The Role of Sociocultural Perpectives for Professional Practice

Vol. 13, No. 2

ISSN: 1546-2676


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Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM

Vol. 13, No. 2. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member,
Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2002. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Sociocultural Diversity: Insights from Cultural Psychology for Family and Consumer Sciences


Anne MacCleave, Octavia James, Arlene Stairs

Dr. MacCleave is Associate Professor in the Education Department of Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax. Nova Scotia.

Ms. James is a Master of Arts candidate in Educational Psychology at Mount Saint Vincent University.

Dr. Stairs is Associate Professor in the Faculty of education of Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario.

One of the recurring themes of postmodernism, according to Baldwin (2001) is “celebration of difference.” When exploring postmodernism, MacCleave (1995) described this theme as “embracing diversity.” Elkind (1995) contrasted postmodern concern with difference, particularity, and irregularity with modern concerns for progress, belief in universal Western goals, and regularity. Alternate descriptors of the postmodern condition include instability, incompleteness, inconsistency, fragmentation, and assymmetry. This postmodern emphasis on difference represents a departure from the modern search for cross-sociocultural commonalities or universals and the rejection of any form of standardization. 

Whether from a modern or postmodern perspective, family and consumer sciences has demonstrated concern with sociocultural diversity. In fact, Kappa Omicron Nu has taken a leadership role in introducing these criteria to its membership (see for example, Andrews, Paschall, & Mitstifer, 1993; Goldfarb, 2000). Rather than examining the full range of postmodern ideas, we will focus on one among several postmodern approaches to sociocultural diversity, based on the emergence of a cultural psychology.

The Root Disciplines Take a Postmodern Turn

Family and consumer sciences is a holistic field of study that integrates knowledge from the root disciplines of psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, biology, and chemistry among others to address the practical problems of individuals and families. Similar to family and consumer sciences, these root disciplines have been transformed over the years and continue to be transformed in response to demands created by rapidly changing historical, sociocultural, political, and economic conditions. Branches of these root disciplines have recently taken a postmodern turn and increasingly focus on pluralism, diversity, or difference. To illustrate how sociocultural diversity is being addressed in an emerging discipline, we will describe cultural psychology, which has postmodern dimensions. We will highlight its historical underpinnings within general psychology and explore briefly some recurrent and interrelated themes across versions of cultural psychology. Using principles of cultural pyschology, we will then address the questionable dichotomy surrounding the issue of whether to simply celebrate sociocultural diversity or generate dialogue across differences. Baldwin (2001) identified this issue as a concern to the field of family and consumer sciences, given the impact of postmodernity and its implications for practice.

This discussion is not to suggest that family and consumer sciences has always followed the direction of any particular root discipline or even necessarily should follow these directions. In fact, you may conclude that the root disciplines are becoming more like family and consumer sciences (holistic, integrative, interdisciplinary, and concerned with the realities of everyday life).You may also recognize potential connections with Kappa Omicron Nu’s Reflective Human Action theory (Andrews, Mitstifer, Rehm, & Vaughn, 1995). Working with socioculturally diverse individuals, families, and communities is becoming increasingly important for FCS professionals in today’s multicultural, global society. Thus, it is hoped this exploration of cultural psychology will stimulate new ways of thinking about sociocultural diversity and further insights into implications for practice from selected postmodern ideas.

What is Cultural Psychology?

What is the nature of mind and its processes? How do persons construct their meanings and their realities? Is the mind shaped by history and culture and if so, how? These are the great psychological questions that are being raised again and that can only be addressed through a reformulated psychology a cultural psychology. (Adapted from Bruner, 1990, p.xi)

According to Stigler, Shweder, & Herdt (1990), cultural psychology is: . . . the study of ways that psyche and culture, subject and object, and person and world make up each other (p. i) and also

. . . the study of the way cultural traditions and social practices regulate, express, transform, and permute the human psyche, resulting less in psychic unity for humankind than in ethnic divergences in mind, self, and emotion. (Shweder, 1990, p. 1)

Beyond these spartan, yet complex definitions, we find it impossible to provide a “pinned-down” description of cultural psychology because it is an emerging and evolving discipline, subject to ongoing flux and change. Although, commonalities are apparent among associated theorists and theories, differences in conceptual focus or emphasis are evident. 

