Fall 2008



The impact of multiculturalism on social work practice and the welfare state reforms


Svetlana Trbojevik, Assistant Professor



This article elaborates the concept of multiculturalism and its impact on the social work practice and the reforms of the welfare state. Multiculturalism as a model is offered as a “key solution” for the problems that are related to the cultural diversity of the society. The concept of multiculturalism is closely connected with the practice of western democracies and with reinforcement of liberalism in today society.


Contemporary integrative processes point out the need for reorganization of the State according to its multiethnic structure. The changes of the wider society are under direct influence of liberalism and globalization. They redefine the State’s response to risks experienced by its citizens and lead to significant reforms aimed toward the reconstruction of the old architecture of the welfare state. Consequently, the welfare state has been transformed into a protector from risks, which imposes the need to eliminate social exclusion.     


The welfare state has been created within the western European value system. Therefore, all interventions in this sphere are threats to its existence. Fundamental social changes impose the need to create a model of a welfare state that will be successful in responding to the new challenges without the risk of jeopardizing the concept of solidarity.


The changes of the western society are not only focused to the reconstruction of social structure of the state and the welfare state, but they penetrate and reflect in social work as a manifested form of the welfare state. Social work as a social activity is closely connected with the ideological changes of the wider society. Ideologically, the redefinition of social work is a result of the postmodernism, relativism, and the concept of human diversity.


Multiculturalism affects social work in a way that imposes the concept of cultural competencies not only to social workers but also to the institutions of social protection. Multiculturalism leads to structural changes in the interactive relationship between beneficiaries and social workers. The multicultural approach in social work leads to empowerment, the education and preparation of beneficiaries, and indirectly leads to reforms in the system of the welfare state. 



Key words: Multiculturalism, liberalism, globalization, welfare state, postmodernism, relativism, human diversity, cultural diversity, cultural competencies, social work. 





Global trends of migration, growth of minorities, and increased consciences about rights are some of the main factors that have brought multiculturalism onto the social scene.  As a term it has provoked public and professional attention, commencing significant scientific and political debates related to its implications on the redefinition of the traditional concept of the State. Multiculturalism was introduced into political discourse by the Canadian Premier Trudeau[1]. Initially, the main political goal of multiculturalism was to provoke the political hegemony of Eurocentrism.


Multiculturalism represents “politics to regulate public relationships among different cultures in a certain society, including the way of using the language and symbols” (Dokmanovic, 2005). A number of western countries undertook structural reforms under the influence of multiculturalism.  Nevertheless, in some countries multiculturalism has been introduced on the level of multicultural politics and in others it is still in the realm of rhetoric.

Figure, 1


Scholars emphasize the close connection between multiculturalism and cultural pluralism[2]. For some, these two terms are synonymous, where as for others cultural pluralism precedes multiculturalism. According to Ibrahimi (2005) cultural pluralism stands for equality, tolerance, and open relationship between the national cultures, where as multiculturalism refers to cultures that already exist on sub-national level.


Multiculturalism as a social and political phenomenon has its followers and its opponents. A number of its adversaries point out the weaknesses of this concept. One of the most significant arguments against multiculturalism is that it stands for the respecting and supporting of cultural differences that potentially can lead to serious obstruction of universally accepted values. Multiculturalism as a form of organization of the State is not sustainable unless there are binding elements identified in supra national, supra ethnical, supra cultural, supra racial, and supra religious. The power of these elements should surpass the particular interests of one group.


The main goal of multiculturalism is to challenge the domination of the white, European, Christian, and male.

Figure, 2


History of multiculturalism


Cultural diversity is not a contemporary phenomenon. The history of the world testifies that multiculturalism can be traced back to the ancient history of the so called “polyglot kingdoms of the old world” such as the empires of Alexander the Great or the Roman Empire. Furthermore, it can be identified in the new age empires of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish Empire. Also, multiculturalism can be identified in twentieth century communist federations such as the Soviet Union and Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). These are federations founded on the ideals of proletarians which promotes equality among brotherly nations. But, multiculturalism in these countries was endangered by the socialistic totalitarian monoculture (Atanoasov, 2003:79). Due to the different pattern of implementation of the socialist ideas, the two countries had a different attitude toward the private sphere. Although, the control in the private sphere was not exempt in both, it was more rigidly exercised in the Soviet Union. The Russian language was imposed as an official language in non-Russian and non-Slavic republics. On the contrary, in SFRY we can find deeper roots of multiculturalism. The SFRY was postulated on the notion of “brotherhood and unity”. Namely, SFRY in its federalism did not promoted assimilation, especially not in the respect of the cultural language characteristics of the six constitutive nations that defined the republic borders. This statement may be accepted with reserves having in mind the fact that at least four of these Republics will have strong arguments regarding the language assimilation. Nevertheless, concerning the other elements of multiculturalism, it is fair to conclude that the SFRY was an experimental multicultural state that unfortunately had a fatal ending.


