Claims that Australian and British social cohesion is crumbling due to ethnic differences tend to highlight worst-case scenarios. In some multi-ethnic and multicultural countries of immigration, there is still an underlying drive for assimilation of people who do not share the same history or cultural traditions of the majority population. Post 9/11 in Britain, three successive prime ministers have publically noted the importance of ‘British values’, implying that some communities’ values are inferior to British values. It has been argued that the loss of common values challenges western democracies and that the promotion of cultural diversity only exacerbates the problem (Goodhart, 2004). Recently, both the British Prime Minister Cameron and German Chancellor Merkel have declared that multiculturalism has failed in their respective countries. In Australia, there have been similar debates around the consequences of diversity, especially for social cohesion, citizenship and national identity. Australian multiculturalism remains highly contested, ambivalent and unsettling, and elicits contradictory reactions. Apart from a citizenship test, Australia includes an ‘Australian Values Statement’ in the booklet provided to people applying for visas to live in Australia.

Such concern about the extent of cultural/ethnic diversity ignores social divisions far wider than those of ethnicity including differences between generations, between religious and secular Australians, between those with differing education and different class backgrounds. Affinities denotes conditions of being alike, based on values, histories or comparable circumstances. This does not mean people are the same, but that they find aspects of their lives which identify a commonality: living in the same area, being migrants, having children, and so on. Values such as self-direction, compassion, conformity and respect for difference are important mechanisms for guiding people’s behaviour and actions. However commonalities might be less about shared values than comparable experiences, circumstances and histories.

The most significant research on values is the World Values Survey (2010-2012). Using this, Inglehart and Baker found both ‘massive cultural change’ and the ‘persistence of distinctive cultural traditions’ (2000). This is apparent when examining differences and changes between the generations of migrant background in Sydney. Whether economic migrants or refugees, the first generation often experience extraordinary levels of uncertainty and must contend with numerous types of risk. People migrate precisely to provide a sense of security and belonging, for themselves and their children. One young Indian Australian claims that in his community there is

a strong emphasis on maintaining your culture, on keeping it strong. The group I come from, there’s a strong emphasis on that … ‘This is how you’re supposed to be’, because they want to protect it, and they want to make sure it survives … And they don’t know how they’ll cope or how they’ll adapt … whereas in the Australian culture, broadly speaking, there’s less emphasis on that because everybody is secure in who they are and what they’re doing, and the people around them.

Those born and bred in Australia have a certain sense of security inherent in that status, where ‘survival is taken for granted, instead of the feeling that survival is uncertain’ (Inglehart, 2000). In addition, Inglehart suggests that ‘age and economic circumstances (rising economic and physical security) bring about changes to value orientations between generations due to different experiences in their formative years’ (2000). This is similar to the findings of Hussain and Bagguley (2005) who report that second generation British Pakistanis draw upon citizenship rights to assert their identity and sense of belonging. Our young Indian-Australian respondent exemplifies how many younger and second generation Australians assert their sense of belonging and Australianness by constructing and claiming certain Australian values and identities, however different from the mainstream, as their own …

So, Australian values – it’s the same values I’ve described before about myself and my community, because I’m an Australian … I’ll tell you how I would like to define [Australian values]. I’d like them to be defined by being a multicultural society of, you know, people being vegetarian or going to a temple or going to a mosque or going to the beach or going for a walk … that’s the sort of Australian values that I hold.

In other words, he highlights ‘respect for diversity’ as an important value that is sometimes forgotten in multicultural Australia.

Family is described as one of the universal values, although it comes in different shapes and sizes. People compared and contrasted their notion of family and family practices with what they thought it meant to other ethnic groups. They mention various ethnic groups they think they may have more in common with. For example, a young Lebanese-Australian Muslim woman claims Christian Lebanese, Greeks, Italians and Macedonians have similar child-rearing practices to Muslim Lebanese and that these are different from Anglo-Australians. Examples she gave included not allowing their children to work in paid-employment while they are studying, not expecting their children to pay rent while living at home and encouraging them to live at home until they get married.

The same Lebanese-Australian woman claimed that although Asian Australians may have different ways of bringing up their children from her community, there was one strong similarity; ‘You know, actually, maybe they are similar because they do value their boys a lot more than the girls’. While child-rearing practices are positively similar to some European groups, the poor treatment and inequality of women has a negative similarity with ‘Chinese Asians’. Indeed, Norris and Inglehart (2002), using results from the World Values Survey, find that contrary to the Samuel Huntington thesis about the core clash of values between western democratic values and Islamic religious values, the cultural faultline is much more concerned with gender inequality.


Goodhart, D. (2004) ‘Too Diverse?’, Prospect, 95: 30-37.

Hussain, Y. and Bagguley, P. (2005) ‘Citizenship, Ethnicity and Identity: British Pakistanis after the 2001 “Riots”’, Sociology, 39(3): 407-425.

Inglehart, R. (2000) ‘Globalization and Postmodern Values’, The Washington Quarterly, 23(1): 215–228.

Inglehart, R. and Baker, W. E. (2000) ‘Modernization, Cultural Change and the Persistence of Traditional Values, American Sociological Review, 65 (1): 19-51.

Norris, P. and Inglehart, R. (2002) ‘Islam & the West: Testing the Clash of Civilizations Thesis’, RWP02-015, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

The research in this article was taken from the Affinities in Multicultural Australia pilot project, 2011-13

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