Cultural psychology is emergent; yet, it is not a “new” discipline but a “once and future discipline” (Cole, 1996, title page). More accurately, Shweder (1990) identified cultural psychology as a “reemerging discipline.” Bruner (1990) expressed a similar sentiment when he spoke of the reappearance of “the great psychological questions,” suggesting the importance of examining the historical underpinnings of cultural psychology within general psychology.

Historical Underpinnings2 

Cultural psychology was anticipated from the very beginnings of psychology. One of its founders, Williams James, recognized "mind" as a major focus of the new discipline. In 1913, Wundt proposed a "cultural psychology" in recognition that a more historical and interpretive approach was required if humanity's cultural products, both material and ideal, were to be understood (Bruner, 1990). Wundt's cultural psychology was referred to as "the second psychology" and folk psychology (Volkerpsychologie), placing psychology within the cultural sciences in contrast to the traditional scientific and clinical psychology of the laboratory ("the first psychology").

Another early theorist who envisioned a dual purpose for psychology was Münsterburg in America. His contrast of causal with purposive psychology paralleled Wundt’s notion of a first and second psychology. Münsterburg (1914) noted that in purposive psychology “nothing is to be explained but everything is to be understood in relation to its purposes” (p. 293). Purposive psychology was concerned with meaning, interpretation, freedom, the logical, aesthetic and ethical value of ideas and intentions, and imagining possibilities.

We find in this early work the foreshadowing of postmodern thought (Smith, 2001). Contemporary postmodern theorists speak of "truth effects" when referring to the traditional scientific modes of representing knowledge or the naive realism of positivistic views of knowledge (i.e., belief in an objective reality) (for example, Lather, 1992). In a similar vein, Münsterburg (1914) noted that, through a subjective act, we impart the appearance (or illusion) of objectivity on our inner or mental life: "Our mental life is free, and through an act of freedom we decide to consider it as a mental mechanism in which nothing is free" (p. 296).

Although both cultural psychology and postmodern ideas were certainly foreshadowed by these early theorists, the existence of cultural psychology was only hypothetical in the West until relatively recently where it has resurfaced in the work of Bruner (1990, 1996), Cole (1996), Rogoff (1990, 1994), Shweder (1990), Lave and Wenger (1991), and Wenger (1999) among others. Before that, first psychology flourished and dwarfed any efforts to develop a cultural psychology. When one version of the first psychology, behaviorism, predominated in North America, mind or consciousness was banished as a legitimate focus of study. You cannot directly observe what is inside the head; neither can you directly observe intentions. You can only see behavior or performances or “products” of consciousness. 

Behaviorism lost its dominance during the “cognitive revolution,” and cognitive psychology gained preeminence for the second half of the 20th century. Cognitive psychology was once considered radical for attempting to infer processes of the mind from behaviors, performances, or products, even though traditional modes of social science inquiry were employed. Both behaviorism and cognitive psychology were rooted in assumptions of modernity. More recently, some branches of cognitive psychology have moved in a contextual or cultural direction (situated cognition, for example) (Byrnes, 2001; Rogoff, 1990). 

Somewhat similar transformations to psychology occurred in parts of Europe. In response to Pavlovian classical conditioning (another modernist version of the first psychology) that predominated in the former Soviet Union in the 1920s, Vygotsky argued persuasively that mind and consciousness were central to understanding human growth and learning. This was especially so for the higher mental processes. Vygotsky envisioned mind and consciousness as developing in specific historic and cultural contexts, and he viewed learning as a dynamic social process, characterized by continuous change (Dixon-Krauss, 1996; Vygotsky, 1962, 1978). Interest in Russian sociohistorical/sociocultural theorists such as Vygotsky, Leont’ev, and Luria grew in the West when Vygotsky’s writings were translated into English, starting in the 1960s (Bruner, 1986; Smagorinsky, 1995).