Multiculturalism is also connected to the practice of the western democracy. Its specific political goal was targeted to provoke political and cultural hegemony of Eurocentrism (Mahaligam, McCarthy, 2000:15). Multiculturalism was developed and is still very closely connected to the colonial countries that were practicing discrimination on racial bases, segregation of the native peoples, and had assimilative attitude toward a non- English, nonwhite population. Under the influence of the democratic processes, these countries are challenged to revise their histories and make attempts to reconcile the historic man induced injustice[3].


Multiculturalism is also present in countries that have no dominant groups and have no exclusive right to land such as Switzerland and Belgium (Ibrahimi, 2005). However,  multiculturalism does appear in the cases of cultures that exist on a sub-national level such as Australia and Canada.    


Liberalism as an ideological condition to multiculturalism


Liberalism as a political philosophy first appeared in the period of Enlightment. Although, there is no consensus about the real meaning of liberalism, preserving of peace, democratic procedures, respect of individual freedoms, equality, promotion of economic growth, prosperity and provision of social justices are identifies as basic functions of the liberal state (Daskalovski, 2005:124; Kymlicka, 2007).  Nevertheless, individual freedoms and equality are considered to be the main postulates of liberal tradition. Namely, only organized states through diligent implementation of these policies can provide equal freedoms for its citizens. Secrecy of individual freedom is closely connected to the neutral attitude of the State regarding the autonomous right that individuals enjoy from constructing  “the concept of good” (Daskalovski, 2005:125). In the framework of liberal theory, the State guarantees its neutrality to the point where the individuals are not endangering or harming others. Equality comes from the fact that all peoples are equal and are representatives of the human race, are homosapiens, share certain universal similarities and, therefore, have equal value. Despite the universal identity we can distinguish particular identity or as some authors are calling it group identity. Particular identity refers to the status, gender, race or ethnic background. Universal identity of humans is more fundamental than the particular. In the framework of the liberal conception, the right of equality is based on the universal identity of persons more so than on ethnic identity (Atanasov, 2003:19). Liberalism equally protects civil and political rights of its citizens, regardless of their ethnic, cultural or social group (Daskalovski, 2005:127).


The question that arises is, “Does multiculturalism endanger some of the functions of the liberal state?” The answer to this question depends on the ideological orientation of the theoreticians and the degree at which they accept the idea of multiculturalism. Namely, supporters of the liberal theory believe that liberalism offers the neutral conditions which are crucial for the coexistence of all cultures. Kymlicka as a main supporter of multiculturalism thinks that acceptance of multiculturalism is not jeopardizing the values of the liberal state. According to him, multiculturalism even strengthens some of those values such as democracy by providing the access of non-dominant groups to the political institutions. Multicultural regulative leads to mobilization and increased participation of ethnic groups in politics. The degree of individual freedom is increased through provision of larger possibilities for cultural choices that were previously prohibited and stigmatized (Kymlicka, 2007:32).


On the other side, Brooks (2002) believes that in order to provide the necessary conditions for cultural pluralism and equal respect for the different cultural communities the intervention of the state is necessary. According to Brooks, culture is no longer only a private matter, therefore, every intervention in the area of the private contradicts to the liberal state. In the case of multicultural practice, state intervention is necessary for the protection and promotion of those cultural communities that historically, or due to some other reasons have no economic, social, or political influences to impose themselves on an equal level with the dominant cultural groups. Legal and constitutional guaranties of multiculturalism, language protection, school curriculum that reflects the history and culture of nondominant groups, and affirmative program actions are among the kind of measures that are necessary for provision of equal respect and opportunities for the members of the different community (ibid.). Multiculturalism undermines the postulates of freedom and equality in the aspect that is overly emphasizing the meaning of the particular identity and undermines the universal identity. The attempt to protect the particular identities, is closely connected to cultural values of groups that can lead to compromises regarding the generally accepted fundamental values. The violation of basic human rights in the name of protection of individual particularity also means that violations of the basic values of liberalism such as individual freedom and the right of equality[4] may occur.

