Revisiting Multiculturalism in Social Work

Article excerpt

CREATED OUT OF CONTROVERSIAL developments in both K-12 and higher education circles, sometimes labeled the "culture wars," multiculturalism has become a popular overarching concept in social work education for the study of human diversity and populations at risk for discrimination (Glazer, 1997; Gould, 1995; Hunter, 1991; Le-Doux & Montalvo, 1999; Longres, 1997a, 1997b; Van Soest, 1995). The basic premise for teaching and learning from a multicultural perspective is that this knowledge contributes to the development of cultural competence in social work practice. Atherton and Bolland (1997) criticize this perspective, charging that "multiculturalism has little to do with understanding cultural diversity and, therefore, is of little relevance for social work education and practice" (p. 150). They base this criticism in part on the claim that "multiculturalism has become a fuzzy construct" (p. 143). In contrast to Atherton and Bolland, I believe that a multicultural perspective is not only relevant but essential in preparing social workers for culturally competent practice. But I would agree with Atherton and Bolland and others that, as a concept, multiculturalism has become somewhat imprecise. This is due in part to the multiple ways in which the term is used in the social work and social science literature. The conceptual problem is heightened by the fact that the term "culture" itself is not always clearly defined; it is sometimes used to signify ethnicity or national origin. At other times, culture is used to signify a dimension of human diversity, race, or minority status (Betancourt & Lopez, 1993; Green, 1999; Longres, 1995; Paniagua, 1998).

The purpose of this examination of multiculturalism is to create a more meaningful organizing concept for including multicultural content into a social work curriculum. According to Chestang (1988), "the organizing concept sets forth the core conceptual idea ..." that can "be examined, elaborated on, expanded, and explored," and is "central to understanding the structure of an area of study" (p. 235). Arguing that the organizing concept of multiculturalism should apply to the multiple cultures that exist simultaneously within U.S. society, this article explores the meaning of multiculturalism in relation to the groups covered under this concept, the goals espoused for a multicultural society and its communities, and the ways in which individuals and groups relate to their subcultures and mainstream U.S. society. Such an exploration involves consideration of a long-standing set of concepts that describe different modes of identification with and participation in one's cultures. These concepts--biculturalism, acculturation, amalgamation, and assimilation--have traditionally been used by social scientists to represent forms of adaptation and integration as people move into a new society (Gordon, 1964). This article reexamines these processes of adaptation and integration within the context of multiculturalism, and reformulates them in terms of the ways people relate to subcultural groups within U.S. society. Differences in competing perspectives under the umbrella of multiculturalism are identified, pointing to themes that allow for an application of multicultural ideas more in keeping with the goal of educating culturally competent social workers.

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence for social work practice is a well-developed concept associated with multiculturalism (Dana, Behn, & Gonwa, 1992; Diller, 1999; Green, 1999; Gutierrez & Nagda, 1996; Leigh, 1998; Lum, 1996; Manoleas, 1996; National Association of Social Workers, 1996a, 1996b; Pinderhughes, 1994; Queralt, 1996). Referring to ethical responsibilities to clients, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics states that social workers "should understand culture and its function in human behavior and society, recognizing the strengths that exist in all cultures," and "should have a knowledge base of their clients' cultures and be able to demonstrate competence in the provision of services that are sensitive to clients' cultures and to differences among people and cultural groups" (NASW, 1996a, p. …