With these historic highlights in mind, we will now introduce recurrent and interrelated themes across contemporary versions of cultural psychology.

Interrelated Themes Across Versions of Cultural Psychology

Five themes, generated to sketch a portrayal of cultural psychology, are apparent in the scholarship and research of most cultural psychologists. The five themes include: intentionality, meaning-making and offsetting the loss of meaning, creating communities of practice, participation in socioculturally valued activity, and artifacts.

Intentionality. Whether they are hunting for food, harvesting crops, preparing food purchased at the local supermarket, planning a meeting, drafting a blueprint for a new building, photographing the local scenery, painting a portrait, or scratching out cave drawings, persons’ actions are usually goal-oriented or intentional rather than random. Persons act with a purpose in mind and they act in relation to their sociocultural world.

Shweder (1990) spoke of a dialectic between “intentional persons” and “intentional worlds.” His emphasis on the intentionality of cultural psychology is reminiscent of Münsterburg’s purposive psychology. The human psyche or mind constitutes and is constituted of the sociocultural world in which it exists; the relationship is mutual. Consciousness or mind cannot be properly understood if it is separated analytically from its sociocultural environment as has been the case in general psychology. Person (psyche) is intricately embedded in his/her cultural world.

Shweder (1990) contrasted the notion of a universal psychic unity or central processing unit as fixed, universal, abstract, and “inside the head” with the principle of intentionality: 

. . . that the life of the psyche is the life of intentional persons, responding to and directing their actions at, their own mental objects or representations, and undergoing transformation through participation in an evolving intentional world that is the product of the mental representations that make it up. (p. 22)

In other words, persons transform reality through their mental representations of it and, in turn, are transformed by participating in this evolving world of their own creation. Persons inherit culture and recreate it and are subsequently transformed by participating in the dynamic process of “culturing” (Wax, 1993, cited in Stairs, 1996). 

Through culturing, intentional persons seek and create meaning in intentional worlds. Interpretation is required if human intentionality and meaning is to be understood. Intentionality and meaning go hand-in-hand.

Meaning Making and Offsetting the Loss of Meaning . When psychology concerns itself primarily with meaning, it inevitably becomes a cultural psychology (Bruner, 1990). Persons make sense by using the material, symbolic, and semiotic3 tools of their culture and this process of meaning making is “messy, ambiguous, and context-sensitive” (Bruner, 1996, p. 5). Indicative of human existential uncertainty, Shweder (1990) claimed that persons are “highly motivated to seize meanings and resources out of a sociocultural world that has been arranged to provide them with meanings and resources to seize and to use” (p. 1). Meanings are seldom entirely idiosyncratic because individuals cannot make sense or meaning without the aid of a culture’s tool kit (i.e., symbol system, gestures, signs, technical tools). In fact, it would be difficult to communicate or share meaning if not for its cultural situatedness. Further, this cultural situatedness provides the basis for the negotiation or exchange of meaning within or across cultural settings (Bruner, 1996; Stairs, 1996).

Meaning can be lost when knowledge becomes decontextualized from social, political, economic, and environmental concerns and from history and cultural traditions of practice. To illustrate “meaning loss,” Stairs (1996) related an attempt to make curriculum culturally relevant to Inuit youth of Nunavik where there was a discrepancy between intentions and outcomes. Projects, oral traditions, and ideas from Inuit history and traditions were introduced into the school curriculum with the intention of promoting respect for cultural traditions and a sense of relatedness/connectedness among past, present, and future. Unfortunately, Inuit youth were just as alienated from these “floating lessons”4 (Annahatak, personal communication) as they were from “culturally irrelevant” curricular content of southern Canada. Not only were these lessons unrelated to student’s current lifestyles and choices but also they were unrelated to traditional contexts, values, skills, and spirituality (e.g., “care, correctness, and right relationship to the human, animal, and material world”) (Stairs, 1996, p. 224). Thus, students were distanced from both Inuit and Euro-American bases of identity. One project required students to construct tools that were used in the traditional Inuit culture but “these tools remained merely toys for the students” (Stairs, 1996, p. 224).