Figure, 3

The answer to the question, “Does the multiculturalism endanger the values of the liberal state?” Is connected in many ways to the preferred ideology.



Multiculturalism and the reforms of the welfare state


The welfare state takes central role in the leading ideological debates. There are a number of ideological standpoints, influences, and factors that are connected to the phenomenon and development of the welfare state. Through the prism of functionalist and industrial approaches, the welfare state is considered to be an answer to the growing socioeconomic pressures that modernized the outlook of the society and resulted with urbanization, growth of population and economic development. The emergence of the welfare state is connected to the logic of industrialization and the reaction of the state to the “objective need” for healthy and secure workforce. This view has been criticized by the Marxist viewpoint and certain movements in the Scandinavian countries because it does not incorporate the aspect of class conflict as a factor of development of the welfare state (O'Conor & Olsen, in Liberfied & Mau, 2007).


According to the Marxist view, the welfare state is a result of a class conflict where different social groups influence the distributive processes of the society with the goal to achieve personal benefits. According to Marxists “the welfare state serves to the interests of the capitalistic government and represents a socialistic island in a capitalistic sea, placed and defended by the working class” (Hidess, 2004:6).


Welfare state, according to the social democrats is a neutral mediator that contributes to minimum social consensus and provides protection of the basic common interests. Its function and specific role is in the redistribution of the available services (Ruzin, 2004:115 p.). In the framework of social democracy in order to establish universality egalitarian measures, there is a need to promote equal opportunities. The class differences are equalized through the measures of the protector State.


Baldwin, according to Leibfried and Mau (2007), points out that the role the middle class established collective agreements for the protection of risks. Other authors emphasize the role of the public services and bureaucracy related to the provision of state protection. They indicate the role of female movements over the improvement of child protection, health protection, housing, education and other risks connected to children, women and families (Naumann, 2005; Hiddess, 2004). 


Welfare state fundamentally transforms the relationship between the State and its citizens as individuals and a members of social groups. The welfare state emerges as a result of the development of State infrastructure and administrative capacities where the common citizen becomes more involved in public and political life and, in such a way, redefines the traditional state. The welfare state is the key institutional mechanism for ensuring social rights of its citizens and transferring of the forms of social inequities (Hidess, 2004). 

 Figure, 4


The welfare state depends on demographic, geopolitical, economic, and social factors that are powerful enough to guide its focus of intervention. The main characteristic of the contemporary society is the continuous change of the place of living. This phenomenon surpasses the state borders and is closely connected to the processes of globalization. The increase of intensity of migration movements caused the weakening of the traditional State. The nation state, with one dominate ethnic group as its constituent, had been transformed to a community with a multicultural character. The intensity of the structural changes in the community imposed new politics for the regulation of public relationships between the different cultures in a certain society. The multicultural society supposes equal treatment, equal opportunities, and equal rights and rules for all individuals that participate in its construction.


Globalization and liberalism redefined the state’s response to risks that were experienced by its citizens and has lead to significant reforms pointed toward a reconstruction of the old architecture of the welfare state. The pressure on the welfare state, especially in the European countries is burdened by demographic factors, namely, aging of population and growing rate of immigration. These two phenomena are common factors for social exclusion that impose the need for revision of governmental policies. Defocusing of the welfare state from welfare to protection of social risks imposed the need for elimination of social exclusion.


Social inclusive policies represent a point of interaction for the welfare state and multicultural policies. Nevertheless, there is a dilemma concerning social inclusion. “Do social inclusive policies impose the mainstream values (Eurocentrism) and in such way disturb the multicultural principle of respecting cultural specifics or they are precondition for improvement of minorities position within society?”  Some social inclusive programs might penetrate within the cultural value system of certain ethnic groups, but the attempt to improve the social position of traditionally excluded groups represents recognition of a multicultural character of the State. Affirmative policy is also an expressive form of the welfare state.           


Fundamental social changes are forcing the creation of a model of welfare state that should respond to new risks. However, this model should not endanger the concept of solidarity. The changes that undertake western society are not only concentrated on the reconstruction of social order and the welfare state, they penetrate and reflect in social work as a manifested form of the social state. Social work as a social activity is closely connected and conditioned by ideological changes and wider social transformations.



