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Multiculturalism, Pluralism and Policymaking

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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Catherine Neumann-Boxer, University of Saskatchewan
Guest Contributor

This blog entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series on ‘interculturalism and pluralism’.

Policy in a multicultural society cannot be made without actually incorporating multicultural and pluralistic epistemologies into policy making frameworks. By using epistemological inquiries, that look into and critically examine the ways we think we know something we can better understand the assumptions upon which our societies have been structured.  Epistemological shifts in the way that we think – and allowing these shifts to influence the way that we structure our societies – make for wiser educational policy. Taking a close look at the epistemological foundations on which we base our educational systems, how our assumptions affect how we think about our societies and, in turn, how these assumptions affect everyone, all are important steps in our efforts to foster environments in which our societies can be pluralistic in theory as well as in practice.

Multiculturalism generally calls for the recognition of and respect for many cultures in one society. It is the practice of preserving different cultural identities within a unified society.  However, connotations of assimilation do exist in conventional definitions of multiculturalism. To unify is to bring together: the state or fact of being united or combined into one, as parts of a whole.  Some conventional definitions of multiculturalism suggest it is an oxymoron, that the concept multiculturalism reflects a kind of homogeneity and, paradoxically, is absent of diversity.

Contradictions in language and thought, and stemming from how we have structured our societies, lend themselves well to policies and practices that are subject to superficial, partial and tokenistic treatment of multiculturalism. Is multiculturalism attainable when dichotomous foundations are still influencing and dominating our mindsets? Pluralistic societies, with epistemological foundations based in the belief that there is not one set of truths about the world, but rather many, need to constantly and thoroughly examine the foundations and assumptions upon which we have built our society.

Contradictions in language and thought, and stemming from how we have structured our societies, lend themselves well to policies and practices that are subject to superficial, partial and tokenistic treatment of multiculturalism. Is multiculturalism attainable when dichotomous foundations are still influencing and dominating our mindsets? Pluralistic societies, with epistemological foundations based in the belief that there is not one set of truths about the world, but rather many, need to constantly and thoroughly examine the foundations and assumptions upon which we have built our society. Our educational systems, as other systems, often are run in a way that cut the social, subjective and personal from the discussion. Policy analysts tend to treat citizens as objects, separating human experience from the practice of policy making. Separations in contemporary society give rise to the dichotomy between fact and value and these separations are reinforced in the way in which we have structured our societies.

The ways in which we communicate in our society is reflective of our epistemological assumptions.  Communication, the way that we interact with one another, including the way we create policy, is governed by social norms embedded in our institutions. The discussions we have, all discourse, and resultant actions, are reflective of the cultural paradigms within which we form our thoughts. The Greek philosopher Aristotle was intrigued by these notions of separation and the effect of separation on practice and wondered what would happen at the point of intersection. 

In contemporary society, we have reached this point of intersection. At the heart of issues about multiculturalism and pluralism are competing values paradigms.  Values are a product of culture and different cultures may have different ideas about how to live.  The dominant culture’s way of functioning in the world is not necessarily the right, only, or best way in any given situation.  Solely reflecting the values of the dominant culture in policy is undemocratic and reflecting only the dominant culture’s values may, in actuality, lead to cultural marginality and even genocide for the other groups of people living in the same society.

As leading Indigenous scholars argue in First Nations Education In Canada, we can no longer ignore the damaging separations in our culture between, for example, the dominant Eurocentric paradigm and Indigenous epistemology. Historically, our schools were built on Eurocentric concepts including for the purpose of assimilation, as evident in the legacies of the residential schools, the prime minister’s official apology and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work. One cannot ignore the fact that this legacy still is damaging for all involved. This historical reality calls for educators to continue to take a very close look at the values behind our educational systems and structures.