Not only is meaningfulness and relevance of school curriculum important but the problem of “meaning loss” is pervasive within the broader society/culture. In fact, much has been said and written about loss of meaning in contemporary industrial/technological societies. Critical and feminist theorists have revealed both meaning loss and meaning confusion by using deconstruction as a mode of inquiry that “often does not move on to re-constructive visions” (Stairs, 2002, p. 2). Deconstruction, a favored activity of postmodern theorizing, sometimes leaves in its wake a “life in fragments” (Bauman, 1995) that may have positive or negative connotations. To offset potential destructive consequences of deconstruction, Hultgren (1994) recommended using radical hermeneutics5 in our struggle to understand the world and ourselves. Deconstruction needs to be followed by retrieval of valued meanings and ideas, whether or not transformed, with a view to a deeper understanding and appreciation of these meanings and ideas and their place in our lives.

Creating Communities of Practice. Seeking and creating meaning is fundamentally a social practice; persons actively construct meanings and understandings within the social milieu (Rogoff, 1994; Smith, 1995). Development and learning take place in a social context through interactions with more advanced or experienced others such as parents, teachers, or more competent peers (Vygotsky, 1962; 1978). In this process, perception, thought, and language are used as psychological tools for action (Bruner, 1986). The elements of meaning, practice, community, and identity, described by Wenger (1999) as deeply interconnected and mutually defining, come together in “communities of practice.” He defined practice as “a way of talking about the shared historical and social resources, frameworks, and perspectives that can sustain mutual engagement in action” (p. 5).

Forming relationships within communities of practice is central to identity formation for Stairs (1999) who described education as "the making of culture and self." The re-creative and relational work of education consists in "becoming who one is in the course of entering and creating one's multiple communities" (Stairs, 1991, p. 1). Participation in a community of practice "shapes not only what we do, but also who we are and how we interpret what we do" (Wenger, 1999, p. 4). Thus, human identity cannot be understood in solely individual terms but only in connection with social and whole-world relations (Wardekker & Miedma, 1997).

To explore the elements of meaning, practice, community, and identity, Lave and Wenger (1991) studied apprenticeship models of informal education. They redefined apprenticeship from the traditional one-on-one master/student or mentor/mentee relationship to one of changing participation and identity transformation in a community of practice. As persons become more familiar with the workings of a group or organization, the roles assumed are increasingly demanding. Eventually, they are able to guide novices to assume roles that were once unfamiliar. In terms of identity, persons transform from legitimate peripheral participant to full-fledged expert (Lave & Wenger, 1991).

The family is a community of practice, according to Wenger (1999). Through social interaction over time, families develop their own practices, routines, artifacts, symbols, conventions, stories, and histories. Even members of families disbanded through separation and divorce develop ways of dealing with each other. Similar to other communities of practice, families are characterized by joint enterprise, shared repertoire, and mutual engagement. 

James (2001) noted that communities of practice are constantly remaking themselves to fit the needs of members. Her experience in a small theatre company exemplifies on-going re-creative and relational work. Although core elements of traditional theatre remained (e.g., directing, acting, performance), in James’ innovative theatre company, all members assumed the roles of both actor and director over time. All assumed multiple roles at any particular time (e.g., publicist, producer, costume and set designer). In other words, the troupe inherited ideas from theatrical traditions, appropriated some of these, and recreated or modified others to meet the evolving needs of the group. 