Theoretical concepts that precede to multicultural social work


The practice of social work has been founded and developed under the influence of theoretical concepts. Basically, the value component is one of the most important elements of social work practice. The value dimension of social work is connected to the universality of human rights, social justice and needs, common to all individuals, as well as to the concept of diversity that originates from the essential uniqueness of individuals and distinguishes them from others. Therefore, there is a need to elaborate on the dichotomic relationship of human rights and social justice on one hand and the concept of human diversity on the other hand.

Figure, 5

The history and the inheritance of social protection and social work differ from all other social sciences and helping professions because they are founded on the values of human rights and social justice (National Association of Social Workers, 1999; Sue and McGoldrick 2006). Human rights and social justice as dominant concepts of social work are establish on the principle of universality. However, under the influence of postmodernism, at the end of the twentieth century a noticeable penetration of relativism in the theory and practice of social work imposed and demanded questioning of universally accepted values of social work. The relativism in social work differentiates into the dominant concept of human diversity. 


Debates about human diversity can be traced to discussions of emigrant policies, political correctness, educational practice, affirmative actions and positive quotas, and influences on equality in social politics and social work practice (Tricket, Roderick, & Birman, 2004). The concept of human diversity has an immense contribution in pointing out the need to consider cultural specifics in the treatment of individuals, groups, and communities in social work. There is a particular assumption within this concept regarding the nature of culture and its influence on the development and functioning of people.  The differences between people and groups are the result of biological, cultural, and social factors (Bornarova, 2005). This theory critiques the dominant Western European values in social work.


Despite its positive contribution in social work, the greatest deficiency and fault of the human diversity concept is that this concept vouches for “acceptance of numerous truths”, but it imposes its self as the absolute truth and manifests no tolerance toward those that negate its absolute. The relativism does not offer a clear answer for the positioning of social workers in situations of obvious violations of human rights or the rights of the child, that are universally accepted as common. These particular rights reflect the nature of men and a priory does not mean that they are imposed by the dominant white, European, man, and Christians.


Cultural competence and multicultural social work


The above mentioned processes of migration caused by globalization, instigated structural changes in traditional beneficiaries of social work. Ethnic minority groups often are marginalized in a society, therefore, practitioners most commonly interact with these groups.  Education and training of practitioners often reflect broader social values and perspectives. Nevertheless, there is a gap among aspiration standards, professional ethics, and its practical implementation. One of the main reasons for this gap is connected to the fact that social workers, as well as other professionals, in the field of helping professions are not immune to cultural inhibition.  The interaction of social workers with different cultures imposes a change in the approach of social work practice.

Figure, 6

Social workers and their cultural competencies are in the focus multicultural social work practice. They are the main agent for transformation of contemporary practice and redefinition of their attitudes, knowledge, skills, and world views which are essential for causing positive change in the world of the beneficiaries of services. Social work as a profession has been focused on assisting individuals in accomplishing their full potentials. Within this holistic perspective, social work should take into account biological, psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of human needs, strengths, and experiences as well as cultural dynamics and diverse functioning sets among people.  


Sue and McGoldrick (2006) differentiate universal, group, and individual dimensions in the treatment and overcoming of problems. They point out common neglect on the group level of identity. The group level incorporates cultural values and believes. On one hand, culture influences the way individuals experience their situation, and on the other hand, culture determines the reaction of others and consequently impacts the response of social services or more precisely social workers. Multicultural social work assumes dual focus in the treatment of clients. Therefore, the dual perspective of social work improves understanding of the behavior of culturally different individuals. Dual perspective enriched with the knowledge on cultural diversity, value system, and religion enables social workers to deliver appropriate treatment to different groups in everyday practice. According to the dual focus in multicultural social work the accent in the process of intervention is on the alternative client system.   


Multiculturalists identify social repression as a main source for the increase number of cultural, ethnic, and racial unrests. They strive to eliminate repression and advocate for protection of minority rights. Repression within social work is identified as a lack of cultural competencies possessed both by practitioners and social services. Multicultural social work assumes transformation of the position of power. Social workers and their competences are in the focus of change. Multiculturalism assumes the practitioner’s continuous questioning of prejudice toward culturally different clients but also assumes the client’s awareness about their prejudice regarding the practitioner’s culture.     





Liberalism, postmodernism, and relativism influenced the development of multicultural idea. The emerging of multiculturalism was also enabled by globalization as social phenomenon closely connected to liberalism. Precisely, processes of diversification of modern society leaded to revision of the concepts of nation and national state as well as Eurocentrism. At the same time, liberalism, globalization, and multiculturalism challenged the welfare state and consequently transformed the practice of social work. 

