Understanding 'culture' in 'multicultural' education


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Introductory video

Core readings

Culture as a slippery concept

In commencing a course considering multicultural education, participants may consider they have a good understanding of the idea of what multicultural means.  It is a term that is used extensively in the Australian context across multiple formal educational settings quite often in an unproblematic way.  There are many policies connecting to the idea of multicultural, for example the Queensland Multicultural Recognition Act 2016 (Figure 1).  The definitions section of this act does not contain a definition of multicultural it seems assumed that a reader would understand what is implied by this term.  The term diversity in relation to the idea of being multicultural is defined as “cultural, linguistic and religious diversity” (p. 5).  This course contends that in order to consider what is meant by a term such as multicultural it is first necessary to consider what could be meant by the term culture.  As you can see from Figure 1, official considerations of the idea of multiculturalism depend on something termed cultural diversity.

Figure 1: Queensland Multicultural Recognition Act 2016

Multicultural Recognition Act 2016

The Multicultural Recognition Act 2016 (PDF) was passed as a Bill on 16 February 2016 and commenced on 1 July 2016.

The Act:

  • promotes Queensland as a united, harmonious and inclusive community and will foster opportunities for people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to participate in all aspects of life in our prosperous state
  • acknowledges that a diverse, dynamic and cohesive society will deliver important benefits for all Queenslanders, including the community, government and business sectors
  • recognises our diverse cultural heritage and aims to ensure that government services are responses to the needs of our multicultural communities.

Source: Queensland Government, Queensland Multicultural Recognition Act 2016 Creative Commons License

While both the terms culture and multicultural are often presented as simple in their meaning, upon closer investigation, they are complex, slippery and hard to pin down.  While ‘common sense’ understandings exist in the public consciousness, to critically engage with multicultural education we need to interrogate these ideas a little further.

Often, particularly in the context of policy documents and ideas around multicultural education, the idea of culture depends on the original nationality or country of origin of a group of people.  This might extend not only to where a person was born but also to where their parents and/or grandparents were born.  It might refer to a whole national context or a regional area within a particular nation. The tie here is to ethnicity as a way of defining cultural diversity.

Linguistic diversity is also often considered to be part of multicultural considerations (as seen in the Queensland Multicultural Recognition Act).  Language and culture exist in a complex relationship where they are both expressions of each other.  If we consider culture to be related to shared values and beliefs of a given group, one way in which these are expressed and communicated is through language.  Language development is influenced by culture and while two individuals from different communities may share a language, they may not necessarily share an understanding of the use of particular word/phrases.

Sometimes, culture is represented through physical artefacts, clothing or symbols, as well as artistic representations such as painting (eg. on the didgeridoo on the left) and music.  Often these are linked to certain traditions, ceremonies or cultural activities with embedded implicit as well as explicit meanings. Superficial consideration of a particular culture through its physical representations can result if the intricacies of a particular tradition/representation are not well understood. There is danger in physical representations being misunderstood and feeding into stereotypical ideas/ideals of what a particular culture might be like, particularly if considered in isolation.

In many celebrations of diversity food is central to displaying and sharing groups’ differing cultural backgrounds.  Diverse communities come together to experience each other’s cultures through consuming dishes that are considered to be representative of traditional ways of eating.  Food is related to the natural environment, local knowledges about cultivation and gathering, religious beliefs, methods of preparation, norms of how meals are shared and how/when specific foods might be able to be consumed.  Again, the interconnectedness of food and culture is more complex than it may seem on the surface and perhaps difficult to grasp through one-off or limited experiences (particularly if isolated from a cultural context).

Underlying the markers of culture often considered are less tangible aspects of culture that relate to how cultural groups relate to each other, develop societal expectations and norms. While food, flags, festivals, language and art for instance might provide visible markers they do not of themselves constitute a particular culture. Concepts such as peoples’ roles related to their age, notions of family and notions of self are influenced by culture. As are approaches to social situations such as treatment of elders, raising of children and the importance of individuals and community.

Differing perspectives on culture

Diverse academic fields consider what is meant by the term culture.  For example, from a sociological perspective, culture is shared beliefs, values and practices within a given society (OpenStax, 2016) (You may wish to do further reading on these ideas on culture here: http://cnx.org/contents/r-QzKsl_@7.23:FRUxRAYN@2/Introduction-to-Culture).  The sociological perspective is not the only perspective on understanding what culture is.   Wren (2012) looks at definitions of culture and how they are expressed from different perspectives.  Wren’s ideas are summarised in the table below:




Culture is a complex of ideas and attitudes that inhibit impulses, establish shared meanings and goals and enable people to live in a social system


Culture is a set of shared, socially constructed representations and meanings


Culture consists in those symbols and symbol-making activities that typically reflect and promote a society’s current power relationships.

From Wren’s definitions we can begin to see that there are similar elements to the idea of what culture is, such as shared symbolic understandings.  However, from different perspectives the importance of, and emphasis on, different elements become important. 