Within education, we often assume that student goals are idiosyncratic and admonish teachers to consider these individual goals and purposes. However, MacCleave (1998) considered the transformative potential of encouraging students to develop and negotiate social goals by participating in authentically collaborative activity: “Such participation in discovering and pursuing common goals may transform participants, the process of participation and desired goals, values, and purposes of individual participants and the group as a whole” (MacCleave, 1998, p. 18). 

MacCleave (1998) addressed the complexity of developing and negotiating social goals across different cultures. In a culturally diverse classroom, for example, some students may desire access to the organized knowledge of the culture represented by the school and teacher, even if it differs from their own. Others may actively resist the school/teacher’s culture or goals if they perceive these as undervaluing their home culture (Ogbu, 1988). Thus, a “match” may or may not exist across student goals and school/teacher goals. Educators need to attend to the diversity of minority student populations without essentializing or overgeneralizing the goals and needs of any particular groups. Educators also need to help students form communities of practice across difference.

Participation in Socioculturally Valued Activity . Although, some cultural psychologists focus on “communities of practice,” others emphasize “activity” as the unit of analysis. For example, Rogoff (1990) claimed that persons are born to engage in activity within a sociocultural milieu:

Babies enter the world as active organisms, equipped both with patterns of action from their genes and prenatal experience, and with caregivers who structure the biological and social worlds of these dependent organisms in ways deriving from their own and their ancestor’s phylogenetic and cultural history. (p. 37)

Human development and learning is nurtured by guidance from more competent others and participation with others in culturally valued activities. More competent peers or adults structure activities to assist younger or less experienced persons to engage in the activity and assume increasing responsibility over time. Rogoff (1990) referred to this process as guided participation. According to Rogoff (1990) “underlying the process of guided participation is intersubjectivity” (p. 8), the sharing of meaning or understanding and purposes. Intersubjectivity entails cognitive, social, and emotional interchange. Individual consciousness changes through participation in activity, and in turn the milieu is altered by the presence of the individual (Rogoff, 1990, 1994). If engagement in an activity is to be meaningful and intentional, it must be valued or, at least, necessary. Ogbu (1988) reminded us that what is valued is what is learned.

Rogoff (1990) described the process of individual interacting with the social world as an irreducible whole. In other words, one cannot fully understand processes of development and learning if individuals are considered in isolation from their social and cultural milieu. Similarly, activities take place within cultural contexts and cannot be understood if separated from these contexts; they are culturally situated. Activities are inherited from cultural predecessors and subsequently adapted to suit current conditions. Many activities are so engrained or embedded in our thinking that they are taken-for-granted. Conversely, innovative activities are created in response to changing circumstances and needs.

When engaging in sociocultural activity, persons use societal tools in order to reach valued goals, create artifacts, or solve culturally-defined problems. Tools and signs mediate human activity and connect persons to the world of objects and the social world of other persons (Vygotsky, 1978; Smith, 1995). Located in the surrounding culture, psychological tools such as languages, gestures, mathematical formulae, or music and technical tools (for example, hoes, hammers, paper, pencils, computers) mediate human development and learning (Smith, 1995).

Rogoff (1990, 1994) focused on guided participation, sociocultural activity, and tool use as processes of development and learning rather than the products that result from these processes. However, products or artifacts as embodiments of sociohistoric and cultural meaning also have a complementary role to play in development.

Artifacts. Cole (1996) described artifacts as the elementary units of culture. Artifacts are the product of goal-directed or intentional human activity. Recall that persons make sense/meaning by using the material and symbolic tools of their culture. Tools are means; artifacts are ends. As products of human history, artifacts are simultaneously ideal (conceptual) and material; they embody sociocultural, historical, and contextual meaning. Artifacts are varied and can include languages, written documents, social practices, performances, procedures, technologies, regalia, furnishings, utensils, and artwork. Artifacts are created through activity using cultural tools, and consequently their creation influences subsequent activity. Cultural psychology seeks to understand how artifacts mediate thought and activity.

