Multiculturalism and Diversity

Multiculturalism and Diversity


 Some Implications for Research and Practice

[C]ultural meanings, practices, norms, and social institutions … constitute the matrix in which are embedded the intentions, rules, practices, and activities through which people live their lives (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus & Nisbett, 1998, p. 917).

What goals or objectives must our profession and society adopt to become truly multicultural in vision, values, and practice? (Sue, Bingham, Porche-Burke & Vasquez, 1999, p. 1067).

This final chapter is the most difficult one to write. The quotations above suggest the complexity of understanding individual behavior within a cultural matrix. With the broad definition of culture proposed in this book, applicable to all significant groups that meet the criteria, complexity increases. To take seriously the multicultural nature of persons is to raise theoretical and empirical questions that are very difficult to answer. As a science and profession, we are not accustomed to thinking routinely and easily of individuals in this way. Our discipline will be enriched, however, if we can design creative new research strategies to address these questions.

The implications for practice may be least problematic because, whether in counseling, therapy, or education, theoretical emphasis has long been on taking into account “the whole person.” And in these areas, there is typically one-on-one interaction between persons – between client and mental health worker, or between student and teacher. An individual’s unique social identities or cultural memberships will be evident in behavior – overt or subtle. Whether they are recognized, acknowledged, respected and used positively in the actual practice of counseling, therapy, or education (beyond statements of theory) is a central concern. In research, a multicultural perspective presents a different set of interrelated problems pertaining to sampling, study design, methods, data analysis and interpretation.


Each participant or respondent in an investigation brings to it unique experiences and beliefs, perceptions, and response potentials that reflect far greater individual complexity and far more cultural memberships than most researchers are prepared to identify. We agree with Shields (2008, p. 304) that “[t]he facts of our lives reveal that there is no single identity category that satisfactorily describes how we respond to our social environment or are responded to by others.” We also agree with Mann and Kelley (1997, p. 392) that “knowledge is and should be situated in people’s diverse social locations.… [and] grounded in the social biography of … the observed.” Such agreement, however, does not lead easily or directly to researchable empirical questions that can be investigated in a practical way. Multiple issues and problems face the researcher who is accustomed to obtaining demographic descriptions of participants that are usually limited to age, ethnicity, and gender, or to the single-identity or group-membership category viewed as an independent variable.

A viable strategy is to begin, first, with a stringent analysis of the dependent variable(s) under investigation. Suppose, for example, we are investigating the voting choice made in the 2008 presidential election. As West and Fenstermaker (1996) caution, gender, ethnicity, and social class are only three ways of exploring difference in social life. Beyond these are the possible influences of respondents’ age, political culture, geography, family status, and other social identities found to be important in prior research on voting behavior. Instead of treating each of these as separable independent variables, a bundling approach may be more revealing and thus yield more accurate and reliable information. As noted by Frable (1997, p. 154) most research “focuses on the personal meanings of these social categories one at a time.” But a politically conservative middle-aged middle-class gay Latino man living in Florida, for example, may behave in a way that reflects more than the sum of his individual identities.

I have no easy answer to the question posed by Shields (2008, p. 310) about how to “formulate research questions that allow for and can reveal the responses of individuals as a reflection of the identities that form them.” I am, convinced, however, that we must collectively make the effort to devise and propose various possibilities. We will have to construct strategies for empirical research that will reveal the salience and influence of diverse cultural memberships and how they operate simultaneously in intersection (West & Fenstermaker, 1996). This will probably mean giving more careful attention to the design and analysis of qualitative studies.

In everyday interactions we are often surprised when persons do not behave as we assume or expect prototypical members of their cultures to act. One study by Mendes and colleagues found more than just surprise, but anxiety and defensive behavior, when participants were introduced to partners who were Asian American and spoke with southern drawls (cf. Munsey, 2007). Similarly, we may know that African American culture is not monolithic (Asumah & Perkins, 2000) but Black Republicans are disorienting. So are gay (“log cabin”) Republicans, and so are women who choose not to bear or rear children, or American Indians who are not environmentalists. Researchers must move well beyond accepted assumptions in the investigations we design and the information we hope to obtain. For example, Akom (2000) describes a subset of urban inner-city African Americans for whom identity is ghettocentric and tied to the ‘hood, not just to skin color. What matters most to them is experience, social class, and neighborhood. To organize research data around ethnicity without understanding such within-group variations and taking them into account will yield faulty or incomplete or inadequate information of little predictive value.

Warner (2008) cautions that explicit care be taken in choosing those categories of identity on which the research questions are best focused and also in choosing which are to be collapsed or ignored. These decisions will be influenced by theoretical concerns, by new hypotheses, and prior research. The new formulations which can guide research may well come from critical theory which posits that we all are embedded in a system of power relations. Thus, the politically conservative middle-aged middle-class gay Latino voter mentioned earlier is both advantaged (by gender and social class) and disadvantaged (by minority ethnicity and sexual identity) in comparison with others in his immediate and distant environment. Questions posed to study participants about their perceptions of such power considerations in relation to the realities of their daily lives may add considerably to the predictive utility of an investigation’s findings.

