Moghaddam About Multiculturalism and Intergroup Relations: Psychological Implications for Democracy in Global Context
Interviewer [female voice]: We live in an increasingly globalized and mobile world that brings diverse cultures into closer proximity than ever before. Your book, Multiculturalism and Intergroup Relations is about managing cultural diversity and avoiding intergroup conflict. What special knowledge and insights can psychologists bring to this effort?
Fathali Moghaddam: Well, globalization today is very different from the kinds of globalization processes that had occurred before. For example, during the Roman Empire or during the 19th century. The 21st century globalization is really characterized by a push from technology particularly, bringing us all together, greater contact. And in my book, I've characterized the knowledge, the research, that psychologists can bring to bear on understanding our experiences in globalization. I've structured them in four basic themes.
- The first theme is identity and the research that was spearheaded particularly by Europeans — looking at the way in which our identities are changing through globalization.
- The second theme is rationality and irrationality — looking at the ways in which human beings are in some ways irrational in their intergroup behaviors.
- The third theme is materialism — exploring how material factors shape psychological experiences.
- And the fourth theme is subjective experience and all the research that psychologists have undertaken — looking at the ways in which experiences of injustice motivate individuals, particularly in intergroup settings leading them to mobilize, to react against what they see to be injustices.
When we examine conflicts around the world, one of the themes that comes up is injustice and how people in different parts of the world react against what they see to be unjust treatment.
So, those four themes characterize the psychological research that I think is important in understanding globalization.
There is a great deal of psychological research that we can bring to bear in understanding our experiences of globalization and particularly in looking at human beings in the global context. Not just limiting our focus to the Western world, but looking at developments in the Middle East, for example, in North Africa, in Europe with the integration of Europe. Looking at these developments, how they're taking place, and how human beings in different parts of the world are reacting to the pressures brought about through globalization processes. And psychology has a lot to offer in helping us to understand these processes.
Interviewer: What are the implications of these findings for the spread of democracy in the world today?
Fathali Moghaddam: Of course, that's a very timely question. As we look around the world, there seems to be a push on the one hand towards greater democracy, towards greater participation by people in their governments. However, we should be careful in simplifying this process. There are also some trends in the opposite direction. For example, we've seen in Russia how the initial movement after the collapse of communism didn't lead to an open Russia but has, in some ways, led to more of the same. One of the fundamental things that psychology teaches us is that change takes place sometimes quite slowly in human social skills and human attitude development. Human beings sometimes take quite a long time to change. And becoming democratic requires the acquisition of not just individual social skills but communal social skills, and psychology has a lot to say about these kinds of transformations.
Interviewer: What policies do you think bring the greatest hope for managing competing interests in multicultural societies?
Fathali Moghaddam: So, far there have been two main policies for trying to manage intergroup relations. The traditional policy has been assimilation — that is bringing people together and transforming people to become more and more the same, socially, culturally, etc. There's a lot of psychological research that supports this approach. For example, similarity–attraction research tells us that when people are more alike, they're more likely to get on with one another, to have better relationships, etc. There's a lot of research that supports the assimilation policy.
However, at the same time, there is strong evidence to suggest that human beings can manufacture differences. Even when they are very similar, they can manufacture differences, and they can manufacture differences as a basis for conflict. There are all kinds of evidence suggesting that assimilation leads to threatened identities, for example, at the collective level. So, an alternative policy that has been attempted, particularly since the '70s, is multiculturalism.
Now, like assimilation, multiculturalism policy has at its foundation psychological processes. There's been a great deal of psychological research examining the assumptions underlying multiculturalism. For example, at the heart of multiculturalism, is what's called the multiculturalism hypothesis, which proposes that if we could help people to feel confident and secure in their own identity, they will be open and accepting towards others. However, when we examine the evidence looking at the multiculturalism hypothesis, we find that it doesn't uphold the hypothesis. It suggests that there are problems with that hypothesis.
Multiculturalism has very strong support particularly among minorities. However, there's also a lot of evidence suggesting that multiculturalism can lead to problems for minorities — particularly if they adopt negative stereotypes and stereotypes that are less constructive for them. So, one of the major contributions of psychology is to provide empirical evidence for us to examine very carefully the assumptions underlying assimilation and multiculturalism, and also to help us to move towards new policies. Because there's no doubt that in the 21st century, as globalization accelerates and as there is large movements of people around the world, increasing contact between groups that have never had contact before, we're going to need new policies for managing diversity. And multiculturalism and assimilation are a very good basis to begin with. But we're now moving gradually to look at new policies such as omniculturalism.