Within education, there has been a cyclical emphasis on products of learning (or content) followed by emphasis on process, then recycling to refocus on products or content (Hausfather, 2001). It seems that either one or the other takes center stage but seldom has the interplay between products and processes been studied. How do products and processes mutually constitute each other? To explore that interplay is the mandate of cultural psychology (Stairs & Kozolanka, 1997).

Another concern that cultural psychology explores in relation to artifacts is the relationship between artifacts and identity formation. Stairs and Kozolanka (1997) suggested such a relationship in their reference to “learning, making, and becoming.” One becomes a member of a sociocultural community by participating in its valued activities. Not only do artifacts mediate thought and activity but producing artifacts within communities of practice may contribute to one’s identity formation (as one moves from a peripheral participant to a core member capable of mentoring novice participants along with corresponding changes in roles and understanding). The nature of these relationships is a concern for cultural psychology.

Exploration of the five interrelated themes across versions of cultural psychology helped us to introduce some of the basic ideas associated with this emerging discipline. The emphasis on purpose, meaning, context, and communities of practice complement reflective human action theory (Andrews et al., 1995) and Mitstifer’s (1999) notion of “making a learning community.” With these ideas in mind, we will address the issue of whether to merely celebrate difference (i.e., traditional multiculturalism) or dialogue across difference (i.e., emergent, interpretive, and participatory practice). From the perspective of cultural psychology, the polarization of this issue has created a false dichotomy that obscures more constructive possibilities for living with sociocultural diversity.

Can We Both Celebrate Difference and Dialogue Across Difference?

MacCleave (1998) noted that the issue of acknowledging and working with cultural differences in schools was high controversial. New ideas have been adopted by some educators and actively resisted by others. In a decidedly anti-postmodern move, teacher education in England has become increasingly standardized despite the opposition of many teacher education professionals. Reforms have included prescriptive methods for teaching reading and the promotion of standards spoken English with a corresponding rejection of dialects (Furlong, 2002). This effort suggests the wish to "cement" language in its current form while denying that language, by its very nature, is constantly evolving. Historical comparison of Chaucerian English with current versions would certainly support his point.

Within the U.S. public school system, this issue has been polarized as celebrating diversity or preparing for the mainstream, according to Claybaugh (1998). He argued that energies should be devoted to helping students learn and think critically rather than promoting exclusively either of these polarized positions. In a skeptical vein, Rozycki (1998) perceived that some of the distinctions created through celebrating diversity were “little more than mythological constructs that serve political agendas” (pp. 113-114).  On the other hand, simply preparing students for the mainstream was no longer a simple choice in a society experiencing chaotic and constant change: “How does one prepare for something—especially when it is not clear what one is preparing for?” (p. 114).  

Although both Claybaugh and Rozycki acknowledged limitations to the polarization of this issue and both raised critical questions, MacCleave (1998) noted that alternate possibilities were overlooked:

Neither of these authors explores the possibility of using knowledge of diversity to help students learn or to adapt instruction to make it more compatible with cultural patterns. The possibility of using culturally and socially embedded early learning patterns and intuitive theories that children bring to school as a link to academic learning remains unexplored. (p. 31)

In her classic ethnographic study, Heath (1983) recommended that literacy practices from home and community inform classroom practices. However, much work still needs to be done in this area according to Norton and Wiburg (1998) who observed that “Many teachers lack strategies for incorporating the richness available within diverse cultures to build rather than stifle student learning” (p. 197).

Much of the research on learning and development across versions of cultural psychology has taken place in non-formal settings (Cole, 1996; Rogoff, 1990, 1994). Students from cultural minorities who were underachieving in regular academic tasks were found capable of learning and performing complex tasks such as hand weaving intricate patterns or diagnosing broken farm machinery and making the necessary repairs (Moll & Greenberg, 1990). Unschooled children who sold candy on the streets of Brazil invented math procedures to support their work (Saxe, 1988). Within their cultural milieu, these youth learned readily by observing and working with others toward a common goal. Apprenticeship models of learning were found to be common in non-formal settings. 