Figure, 7-9

Multicultural policy within the welfare state is closely connected to recognition of indigenous, ethnic, emigrant, and other groups. Nevertheless, there is a need to maintain social solidarity despite the diversification of the society. Solidarity is a key value of western democracy crucial for the future of the welfare state.


Adaptability of the theory and practice of social work is and imperative of their success. Therefore, multicultural social work has been naturally developed as a response to a social reality. The challenge of contemporary social work practice resides in maintaining the natural balance of relationships within one group without attempts for cultural assimilation and conformism.




Atanasov, P. (2003). Multikulturalizmot kako teorija, politika i praktika. Skopje: Evro-Balkan Press.


Bornarova, S. (2005). Concept of “human diversity” and multicultural social work, in Lakinska ed., Collection of papers presented at the round table on the topic of “Theoretical approaches in education of social workers and challenges of practical implementation of social work in multiethnic environment”. Skopje: Institute for social work and social policy, Faculty of Philosophy


Brooks, S. (2002). Introduction: The Challenge of Cultural Pluralism, in Stephen Brooks ed., The Challenge of Cultural Pluralism. Westport, Connecticut: Preager.


The Columbia Encyclopedia (2001-07).  Reformation, Sixth Edition. New York. Available at


Daskalovski, Z. (2005) . Liberalnata teorija i predizvicite na multikulturalizmot - makedonskiot slucaj, vo Ivan Dodevski ured., Multikulturalizmot vo Makedonija: model vo nastanuvawe. Skopje: Fondacija Institut otvoreno opstestvo, 123-139.


Dokmanovic M. (2005) . Multikulturalizam nasprema bikulturalizam – edna makedonska prikazna, vo Ivan Dodevski ured., Multikulturalizmot vo Makedonija: model vo nastanuvawe. Skopje: Fondacija Institut otvoreno opstestvo, p.28-41.


Dhooper S., Moore S. (2001). Social Work Practice with Culturally Diverse People. Thousand Oaks: Sage.


Hindess B., (1987, 2004) . Freedom, Equality, and the Market: Arguments on Social Policy, London: Routledge.


Ibrahimi M. (2005) . Mnogujazicnosta kako glaven segment na multikulturalizmot, vo Ivan Dodevski ured., Multikulturalizmot vo Makedonija: model vo nastanuvawe, Skopje: Fondacija Institut otvoreno optestvo, 111-123.


Kymlicka W. (2007) . The Global Diffusion of Multiculturalism: Trends, Causes, Consequences in Stephen Tierney, Accommodating Cultural Diversity, Hampshire: Ashgate Publishing Limited.



Leibfried S., & Mau S., (Eds). (2007) Welfare states: Construction, Deconstruction, Reconstruction. Northampton/ Cheltenham: An Elgar Reference collection.


Mahaligam R., McCarthy C. (2000). Multicultural Curriculum – New Directions for Social Theory, Practice and Policy. New York: Routledge.


National Association of Social Workers (2007), Indicators for the Achievement of the NASW Standards for Cultural Competence in Social Work Practice, NASW, Washington D.C


Naumann, I. (2005). Child care and feminism in West Germany and Sweden in the 1960s and 1970s, Journal of European Social Policy 15 (1), 133-152.

Available at:


Ruzin, N. (2004) . Socijalna politika. Skopje, Makedonsko: Radio-Radio Kultura.


Sue D. W. & McGoldrick M. (2006) . Multicultural Social Work Practice, Hoboken. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Tricket, E., Watts R. & Briman, D. (1994) . Human Diversity: Perspective of people in context. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Inc. 


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[1]  Trudeau in 1971 stated that Canadian society can no longer be considered as bicultural but it can be more precisely defined as multicultural (Ibrahimi, 2005, Dokmanovic, 2005)

[2] The term introduced by Allen Lock, the leader of the New Black Movement for Affirmation of Black Literature and Art (Ibrahimi, 2005). Columbia Encyclopedia equalizes both terms. (see: Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition Copyright, 2004).


[3] At the beginning of 2008 the Australian Premier officially, publicly apologized to the aboriginal communities of Tores and Strait islander communities for the injustice that the Australian government induced with its assimilative policy.

[4] For example the practice of female mutilation as part of the tradition of some African and Asian tribes contradicts to the generally accepted human rights and the rights of the child. Therefore multiculturalism should not be a shield for protection of violations of the rights of the women and children on the name of tradition.



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