It is critical that all of us examine the ways in which we think we know the values on which our ways of knowing are based, what we value, and ultimately who these values privilege or disadvantage in society. Attention needs to be paid to other ways of knowing, such as Indigenous knowledge, and other ontological perspectives. This includes looking into ways of knowing that make up a holistic conception of the world, rather than relying on our static, atomistic worldviews. We are at a point in history where the outcomes of the ways in which we have interacted with each other and this earth, have come to a head. We have the effects of globalization contributing to colonialist regimes and of further marginalizing poor and Indigenous people. In this separation, understanding of philosophical concepts is lost, particularly attention to the philosophical assumptions we use to formulate understanding in the first place. As a response to contemporary times, researchers and theorists are drawing attention back to the examination of assumptions.  In contemporary society the once dominant Eurocentric paradigm which shaped the way we create policy is being re-examined.

The role of education in policy making
Education has functioned in ways which protect the dominant culture and maintain the status quo.  A truly multicultural and pluralistic society would distribute social power differently and this would threaten the social privilege of socially hegemonic groups and, hence, the status quo.  Efforts to transform existing unequal power relations will be resisted, and will have to confront countervailing efforts to preserve the status quo and efforts by the dominant groups to protect their social positions. The mindsets that assume that educational policy is intended to perpetuate the status quo needs to change to mindsets that make room for alternatives from multiple perspectives and worldviews.  As Mats Alvesson and Stanley Deetz suggest in Doing Critical Management Research, in order to create a pluralistic society, the foundations that have been established, which have led us to where we are today, need to be critically analyzed, changed and even torn down and rebuilt.

In a pluralist society, the making of policy should go beyond the foundation in which it sits. In a society with an expressed commitment to multiculturalism there is no legitimate reason for the formulation of policy continuing to reflect one dominant worldview. Communities, parents, teachers, and even students should be more involved in policy making. Truly multicultural and pluralistic societies would have provisions in policy making practices to accommodate a wide variety of epistemological views.

A deep understanding that would transfer to policy making in schools what it means to be truly multicultural and pluralistic is not a reality reflected in most policy making processes or policy outcomes. I would argue this is because our fundamental epistemological frameworks in the West are built on assimilative and colonialist paradigms that continue to be a wall within and between people. We are entrenched in this and many of us are not aware of the thought processes that make us act in certain ways and structure all of our daily lives through policy.

Within all structures are acculturating paradigms that shape what we do. Systems in place that function to maintain the status quo of inequitable social privilege are detrimental to pluralism. If the way we do things that further subjugate already marginalized people then this foundation cannot sustain true multiculturalism. A more pluralistic society becomes possible by creating epistemological frameworks using a wide variety of perspectives that place value on interdependence, mutuality and connectedness. Being aware of the implications of our dichotomies, values, system structures, and incorporating this awareness into the practice of policy making, will contribute to more truly multicultural and pluralistic societies.

Catherine Neumann-Boxer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Educational Administration in the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan.

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Equity Matters

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Interculturalism and pluralism

Comments

Thank you for your comments, Janni. The whole idea may seem idealistic and impossible, but it seems to me to be the only thing that makes sense....and I think it all starts with the ways in which we communicate with eachother.

Great post. It's important to extricate people from the policy. And, as you have noted--this really means understanding peoples and their differences.

I think a certain kind of assimilation in the form of presenting our national values and traditions to the given minority groups is simply inevitable. As far as multiculturalism is concerned the current state may have its roots in the creation of separate communities of immigrants - the trend that the British PM described earlier this year and that caused the gradual destruction of the national values and traditions within the given communities. As for my country I think the only solution to eliminate these trends is to integrate the immgrants coming to Canada into our cultural system. We think of ourselves as being tolerant of multiculturalismbut a certain kind of assimilation is necessary in today's world.

A very interesting and informative article about multiculturalism:

St. Denis, V. (2011). Silencing aboriginal curricular content and perspectives through multiculturalism: “there are other children here”. The Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, 33, 306-317.