Neither value nor political neutrality can be assumed in these research efforts. Some of these cultural psychological studies are guided by a desire for social justice. Researchers wonder how we might use knowledge about learning in non-formal settings to enhance school learning and to open up opportunities for those who have been previously marginalized.

To further explore this issue and to deconstruct the questionable dichotomy, we need to examine the question: What is meant by celebration of difference?  In the politicized version of celebration referred to by Rozychi (1998), the focus has been on negotiating power between groups and injecting knowledge of “other” into the “mainstream.” Baldwin (2001) associated celebration of difference with new social movements (by and for women, anti nuclear energy, ethnicity, homosexuality, environmentalism, and counterculture). “Celebration of difference as a value opposing consensus and intersubjectivity is a recurring theme. The postmodern world is a pluralistic world in which there are no agreed principles denying the right of any form of life to exist” (p. 5). 

Among the underlying assumptions of this view of the celebration of difference is that pluralism (acceptance of cultural diversity) inevitably supports opposition to consensus and intersubjectivity, that pluralism equates with an “anything goes” relativism, and that diverse cultures are static and unyielding in their beliefs, norms, and practices. 

Embracing pluralism or diversity does not necessarily imply opposition to consensus or intersubjectivity. Although some versions of postmodernism deny the possibility of ever reaching consensus across difference, most versions of pluralist-embracing cultural psychology would support consensus-building, at least on a modest scale. Recognition of incommensurability (the notion that one group’s traditions, practices, and languages cannot be understood or explained in terms of the traditions, practices, and languages of another group) does not necessarily preclude the attempt to dialogue across difference. Rather, such a dialogue is viewed as an extended and intensive process of negotiating new and mutual traditions, practices, and languages across difference as opposed to the imposition of the majority upon a minority. Assimilation is definitely not a desired outcome. The complexity of achieving such a consensus would certainly be recognized and both time and “the necessary tools and spaces” (Eisenhart, 1998, p. 392) would be provided to facilitate this process.

The site for consensus building would be a community of practice or a group engaged in an ongoing activity. In other words, the unit of analysis is less grandiose and more local and particular than the universal metanarrative proposed by modernity. In many indigenous contexts, consensus may alternatively mean an agreement for the moment to disagree and yet act together nonetheless.

Not only is consensus building viewed as compatible with pluralism but intersubjectivity can be aligned with pluralism. The notion of intersubjectivity underscores Rogoff’s notion of guided participation. Intersubjectivity also forms the basis of human development and learning in Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. In these examples, however, intersubjectivity is considered to be culturally situated. Further, intersubjectivity manifests local goals (Rogoff, 1990).

Within society, there are constellations of communities of practice, and persons may belong to many different communities simultaneously. Persons are able to reconcile competing demands and assume a variety of roles without necessarily suffering a fragmented or fractured sense of identity. Neither should a facile relativism be assumed. Prilleltensky (1997) made a helpful distinction by differentiating affirmative from skeptical trends within postmodernism. Those who adhere to the forward-looking affirmative school challenge oppressive forces that constrain social roles and allow for the misuse of authority and power differences. This stance is far from being value-free. It is the skeptics who are distrustful of moral rules or the adherence to particular moral stances. Postmodernists of the skeptical persuasion tend to be relativistic or inarticulate concerning moral issues for fear of replacing one totalizing and oppressive framework with another.

Finally, some approaches for addressing diversity view cultures as static and focused on isolated cultural features and residual stereotypes (Stairs, 1996):

Multicultural and cross-cultural comparative approaches confine cultures within largely static boundaries, ignoring the continual dynamic of mutual culture-person development cultural constructivism and offer formulaic prescriptions for culture-specific educational packages. These approaches trivialize cultures into discrete piecemeal features, not recognizing the contextualized, interpretive, and participatory nature of a cultural community. (p. 232).

