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Multicultural Education

What is Multicultural Education?

(photo: Regis Machart)


“Intercultural education consists in giving the power to become aware of, recognize, push through and present/defend one’s diverse diversities, and those of our interlocutor” (Dervin, 2013)

“Fields, of course, are made. They acquire coherence and integrity in time because scholars devote themselves in different ways to what seems to be a commonly agreed-upon subject matter. Yet it goes without saying that a field of study is rarely as simply defined as even its most committed partisans – usually scholars, professors, experts, and the like – claim it is. Besides a field can change so entirely, in even the most traditional disciplines like philosophy, history, or theology, as to make an all-purpose definition of subject matter almost impossible”

Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978)



Many adjectives are used in global research worlds to talk about education for diversity: cross-cultural, meta-cultural, polycultural, multicultural and intercultural – but also global and  international (Dervin, Gajardo & Lavanchy, 2011; Grant & Portera, 2011). These “labels” can  appear interchangeably – without always being defined – or be distinguished. The  multicultural and the intercultural represent the most widely used notions, which have been  discussed extensively in education scholarship and practice: many researchers and practitioners  have attempted to define their specific characteristics (“borders and boundaries”), through which they have often tended to be opposed, namely in geographical terms (the US vs. Europe, Northern Europe vs. Southern, etc.). Some European researchers have even demonized the ‘multicultural’, asserting that multicultural education celebrates only cultural differences and ignores similarities, individuality, and the importance of relations and interaction – as the ‘intercultural’ is said to operate. But even if multicultural education and intercultural education have different origins (Abdallah-Pretceille, 1986) – the former is related to Civil Rights Movements while the latter to mass immigration in Europe, amongst others – Holm and Zilliacus (2009) argue that today multicultural and intercultural education can both mean different things: “it is impossible to treat and draw conclusions about intercultural and multicultural education as if there was only one kind of each since there are several different kinds of both multicultural and intercultural education” (ibid.: 23). With the birth and spread of critical and more “political” approaches to education for diversity worldwide, does this mean that the dichotomy has lost much of its relevance?  Have the enduring rivalries between the two notions been finally put to rest?

For us multicultural and intercultural mean the same as long as they are used in a critical manner, especially in relation to the concepts of culture and identity but also questions of power and social justice. We reject entirely culturalism, i.e. the use of a static understanding of the concept of culture, which overlooks contextualised and intersubjective interaction between complex persons and leads to “plural monoculturalism” (A. Sen) rather than dialogue. Here is a telling example taken from Breidenbach and Nyíri’s book Seeing Culture Everywhere (2009: 281) about a Japanese student in Australia:

    One day, the lecturer asked him to demonstrate how Japanese people greet each other. Atsushi lifted his hand, wiggled his fingers,     and said « hello ». Not satisfied, the lecturer insisted : « No, I mean how do you greet people in a formal situation ? » Atsushi shrugged and repeated that this was how he greeted people. Getting ennoyed, the lecturer-who was of course expecting Atsushi to perform a bow-said « Okay then, how would you greet the emperor ? » Atsushi, feeling harassed, responded that he would prefer not to meet the emperor. Finally, the lecturer was obliged to perform the bow herself, but Atsushi felt stereotyped and kept complaining about the incident for weeks. 

Besides we bear in mind this important point made by Prof. Martine Abdallah-Pretceille  (2006: 480): “No fact is intercultural (FD: also read multicultural) at the outset, nor is the quality of intercultural an attribute of an object, it is only intercultural analysis that can give it this character”. Our definition goes beyond the canonical context of multicultural education in schools (generally in relation to the teacher’s work) and includes teaching interculturality and intercultural communication in many and varied contexts (primary/secondary/vocational/higher education/adult education…).

Our main research interests are:

– Critical approaches to education for diversity in the work of primary, secondary and higher education staff

– Teaching interculturality in educational context

– Social justice, Human rights and education

– Stereotypes, representation, rejection, xenophobia (but also xenophilia)

– “Racism without races”

– Migration and identity

– International academic mobility and migration (physical/virtual)

– Intercultural competences and assessment, self-learning

– Perception of multicultural/intercultural education in the media and in daily life (myths about education for diversity)

– Multicultural families/couples and education

– Intercultural university pedagogy.

Research methods include: (cyber-)ethnography, discourse analysis, conversation analysis, ethnomethodology.