Qualitative research and case studies may be more amenable to capturing the influence of multiple cultural memberships on behavior than the traditional quantitative research of experiments and surveys. But while the former are more likely to encourage respondents to reveal more of their complex and unique wholeness, the qualitative researcher, too, may not tap into the cultural communities that are most important to the research participant, or most relevant to the research question, by not asking the right questions. For example, a heterosexual African American woman who is part of a study about religion and spirituality may not ever be asked about the importance to her life of her single, never-married status. Bowleg (2008) has written convincingly about the difficulties facing qualitative researchers in attempting to capture the nuances of intersectionality, “the interdependence and mutuality of identities” (p. 316).


The avowed aim of counseling or psychotherapy is to assist individuals in coping constructively with the problems of living that are specific to their situations. This must surely necessitate recognizing an individual’s multicultural uniqueness and understanding how particular social identities intersect in the past and present contexts that are relevant to the person. An explicitly multicultural training program (Dana, Gamst & Der-Karabetian, 2008) goes beyond attention to ethnicity. It calls for “recognition of the full array of possible identity components” (p. 293) and suggests that they and their interrelations function as positive sources of strength and power.

A “cultural context” model in clinical psychology, described by Hernandez (2008) suggests, further, that it is important to take into account the structural issues in society, to identify “the current and historical impact of oppressive social forces” (p. 10) that have impacted a client’s experiences. An attempt to link interpersonal processes to larger societal institutions is seen as a goal of the therapeutic practice.

Similarly, Reid and Comas-Diaz (1990) call attention to the role of social status in mediating information and providing expectations to individuals and to those with whom they interact. “High status individuals are accepted as leaders and models; low status people are devalued and ignored” (p. 398). The personal and social consequences of status need to be recognized and taken into account in therapeutic practice. But status is not fixed. It can change with time, changed life circumstances, and situation. As Hurtado (1996, p. xii) has noted, “within certain contexts we can be victims of subordination, and within others we can be oppressors.”

Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi (2001), in responding to criticism of work on “positive psychology” that has ignored people of color, maintain that positive psychological goals “cut across social and cultural divides” (p. 90). But such a hypothesis requires considerable testing before it can be accepted as a valid generalization. While it is likely that most cultures contain ideas and prescriptions about what is good and what is moral and acceptable behavior (Fiske, Kitayama, Markus & Nisbett, 1998), the content of these ideas and the direction of the prescriptions are known to vary. Individual striving for material success may well be considered a positive goal to strive for within some cultural communities, while cooperative efforts toward mutual benefits are positive goals within others. Similarly, developing one’s physical strength to the maximum may not be a goal shared by those who prefer focusing on the development of their social or intellectual skills.

Assumptions about positive goals cannot be made within a counseling or clinical setting without considering social status and all the cultural memberships or identities that are most relevant and most salient. An emphasis on personal change may raise questions about maintaining or abandoning old goals and perhaps adopting others. But these goals are embedded in intersecting multicultural positions and cannot be easily understood without taking them into account.

What Now?

Pedersen (1999, p. 13) recognized the “profound consequences” for our discipline that arise from a “culture centered perspective.” Others, cited throughout the pages of this book, have shared this recognition. We will need to ask new research questions, formulate different hypotheses from those tested in the past, perhaps sample smaller populations, be much more sensitive to environments and to time and place and context. In assessment, formulation of generalizations, and proposing solutions to social and individual problems, we will need to consider as much as possible the multicultural nature of persons. Flannery, Reise, and Yu (2001), for example, make the case for emerging ethnicities and point to the uniqueness of Italian Americans living in New York City or Chinese Americans in San Francisco, Irish Americans in Boston, or Chicanos in Los Angeles.

Questions focused on ethnicity or gender or social class need to be reformulated so that these identities in combination are seen as more reliable predictors of different forms and different levels of social or political action. Under what conditions, if any, for example, will low-income heterosexual White urban men behave or react like middle-income African American women? The majority of both groups voted for Obama for president. What research would have led to this prediction? What strategies to increase union membership will be most effective with middle-aged Latinas, older Southern White men, young Midwestern white collar workers? How will the strategies differ or be much the same?

The newest mission statement for the American Psychological Association, adopted by the Council of Representatives (Farberman, 2008), speaks of advancing “the creation, communication, and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives” (p. 70). To realize these objectives, we will need to do the best we can in searching for generalizations across persons and across cultures. Generality across settings, times, and populations, however, cannot be assumed (Tebes, 2000). We may well find an “essential sameness” among human beings” (Guyll & Madon, 2000, p. 1510) in capacities and needs. But when we study attitudes, beliefs, skills, values, social perceptions, and expectations, we will inevitably be compelled to respect and understand diversity and the multicultural uniqueness of individual persons.



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