Cultures are dynamic and constantly evolving. Exposure to differing cultures and changing circumstances stimulates further change. Sustained interactions across cultural differences can and has resulted in transformation for all who participate.

Cultural spaces are not just “out there” but multiple within us. Celebration implies only a momentary acceptance of static cultural traits without assuming the need to actively engage in a meaningful exchange across and within fluid and dynamic settings. However, affirmative postmodern thought has redirected our attention to the multiplicity of our identities and the need to negotiate among these. Dialoguing across difference entails creating and recreating culture and the ability to negotiate meaning beyond the limited boundaries assumed in much of the skeptical postmodern rhetoric of culture and the celebration of difference.

The fluidity of our cultural spaces means that, as individuals, families, and communities, we should not be overly concerned with pinning down a “cultural difference” in a particular time and space but that we should be prepared for a constant exchange and recreation of the cultural landscape. In the same sense, identity is fluid and is, in fact, a composite of the different cultural realities in which we live. Although many postmodern thinkers would regard this view as “fragmented” (e.g., Bauman, 1995), in a way it is understanding that wholeness comes from our ability to seek meaning in diverse cultural spaces.


With its many international ties, the field of family and consumer sciences is no stranger to sociocultural diversity. A variety of approaches exists to address cultural differences. Some of these grow out of the modern tradition, others from an array of postmodern ideas. We agree with Baldwin (2001) that in order to avoid living with unacknowledged contradictions, postmodern theorizing should not be embraced uncritically. On the other hand, neither should all postmodern ideas be dismissed. Cultural psychology with its affirmative postmodern dimensions can contribute valuable insights to enhance the cultural work of family and consumer sciences. 

We need to develop ways of celebrating difference that foster empathetic understanding and authentic listening to the voices of those we serve. We must continue to develop sensitivity to cultures and contexts and become increasingly knowledgeable about diversity in its many manifestations. We need to be committed to dialoguing across difference in order to ground the culturally irrelevant “floating lessons;” to helping students and clients connect past, present, and future; and also to helping them build communities of practice across difference. We need to recognize both the importance and complexity of this work and allow time, space, and resources to support these efforts if we are to create a future in which all participants, regardless of and even because of difference, can contribute to and benefit from mutually defined goals.


1.  In advance of many of the root disciplines, Hultgren applied phenomenological and hermeneutic modes of inquiry to a range of human service professions including home economics, vocational education, and nursing (Hultgren, 1989, 1994).

2.  This brief history of cultural psychology within general psychology also illustrates a third alternative for postmodernism. In this case, it is not a simple (uninterrupted) continuity from modernity nor a radical rupture with the past but a re-emergence from the past or as re-connection following a disconnect (the disconnect, in this case, was created by the predominance of classical conditioning and behaviorism).

3.  Semiotics is the study of the meanings of cultural signs (Smith, 1995).

4.  Betsy Annahatak, an Inuit educator with a variety of educational experiences, including residential schooling, shared the idea of “floating lessons” in conversation with Arlene Stairs. This example is not to suggest that it is impossible or undesirable to integrate cultural traditions into Nunavik curriculum. No doubt there are many success stories. However, this story suggests that more attention needs to be directed to developing a sense of relatedness and connectedness to cultural traditions. It cannot be assumed that mere exposure to cultural traditions in a school environment can create this desired relevance and meaningfulness. As Betsy reminded Arlene, educators also need to help prepare Inuit youth for their futures.

5.  Hultgren (1994) described radical hermeneutics as “a kind of thinking that is at once hermeneutic and deconstructive, both unsettling and recuperative” (p. 31). The purpose of this mode of inquiry is to develop a deeper understanding of our “being.”


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