When we combine consideration of ethnicity and linguistic diversity, physical representations (such as artefacts and clothing), knowledge and traditions (such as those that might be represented in the preparation and consumption of food) with differing theoretical perspectives of what culture may be defined as, the complexity of the term starts to come to the fore.  In addition, there are many other ways to consider what culture might relate to that are not attached only to ethnic or national background.  Groups of people may derive shared meanings in ways related to gender, sexuality, sub-culture and class for example.

So, what does 'multicultural' mean?

In the public consciousness the meaning of being multicultural most likely relates to people from different cultural backgrounds, largely defined by ethnicity, living together in a particular society.  What this ‘looks like’ and how (or if) it is best achieved can differ substantially according to an individual’s position on issues such as: who should/has the position of privilege; what is acceptable and not acceptable in terms of cultural expression; should sameness be the goal or should difference be celebrated; do particular groups have the right to make decisions in their own best interests.

Steinberg (2009, pp. 4-5) describes different manifestations of multiculturalism:

a)    Conservative diversity practice and multiculturalism or monoculturalism

      • Tends to believe in the superiority of Western patriarchal culture
      • Promotes the Western canon as a universally civilizing influence
      • Has often targeted multiculturalism as an enemy of Western progress
      • Sees the children of the poor and non-white as culturally deprived
      • Attempts to assimilate everyone capable of assimilation to a Western, middle-/upper-middle-class standard

b)   Liberal diversity practice and multiculturalism

      • Emphasises the natural equality and common humanity of individuals from diverse race, class, and gender groups
      • Focuses attention on the sameness of individuals from divers groups
      • Argues that inequality results from a lack of opportunity
      • Maintains that the problems individuals from divergent backgrounds face are individual difficulties, not socially structured adversities
      • Claims ideological neutrality on the basis that politics should be separated from education
      • Accepts the assimilationist goals of conservative multiculturalism

c)    Pluralist diversity practice and multiculturalism

      • Now the mainstream articulation of multiculturalism
      • Shares many values of liberal multiculturalism but focuses more on race, class, and gender differences than similarities
      • Exoticises difference and positions it as necessary knowledge for those who would compete in a globalized economy
      • Contends that school curriculum should consist of studies of various divergent groups
      • Promotes pride in group heritage
      • Avoids the use of the concept of oppression

d)    Left-essentialist diversity practice and multiculturalism

      • Maintains that race, class and gender categories consist of a set of unchanging priorities (essences)
      • Defines groups and membership in groups around the barometer of authenticity (fidelity to the unchanging priorities of the historical group in question)
      • Romanticises the group, in the process erasing the complexity and diversity of its history
      • Assumes that only authentically oppressed people can speak about particular issues concerning a specific group
      • Often is involved in struggles with other subjugated groups over whose oppression is most elemental (takes precedence over all other forms

e)    Critical diversity and multiculturalism

      • Focuses on contextual issues of power and domination
      • Promotes critical pedagogy as a way of understanding how educational institutions work in terms of power
      • Makes no pretense of neutrality, as it honors the notion of egalitarianism and the elimination of human suffering
      • Rejects the assumption that education provides consistent socioeconomic mobility for working-class and non-white students
      • Identifies what gives rise to race, class and gender inequalities
      • Formulates modes of resistance that help marginalized groups and individuals assert their self-determination and self-direction
      • Is committed to social justice and the egalitarian democracy that accompanies it
      • Examines issues of privilege and how they shape social and educational reality


This module has begun to explore the complexity of often taken for granted terms such as culture, diversity and multicultural (Course Objective 1). The ways in which the term culture is used and the ways in which culture might be seen to be expressed are varied, depend on perspective and require more interrogation than a superficial consideration may engage.  In the next module, we begin to explore what this complexity might mean when we look at our own cultural embeddedness when considering multiculturalism.

References & further reading

  1. OpenStax, Introduction to Sociology. OpenStax CNX. Retrieved May 19, 2016 from   https://cnx.org/contents/r-QzKsl_@7.23:_97x1rAv@2/Introduction-to-Sociology
  2. Steinberg, S. R., & Kincheloe, J. L. (2009). Smoke and Mirrors: More than one way to be diverse and multicultural. In S. R. Steinberg (Ed.), Diversity and Multiculturalism: A Reader. New York: Peter Lang.
  3. Wren, T. E. (2012) Conceptions of Culture. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield

Course notes download

Images used

In order of appearance:

  1. ACME Squares (2011) Collection National Flags https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collection-national-flags.png  Creative Commons License
  2. Adiputra, M. (2010) Globe of Language, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Globe_of_language.png  Creative Commons License
  3. Fæ (2013) Didgeridoo https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Didgeridoo_(Imagicity_1070).jpg Creative Commons License
  4. s2art (2005) reg’s last meal 1, https://www.flickr.com/photos/s2art/3403915 Creative Commons License
  5. Fluffy_Steve (2010) Goth Couple with Parasol, https://www.flickr.com/photos/fluffy_steve/4682662223
  6. DIAC images (2010) Harmony day https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harmony_Day_(5475051097).jpg Creative Commons License

Last modified: Tuesday, 4 September 2018, 11:27 AM